Michele Baker, county administrator, Pasco County
Michele Baker, 52, begins her first full year as Pasco County administrator after being selected by commissioners in June to succeed longtime county Administrator John Gallagher. She is confronting the familiar challenges of improving the county's transportation network and expanding Pasco's employment and tourism base while answering to a commission that has been reticent to offer financial help through higher gasoline and tourist tax rates.
Those debates will resurface this year, but progress is not tied exclusively to additional revenue. Baker is negotiating a $34 million public-private partnership to build a 19-field baseball complex in the Wiregrass Ranch area of Wesley Chapel. That would boost the county's sports tourism efforts and create a potential spring training home for a major-league baseball team. Pasco also has emerged as a candidate for the first privately operated toll road in Florida as the state and county ponder building an elevated east-west highway on the State Road 54/56 corridor to serve as the northern loop in the regional highway network.
Jane Castor, police chief, Tampa
A participant in the city's retirement program, Jane Castor is set to step down in April. There has been some talk that she will return as a contract employee. Will she go or will she stay?
In 2009, Castor made history as the first woman and first openly gay person to become chief. Her crowning achievement came in 2012 when she led security efforts for a largely trouble-free Republican National Convention. But 2013 ushered in a wave of scandals. The most high-profile one involved the head of her DUI unit, whom she fired after learning he played a role in the setup of a local attorney's arrest.
In her last four months as chief, Castor, 54, should set the department in order and leave it in shipshape for an eventual successor. She should aim to depart on a note that is as high as the one that resounded when she took the job.
Rick Kriseman, mayor, St. Petersburg
After a decisive win over incumbent St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster in November, Rick Kriseman appointed a diverse transition team and made several creative hires who should help bring new energy to City Hall. They will need it, because there will be no honeymoon period after Kriseman takes office Thursday.
The list of challenges facing the new mayor is familiar: Set a new course for replacing the outdated Pier. Break the stalemate with the Tampa Bay Rays, who want to be able to look in Tampa for potential sites for a new stadium. Find the money to build a new police station, and hire a new police chief. Reconnect with neighborhoods, redevelop Midtown and rejuvenate efforts to improve public schools in the city.
Kriseman, 51, could use a big victory in his first few months such as an agreement with the Rays. He also should focus on following through on his pledges to bring more vision to St. Petersburg government and cultivate stronger regional relationships throughout Tampa Bay.
Judith Lisi, president, Straz Center for the Performing Arts
The onetime opera singer and veteran theater manager has served as chief executive of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Tampa since 1992. Lisi has stabilized the finances, expanded and improved the programming and made the Straz an incubator for young and local performers. Its busy schedule has served as a magnet to attract more downtown residents.
Lisi, 67, will be on center stage this year as the city-owned Straz and other publicly owned arts facilities in Tampa push for a dedicated revenue stream to meet their ongoing capital needs. Tampa-area arts and tourism venues have tens of millions of dollars in backlogged capital needs. It's one thing to build impressive public facilities that enhance cultural arts and quality of life. It's even harder to raise the money to keep them shining years later. Hillsborough County officials will spend the next year looking for sources of money to keep these venues up-to-date and competitive. Look for Lisi to lead that discussion.
Karen Seel, chairwoman, Pinellas County Commission
Karen Seel has been a Pinellas County commissioner since 1999 and has twice before been its chairwoman. The third time could be the most important. Seel takes the gavel in 2014 as Pinellas prepares for a November referendum on a 1 percent sales tax to pay for improved bus service and light rail. As commission chairwoman, she should play a lead role in convincing voters that better transit is a key to the county's future.
Seel, 55, is no stranger to economic development and transportation issues. She has worked in both areas for years, and the Clearwater resident is all too familiar with the traffic issues in North Pinellas. The rail line would run from St. Petersburg to Clearwater, and one of Seel's challenges will be to convince fellow Republicans in North Pinellas that they will benefit from better bus service to their neighborhoods and businesses. She also has an opportunity to lead a discussion on the commission about how to better plan for new development that should come from a stronger transportation system and an improving economy.
Stephen W. Swindal, chairman, Tampa Port Authority
Only weeks after becoming board chairman in July, Stephen W. Swindal broke a years-long impasse and arranged for the port to take over Channelside Bay Plaza, the struggling retail complex that could be a marquee attraction both for the channel district and downtown Tampa.
The move reflected the speed and business savvy that Swindal has brought to enterprises ranging from the New York Yankees to his own marine towing and sports academy operations. He will take the lead in the coming months in crafting a fresh vision for Channelside and in shaping the look and feel of downtown Tampa's waterfront. Swindal, 59, also will play a key role if the Tampa Bay Rays look to build a new stadium in the channel district. Just as important, he wants a public discussion about the port's future and its place as a driver for jobs and economic development throughout the Tampa Bay region.