GULFPORT — One by one, they offered the new mayor their congratulations. Sitting outside a coffee shop two days after his election, new mayor Sam Henderson appeared genuinely pleased at the support.
"Thanks for your vote of confidence," he said to each extended hand. From the young college student with an interest in politics, to an artist who voiced her delight at his election, to a member of the city's Board of Appraisers, each wanted Henderson to know they were excited about the future of their city.
Henderson, 41, defeated challenger Bob Worthington for the seat vacated by Mike Yakes, who retired after nine terms as mayor. The election gave the youthful challenger 64 percent of the vote, a margin that surprised the winner and may represent a change in the city's voting demographic.
"When Town Shores went up (in the 1970s), Gulfport was well on its way to becoming a retirement community," Henderson said. "We're seeing new artists moving into Gulfport. More families my age and younger with small children are moving here, and we're seeing more students from Stetson University living off campus."
For some, Henderson's win represents a dramatic shift for the community. Moving to Gulfport in 2006, he's a relative newcomer. Yakes, Worthington and City Manager Jim O'Reilly are Gulfport natives.
Like many beach communities, Gulfport struggles with balancing small-town charm and economic survival. For some, the fear is that a young newcomer without historical roots in the community might focus less on the town's appeal and more on the financial bottom line.
Though Henderson is quick to point out that Gulfport's character is what drew him to the area, he recognizes that a viable business community can do much to protect the area's charm.
"We need to keep focused on our small businesses," Henderson said. "I've heard from a lot of people that, as a city, we don't do enough to market ourselves. As mayor, I look forward to working more closely with the merchants association. I mean, if business owners, the Chamber of Commerce and the city can support new business efforts in Gulfport then we'll be able to maintain the small-town, local environment that makes people want to move, live and work here."
Part of that support, Henderson maintains, starts with the City Council.
"For too long we've been lax with the public comment section of council meetings," he said. "We've got to be comfortable with ensuring that council meetings are not used to air grievances against local businesses or personalities. We need to remind the public that comments should be focused on council agenda items, and not on personal grudges."
He also looks forward to handling those issues that have divided the council in the past.
"We don't run as Democrat or Republican," he said. "We're nonpartisan and, as a City Council, we don't need to be divided on national issues (like gun control) that are not relevant to the city of Gulfport."
"We're a wildly diverse community,'' he said. "We have a large blue-collar component, a strong entrepreneurial and LGBT community, and everyone's concerns need to be addressed."
On the surface, the public won't see much difference in the day-to-day running of the city, Henderson said, though he does intend to pursue a few of his campaign issues.
"I'm going to keep pushing for pedestrian crosswalks to encourage more non-motor traffic within the city, Henderson said. "I want to keep the restoration of Clam Bayou on the agenda but we need to look for solid assurances that we don't create more problems than we currently have."
Henderson also wants to adjust the focus of the 49th Street Corridor.
"It's never going to be a Beach Boulevard,'' he said, "but the city can get more aggressive in pursuing grants that allow for cleanup of potentially contaminated sites, like old gas stations and dry cleaner facilities."
On Tuesday, Henderson will be sworn in as Gulfport's first new mayor since 1991, joining Council members Christine Anne Brown (Ward 2) and Michael Fridovich (Ward 4) who were unopposed for their seats.
Henderson, a graduate student at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, has no illusions about his win.
"Fifteen years ago I don't think I could have been elected; I would have gotten clobbered. But, I think voters today see me as more in touch with Gulfport, more representative of the city's newer demographic. Of course, with that many people backing you, the pressure is on to do well."