TAMPA — In 2011, amid the hangover of the Great Recession, Bob Buckhorn ran for mayor with a relentless focus.
City Hall had to grow its way out of the slump, he said. So attracting high-tech companies and millennial talent was the prism through which he viewed virtually every issue, even bike lanes. (Build them, he said. Millennials want them, so Tampa should, too.)
And as mayor, much of what Buckhorn did aimed to create an urban magnet for millennials: Finish the Riverwalk. Put free WiFi in city parks. Celebrate a foodie culture.
Eight years later, Buckhorn is term-limited, times are better, and seven candidates are vying for a job that will give the winner unparalleled influence over the tone for the region as the leader of its biggest city.
None of the eight has copied Buckhorn's approach — indeed, mayor’s races are often something of a reaction to what the incumbent has done — but instead each talks about business priorities of their own: Affordable housing. Raising the minimum wage. Job training. Improving the city’s brand.
With 56,000 vote-by-mail ballots already sent to voters, early voting starting on Feb. 25 and election day on March 5, the Tampa Bay Times talked to the seven candidates — Jane Castor, Harry Cohen, Dick Greco Jr., Topher Morrison, Mike Suarez, David Straz and Ed Turanchik — about what their business agendas would be.
Net worth: $1.64 million
Jane Castor, 59, spent 31 years with the Tampa Police Department, rising to become the city's first woman to serve as police chief. Four years after her retirement, she hasn’t stopped thinking like a cop.
So ask her what her business-related goals would be, and one of the first things she says is "ensuring that our city is safe" so that companies feel good about coming here. She says her skills — being accessible, making sure everyone feels heard and squeezing savings out of budgets — would transfer to the mayor's business-related duties. And she likes companies "that begin and grow in Tampa."
“I don’t want to attract a business that’s just going to look for better incentives in another city," says Castor, who started a law enforcement consulting firm after retiring. "If someone’s coming to our city I want that to be a permanent move.”
As mayor she says she would:
• Revise city codes to grow Tampa's stock of affordable housing. That could include requiring developers to include a certain percentage of affordable housing in their projects, but Castor says she wouldn't want a requirement so high it discourages investors. She also wants to look at old mom-and-pop hotels along N Nebraska Avenue as potential sites for micro housing.
• Explore gradually raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
• Look at using a vacant city-owned warehouse near N 30th Street and Hillsborough Avenue for public-private job training programs and promote apprenticeship programs in the skilled construction trades.
Castor has the support of Tampa Bay Lightning owner and Water Street Tampa developer Jeff Vinik. (Vinik also belongs to FBN Partners, a group of local investors who in 2017 loaned $12 million to Times Publishing Co., owner of the Tampa Bay Times.)
Asked if Castor has a good business agenda, Vinik said, “I believe she will.”
“She’s smart. She’s run a big organization before,” he said. “What she knows she’ll do great with, and what we doesn’t know she’ll find great advisors and she’ll figure it out.”
Net worth: $707,726
As mayor, Tampa City Council member and attorney Harry Cohen says he would work the same way he has since 2011 on the council, where he represents South Tampa.
“Not only is my door always open,” he says, “but I seek out advice and counsel from a wide variety of sources within the business community when major issues come up.”
Cohen, 48, says he has kept in close contact with the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, going on three bench-marking trips to other cities and on several trips to Cuba, as well as with the Tampa Downtown Partnership and the Westshore Alliance.
Transportation is a business issue, Cohen says, because downtown already tips into gridlock on weekends with multiple events.
“We have got to have strategies and solutions to change that and make sure that as we continue to grow we give people options other than single-occupancy automobiles to move around,” he says. His transportation plan calls for a downtown central station linking different forms of transit, policies to promote development near transit stations, more frequent street maintenance and a trail alongside the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway and the CSX rail line that runs through Tampa.
Cohen also says he would:
• Grow affordable housing through a city code that allows for less costly alternatives like "tiny houses" and homes made from repurposed shipping containers. Federal housing funds are gone, so “we have to get much, much more aggressive," he says. "We’re really on our own.”
• Make city-owned lots available to developers who want to do experimental forms of affordable housing.
• Work with county commissioners on both sides of Tampa Bay and the City Council to foster "a much larger and more diverse dialogue."
“I consider myself a person who is a collaborator and who is interested in hearing the ideas of others," he says. "If someone has ideas that are better (than mine), I’m all ears.”
DICK GRECO JR.
Net worth: $2.8 million
The son of four-term Tampa mayor Dick Greco and a retired Hillsborough circuit judge, Dick Greco Jr. didn’t offer specific proposals in an interview, but says "the city needs to listen."
“It’s imperative there be a level of cooperation and communication between the city and private business in order for us to achieve success,” he says.
As mayor, Greco, 64, says he would work to build on Buckhorn's momentum, search for common goals and reach out to officials and others on both sides of Tampa Bay and beyond.
