How Three Events In The 1950s Set The Stage For A Hare & Tortoise Race Involving Three Of Florida’s Major Cities


By Robert Sanchez


Once upon a time St. Petersburg, Florida, had a well-deserved reputation as America’s leading community for senior citizens.  Long before the advent of massive retirement enclaves such as Sun City and The Villages, the city proudly catered to the elderly, even lining its streets with iconic green benches so those up in years could rest or loll in the sun. The area’s favorite sport seemed to be shuffleboard, and in the 1930s the city even started a softball club pitting two teams – the Kids and the Kubs – whose rosters featured players in their 80s and 90s.

All of these factors combined to give the city some rather unkind nicknames – “God’s Waiting Room” and “The City of the Living Dead.” Yet that was then; this is now: Trendy St. Petersburg has reinvented itself. Now, with its downtown reviving thanks to an influx of young people and with its art scene flourishing, it has long since managed to overcome its image as a retirement mecca.

Now for the bad news: Despite its progress, the city’s “brand” still needs some work. Indeed, St. Petersburg may well be the Rodney Dangerfield of Florida’s major cities. That is, it either gets no respect or, arguably, not the amount of respect and name recognition that this Gulf Coast city of 259,906 richly deserves.


The famous green benches, St. Petersburg, Florida, ca. 1930s. Courtesy of Florida Memory.


View of people sitting on St. Pete’s famous green benches. Courtesy of Boston Public Library/Flickr.


For instance, St. Pete, as it’s known far and wide, isn’t even the seat of government for Pinellas County, which was once Florida’s fourth most populous county but has slipped to sixth. Instead, the honor of being the county seat belongs to Clearwater, a town whose population is less than half St. Pete’s.

Worse, what could be described as St. Pete’s ultimate indignity is now evident in a series of promotional announcements running on National Public Radio. They inform listeners that the wonderful white sand beaches of St. Pete and Clearwater “are only 90 minutes west of Orlando.”

West of Orlando? There was a time not so long ago when Orlando could have been described as being 90 minutes east of Tampa and/or St. Petersburg, the two longtime rivals whose individual names are often crammed together nowadays as “Tampa Bay.” Discerning readers will notice that the phrase manages to include Tampa but not St. Pete.

Nor is this the only example of St. Pete’s identity problem. Consider: The city is actually the home of a Major League Baseball team. You’d never know it from the team’s name, the Tampa Bay Rays. Worse,  some sportscasters on national TV often seem to assume that the team plays its home games in Tampa.

No it doesn’t – or not yet anyway. Granted, some of Tampa’s civic leaders do covet the team, but public opinion polls thus far indicate that the city’s taxpayers – perhaps aware of the way the owner of the Miami Marlins rolled the taxpayers for a palatial ball park with a retractable dome – are reluctant to pony up money for a new ball park to replace the Rays’ current home, Tropicana Field.


View of Tropicana Field. Courtesy of City of St. Pete/Flickr.


The non-retractable domed stadium that the Pinellas County Sports Authority opened in 1990 while hoping to lure the Chicago White Sox south is now widely regarded as one of the worst venues in any professional sport. That may explain why the Rays are perennially dead last in attendance.

The woeful attendance means that the team can’t afford to hang onto the best young players its scouts find and sign as rookies. When they become eligible for free agency, they sign for big bucks with one of the wealthier teams. This translates into less media exposure for the team and for St. Petersburg.

The Rays aren’t the only entity shunning St. Pete. The St. Petersburg Times, a morning newspaper long considered one of Florida’s best dailies, recently dropped the city’s name from its masthead and became the Tampa Bay Times. The publisher said the paper needed to make the change to better reflect its expanded coverage area after it vanquished its last remaining competitor, the Tampa Tribune.


Newspaper vending machines, September 17, 2011. Courtesy of Daniel Oines/Flickr.


The Times’s victory over the Trib was an example of something rather rare in recent years: St. Pete topping its longtime rival, Tampa, in something – anything. Ironically, however, this victory is what led the newspaper to drop St. Pete from its name in favor of Tampa Bay.

In contrast,  it’s unthinkable that the Orlando Sentinel would ever make a similar move and become, say, the Central Florida Sentinel. Indeed, dropping “Orlando” from its name would be foolish, given that Orlando, thanks to its many theme parks, has become as well known worldwide as Miami.

