TAMPA — Facing a room full of gleeful supporters, former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco on Monday evening formally announced a fifth run for mayor.
Greco, 77, was first elected mayor in 1967.
"Most people said I was too young then," he said. "Now they're saying you're too old. I think I'm just right."
The crowd that included lawyers, developers, politicos and former city employees, spilling out of a hotel ballroom with a 150-person capacity, erupted into laughs and applause.
Greco, who served as mayor from 1967 to 1974 and again from 1995 to 2003, changes the dynamic of an already crowded field of mayoral candidates.
As mayor, he was popular and has become a Tampa icon. A statue of him even graces a downtown transit stop.
"He has a lot of charisma and he's well-liked," said Al Desilet, who worked in the city budget department under Greco. "You have to be well-liked to lead."
Greco joins six others who have filed to seek the mayor's post: former City Council member Bob Buckhorn, former Hillsborough County commissioners Rose Ferlita and Ed Turanchik, City Council Chairman Tom Scott, former police Capt. Marion Lewis and businessman Arthur Richardson.
Buckhorn lobbed the first attack on Greco's campaign, casting him as a retread.
"Nostalgia only goes so far," a fundraising e-mail sent Monday afternoon reads. "Instead of rehashing old ideas we need to refocus on the present while looking towards the future."
Greco pondered a run for mayor in 2007, but decided not to challenge Mayor Pam Iorio's re-election. Now after eight years in office, Iorio can't run for a third consecutive term.
Tampa voters will choose a new mayor and seven City Council members March 1 in the nonpartisan elections.
In his first campaign speech, Greco touted some of his accomplishments, such as bringing Hillsborough Community College to Ybor City, dealing with race riots, luring the Stetson University law school to downtown and attracting the Marriott Waterside Hotel to support the Tampa Convention Center.
Greco, though, noted that times are different now — with the recession forcing Iorio to trim millions from the budget and eliminate hundreds of jobs.
"This is probably not going to get better, friends, even in the long term," he said. "Whoever takes over this next time is going to have a hard job."
When asked how he would deal with less-flush city coffers, he said: "You do what you can."
Most importantly, he said, he won't promise to do anything he can't accomplish.
"I wouldn't dare tell you I'm going to do this or do that if I'm not positive I can do it," he said.
But as mayor, Greco was known for big projects.
He presided over development of the Centro Ybor entertainment and retail complex. He lobbied for a community investment tax that helped build Raymond James Stadium, pay for parks and buy police cars. He bought riverfront property in the city and unveiled plans for a massive new art museum that were later scaled back by Iorio.
Developer John Lum was among the supporters at Greco's campaign kick-off.
"We need the city to open up for business again," he said. "Hopefully we'll get a pro-development environment in Tampa and create some jobs."
Although the recession has hurt development the past two years, Lum said it has been difficult to get things built in Tampa since Greco left office.
If elected, Greco would have to contend with fallout from some of his previous projects.
His administration supported Centro Ybor financially with a $9 million federally backed loan and a parking garage. In 2004, after the complex became unprofitable, the city bailed out developers by taking over payments on the loan. That's costing the public $750,000 a year.
And Greco's deal on two Ybor City parking garages, including one associated with Centro Ybor, is contributing to a $7.3 million shortfall in the parking division expected in 2012.
Then there's the streetcar launched by Greco that runs between downtown and Ybor City. A $5 million endowment that helps fund its operation is about to run out, and the city may have to pay $125,000 in 2012 to keep it going.
Greco's tenure was also rocked by scandal.
His housing director, Steve LaBrake, ended up in federal prison for trading city contracts for discount work on his own home. Greco remained loyal to LaBrake throughout a grand jury investigation, even as news reports revealed details of LaBrake's dealings.
Mayoral candidate Scott expressed amusement at the media frenzy surrounding Greco's run.
"He's the only candidate who has generated this much publicity," he said.
Scott said he welcomes Greco to the race but thinks he will be surprised by the financial issues now facing the city.
"I'm not sure that he understands the ramifications of not having any money to do anything," Scott said. "He enjoyed the big projects. He was a pat-you-on-the-back kind of guy, but he did not have to make the hard decisions that are going to have to be made this time around."
Candidate Lewis said he respects Greco's decision to run.
"He was a good mayor back in the day, but I think Tampa needs new leadership and obviously I think I'm the best person to be the best mayor," he said.
Turanchik said Greco is a good person and he expects a "fun, interesting race." But he also said the city needs a hands-on mayor who can tear down the bureaucracy and build it into an efficient business model.
"Progress has to be about more than football stadiums and art museums," Turanchik said. "When I am mayor of Tampa, I fully hope to tap into Dick Greco's great charisma to be an ambassador for our city. But I really don't want him running it."
Janet Zink can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.