When a leader exudes confidence in his city, Greco says, “it creates a trickle-down effect" that "the business community looks at, those that are already here and those that are looking to come here. They feel that ‘We might not be able to do everything that we want, but the city is open to development. It’s not basically going to totally stand in our way.’ ”
Net worth: $75,050
Tampa needs a brand, business consultant Topher Morrison says, and he has an idea:
The rooftop city.
“The strongest economic cities in the world all have a brand identity that they’re known for, and it’s usually one thing,” he says.
Morrison, 50, says he would encourage building owners to put green spaces — “parks in the sky” — on their rooftops. On buildings with roof-top air conditioning, this could mean building platforms over cooling units, he says.
Becoming a rooftop city would require Tampa to tackle a related question: how to get people to the roofs safely? For that kind of challenge, Morrison wants the city to sponsor X Prize-style innovation contests.
“This is my solution for attracting top talent,” he says. Once private investors say what they would be willing to pay for that technology, “all eyes would be focused on Tampa, all over the world.”
Morrison also wants to:
• Do better at letting small businesses know about programs like federal TechHire job training grants.
• Update city codes and use artificial intelligence and machine learning to create a business permit system that, based on an online form, “would go through every possible algorithm and every possible problem and give you a list of things you’re going to have to address before you actually file for the permits.”
• Decide case by case whether to offer city incentives to companies being recruited to Tampa.
“We spend so much time and energy and resources trying to recruit big Fortune 500 companies,” he says. “We should spend that time, energy and focus trying to build the next Fortune 500 company from small businesses that are already here."
Net worth: $425.9 million
David Straz, 76, built his fortune by buying, growing and selling a series of banks, first in Wisconsin and later in Florida.
But as a campaigner, he hits a couple of blue-collar themes: Gradually raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, starting with city employees. And get city contractors to use more workers enrolled in state-registered apprentice programs.
“It’s very, very important," he says, "because we’re short of skilled workers.”
Those positions won him the support of nearly 20 unions represented by the Florida Gulf Coast Building & Construction Trades Council. St. Petersburg has factored the use of apprentices into its local hiring program, but the trades council has gotten nowhere getting Tampa to induce city contractors to use more apprentices, past president Jack Jarrell says.
Straz also says he would:
• Use his diplomatic background — he has served as ambassador at large and honorary consul general for Liberia and honorary consul general for Honduras — to bring together business leaders and groups outside City Hall, and draw on a network of business contacts nationwide to help recruit companies to Tampa.
• Launch a 90-day review to improve a fragmented and uncoordinated permitting system.
• Work to increase the number of minority-owned firms getting city contracts.
Net worth: $353,838
Tampa City Council member Mike Suarez says he wants to think “not about just putting concrete up,” but about “how do we make this a more technologically savvy city?”
“As a businessman myself, I understand what it takes,” says Suarez, 54, who has 26 years in insurance as an agent, designer of products for a variety of businesses and owner of his own firm. “I have experience dealing with all kinds of businesses: large ones, small ones, businesses that are just starting out, businesses that are in the middle of growing, business that have plateaued, businesses that are declining. And I see what makes each one different.”
Suarez wants to:
• Recruit companies in insurance, cyber security, defense, financial services, health care and technology, and go after regional headquarters, as opposed to business services centers with jobs in areas such as human resources and accounting.
• Encourage local investors to put their money in homegrown tech startups, hold city-sponsored hackathons or Shark Tank-style tech competitions and look at whether the city could put public money, as Boston does, into startup incubation efforts.
• Get the mayor on the University of South Florida board of trustees. USF, he says, is “too important not to have city government involved in the decisions they make.”
Net worth: $1.47 million
Ed Turanchik — attorney, former Hillsborough County commissioner and a developer of affordable housing in West Tampa — says he is "the only one in the race who has done master-planned urban development and pulled my own permits" for affordable homes.
“I want to personally crawl into the development review process and look at it with experienced eyes,” says Turanchik, 63. The city’s current development review process, he says, often addresses questions of project design in a piecemeal fashion, with no one bringing all the pieces together for a more holistic review.
Turanchik proposes to:
• Help small businesses open on selected older urban commercial corridors by replacing on-site requirements for parking, storm water retention and green space with city-created common parking, storm water facilities and small pocket parks.
• Create high-quality, high-frequency transit that would attract development along its lines. That, in turn, could create opportunities for “inclusionary zoning” that requires developers to develop a certain amount of affordable housing alongside more expensive homes.
• Create an office of innovation and public-private partnerships at City Hall.
• Take a hard look at the city’s nine community redevelopment areas, where property tax revenue generated by new growth is earmarked for infrastructure improvements inside those areas designed to inspire more growth. That, he says, creates a disadvantage for developers building outside those areas.
“Creating an economy in a city with great places that’s vibrant and attractive to talent is the better strategy than trying to encourage companies to come here when we have a talent deficit,” he says. “There’s a path forward where you can do great design and make it easier for people to invest. It’s going to take effort, (but) it would be the most enjoyable part of the job.”