Moreover, soon Orlando may be ascendant over other Florida cities, including St. Pete and even Miami. Consider a forecast that a political pundit casually made almost as an aside during a recent meeting of Tallahassee’s public affairs forum, the Capital Tiger Bay Club.

In analyzing the outcome of the 2016 election, he of course pointed out the obvious: the importance of Central Florida’s vote-rich I-4 corridor running from the Tampa Bay area through Orlando and on to Daytona Beach. The region’s up-for-grabs voters serve as a sort of fulcrum point, geographically and politically, between the mostly liberal South Florida and the mostly conservative North Florida.


View of I-4 in Orlando, Florida. Courtesy of Joel Mann/Flickr.


Yet it was something else the expert in political demographics said that appeared to catch many of his listeners by surprise. By 2030, he predicted, Orlando will have surpassed Miami to become Florida’s most populous metropolitan area.

The speaker gave no indication that he believes this will occur because rising sea levels in the next 13 years will force residents of Miami (average elevation six feet) to flee to Orlando (average elevation 82 feet.)

More likely, Orlando will grow as it continues to welcome large numbers of newcomers who are not fleeing abruptly rising sea levels but instead fleeing the rising tide of red ink and chronic governmental dysfunction on the island of Puerto Rico.

As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans are eligible to vote, unlike immigrants from foreign countries. The influx of islanders has been a major factor in Orlando’s rapid growth and in the I-4 corridor’s influential role as a “swing area” within the “swing state” of Florida.

Meanwhile,  as further evidence of the wisdom of the adage “what’s past is prologue,” several events that occurred back in the 1950s arguably set the stage for the current interplay of forces influencing the respective patterns of growth involving three of Florida’s major cities: St. Pete, Tampa, and Orlando.

      LABOR DAY 1954: THE BRIDGE

I may be one of the few Floridians who now can recall exactly where they were on Monday, September 6, 1954. It was Labor Day, and the weather was typically hot and humid along Florida’s Gulf Coast. Ike was President. Thirteen months earlier, a shaky armistice had brought a halt to fighting in the bloody war in Korea.

I was about to start my senior year at Sarasota High School. The big news in the four daily newspapers my family received was all about the opening of a long-anticipated bridge. On Labor Day,  after a ceremonial ribbon cutting, transportation officials were going to allow traffic to proceed, toll-free, across the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” the Sunshine Skyway linking peninsular Pinellas County with Manatee County and points south along Florida’s Gulf Coast.


Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Courtesy of Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress.


This was too good to pass up. I hopped in my Jeep, picked up my high school girlfriend Betty, and drove north from Sarasota through Bradenton, across the Green Bridge spanning the Manatee River, and into Palmetto.

Just past Palmetto, however, the line of vehicles ground to a halt. Idling in the traffic on a hot day, my 1949 Jeep’s wheezy engine began to overheat. Undaunted, we pressed onward, finally crossing the main span of the 22-mile-long Skyway, which at that time was only two lanes wide and unnervingly steep.

When I triumphantly returned home displaying the blue-and-yellow sticker duly noting that I, a 16-year-old novice driver in an overheated Jeep, had braved the traffic jam and crossed the Sunshine Skyway toll-free, no less, on its opening day, no less, my mother was incredulous and a bit miffed but ultimately forgiving.


Sunshine Skyway opening day sticker.


Sunshine Skyway Bridge Brochure. Courtesy of RetroLand USA/Flickr.


She was happy to know that the bridge had opened at last because it meant that when my brother David needed to see an orthodontist in St. Pete because there wasn’t one in then-small Sarasota, my mother no longer needed to use the Beeline Ferry, which ran from Piney Point in Manatee County across Tampa Bay to St. Pete.

For St. Petersburg, the Sunshine Skyway’s opening was a major boost for commerce in general and tourism in particular.  Motorists who had been forced to pass through Tampa in order travel north or south along the Gulf Coast now could instead pass through St. Petersburg on U.S. 19.

Chalk one up for St. Pete in its rivalry with Tampa as the bridge gradually paid off. At the start of the 1950s, the population of Tampa’s Hillsborough County was 90,000 larger than that of Pinellas County. By the 1960 census, Hillsborough’s lead had shrunk to 22,000. By the 1970 census, Pinellas’s population was 32,000 ahead of Hillsborough’s. The future looked rosy for Pinellas and St. Pete.

