Best Frenemies: The St. Pete – Tampa Rivalry

Scandalous! Who would own this sign from Etsy and hang it in a guest bathroom?

We can all agree that rivalries of all sorts exist between towns, states, teams, and perhaps even political parties. But one rivalry that has simmered along locally for over one hundred years is between the two cities on the bay – Tampa and St. Pete. Or is it St. Pete and Tampa? Either way, let’s take a deeper look and see if we can figure it out.

Way Before the Drama Started

In the very early days of the 1830s and through until past the Civil War that ended in 1864 the areas where Tampa and St. Pete sit today were inhabited by small communities. On the Pinellas side of the bay, a nascent community – maybe a hundred homesteaders – focused on agriculture and commercial fishing operations that served the Cuban market and supplied the small village of Tampa. Tampa, although founded in the 1850s due to the establishment of Ft. Brook, remained under 800 citizens until the 1880s.

First, We Were Friends

There was certainly no reason for tension in those early days; neither community was a bustling metropolis and the relationship was mutually beneficial. But the situation changed abruptly beginning in 1885 due to the founding of Ybor City by Vicente Martinez-Ybor. The cigar industry and immigration led to a huge population boom that took Tampa from a population of 750 in 1880 to 16,000 by 1900 – consider that the population of Tampa had been under 1,000 for the previous 50 years! This was huge growth; the cigar industry is really what drove Tampa to become a city. On the other side of the bay, things progressed much more slowly. St. Pete was incorporated in 1892 after the rinky-dink Orange Belt Railway arrived in 1888, but only boasted a population of 300 citizens.

Visit St. Pete – you can either “ruminate” or “quietly look over your papers.”

Tampa started to feel it’s growing clout with the economic boom. A little swagger was put into the step of the rapidly growing city; it seems that the success of the industrial age affected the attitudes of its citizens as it simultaneously swelled their pocketbooks. The smaller communities of Hillsborough county (at the time) were certainly rolling their eyes. By the first decade of the 1900s Tampa was now “the big city” and one of the most important in Florida; St. Pete was a little hayseed hamlet across the bay that many of the newly immigrated Tampans were only peripherally aware of. This editorial snippet from the Tampa paper encourages people looking for a getaway to go to St. Pete, but only if it’s all you can afford.

“You Tampa people…” The shot heard ’round the Bay.

The denizens of the other communities were getting a bit envious of the big city at the mouth of the Hillsborough River, and the attitude of the Tampans wasn’t helping a whole lot. Perhaps because Tampa was nearly visible from the St. Pete shoreline on a clear day the disdain seemed to build there a bit more quickly and vociferously. After all, St. Pete in the same decade was trying to grow as well. Looking to its natural resources as the primary asset on the Peninsula side of Tampa Bay, St. Pete had started to advertise itself as a nascent tourist destination and also an agrarian center. You can feel the disdain in the strongly worded opinion of this editorialist who started his rant with “Perhaps you Tampa people do not realize…” And that kind of sets the tone for the next decade. Tampa was eclipsing other nearby communities and they were envious. You can almost hear the amused guffaws along Bayshore now.

Things Start to Boil

Originally, Hillsborough county included the Pinellas Peninsula, but of course the county seat was in Tampa. Even as smaller towns like St. Pete and Clearwater grew, most county tax revenue went to support endeavors in and around Tampa. By roughly 1910 this started to cause major friction between the constituents of the two sides of Hillsborough county. The Pinellas side claimed the peninsula was neglected when it came to government spending on things like roads and other infrastructure; Tampa was reaping all the benefit.

For the most part, the concerns fell on deaf ears or were paid lip service. What money did trickle back to the Peninsula resulted in lower quality of public works than were being provided around Tampa. This became a huge issue, and the two sides of the county started to resent one another. Pinellas felt under represented, and Tampans felt like the hillbilly farmers might be better served tending to their crops.

Pinellas: We’re Outta Here!

The St. Pete booster, firebrand editor of the St. Petersburg Times, and perpetual public busybody William Straub helped to further sow seeds of discontent by advocating for the Pinellas Peninsula to become its own county. Yep, secession. And all the sudden this was the big deal on both sides of the Bay; the fireworks really start with endeavor to split from Hillsborough county. Tampans didn’t want the ingrates on the peninsula to actually secede, they liked the favorable arrangement. But the Pinellas folks were united in the idea of forming their own county – Pinellas county. The news articles of the time were almost modern in their vitriol. Blame was cast about, feelings were not tempered, and opinions were strong. Tampa sent politicians to the peninsula to try to sway opinion, but Straub would hear nothing of it and fought back in his paper. Let’s take a look at a couple headlines from 1911 – just before the county was formed in 1912 – opinions from both sides.

