Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn used the theatrics of his annual State of the City speech Friday to foster optimism and civic unity as he enters his final full year in office. Joined by several in the crowd who hope to succeed him, Buckhorn told the story of the city’s recovery from the Great Recession through the character of Tampa’s people, old and new, who are making Florida’s third-largest city a key destination for business, talent and marquee events. It was a feisty address from a direct-talking mayor who doesn’t seem entirely ready to exit the political stage.
Speaking under a blazing morning sun in newly opened Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park, a $35 million expanse on the west bank of the Hillsborough River, Buckhorn broke a vow of brevity and recapped his seven years as mayor. He hailed the rebound in jobs and the tax base as a signal that Tampa has entered a new era, pointing to the growth downtown, the influx of transplants and the risk-taking by both entrepreneurs and residents.
Buckhorn uses the backdrop of these annual addresses as a signpost of his priorities for the coming year, and in tying this speech with the opening of Riverfront Park, he highlighted his efforts to expand the reach of downtown toward the historic neighborhoods of West Tampa. This spring marks the beginning of the West River redevelopment, the largest and most ambitious urban renewal project in city history. The build-out will continue for years beyond the termed-out mayor’s time in office but Buckhorn has gotten the ball rolling on a multibillion dollar transformation of Tampa’s core.
The mayor touched on the importance of cities and the role of Tampa in the region. He blasted the Legislature for micromanaging local governments ("Tallahassee knows better? Are you kidding me? Not now, not ever") and applauded cities for standing up for civil liberties while state lawmakers acted as "a group of advocates for AR-15s but deniers of climate change." He called for greater control at the local level, and urged Tampa to continue working regionally. "When St. Pete succeeds, Tampa benefits," he said, citing joint efforts in boosting jobs, tourism and keeping the Rays in Tampa Bay. "We are in this together."
Buckhorn will likely give another State of the City address next spring just before he leaves office, but this speech reflected on the city’s character rather than on promoting the next bricks-and-mortar project. Pumped as usual by a gospel choir, and in a new twist, by the Navy band, he rounded out his theme of a "Strong Finish" by imploring listeners to recognize their power and obligation to make a better community.
Buckhorn closed by calling for the community to find common ground. He drew on Tampa’s immigrant experience as a lesson for how communities can prosper when they use their political and social differences to weave a stronger civic fabric. It was an appeal to a higher calling from a mayor who has genuinely viewed government throughout his career as a force that, correctly managed, is a force for good. The mayor sounded very much like he wanted to remain part of that aspiration.