TAMPA — In a speech filled with talk of teamwork and cooperation, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn delivered this don't-mess-with-us challenge:
"We can be a region with a first-class transportation system," Buckhorn said during his second State of the City speech on Tuesday. "We need mobility options now. That means bus rapid transit, that means (high-occupancy vehicle lanes), and it darn sure means rail.
"Tallahassee needs to let cities decide for themselves what their future's going to look like," said Buckhorn, who has lobbied the Legislature to let Florida's largest cities hold their own sales tax referendums. That could give Tampa a second chance at the kind of transit referendum that was defeated in unincorporated Hillsborough three years ago even as it won precincts inside the city.
He went on to allude to Gov. Rick Scott's decision to turn away $2 billion from the Obama administration to build high-speed rail from Tampa to Orlando.
"Don't tell me that I have to listen to the mayor of Detroit thank me because he's building his light rail system with our money," Buckhorn said. "If folks in Tallahassee don't want to support us, we'll find folks in Tallahassee that will."
That got a big round of applause, one of 18 such interruptions during the 28-minute speech from a crowd of about 600 city employees, other local officials, business owners and neighborhood activists.
"This is the strongest statement I have seen him make about transit and rail during the two years I've been here," City Council member Mike Suarez said afterward. "It was much welcomed."
For the most part, though, Buckhorn stuck to themes he's focused on during his first two years in office:
• The improvement of the city's relationship with Hillsborough County officials. ("Never been better," Buckhorn said.)
• The opportunities to become a gateway to Latin America offered by the expansion of the Panama Canal and international flights to Tampa International Airport. ("I'm not playing second-fiddle to Miami. It's our turn.")
• The welcome re-emergence of interest in downtown. ("It's an exciting time. Three new residential towers have been announced in the last three months.")
• The need to make Tampa competitive with vibrant, tech-savvy Sunbelt cities like San Diego, Austin, Texas and Raleigh-Durham, N.C. ("We're not fighting with St. Petersburg. We're not even competing with Orlando. … I am not losing my two little girls to Charlotte, N.C. I will be darned to let that happen.")
• The goal of making the Hillsborough River the center of downtown activity. ("For too long, we've turned our back on the river. … For too long, we've failed to realize that that river is the best asset we have as a community.")
• And the importance of reducing blight in inner-city neighborhoods hit hard by the housing crash and foreclosure crisis. ("As Jackson Heights goes, so goes Palma Ceia. As College Hill goes, so goes Culbreath Isles. As East Tampa and West Tampa go, so goes New Tampa.")
With a projected revenue shortfall of about $20 million, Buckhorn said putting together the city's budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year will be tough, but "hopefully, this is the last bad year."
Buckhorn chose to give his second State of the City address inside the long-vacant former Kress department store in downtown Tampa.
Like the old federal courthouse, which is being turned into a boutique hotel, Buckhorn said the Kress should be redeveloped in a way that makes the best use of its high ceilings, pendant lights and other historic touches. (Owner Jeannette Jason said some development concepts are in discussion, including for the adaptive reuse of the Kress building, but there's nothing to announce.)
But Buckhorn also noted that the Kress stands next to the old Woolworth's lunch counter, where 53 years ago a 21-year-old Clarence Fort, who led the NAACP youth council, the Rev. A. Leon Lowry and 50 black high school students asked to be served.
The sit-in inspired similar protests that spread across Tampa Bay, and six months later city officials desegregated Tampa's lunch counters without incident.
Fort, who was in the audience, said after the speech that he's known Buckhorn for years and that during the campaign Buckhorn told him, "if I ever get in there, we won't forget you and this building."
To Buckhorn, the stories of Tampa's grand old buildings and brave young leaders both point in the same direction.
"These old buildings, the Kress building and the federal courthouse, are part of Tampa's history, but more importantly they're part of Tampa's future," he said. "We stand here today on the shoulders of many who came before us, people like Clarence Fort, and we are charged with transforming their history into a bright future. … Tampa, it's time to think big."
Richard Danielson can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403.