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Tampa Tribune  - Merchants' Hopes Riding on Streetcars

Merchants' Hopes Riding On Streetcars
By SHANNON BEHNKEN
sbehnken@tampatrib.com

TAMPA - Sam Buggica, 92, slowly stepped up to the controls of the restored Birney streetcar, No. 163. He rang the bell seven times then grew silent.

For a moment, he was back in the early 1940s, working as a controller of Tampa Electric's streetcar system. When it closed in 1946, more than Tampa's transportation changed. For Buggica and millions of commuters, the streetcar was a way of life.

``The streetcar defined who I was,'' said Buggica, whose car connected Ybor City, Tampa Heights and West Tampa. ``That's where I made my friends. People recognized me anywhere when I was in my uniform.''

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Sam Buggica, 92, remembers the days when the old streetcar clanged along from Port Tampa to Sulphur Springs. "The streetcar defined who I was."
 

The old streetcar clanged along between Port Tampa and Sulphur Springs from 1892 to 1946. At the system's peak in 1926, 25 million relied on the 5-cent ride to get to work and school.

``When the streetcar closed, this city changed,'' Buggica said.

Merchants in Ybor City and the Channel District hope the city's new $53 million TECO Electric Streetcar System again will change transportation in Tampa.

The new streetcar line, which debuts Saturday, will link the Tampa Convention Center and Ybor City. The 2.3-mile one-way trip will take 20 minutes and cost $1.25. The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority will operate the eight streetcars, newer and sleeker than the ones Buggica used to control. There will be 11 stops, seven days a week, with extended hours on weekends.

Restaurants, bars and stores in the city's two entertainment districts have awaited the streetcar for years. The quick and easy transportation, they hope, will bring customers who ordinarily wouldn't make the trip.

``Adults will ride the trolley, and that's what Ybor City needs,'' said Marian Lasher, owner of Joffrey's coffee shop on Seventh Avenue. ``People who don't come here, or haven't been in a long time, may give us another try.''

Lasher and other business owners are preparing for big crowds during opening weekend. Lasher has hired extra staff and is planning specials for Saturday.

Annette DeLisle, executive director of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce, said many view the streetcar line as the solution to Ybor's image problem and lagging sales.

The chamber, along with the new Tampa Bay Hospitality Resource Panel, is working to bring an older, more affluent group to the historic entertainment district.

``We're hoping downtown hotel patrons and cruise ship passengers will hop on the streetcar to visit us,'' DeLisle said, noting many businesses have dealt with a sluggish economy after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Some, she said, hope the streetcar will bring enough customers to keep their stores open.

A View Of The Tracks

David Greco of Barley Hoppers International Ale House said he chose his Centro Ybor location in part because it overlooks the streetcar line.

``Everybody was rushing to lease storefronts facing Seventh Avenue, but I had visions of the trolley,'' Greco said. ``I wanted an open cafe with balconies and knew it would have a nice feel to see the colorful trolleys below.

``It was a bit of a gamble as to whether the trolley would actually happen, though. Now that it is, I'm excited to death about it.''

But some business owners aren't as thrilled.

Richard McCormack of Grandma's Attic said some overestimate the streetcar.

``I do see it adding flavor to Ybor City,'' he said, noting business is suffering. ``But I don't see it changing Ybor City.

``It would still be a 45-minute round trip for someone from downtown to come for lunch.''

Lasher, of Joffrey's, worries the excitement of the new transportation will fizzle.

``It's definitely going to bring a lot of people to check it out,'' she said. ``But I don't think it'll stay that way long term, at least not at my business.''

Commuter Interest

Tim Endicott, events coordinator at Camden Ybor City, said many residents want to use the trolley to get to work downtown.

``When we take potential residents on tour, they get really excited when we mention the trolley,'' Endicott said.

Mira Kozel, marketing director for Pop City, hopes the streetcar will boost afternoon business at Channelside.

``Many people who work downtown aren't aware of all the restaurants we have to offer,'' she said.

The only drawback, she said, is traffic.

``People are going to have to get used to a trolley crossing the road,'' she said.

If there's anything to worry about, Buggica said, traffic would be it. He got out of the business in 1942 when a truck crossed the track in Tampa Heights and he hit it with his streetcar.

``The idea of trolleys and cars collided back then,'' he said. ``But people are really excited about this new streetcar. I think, I hope, they respect it and enjoy it.''

Reporter Shannon Behnken can be reached at (813) 259-7146.

 

Link to this story the Tampa Tribune website:  Streetcars Back On Track - Multimedia Report

 

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