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  1. Tampa

Jane Castor brings new opportunities to predominantly black East Tampa as she tries to fulfill a campaign promise

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor gives a speech after taking the oath of office May 1 at Armature Works. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Jul. 10

TAMPA — Jane Castor won the Tampa mayor's race in a landslide a few months ago, but black voters were not part of her bandwagon.

All 7 precincts she lost — out of 103 citywide — were predominantly African American.

A longstanding source of their frustration? A belief that the city doesn't look hard enough for minority business contractors and subcontractors when it doles out money for city projects.

On the campaign trail, Castor spoke often of wanting to reach out to minority-owned businesses and this week, her administration began rolling out its plan. Dubbed "Bridges to Business," the initiative seeks to meet minority business owners where they live.

On Saturday morning, Castor will kick off the program at Cyrus Greene Recreation Center in East Tampa, a predominantly black neighborhood. All of the seats for the event were claimed in a very short time, said Ashley Bauman, Castor's spokeswoman.

She said 42 businesses signed up, 24 for one-on-one consultations. The city had to add an hour to the program to accommodate the demand, she said.

Joe Robinson, a civil rights activist and longtime critic of the city's purchasing practices, said he's impressed with how fast Castor is moving.

"I was surprised," Robinson said. "She committed. She said, 'I'm going to do this.' And, damn, she has this thing rolling."

City Council member Orlando Gudes, elected this year to the city's lone majority-black council seat, has been vocal about Tampa needing to get better at minority outreach. He has raised the issue with Castor and was pleasantly surprised by this week's rollout.

"I think it's good she's is bringing it to the people," Gudes said. "You can't sit back and think people know things."

Saturday's workshop is aimed at helping minority and female-owned businesses navigate the certification process so they become eligible for city contracts. A workshop is planned next for West Tampa at an undetermined date.

During the recent mayoral and city council races, minority inclusion was a frequent topic raised by residents, especially in predominantly black neighborhoods. Castor pledged to step up city efforts. Asked if the move was also meant to bolster her support among black voters, Bauman said inclusion is one of the mayor's priorities.

"We want to make sure minority businesses have all the access they need," Bauman said.

Earlier this year, the city released data showing minority-owned businesses received 15 percent of city contracts.

All city services aren't eligible: contracts must be competitively bid and qualified minority-owned businesses don't provide every type of municipal service. Only 12 percent — or $122 million — of the city's $1 billion budget is eligible, according to the city's current budget statistics.

Critics said that isn't enough. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, African Americans and Latinos make up 49 percent of the city's 392,890 residents.

It is an improvement. In 2017, the city awarded $18.9 million in contracts to minority businesses. That's more than double the $9.1 million awarded in 2011, the year former mayor Bob Buckhorn was elected.

Elsewhere in the bay area, the data is harder to parse.

Clearwater doesn't have an ordinance mandating minority preference when selecting bids. It only comes up when there's a tie, which officials said hasn't happened in years.

It just hasn't been a big issue in Clearwater, the area's third-largest city, said spokeswoman Joelle Castelli.

In the bay area's second-largest city, St. Petersburg officials announced in June they would begin tracking LGBTQ businesses and their percentage of city contracts.

Jim Nixon, the city's LGBTQ liaison, said the city is now doing a disparity study to determine the percentages of city business that African-Americans and other groups are getting.

But St. Pete currently has a race and gender neutral approach to awarding city contracts, said Jessica Eilerman, the city's small business liaison. When the disparity study is complete later this year that may provide the data to impose specific percentages, she said, which will be similar to Tampa's existing program.

Robinson, who was critical of Buckhorn's outreach during his eight years in office, said he's noticed a different vibe at City Hall as Castor and four new council members settle in.

"They really get it," Robinson said.

Or is Castor just playing politics, trying to address a potential stumbling block to a 2022 reelection bid?

Gudes declined to speculate.

"I don't care if it's a political move or not, it's a good move," Gudes said.

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

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