As another new year dawns, here are five key areas to watch that will help determine Tampa Bay's character and future for decades to come.
Tampa Bay's largest school districts continue to face serious challenges. The Hillsborough County School District's budget crisis already has led to teacher reassignments and cuts in busing. The challenge in 2017 is to keep cutting costs and rebuild cash reserves without affecting the classroom or allowing school facilities to further deteriorate. The district also needs to invest strategically to improve graduation rates and academic performance in heavily minority neighborhoods. And it should better prepare students who are not on the college track for the evolving global workplace.
In Pinellas County, narrowing the achievement gap between white and minority students should remain a priority. Just 30 percent of black students scored at their grade level or higher on the state's English language arts exam. The Pinellas School Board, which has two new members, should continue to work to correct years of neglect at south St. Petersburg elementary schools that have been among the worst-performing in the state. All of these challenges should be a focus of new minority achievement officer Lewis Brinson, who reports directly to superintendent Michael Grego. Pinellas also faces financial challenges, having to borrow money to cover $125 million in needed construction and repairs at school facilities.
In Pasco County, the key issue remains finding hundreds of millions needed to create more space for a dramatically expanding student population.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn vows to redevelop the West River area with or without federal help — a huge ambition, especially given President-elect Donald Trump's weak choice of Ben Carson to head the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This would be the grandest urban remake in Tampa's history, encompassing 120 acres and involving homes, schools, parks and businesses. Buckhorn has presided over one of the largest redevelopments of downtown in recent times; he will need to leverage that growth and faith in him as a partner to get downtown's western flank going.
Downtown St. Petersburg's skyline keeps getting bigger as the demand for condos and apartments continues unabated. The promise of new amenities keeps adding to the city's draw, such as the $70 million Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement, which breaks ground in January. The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art also is expected to open this fall downtown. Development is picking up steam elsewhere, with plans moving forward in the Skyway Marina District for a $70 million mixed-use project. The challenge will be to provide adequate city services, manage traffic and handle larger crowds in the downtown core while ensuring all areas of the city see economic progress.
The recent remarks by the state's transportation secretary that he wants to "hit the reset button" on the controversial Tampa Bay Express plan is good news for the region. The project, known as TBX, would remake the bay area's interstate system, adding capacity, toll lanes and new opportunities for bus and rail transit across the region. But critics have faulted the plan as road-heavy, and there is fierce opposition in Tampa because of the impact on minority neighborhoods near downtown. State Transportation Secretary Jim Boxold says he wants a more inclusive approach, and that creates an opening for residents and elected leaders to work with the state in softening TBX's impact, expanding mass transit and pursuing other efforts that could reduce the interstate's footprint. There also are opportunities for Tampa Bay leaders to think long term about ways to expand mass transit options and adopt smarter growth patterns.
St. Petersburg elections
Mayor Rick Kriseman, above, will be gearing up for re-election as the rainy season begins, and he will hear plenty about sewage discharges the past two years. The rising cost of the new Pier, the lack of real progress in creating jobs in Midtown's poor neighborhoods and the redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site also will be issues. The City Council will have two open seats with Jim Kennedy and Karl Nurse term-limited out. Council members Darden Rice and Amy Foster will both be up for re-election. No question St. Petersburg is on a roll. Is that because of City Hall or in spite of it?
Tampa Bay Rays stadium
This finally should be the year the Tampa Bay Rays focus on a particular site for a new stadium to replace outdated Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. There have been informal discussions in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, and there is no perfect solution. Public money for a new stadium will be hard to scrape up on either side of the bay, and the Rays will have to make a significant contribution. It's time for clarity so some difficult decisions can be made. No major metro area wants to lose Major League Baseball.