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Tampa's Table Setter

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  • | 1:18 p.m. May 6, 2011
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What. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn's agenda for business
Issue. Growing the economy while shrinking government.
Impact. Mayor's plan calls for economic expansion in Tampa.

When Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn attended Navy flight school in Pensacola in the early 1980s, a doctor diagnosed him with degeneration of one of his corneas, leading to his 1982 discharge.

It turned out to be a misdiagnosis. Now, 29 years later, it's Buckhorn's vision for Tampa's future that earned the Democrat the support of a segment of Tampa's business community.

That vision was laid out in a written plan distributed during Buckhorn's campaign, and it includes several ideas for making Tampa a friendlier place to do business.

“My job is to set the table for the private sector to be successful,” Buckhorn says, explaining that his first goal is permitting and regulatory reform. Buckhorn says the city's permitting and regulations “have been likened to getting your teeth pulled without anesthesia.”

Streamlining permitting and cutting red tape, a key component of Gov. Rick Scott's agenda, is just as popular locally — not surprising given that Tampa Bay's unemployment rate is hovering around 11%.

“It is needed, and it makes me extremely happy,” says Ed Giunta, II, a real estate broker with Tampa-based L.E.G. LLC, and also chairman of the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission. “It's something that the development community has been yelling about.”

Part of the mayor's plan includes appointing a deputy mayor for economic opportunity to oversee all agencies involved in the permitting and regulatory process, community redevelopment, housing, construction services, the Tampa Convention Center and related city entities.

Other Tampa business leaders have taken notice, and so far have supported Buckhorn, though it is the early honeymoon period for the new administration.

“The business community is certainly pleased and very impressed with him being there,” says Stuart Rogel, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a regional economic development consortium. “Economic development is a big priority for him.”

Giunta agrees. “Bob's very pro-business,” he says. “I look forward to see how he grows the economy in the Bay area.”

Campaigning on a plan
Buckhorn won his election with a 63% to 37% victory in the March 22 runoff, a much wider margin than most local political observers anticipated.

The mayor lost three previous election attempts — a State House primary in 1992, the 2003 mayor's race, and a county commission seat election in 2004. But after coming in second in a five-way non-partisan primary March 1, Buckhorn defeated Republican Rose Ferlita, former chairwoman of the Hillsborough County Commission. He took office April 1.

“The city of Tampa proper is not a Republican pasture by any means,” says Chris Ingram, a political consultant and president of Tampa-based 411 Communications. “With the trouncing of Ferlita, he got a lot of Republican votes.”

Buckhorn replaces two-term mayor, fellow Democrat and supporter Pam Iorio, who faced term limits.

During his campaign, Buckhorn touted “The Buckhorn Plan,” an eight-page, two-prong document focused on both the near-term and the long-term for the city of 335,709 residents, according to the 2010 Census.

The short-term plan starts out with the usual noncommittal statement citizens have come to expect from politicians.

But that's followed by a stronger statement not often part of a Democrat's rhetoric: “In order to have a city of robust neighborhoods and safe streets, Tampa's government must espouse a pro-business, pro-growth, small government philosophy and must be guided by political leaders who are determined to translate those principles into action. I hope to be that leader.”

With a $24 million budget gap in a $724 million budget, and property values still trending down, Buckhorn's leadership of the six-member city council will be needed to shrink city government. Former Mayor Iorio cut 500 employees, but Buckhorn says more cuts are necessary to balance the budget.

Buckhorn says those cuts are likely to come from general employees, whose pension plan is the most underfunded. He says other city pensions, such as those belonging to police and firefighters, are in better shape because those employees contribute 14% of their paychecks to their pension fund.

Also, public safety is a key part of Buckhorn's agenda and the police and fire unions endorsed him and contributed to his campaign.

Another challenge is finding funding for parking garages build two administrations ago, which he says were bad decisions. “We will have to come out of pocket $7 million a year to subsidize the parking department.”

Buckhorn says he's also going to look at selling some city buildings, now that some are half-filled with employees. “We forget about the other side of the equation, the buildings,” he says.

Buckhorn adds that he wants to push developers to “add value to the tax roll by building buildings.”

He's targeting his efforts to cluster industries such as biosciences, defense-related businesses and financial services because Tampa has a competitive advantage in those industries.

The mayor points to CAMLS, the USF Center for Advanced Medical Learning & Simulation now under construction, which he says will bring medical personnel to downtown Tampa to do robotics and simulation training. Buckhorn also likes the 30,000 room nights a year it is estimated to bring hoteliers. “You're going to world class medical personnel to come train on this,” he says about the high-tech shift it brings to the local economy while also propping up the tourism industry.

The Port of Tampa is another place Buckhorn wants to see growth. He's going on a trade mission to Panama this month in anticipation of the Panama Canal expansion in 2014.

But he's also encouraged by the $390 million highway connecting the port to I-4 to be completed in 2013. That new connector, Buckhorn says, will allow trucks leaving the port to drive to Maine without stopping at a single traffic light.

