TAMPA — Mayor Bob Buckhorn is asking University of South Florida students for a favor:
Get that degree — then stick around Tampa.
"I don't want you to go to Austin, Texas," he told about 60 students gathered for a town hall-style forum Monday night. "I want you to stay here."
Buckhorn, in his first remarks to a student-organized gathering, said he thinks about a day when the Tampa Bay region no longer suffers from a "brain drain" and can compete with an Austin or a Raleigh-Durham for bright minds.
"We need to have a city that's hip, that's cool, that's progressive," he said.
He acknowledged the city has work to do. One of its biggest competitive disadvantages with other cities, he said? Its lack of a rail system.
Buckhorn blamed Gov. Rick Scott for declining billions in federal stimulus money for high-speed rail to Orlando. He also cited the failure of the light-rail referendum in Hillsborough last year and encouraged students to fight for it the next time it comes around.
"We're going to have to go back at it at some point," he said.
Buckhorn also said the recession and real estate crash has forced Tampa, like all of Florida, to rethink an economy built on housing. It won't come quickly.
"Make no mistake, Florida is still a crack addict for real estate," he said.
Buckhorn, whose wife serves on USF's medical faculty, said the university is the key engine for creating new kinds of jobs in Tampa Bay.
He cited research conducted by two USF chemists who are working on a more efficient chemotherapy drug. He also said he is going to Israel next month to lobby robotics companies in that country to come to a new USF research facility.
Turnout to the forum was relatively small. The lowest turnout in the city for the March elections that put Buckhorn in office was on the USF campus. Of 1,422 people registered to cast ballots at the Marshall Student Center, just seven voted
But several of those who heard Buckhorn's remarks said they could see themselves staying in the Tampa area after graduation.
"I think it'd be the kind of place I'd want to live," said Bailey Foster, a sophomore early education major who grew up in Bradenton.
But she's not making any commitments. She said she also thinks about seeing new scenery.
Brent Crosswhite, an electrical engineering student in his fourth year, grew up in Tampa. He said he's seen pockets of it improve since he was a kid, particularly the Ybor and Channelside areas.
He said he probably will stick around after graduation, at least for a few years, because there's a demand for tech-related jobs in the region. He can't say how long he'd like to stay.
"It's not like a Boulder, Colo.," he said. "But it's getting there."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813)226-3374.