Written by McKenna Kelley | Photos by Gabriel Burgos
She may carry one of the most famous last names in Tampa, but Norma Gene Lykes prefers to stay out of the spotlight – which would explain how she has protected, rebuilt and revitalized some of Tampa’s most well-known parks with close to no recognition.
“It’s not about getting our name out,” Lykes says. “The very first thing my grandmother taught me that I’ve taught my children and grandchildren is, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected.’ It gives me joy to be able to contribute to everybody else.”
Through the F.E. Lykes Foundation, whose mission is to enhance Tampa’s public spaces, Lykes has quietly supported the renovation of Kate Jackson Park in South Tampa – including the construction of its signature fountain and stone lions – Bern’s Park in SoHo and Giddens Park in Seminole Heights. She also funded the popular interactive fountains at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, which she calls her favorite project.
“I think public spaces reflect the way a city feels about itself and how it regards itself,” Lykes says, “starting with giving children the opportunity to play, to get out of the house and away from screens.”
Thanks to their shared interest in accessible public spaces, Lykes has found a kindred spirit in investor Jeff Vinik.
“I think he’s a saint,” Lykes says with a laugh. “Starting in about the ‘70s, Tampa turned its back on the water and buildings were built too close to the water, without enough regard for the people who live here. Jeff Vinik comes along, and he’s doing exactly what this city needs.”
Not everyone can provide the city the kind of financial backing someone like Vinik has, but Lykes says every bit of support helps.
“We are all equal,” she says. “If somebody can give $25 toward a park, to me that is just as important as what I can give to a park because that’s their buy-in just as I have given mine.”
Why does the F.E. Lykes Foundation place such a high value on making public spaces beautiful?
I think public spaces reflect the way a city feels about itself and how it regards itself, starting with giving children the opportunity to play, to get out of the house and away from screen time. It gives older people the chance to get out of the house and see young people and see activities.
The foundation has renovated spaces like Kate Jackson Park and Bern’s Park and added wonderful assets to other parks, like the fountains at Curtis Hixon Park. How does the foundation choose which projects to pursue?
Originally, after I did Kate Jackson Park, I wanted to go into poorer neighborhoods. At Kate Jackson, neighbors could buy into it. I did one in southeast Seminole Heights called Giddens Park, and we put a splashpad in there. A lot of children do not have access to water or swimming pools because they can’t cross a main thoroughfare on their own to get to water. Parks seemed to be lacking in water accessibility.
I love just listening [near the parks] — I can close my eyes on Ashley Drive if I’m stopped at the red light and hear children playing in the water. They’re coming in by busloads. Or at Kate Jackson, they do Christmas cards with the children on the lions.
Of the projects the F.E. Lykes Foundation has supported, which has been your favorite?
I would say [the fountains at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park] because they get the heaviest use.
We’ve done all sorts of things in the past. We’ve done scholarships, we’ve done music events. We are part of the Sunscreen Film Festival’s camp for kids, so they show a movie in the park. We were part of the renovations of the Roy Jenkins pool on Davis Islands.
[What we do] is not about getting our name out. I was taught to do things anonymously, but the foundation is a business. My grandmother started it, then my mother had it and now I have it. My three sons are on the board, and they all have opinions and are delightful [laughs].
Another big proponent of accessible public spaces in the city of Tampa is Jeff Vinik. What are your thoughts on his plans for downtown’s development?
I think he’s a saint [laughs]. I think he’s a superhero. I was born on Davis Islands, and I have seen this city grow since the ‘50s. The fact that he, one, has been willing to go to Cascade [Investment, controlled by Bill Gates] and then to be bold enough to tear down a building — the Channelside plaza, which didn’t attract anybody to begin with — and add outdoor space right where the cruise ships come in. Starting in about the ‘70s, Tampa turned its back on the water, and buildings were built too close to the water without enough regard for the people who live here. Jeff Vinik comes along, and he’s doing exactly what this city needs. The water is one of our greatest assets, in my opinion. The man’s a saint. Some people come to town and they want to make money and they’re out of here. He’s giving back.
Almost every major city that you go to that has water [uses it] — take Cleveland, Ohio. What an industrial city. But what they’ve done with their waterfront, with the little rivers that come into town, is fantastic. I lived in Manhattan for five years. You’ve got this concrete city, and then the parks that line it are just [necessary] — people need to breathe. There’s community outdoors.
Over the years, you’ve owned and renovated a lot of beautiful homes in Hyde Park. What do you like most about the renovation process?
I like tearing something down and starting over again. That’s why I like parks. You can take a really ugly place — I mean I can barely do math, but I know how to tear down a city block and put it back together. I think it’s knowing, with any kind of construction, where it’s located and then you let that tell you what you want to do. [Start with] infrastructure — making sure that you’re going to have proper drainage, you’re going to have electricity — and then going up from there.
Do you have a favorite home you’ve built or renovated?
I would say the glass house on Orleans and Bayshore. That was a 1950s house. It’s a one-story house, and I was tearing down a 1950s house and putting back a sort-of 1950s structure. At the time, this was 15 years ago, it was causing a lot of naysayers in the neighborhood. But it wasn’t a contributing structure. If it had been contributing, I would have had to put back a house like what you see mostly in the neighborhood. But to me it was a ‘50s house, so I was putting back a ‘50s house.
Your family has a long history of giving back to the Tampa community. What lessons does your family pass down about the importance of doing for others?
The very first thing that my grandmother taught me that I’ve taught my children and my grandchildren is, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” Two, three generations ago, [my family] worked very hard, and I am the beneficiary of that hard work, as are my children. It gives me joy to be able to contribute to everybody else. We are all equal. If somebody can give $25 toward a park, to me that is just as important as what I can give to a park because that’s their buy-in just as I have given mine.
What’s up next for the F.E. Lykes Foundation?
We are about to finalize [a new project]. There’s an art truck that’s just sitting, and the city doesn’t have enough money to send it to recreation centers. We’re going to be able to make it possible for that to go around to different community centers. We have a lot of things now, a lot of activities in the parks. The city is catching up on parks, and they’re catching up on water features. They seem to be an integral part to the design of parks now, whereas for the past 25 years they haven’t been. Now we’re focusing more on things that can be done inside a park — basketball competitions, [that sort of thing].
Little girls who have recitals, their parents have to buy these incredible, elaborate costumes. They wear it once and it goes in the closet, so why not see if we can’t get some of these dance studios to go around to recreation centers and let the little girls dance to let other kids perhaps develop an interest in that. We’ve also been involved in public art, like the fish on the Bayshore, art in Kate Jackson Park and a few other things.
Who in the Tampa Bay community do you admire professionally?
For one, there’s Bob Buckhorn. I’ve known him for 20 years, and I like his approach to bringing people to our city. He’s happy, he is what he is; there’s no pretense about Bob. He loves the job. He’s incredibly supportive of parks. Personally, I just love the guy. He’ll give you his phone number. He’ll respond. He’s active. He wants to know what’s going on, and he wants to know everybody’s name. He really is the biggest champion of this city. I’ve worked with a lot of other mayors, and he is so personable. I applaud him every chance I get. He loves his job, and I think that says a lot.
What has been your greatest achievement so far?
The first thing that comes to my mind is my family — my children and my grandchildren. They’re good citizens. They’re good spouses and parents. They’re contributing members [to the community]. They’re individuals.