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Buckhorn tells Tampa in annual speech: 'Look at us now, just look at us now'

Mayor Bob Buckhorn touted the city's accomplishments during his State of the City address Friday, which opened the new Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park. [JAMES BORCHUK   |   Times]
Mayor Bob Buckhorn touted the city's accomplishments during his State of the City address Friday, which opened the new Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park. [JAMES BORCHUK | Times]
Published May 11, 2018

TAMPA — It may or may not have been his last State of the City address, but Mayor Bob Buckhorn left it all on the stage Friday.

In a forceful speech that took shots at Tallahassee, celebrated the city's diversity, listed his accomplishments as mayor and gave advice for voters about how to select his successor, the two-term mayor clearly reveled in his role as booster in chief.

"Look at us now, just look at us now," Buckhorn said, listing the city's bounce back from a stinging recession that began a decade ago. Last year, the city reached the same level of property tax revenue it collected in 2007. "We finish strong."

Before the mayor took the stage, erected for Third Eye Blind's concert this weekend, a video showed him front and center during Hurricane Irma and the Seminole Heights murders. A gospel choir sung songs with refrains of "You ain't seen nothing yet," "I don't believe he brought me this far," and, yes, "Finish strong."

Buckhorn spoke to a crowd of about 1,300 at Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park, another powerful symbol. The park opened Friday following a $35.5 million renovation with brand-new grass and a bevy of amenities that include a boathouse, dog parks, athletic fields, bocce ball, public art and a splash pad, which many in the hot sun probably wished they could play in during the mayor's 34-minute address.

The park will stimulate development on the west bank of the Hillsborough River, Buckhorn said, asking a longtime North Hyde Park neighborhood activist, Ruth McNair, to stand and be recognized for her efforts to revitalize what had been a moribund recreation area whose July 4, 1977, opening had faded into neglect before the city began work to transform it in 2016.

The park's debut will feature bands, fireworks and lots of free family-friendly activities. The pricetag is $428,000, nearly three-quarters of which was paid by private donors.

"This park will stand as a testament to the commitment of this city to ensure that the rising tide of prosperity floats all boats," Buckhorn said, adding that the massive West River redevelopment project just to the north would spread prosperity to West Tampa.

The GOP-controlled state government was also a target for Buckhorn, a Democrat in the swing Interstate 4 corridor who has been floated as a possible lieutenant governor candidate. Tallahassee's attacks on home rule for cities needs to stop, he said.

"God forbid you want to pass common sense gun legislation," Buckhorn said. "This is the same Legislature that pays a lot of attention to the NRA and very little attention to the PTAs."

He celebrated Tampa's development boom, nodding to Jeff Vinik in the audience when he said the Tampa Bay Lightning owner's Water Street project would transform the city's downtown.

Buckhorn also said Tampa's notorious traffic woes had lasted far too long. He touted an expanded street car line and called for the state to let Tampa hold its own referendum on taxes to support increased transit infrastructure, including light rail.

"It's time to let us vote," said Buckhorn, 59, who has held office since 2011.

As the race for Tampa's next mayor heats up, its current mayor had some words of advice for voters.

"Choose the politics of hope over the politics of cynicism, choose boldness over timidity, choose vision over venom," said Buckhorn.

He'll be on the verge of leaving office when it comes time for the next State of the City speech and will decide later whether to deliver one, he said.

The mayor's speech won over Republican Bob Youngblood, 64, who had biked from his home in Ballast Point for the event.

Buckhorn's vision of a city poised on the brink of a breakthrough resonated with Youngblood.

"The timing," he said, "is all perfect."

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.