Uh – somebody ate some crow a few days later.
Go away, Tom of Tampa.
Independence was granted, so why not rub it in a bit? The Pinellas folks had waited a long time for it.

But Wait, There’s More

Ok Boomer.

You would think things would settle down a bit regarding the rivalry between the two sides of the Bay after the split happened and Pinellas was formed. The new county had its hands full trying to sort out where the new county seat would be (which is something we’ll have to explore!) and how to form the county government. But the bitterness still existed, even into the next years. As we see here, some bitter soul wrote to the Gainesville Sun (reported in Tampa Tribune) noting that a sudden rash of divorces in Pinellas was due to the successful effort to split the county. As we can see, there was rift here that would not be easy to fix; the rivalry and ill will was here to stay.

Fly Away Little Birdie

Yes, I know the bird, Goose.

St. Pete got a great one-up in 1913 that was hard to top. It was in that year that star pilot Tony Jannus and the Benoist Airplane Company started what is recognized as the first commercial regularly scheduled airline which flew from St. Pete to Tampa and back on a regular basis. St. Pete set it all up and got great recognition nationwide which helped to give the residents of the town a boost, along with helping to drive tourism in the town. But what you may not know is that Tampa was approached first with the opportunity to develop the home base at Tampa. The reason they said no – They didn’t want to help St. Pete in its endeavors for growth or recognition. It was a critical mistake and made for a big poke in the eye for Tampa. Here we see exactly how William Straub decided to present it in the St. Pete Times. Clearly relationships weren’t improving. If you’d like to read more about Jannus and Benoist, check out my article here.

Tampa, Tampa, Tampa

Persistent little town pokes Tampa in eye.

On the Pinellas side, businesses and leaders wanted to grow the town of St. Pete. As we barrelled toward the 1920s, snowbirds started appearing in November and stayed the winter in St. Pete, but usually left by February. St. Pete saw the benefit of getting tourists to stay longer, but it was an uphill climb. And one of the problems was Gasparilla. Tampa hosted the Gasparilla festival which was held in February as an ‘end of season’ event. Because the Gandy Bridge hadn’t been built yet, auto travel between Tampa and St. Pete was still a lengthy endeavor. Visitors to St. Pete who went to Tampa for Gasparilla often continued then on back to the North. St. Pete responded by creating their own festival, one that would rival Gasparilla and be held later in the season. This was the birth of the Festival of States. It helped achieve a goal in St. Pete, but again pointed to the rather open rivalry between the two sides of Tampa Bay. If you’d like to read more about the Festival of States, Check out my article here.

Bitterness Continued

I spoke with noted historian and colleague Gary Mormino recently about my work on this article, and he kindly pointed out several more tidbits that added to the rivalry but that occurred in more recent memory. Mormino noted:

In the half-century following WWII, the Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times fought surrogate wars over regional airports, water rights, highway routes and professional sports franchises. 

He went on to point out:

But no battle drew more blood or raised more hackles than the location of a new public university. In the postwar years, Florida was bursting with new residents, but the Florida legislature struggled to modernize its higher education system. No four-year public university existed south of Gainesville. By the mid-1950s, legislators had decided Tampa Bay would be home to the university.

Tampa won that one. Read Gary Mormino’s full article on the topic here.

And Here We Are

St Pete, all grown up.

So zip forward to today, and the rivalry still seems to be going strong. Sometimes it simmers under the lid and other times it boils over. St. Pete now has swagger of its own, finally becoming a destination for a relaxed, eclectic vibe sporting great beaches and a youthful feel after decades of being known as God’s Waiting Room. The walkable downtown, artsy happenings and park system all add to the appeal. The city’s renaissance is driving a wave of popularity for visitors and potential residents alike.

Tampa, still the big city.

Tampa on the other hand is doing its part to counterbalance the trend with the development of the Riverwalk, arguably a more serious food scene, and space for growth. A big performance scene rounds out Tampa’s ability to attract A-list names, and of course the Bucs games are well attended. Tampa has the population and still has way more name recognition than St. Pete – I can’t tell you how often I tell some distant acquaintance I live in St. Pete and they ask “Where is that?” Of course the answer is “Across the bay from Tampa.” Aha.

When will the rivalry end? Will it ever? Only time will tell.

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