After eight years, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn leaves office this week with a solid record of accomplishment and a legacy that should last for generations. Downtown is alive, the neighborhoods are vibrant and civic life is bursting with potential and pride. Not every success was directly his own making, and Buckhorn at times could be defensive and fly solo. But he was the right mayor for the times and a good public servant who had a positive impact on the entire Tampa Bay region.
If mayors are measured by bricks and mortar, Buckhorn will be remembered for Tampa's remarkable growth downtown. Over his two terms, billions of dollars' worth of new condominiums, apartments, offices, retail and restaurants have opened or entered the planning stage, along with tens of millions of dollars in new downtown parks. Downtown has become a neighborhood and a destination for residents and visitors alike. That surge of new development has pushed into older neighborhoods on downtown's edge, where waterfront acreage is poised to become new mixed-use communities.
Buckhorn's predecessor, Pam Iorio, laid the foundation for growth by ably guiding the city through the Great Recession, paring the city payroll and socking away cash reserves. Buckhorn inherited a leaner operation and took advantage of those reserves, facing years of declining tax revenues as the recovery struggled to take hold. He made key investments along the way in parks, stormwater projects and other infrastructure, and he pushed through a property tax increase in 2017 that put the budget on firmer ground. But though he supported expanding the streetcar and plans for light rail between downtown and the University of South Florida, Buckhorn was never able to advance meaningful plans for mass transit. That should change now that Hillsborough County voters approved a transportation tax in November that will generate $300 million a year.
Buckhorn's greatest contribution was the unbridled energy he threw into what he calls the best job he could imagine. He was a tireless cheerleader for Tampa at home and on the road, and the confidence he exuded gave the private sector confidence that City Hall was a reliable partner. Buckhorn personalized the office, knew the power of showing up and a smart remark, and his friendly style was a good fit in a city where relationships matter. Yet Buckhorn could throw a sharp elbow, especially early on, and the little use he had for critics and city council sometimes colored his judgment. But in an era of hyper-partisanship and low regard for government, the Democrat had no problem working with Republicans when it benefited Tampa.
The swearing in of Jane Castor this week continues the solid leadership in the mayor's office that has been essential to Tampa's success. Buckhorn raised expectations and helped build the narrative that anything is possible to achieve with vision, hard work and enthusiasm. That's a successful approach going forward for the entire Tampa Bay region.