Despite its costs, Buckhorn's also not given up on light rail — at least for within the city, where he says voters supported the countywide referendum that was defeated last fall. “We can't give up on light rail,” he says. “For urban areas, light rail offers mayors the ability to reshape and redevelop the urban core.”

For now, the mayor will have to consider other more affordable mass transit options such as expanding the bus fleet. But that strategy could also be challenging with the budget issues he's facing.

Nevertheless, Buckhorn's plan aims to encourage urban infill, meaning higher densities and more efficient use of available land in and around downtown. New design guidelines and a modernized land development code are part of his plan. He also hopes to take advantage of whatever state and federal economic development and housing program funds the city can secure.

Growing the resume
When he left the Florida panhandle, Buckhorn, now 52, had jumped into his rusty, unairconditioned '66 Dodge Dart with $300 to his name headed to Tampa. He chose the city because that's where a recently married Penn State University fraternity brother lived, who had offered him a place to stay.

Buckhorn, however, smiles when he says he wasn't exactly welcomed to the city he now leads. “My fraternity brother's wife wasn't exactly happy to see me,” he says.

Buckhorn's wife, and two school-aged daughters, were featured prominently with the candidate in his campaign literature and on the last page of his plan. It's easy to see why — they're a campaign manager's dream.

His wife is Dr. Catherine Lynch Buckhorn, an OB/GYN and interim chair of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of South Florida Medical School. Tampa attorney Ron Weaver says about her: “You won't find any better or smarter first ladies of Tampa.”

Buckhorn, a Fall Church, Va., native first got involved in government when he became the director of governmental affairs for the Builders Association of Greater Tampa in 1985. His two years there gave him insight on what businesses face dealing with government regulation and fees.

In that role, he led an effort to address a housing shortage at the time, and in October 1985 the county commission established the Hillsborough County Housing Finance Agency. Now, the Housing Finance Authority of Hillsborough County, the agency has financed loans for approximately 2,800 first-time homebuyers and for the construction of 4,202 rental units.

In 1987, Buckhorn hooked up with Sandy Freedman's successful mayoral campaign. Freedman held on to Buckhorn, making him special assistant to the mayor upon her election.

After eight years working for Freedman, Tampa voters elected him in 1995 to an at-large seat on the Tampa City Council. Four years later, voters re-elected him for a second term with 75% of the vote.

Buckhorn's political agenda focused on law enforcement and curtailing prostitution. He strengthened curfew laws and worked with police to remove drug dealers from public housing by enforcing the “One Strike and You're Out” policy.

In the 2003 mayor's race, Buckhorn came in third. A year later, Buckhorn gave politics another shot, but lost again. Brian Blair, a professional wrestler, defeated Buckhorn for a county commission seat.

Later that year, Buckhorn joined the Dewey Square Group, a national public affairs consulting firm serving as its principal in the Florida office. In 2007, he opened his own public affairs firm in Tampa, Buckhorn Partners.

Now, the new mayor hopes to add to his resume by doing his part to put Tampa on the economic development target map for companies looking to move or expand. “The mayor of Tampa has the biggest pulpit in the region,” he notes, “and has an obligation to use it.”

Buckhorn adds, “We offer the foundation to be the economic engine for the Southeast U.S.”

Ironically, the biggest contributor to the city's and the region's economies may come from Tampa hosting the Republican National Convention in August 2012.

Buckhorn's thrilled that Tampa got picked because he sees it as an “unparalleled” opportunity to showcase the city with 15,000 journalists in town. “It's going to be one of the best things that ever happened to us,” says the mayor.

But perhaps the best indication that Buckhorn's focused on business and the economy is when he says about the convention: “Partisans think of it as a political event; I think of it as an economic opportunity.”

The pro-business agenda of 'The Buckhorn Plan'

The First Year
• Creates the position of Deputy Mayor for Economic Opportunity.

• All agencies involved in the permitting and regulatory process, community redevelopment, housing, construction services, the Tampa Convention Center and related city entities will be consolidated into a single mission under the Deputy Mayor for Economic Opportunity.

• Master plan with design guidelines for downtown, Ybor City, Channelside, Tampa Heights, Riverside Heights and North Hyde Park areas to guide future urban growth.

• Modernize land development codes to encourage development of urban neighborhoods.

• Incentive package to target high-tech industries.

Phase Two: Expand, Enhance, Advance
• Support research sponsored by the University of South Florida through assistance with zoning, land use and regulatory changes necessary to facilitate the development and clustering of spin-off companies.

• Economic development property tax exemption targeting high-technology industries.

• Policies to support urban infill.

• Appoint Director of Protocol, International Trade and Commerce to partner with Tampa International Airport and the Port of Tampa.

• Expansion of a regional approach to economic development.

• One-stop licensing program.

• Leverage the New Markets Tax Credit program to finance business development in economically underserved areas.

• Enhance mass transit and develop a regional mass transportation network.


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