Taking “the Tampa tour” with the mayor can be an uplifting urban experience.
This Florida Gulf Coast city, one of the true bellwethers in American politics, was hit hard by the Great Recession. It’s rebounding aggressively as an urban magnet for millennials.
“Tampa really has, I think by every measure, turned the page in its book and started a new chapter,” says Mayor Bob Buckhorn, touting an economic revival and multibillion dollar plans to re-energize his community’s downtown core. “We got whacked really really badly by that recession. We got hit particularly hard because we were so dependent on homebuilding and the construction industry. When the recession came, our unemployment was north of 11 percent – 4,000 some houses in the city in some stage of foreclosure or stress.”
The latest unemployment rate reported for the Tampa area, just over 4 percent, is less than half its peak high during the recession that extended from 2007 to 2009. The city has attracted jobs in financial services, with the big Wall Street investment banks employing thousands in Tampa. The state’s agreement to move the University of South Florida’s medical school into downtown is part of a movement to attract more elements of the health care industry.
The city, he says, already is home to “the best craft beer south of Asheville.” A long-sought Riverwalk along the Hillsborough River is attracting choice new restaurants. And Jeff Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning and a hedge fund manager by training, is spearheading a new “work-and-play” development around his hockey arena with several thousand housing units, hotels and retail outlets in partnership with Bill Gates’ venture fund.
“We knew that we had to change our economic DNA,” Democrat Buckhorn says. “The model that Florida has lived on for so many years – cheap land, cheap taxes, we told them to come on down – we had to do some different things.… We had become a donor city to Charlotte and Asheville; our children were moving there because there was no opportunity here. Millennials want to live in a city, with an 18-hour environment. Over the last six years, we have done that.
“The Riverwalk, that was 40 years and six mayors in the making. I was lucky enough to be the mayor who brought it in for a landing. Downtown became a place where people wanted to be. When I was elected, 600 people lived in downtown Tampa, 300 of them lived in the jail.”
“It’s a different place,” says Buckhorn, who has two years left to serve and sat down for a talk at U.S. News & World Report as part of his traveling, talking Tampa tour. “There’s a swagger that never existed before. … I think 10 years from now this will be an economic engine that drives the Southeastern United States south of Atlanta.”
There is one shortcoming in the city’s revival, he readily acknowledges: Voters have rejected light-rail operations. It’s not a problem unique to Tampa. Florida ranks No. 11 in infrastructure, No. 18 in public transit usage, and No. 39 in average commute time in U.S. News’ Best States measurements. “You can’t build enough roads to get yourself out of the ditch,” Buckhorn allows.
“Tell me the 56,000 potholes we have fixed in six years doesn’t make your life – and suspension – better,” Buckhorn said in is 2017 “State of the City Address” to leaders whose city has permitted $11 billion in new construction since 2011.
Tampa Bay will host the NFL Super Bowl in 2021.
The state Legislature is making life more difficult for cities like his, he also maintains – ironically attempting to take control of social issues and immigration at a time when the GOP that runs the Statehouse insists that the best control is local control. “I have never seen an assault on cities like I’ve seen in this Legislature,” says Buckhorn, who denies any interest in joining the governor’s race next year because his high-school age daughters are thinking next of college careers. The state hasn’t had a Democratic leader for 17 years, and Buckhorn’s Hillsborough County has voted the way Florida has in statewide elections since the 1960s.
It may be a great base and biography from which to launch a moderate, business-minded campaign, but this leader explains that he has only so many years left with his daughters still at home.
A previous Tampa mayor, Bob Martinez, was elected governor in 1986, only the second Republican to run the state since Reconstruction. Martinez relented on a newly enacted tax on services that was intended to overhaul an antiquated state tax structure, winning repeal of the levy and raising a regressive sales tax on goods. Another Tampa leader, the late attorney Bill McBride, ran for governor in 2002. He won the Democratic nomination but lost to Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.
“There are some prices that I’m just not willing to pay,” Buckhorn says. “I have always subscribed to the theory that a mayoral model of governance is the best. … Mayors get things done. … If I didn’t have term limits, I wouldn’t go anywhere,” says the mayor, limited by law to serving eight years in office. “It’s been a good run. The measure for me was, 1) I’m not losing my kids to Charlotte, and 2) I’m leaving the city in better shape than it was given to me.”
“There is going to be an excitement and flavor about Tampa that hasn’t existed in a long, long time … The Tampa Renaissance, you can feel it,” Buckhorn says. “Five years from now, it’s going to be a radically different city.”