DECISION DAY 1956: THE GHOST OF BOTTLECAP U.

When I graduated from Sarasota High School in 1955, there were only two state universities available to me: the University of Florida in Gainesville and Florida State University in Tallahassee. (Under the Jim Crow laws then still in effect, Tallahassee’s Florida A&M University was reserved for African Americans.)

The situation was about to change. The badly Gerrymandered Florida Legislature, dominated by lawmakers from rural North Florida, was pressured into establishing another state university to serve the needs of the burgeoning population in the southern parts of the state. In 1956 they decided to plunk it down in the Tampa Bay area, which to these North Florida “Crackers” seemed far enough south and safely distant from the wilds of Miami.

The search for a site ignited a bitter battle between Tampa and St. Petersburg. Each wanted the new school, later dubbed “The University of South Florida.” At that time the university system was nominally under the jurisdiction of a body known as the Board of Control, but the Board rarely butted heads with the Legislature.


University of South Florida Seal. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


During the site-selection process, when it became known that the state was looking at a large tract of land just north of Tampa in Temple Terrace – and not far from two breweries operated, respectively, by Anheuser-Busch and Schlitz — the supporters of St. Pete’s proposed site protested that if the school were located there, it ought to be dubbed “Bottlecap U.”

In this bitter contest, Tampa won, in part because of political clout but also because spacious Hillsborough County at 1,266 square miles had more large tracts of land to spare than the smallish (608 square miles, some of it pricey beachfront) Pinellas, where urban sprawl was already beginning to chip away at the farms, plant nurseries, and citrus groves.

Classes began at he University of South Florida in 1960. Today its enrollment tops 40,000. As a consolation prize, St. Petersburg was awarded a branch campus of USF in 1965. Its enrollment of about 4,500 is roughly one-ninth the size of USF’s total enrollment.

Chalk this up as a yet another victory for Hillsborough and Tampa over Pinellas and St. Pete. Moreover, the consequences of the USF site selection have reverberated in the years since. Whereas Pinellas had overtaken Hillsborough by the time of the 1970 census, by 1980 Hillsborough was back ahead, and nowadays it’s no contest, with fourth-ranked  Hillsborough’s population of 1,380,969 safely ahead of Pinellas’s 953,545.

1959: MICKEY MOUSE STARTS LOOKING FOR A SECOND HOME    

By the end of the 1950s, Walt Disney and his brother Roy were reveling in the enormous success of Disneyland, but they also were bothered by two problems. The first was Disneyland’s location: Anaheim, California, was far from the parts of the country where most Americans lived. Indeed, roughly three-fourths of U.S. population then resided east of the Mississippi River or else in states along the river’s western bank.

The other problem was that Disney had not acquired enough land around Anaheim to act as a buffer for his theme park and to ensure that there would be plenty of room to expand. Motels, restaurants, and tacky tourist attractions had sprung up all around Disneyland – enterprises that benefited from Disneyland’s presence but provided no revenue for Disney.


Walt Disney, Governor Haydon Burns, and Roy Disney at a press conference, Orlando, Florida, November 1965. Courtesy of Florida Memory.


Grand opening of Walt Disney World featured in Vacationland Magazine. Courtesy of Tom Simpson/Flickr.


So in 1959 Disney executives began their preliminary planning for a theme park somewhere in the eastern United States, preferably in an area with year-round warm weather. Florida was a logical choice. In 1963, Walt Disney – during a surveillance flight over Central Florida – saw the abundance of vacant land in the vicinity of Orlando and Kissimmee.

Disney began secretly acquiring the land on which Walt Disney World was to be built. The rest, as they say, is history. Orlando would never be the same, to the glee of some and the chagrin of others. Orlando’s Orange County, whose 1950 population of 114,950 ranked it sixth among Florida’s 67 counties now ranks fifth with a population of 1,313,025.

Moreover, that’s just 67,000 fewer than the population of fourth-ranked Hillsborough County, which it’s creeping up on. So instead of savoring its past victories, Hillsborough County — having far surpassed Pinellas County in population, if not in its quality of life — would be wise to consider a saying attributed to baseball legend Satchel Paige, whose fame peaked in those pivotal 1950s:  “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”


Featured image courtesy of RetroLand USA/Flickr.