A few years ago, Mayor Bob Buckhorn said, the Channel District was a ghost town.
There were many abandoned warehouses. There was no residential development. The district's primary function was ancillary use to Tampa's busy port.
Demand grew for residential and commercial development. Creating a vibrant downtown is about putting together a puzzle, Buckhorn said, and pieces are filling in.
"There has never been a more exciting time in downtown's history than there is right now," he said. "Ten years from now, you will not recognize this place."
Six businesses in the district have opened within a half-mile radius since late last year. A seventh business, BoConcept, is slated to open in late May or early June.
"Urban design is what we're about, and I feel like it's an area on the up," BoConcept owner Ray Priddle said.
The new businesses range from a coffee shop to a hair salon. So far they have created 78 jobs and more reasons for people to come to the district.
Four of the businesses are within Grand Central at Kennedy at 1208 E. Kennedy Blvd. They are: eleventwenty Café Bistro, Sea Dog Cantina, Ragin' Grill and the salon 1.0.
The two other new businesses are Victory Coffee & Tea Bar at 101 N. 12th St., and Twelfth Street Studio at 101 S. 12th St.
"The area is a hidden secret," said John Oraha, who owns Sea Dog Cantina. "People don't realize how much fun downtown Tampa is."
Oraha has lived in Grand Central at Kennedy for 3½ years and opened the cantina Dec. 19.
His business already has tripled.
One day Oraha sees the area being similar to South Howard Avenue.
"We're definitely growing," he said. "Other people are moving in. It's just going to take time. … I think every week, every month it's just getting better. There is a need for a place like this. There is a need for a coffee shop and the Ragin' Grill."
Terry Riney, another Grand Central business owner, opened a dry cleaning store there 2 ½ years ago and eleventwenty Café Bistro on Jan. 26.
"What's coming here is optimism," Riney said. "People are willing to come and work. The biggest need is better transportation – a way for more people to come to the Channel District, to Channelside, to Ybor, to downtown."
When Powerhouse Gym moved into Grand Central in June 2009, "At night you wouldn't see anybody," owner Eddy Midyett said. "Tumbleweeds would go through here."
Now the gym is a notable example of the district's growth: It opened with 300 members and 17,000 square feet. It now has more than 5,400 members and almost 40,000 square feet.
For salon owner Sonny D, who opened his business March 8, there's nothing but optimism about the district.
"I've been seeing the development happen and wanting to be a part of it," he said. "I see this area becoming the prime destination to not only live but also work and play in the Tampa Bay area."