With two years left in office, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn used his annual State of the City address Tuesday to measure the city's remarkable progress over the past six years. Rather than offer any sweeping new vision for the remainder of his term, he sought to nail down some unfinished business and to implore residents to look beyond the nation's sharp political divide and make a contribution to their community. This is a mayor who knows the clock is ticking and understands the risks a sour national mood can have on a diverse and growing city.
Buckhorn departed from past State of the City addresses by shifting his attention from shiny new baubles downtown to the human dimension. He mentioned the redevelopment plan for the area west of the Hillsborough River, which would be the city's biggest remake in history, the new University of South Florida medical school downtown and a handful of smaller-scale efforts, from driverless vehicle projects to incubators for startups and high-tech industries.
But the overriding theme of the day was unity. A pre-speech video set above the pounding strains of rhythmic rock featured smiling people from all walks of life testifying to Tampa's culture of tolerance and diversity. Stand together and stand united was also Buckhorn's opening pitch and a point he returned to later in the speech. He warned about proposed federal spending cuts to housing, transportation and urban aid — an "unprecedented attack" on cities, he said — and of threats to home-rule powers by state lawmakers in Tallahassee. His point is that cities are more on their own and residents need strong local connections if urban areas are to thrive.
The crowd of several hundred in the midmorning heat at Kiley Garden heard a mercifully brief address that focused more on the nuts and bolts of where the city has come under Buckhorn than where it is going. There was no substantive talk about pursuing a transportation initiative, a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays or a framework for countering the budget cuts and power grab at the state and federal levels.
Still, the call for unity in his first State of the City address since last November's election seems timely. He announced a new campaign to make Tampa more accommodating to those with autism, and he linked the city's economic prospects to its ability to attract people across racial, ethnic and other lines.
Buckhorn's announcement last month that he would not seek the Democratic nomination for governor in 2018 has freed him to focus on getting several high-profile projects in shape before leaving office in 2019. Tuesday's speech reflected the unique role of mayors in American politics. Rather than highlight downtown development, Buckhorn talked of how afterschool programs improve public safety. He called for civic obligation and stronger ties between citizens and police. Cities can rebuild their cores, but neighborhoods can crumble one flashpoint at a time. Buckhorn seems sensitive to preventing social gaps from growing as Tampa grows. It doesn't make for the most dramatic speech, but it's an intangible that shapes every city for better or for worse.