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Silhouettes profiles Kelly Stephens

Kelly Stephens

Originally published in the June 12, 2020 edition of La Gaceta
By Tiffany Razzano

As the city grows and changes, Kelly Stephens remains proud of his Tampa roots. With more people moving to the area from other parts of the country, fewer residents are “born and raised in Tampa,” he said. “I’m one of the very few, anymore.” It’s important for natives of the city to “reminisce about the old days…talk about the good times, talk about what’s going on now, talk about how that relates to how things were.”
Growing up, he split his time between Riverside Heights and Ybor City. In the 1980s and 1990s, both neighborhoods were quite different from what they look like today, he said.
His father, owner of Tampa Oxygen and Welding Supply and founder of the James E. Rooster Funeral and Procession in the late 1990s, has lived in Ybor City for decades, Stephens said. “I remember Ybor City back in the day when it wasn’t much of a district. There were some offices and businesses, but it was a quiet time. It evolved and changed into more of an entertainment district over the years.”
He added, “Now, there’s all these shops and retail and restaurants during the day and at night more of the restaurants and night clubs. It’s a very busy district now.”
Riverside Heights, where he lived with his mother, also experienced a dramatic transformation over the years. “My street that I grew up on, all the families were related or had relationships over the years and had all grown up together,” he said, adding that several members of his family and close friends lived nearby. “It was one of those neighborhoods where everybody knew one another, and everybody grew up around one another. It was not as popular as it is today.”
Now, families clamor to live in the neighborhood, he said. “As soon as houses go up for rent or sale, they’re usually taken off the market very, very quickly.”
As a child, he was drawn to law enforcement and police work. “It’s funny, I remember that I loved seeing cop shows, and I remember watching ‘T.J. Hooker’ and ‘CHiPs’ as a kid,” he said.
By the time he got to Hillsborough High School, like many teens, he got distracted. “You know how it is. As you get older and get into high school and figure out who you are as a teenager, you don’t think too hard career wise,” he said. “You’re more in the moment, making friends and having fun.”
Stephens still found his way to the Tampa Police Department Explorers Post, which was a life-changing experience for him, though. “I met some friends who were in the Explorers program and they thought I should check it out, so I did,” he said. And he loved the program.
He took criminal justice courses when he moved on to Hillsborough Community College after graduating from high school. He thought that one day he might become a police officer.
While studying at HCC, he also began working for private corporations in the security field. As he worked his way through the ranks and his career became more demanding, he abandoned his studies before earning his degree.
Years later, at the urging of a mentor, he went back to college in 2015 and earned his bachelor’s degree in public safety administration with a minor in emergency management from St. Petersburg College two years later.
He doesn’t regret focusing on his career first, though. “It took me a different route,” Stephens said. “It brought me up a different career path and I couldn’t ask for more.”
He launched his career in the security field working in the security department at Tiffany & Co. in International Plaza. After the Renaissance Tampa International Plaza Hotel was built, he began working for Marriott Hotels in the loss prevention department.
After four years, he became a traveling director for the company. In this role, he was deployed to New Orleans for six months after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. “I assisted our hotels, trying to secure the hotels, secure the employees and get things back up to an operational standpoint, get them up to an operational mode,” he said.
“It was a very, very eye-opening experience and led me to the emergency management side of things,” he said.
In 2006, he left Marriott to become Countrywide Financial’s regional director of security for the Eastern United States. He oversaw 6,100 branches in 31 states. “That was probably one of the best jobs I’ve ever had,” he said.
Unfortunately, it was short-lived as “the housing market tanked and (he) was laid off.” Stephens returned to Marriott, but that also took a financial hit. Around this time, he connected with 717 Parking Enterprises, which oversaw valet parking at the hotel. They had a position for him, and he joined their team. He started out as a valet manager and worked his way through the ranks to senior district operations manager by the time he left three years later.
In 2010, he was hired by the city of Tampa as an assistant garage and lot operations supervisor. There, he also worked his way through the ranks, first to interim garage operations supervisor then to parking operations superintendent. Last February, he was named parking division manager.
It’s not an easy job, but he enjoys it, he said. He often hears from people, “It’s just parking. How hard could it be?”
He added, “I tell them, come work my job just one day, please.”
There are numerous duties that fall under his role. His department works closely with private parking operators throughout the city “to ensure we’re operating effectively…and we’re doing stuff efficiently.”
He also oversees parking enforcement, both paid and free spots, as well as in garages. He knows this is a job that doesn’t always make his department popular, but it’s important. The dramatic altercations between parking enforcement and characters “that you see on TV? It happens all the time,” he said.
Stephens stresses that it’s “not just writing tickets. We also try to educate and correct the action beforehand. Ticketing should be one of our last resorts.” He sends his staff to go out into the community to speak with residents and businesses about parking rules in the city. “That positive relationship makes for a better process than just going out there and writing tickets.”
Security is also a big part of his job. After the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, the city increased security at various venues, including parking garages, he said, particularly in areas that draw large crowds, such as around Amalie Arena, the Straz Center and Curtis Hixon Park. “We’ve increased our security presence because of that,” he said.
His department is currently working on implementing new technology systems for garage and on-street parking. It’s a multi-platform system that will allow drivers to use multiple parking providers, he said. “If you go to Atlanta, you go to (Washington) D.C., you go to Atlanta. You can use that same provider here. You don’t have to download another app just because you’re in Tampa. We’re looking to make it so much easier for everybody to use the provider you want to use.”
His staff are currently working on the implementation of frictionless parking at the Tampa Convention Center Garage and the William F. Poe Garage. “What that means is when you enter the garage, you don’t have to touch anything,” he said. “You don’t have to pull a ticket. The gate will lift, it will pull your tag and you’ll use your cell phone to pay or go to one of the machines, kiosks in there…When you leave, go to the gate. The camera captures your tag again and there’s no contact with anybody.”
In recent months, Stephens was also named to the city’s Emergency Management team, taking on the role of emergency response center commander overseeing Ybor City, downtown and the port. He was excited by the appointment as it aligns with his longtime goals and interests. “It’s what I got my degree in and what I wanted to do,” he said. “I was really, really excited when they asked me.”
Typically, those on the Emergency Management team are called to duty during disasters, such as hurricanes. “But the emergency centers don’t activate for hurricanes. Really, it’s anything that goes on, natural disasters, any crisis,” he said. “Let’s say we had a 9/11 experience in downtown Tampa, a bombing. We’d be called.”
He was activated much sooner than he thought he would be when he was called up May 31, the day after the civil unrest led to looting and rioting in the University Mall area. During the protests, he was ready to assist Tampa police with anything they needed. He received one downtown call to secure tables and chairs at Curtis Hixon.
“I didn’t expect to be activated so soon. My acceptance (of the role) was recent then all of a sudden there’s COVID-19, then protests and I’m activated for that, and now it’s June 1, hurricane season,” he said.
As a Tampa native who is proud of his roots, he’s excited to be working for the city in a position where he can give back. “It’s very inspiring,” he said. “I was raised here, and I’ve seen a lot of changes. I turned 40 in October. That’s 40 great years. I’ve worked outside the city of Tampa. I’ve traveled, but I’ve always loved and wanted to come back home. Tampa is home and I can’t see myself anywhere else. This is a great city and I’m glad to be able to work for (it).”

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