Point to nearly any major problem across the region: the collapse of transit initiatives on both sides of the bay; a lack of accountability in the largest public school districts; the stadium stalemate with the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg; and the overheated debate over police tactics in Tampa. The common thread is a lack of political leadership needed to build consensus and meet big challenges that are critical to the success of the entire region. Tampa Bay residents should demand better — and be prepared to elect new faces if the incumbents keep falling short.
The region certainly has its success stories. The downtowns in St. Petersburg and Tampa are bustling with new condominiums and apartments, vibrant parks and restaurants, and attractive waterfront amenities and public activities that bring new residents, tax revenues and energy. Port Tampa Bay is broadening its reach, and Tampa International Airport is landing new overseas flights and expanding to accommodate the growth of passenger traffic. Institutions on both sides of the bay have begun to collaborate and boost efforts on job development, tourism and other areas of mutual benefit. There is a broader recognition that low taxes, good weather and gorgeous beaches must be complemented by maximizing resources such as MacDill Air Force Base and the universities to grow the economy.
Yet in many ways Tampa Bay is on a roll in spite of the political leadership rather than because of it. Pinellas and Hillsborough counties both failed in recent years to persuade voters to pass sales tax increases to pay for badly needed transit improvements. The only victory on that front, in 2013, was the state's agreement to spend $25 million to harden the Howard Frankland Bridge in the event the region finally connects Tampa and St. Petersburg with light rail.
A new effort in Hillsborough to put a transportation package on the 2016 ballot is on the ropes over allegations of contracting irregularities. The Hillsborough School District is cutting back on spending and hiring an auditor after burning through more than half its $361 million reserve in four years. The Pinellas School District has failed to deliver on promises to improve five south St. Petersburg elementary schools that are overwhelmingly black and poor and rank among the worst in the state. The St. Petersburg City Council remains deadlocked over letting the Tampa Bay Rays look for new stadium sites in both counties, losing negotiating leverage and squandering a $1 billion redevelopment opportunity at the Tropicana Field site.
It's the private and human financial capital that are driving Tampa Bay's success and shaping its future. Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik is pursuing a $1 billion development that will transform blocks of downtown Tampa. In St. Petersburg, two privately funded museums are on the way, hundreds of apartments are under construction and the local arts are booming. Clearwater Beach is being transformed by new hotel construction.
But the private sector cannot do it all. It is a core obligation of the government to provide a financially stable, quality public school system that gives every student an opportunity to succeed — regardless of race and income level. Government has to provide police protection that is even-handed in every neighborhood. Government has to create a modern public transportation system that includes rail. Government has to partner with professional sports franchises to build modern stadiums for teams that help shape the region's identity.
Voters should take stock of this experience as they seek better candidates for public office who are willing to tackle long-standing challenges. Local governments across the region are crying out for a new level of courage and competence. There is no excuse for not moving on transportation for years. There is no excuse for failing to acknowledge the failures of elementary schools in poor neighborhoods and lacking a sense of urgency to dramatically improve them. And there is no excuse for elected officials to avoid making hard choices on sports stadiums and redevelopment. If this region wants to continue to progress and become more competitive, it needs to raise the expectations of its elected leaders and demand that they lead rather than merely hold the office.