TAMPA — Mayor Jane Castor took the stage in front of two teleprompters in a Tampa Convention Center ballroom Wednesday morning to a standing ovation.
Several hundred people were gathered, including community members, business leaders and many city employees, for her first in-person State of the City address in her three years in office.
The mayor said she wasn’t politicking. But the event quickly took on a campaign feel, as Castor rattled off her administration’s efforts to make streets safer for pedestrians, fortify the city against climate change and promote construction of more affordable housing during her first term in office.
Tampa is enjoying a moment, with people and new business flocking to the city, and while Castor’s tone was congratulatory, she made sure to spread the praise around.
“Those who know me know I’m not a politician,” Castor said at the outset of her 32-minute speech. “Today is about us.”
The speech took place against a backdrop of fractious relations with City Council members, and investigations into some of their actions that have kept the spotlight on City Hall in less flattering ways.
John Dingfelder resigned his seat after he was accused of violating public records laws and the city’s legal staff declined to represent him in a lawsuit over the matter. A city investigation into Orlando Gudes led him to resign as council chairperson, but he denies its findings that he created a hostile work environment for a former aide.
Gudes, Dingfelder and Bill Carlson, who has been publicly criticized by city attorney Gina Grimes, have said that the mayor’s administration has targeted them for retribution because they frequently challenge her agenda. Castor and her spokesperson, Adam Smith, have denied that.
All the council members except Carlson and Luis Viera attended the event. Viera didn’t go because of a recent coronavirus exposure. Carlson tweeted out a picture of another event he was attending.
Castor thanked City Council member Charlie Miranda for his work supporting the mayor’s plan to replenish the aquifer and Hillsborough River with highly treated wastewater. And she thanked Viera, another ally, for his leadership in creating a city ordinance requiring apprentices on large city projects.
Both of those issues have detractors. Council members have stymied Castor so far in her efforts to advance the water reuse project. Meanwhile, union officials have raised concerns over the lack of apprentices so far in the city’s planned $108 million City Center project on E Hanna Avenue.
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Castor, though, focused on the theme of unity.
“We are one Tampa and we stand together!” Castor said toward the beginning of her remarks. She didn’t take questions from the press at the event.
Castor’s political action committee, Tampa Strong, has about $100,00 in its coffers, but only one donation in recent months: $2,500 from consultant Beth Leytham.
Leytham recently told the Tampa Bay Times that she wanted to show early support for the mayor and believes she’ll be easily reelected.
Castor gave a virtual State of the City address last year due to the pandemic. Wednesday’s event, at times, had the mood of a pep rally.
The mayor said the state of the city was “extraordinarily strong,” but challenges remained, especially in affordable housing.
She noted that one of her 20-something-year-old sons is having trouble finding a home he can afford in Tampa. But the mayor said more than half of the 10,000 units of housing she pledged to build for working families has been completed, is being built or is in the planning stage.
And she noted that, aside from $16 million in federal relief funds, the city allocated $6.5 million towards affordable housing for the first time out of its general fund, filled mostly with property tax revenue.
“Nothing is more important than alleviating the housing crisis,” Castor said.
Still, she said she opposes moratoriums on rent increases, saying the only realistic path was “to build more housing that remains affordable.”
Tampa is experiencing a huge influx of newcomers and its profile has risen sharply in recent years, Castor said.
But the city, she said, “is at a turning point.”
“This city will change more in the next decade than it has in my entire lifetime,” Castor said. It was a line straight from her 2019 campaign stump speech.