Bob Buckhorn won Tampa's mayoral race in a come-from-behind victory by relentlessly selling a vision and sense of energy. The mayor continues to pound home a positive image of a city on the move, and he has demonstrated in his first year in office that his vision extends beyond the city limits to the entire Tampa Bay region. But while he is off to a strong start, Buckhorn's first term ultimately will be measured by how smoothly the city performs in the international spotlight during August's Republican National Convention. The potential rewards for success and the substantial risks of mishandling traffic, protests or other logistics are substantial.
One-year anniversaries are hardly a measure of any mayor. Buckhorn marks that occasion still carving out his priorities, reassembling his top leadership team and struggling with the budget demands of a fourth straight year of declining tax revenues. Like any rookie mayor, his first year largely reflects the state of the city he inherited. He can thank his predecessor, Pam Iorio, for cutting the City Hall workforce even as she tripled the city's cash reserves, enabling him to avoid layoffs and keep his promises to the politically powerful police union.
Still, Buckhorn has worked quickly to lay a new foundation for the three years remaining in his term. He asked a panel of developers to recommend ways to flatten the city's regulatory process, using down time in this slow economy to make the city more competitive once concrete starts pouring again. He also brought in the nation's best urban designers to craft a first-ever master plan for the downtown neighborhoods. Buckhorn is talking up the need to grow and diversify Tampa's economy through partnerships in commercialized health care and other high-tech industries. And he hasn't missed a chance to exploit the media attention for the Republican National Convention, which will be hosted in Tampa. The Democrat is a political animal, and a stage is a stage.
Buckhorn, 53, relishes the pomp and attention of the job, which he had wanted for most of his adult life. The newsletter his staff emails each week manages to capture hizzoner in all range of glory, from signing foreign trade deals and cutting construction ribbons to throwing out the first spring training pitch. But there is a symmetry between Buckhorn's self-promotion and the vision he sells for the city. He understands that the old days of waiting on tourism, retirees and service industry jobs to grow the economy are over; cities must be aggressive in selling themselves and smart about how they invest in education, transportation, the arts and other public amenities that define a community.
That's the reason Buckhorn has been looking at institutions throughout Tampa Bay as regional assets, from the Tampa Bay Rays and the gulf beaches to the area's colleges and universities. He is talking more seriously about the need to build a modern transportation system. And he has recast the discussion on economic development to compete against Dallas and Charlotte, not St. Petersburg. His flirtatious comments regarding a new stadium for the Rays show that balancing regionalism with a sensitivity to local concerns remains a work in progress. But that sort of open discussion and brainstorming is how leaders in metro areas should work together to preserve and enhance shared assets.
Buckhorn has banked a significant amount of goodwill in a short period of time. He hasn't made any major mistakes. But nor has he been tested by crisis. The Republican convention in August will test his leadership before a global audience. Then it will be back to basics — building a better transit system, attracting new jobs, preserving the parks and public order. Buckhorn will need to continue keeping one eye on the horizon and the other on the everyday details of running a city. But he is off to a solid start and preparing to meet the significant challenges ahead.