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Over lunch and lean budgets, Buckhorn sells Tampa as rising economic contender

Hizzoner Bob Buckhorn invited me to break bread on Monday. The Tampa mayor for these past 14 months wanted a shot at convincing me the city is gaining momentum even in such challenging economic times.

Turns out, he's not a bad salesman.

Things are improving, even if Buckhorn's zeal to finally have the job he's always wanted collides with the harsh reality of dreamin' big with a lean public budget.

Mayor Bob isn't worried. He's an optimist. He says he even likes journalists because his own dad (also named Bob) was a transportation reporter for UPI back when that wire service was still muscular.

The mayor keeps his lengthy to-do list right on his desk. He checks off each item as it gets done.

No surprise, Buckhorn wants the upcoming Republican National Convention in Tampa in late August to go well. While he's sprucing up the city's key streets, he's also realistic. Protests will happen and probably some TV footage won't be flattering. He doubts RNC attendees will focus on much beyond the political convention or parties, though he applauds local efforts to pitch the virtues of the Tampa Bay area. At the least, he says, Tampa will become better known to a larger world that now hears "Florida" and thinks "Orlando" or "Miami."

Right below the RNC on Buckhorn's list is the ongoing expansion of the 2.6-mile-long project called Riverwalk. The mayor is eager to turn friendlier frontage along the Hillsborough River into downtown Tampa's biggest magnet for attracting more visitors, tourists, workers and, most of all, residents. He was in Washington, D.C., earlier this month to renew his push for a federal TIGER transportation grant to fund the last unfinished sections of Riverwalk.

Channelside is also a priority. Once awash in condos nobody wanted, Channelside bankruptcies in effect put housing there on sale in recent years. Now most residential towers are full and there's talk of new building.

Alongside the housing revival, Buckhorn mentions Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik's ambitions to resuscitate Channelside Bay Plaza and nearby properties. The mayor reiterates the appeal of a baseball stadium — if, someday, the Tampa Bay Rays can't make it work in St. Petersburg — as an urban coup for the city. It is at Channelside — not the distant Florida state fairgrounds — that a stadium could spur surrounding development, Buckhorn argues.

Paying for such a lofty sports goal? That's another matter, he concedes.

But now he's on a roll. Mayor Bob suggests how cool it would be if his city could hold its own referendums on services like mass transit. If only Tampa was not beholden to countywide votes that all but guarantee a thumbs down on such matters. Buckhorn says he could win city support.

On Friday, Buckhorn was one of four Florida mayors on a panel talking about the pros and cons of running cities in tight times. When a question arose about Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Buckhorn says he watched the audience react as if the mayor of Jacksonville or Orlando or Miami — or Tampa — might emerge as a viable challenger come the 2014 statewide election.

Right now, Mayor Bob's having the time of his life in Tampa. But who knows what's down the political roads of Florida?

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@tampabay.com.

Over lunch and lean budgets, Buckhorn sells Tampa as rising economic contender 06/11/12 [Last modified: Monday, June 11, 2012 10:13pm]

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