‘I couldn’t be happier with how things are going.’ – Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn
Mayor, City of Tampa
Meal: Mac and Cheese (and a few bites from a slice of Goody Goody butterscotch pie he didn’t expect)
Interview by: Michael Kilgore
Early on, you talked about revitalizing Tampa Heights and making the river the center of downtown and not the edge. Where are you with that?
I couldn’t be happier with how things are going. Everything I hoped and dreamed is coming true. What these projects – Water Works Park and Ulele – did was force people not to accept limitations, to not just drive past abandoned dirt and abandoned buildings, and force them to dream. If we can do this here, we shake them out of their slumber and force them to dream. Not settling for what we’ve always known and imagining what it could be. Both Richard Gonzmart and I imagined what this could be and it’s been pitch-perfect.
Putting a restaurant at this location in Tampa Heights was your idea. One year after Ulele’s opening, how do you think we’re doing?
Ulele is anchoring the northern end of the Riverwalk. It has become a destination. It has exposed more people to the Hillsborough River than I ever imagined. There are rave reviews. Everything I dreamed about has come to fruition. Multiply this 6 or 7 times and it will change the city as we know it.
What’s your favorite thing on the Ulele menu?
Anything with oysters.
As mayor, you get lots of perks. How does having a beer – the Buckhorn Black Lager at Ulele – rank as a perk?
It’s way up there, but it needs to be on the menu all the time, not as a special. No disrespect to anyone, but it will outperform any other beer in this place. I think it was a lot of fun for the brewmaster. We had a lot of fun with it. Not too many dads can tell their daughters they have a beer named after them.
You often quote Alicia Keys. Have you ever met her? Do you owe her royalties?
No, I’ve never met her. I kinda mangled one of her song titles (“Girl On Fire”), but it was appropriate for the city.
You ran for mayor before. Now into your second term, how does it compare with what you expected?
I had 20 years to prepare in both victory and defeat. You often learn more in defeat than in victory. I spent 20 years imaging what this city could be, studying other cities. I had a plan when I came to office.
What’s the best part of the job?
I have the opportunity, as a dad and a public servant, to literally and figuratively leave a legacy for my kids in a city they will want to come home to some day. I want this city to be better than I when I inherited it.
I can’t wait to get to work every day. Not every day is a good day, but I love even the bad days. When I have to leave [at the end of my term], they’ll have to pry my cold, dead fingers off the desk. I have the best job in American politics.
What’s a part of your job you perhaps didn’t anticipate?
I perhaps intuitively knew this, but as Tampa started to emerge after the recession there was a renewed sense of pride that people have in Tampa and what lies ahead … there was an affirmation that what we were going to do was right. People had the vision to see where we were going and were happy about it. It gives me the motivation to do it. It’s not all Red Bull.
You went to Ireland, you were in D.C. for the pope’s visit, you just returned from Denver: You have a hectic schedule. What do you do on your downtime?
When you’re the mayor, you’re really never off. When I’m not working or not in the office, I’m with my kids. They’re at the age where they still like me.
Tell us something people don’t know about you.
I don’t sleep in a tie.
Is it hard being in the public eye basically 24/7? Can you go to Publix without talking transportation or other issues? Or does that come with the territory?
No, it takes me an hour to get through Publix. My kids hate it. But they know it’s part of what Daddy does. When people stop wanting to talk with me or take a picture, then I’ll worry. They’re my bosses. That’s my job. I love the interaction.
I love what I do. I’d stay Mayor For Life if they’d let me. It’s not a job for me.
What are your goals for the rest of your term?
More of the same. Continue to focus on the Riverwalk. Create an environment where the best and the brightest stay here, where our sons and daughters want to be. Get Jeff Vinik’s project going. Get some neighborhoods to enjoy the same prosperity as some others.
Apparently, there’s going to be a gubernatorial election coming up in Florida? Who knew? Your comment?
I think Tampa is going to have a heck of a story in four years. The renaissance of an American city. The recognition that you can be in elective office and not be paralyzed by partisanship. You can do it without the rancor and gridlock that occurs in Tallahassee. I think what we have is a model.
There will be an open seat in the governor’s mansion. I think Floridians are ready for a change. To the extent I can help with that conversation, I’ll take a look at it. But if I didn’t have to leave [the mayor’s office], I wouldn’t.
Want to talk about the Rays? Or should we just have dessert?
We have a great partner in [St. Petersburg] Mayor Rick Kriseman. The status quo is not going to work in St. Petersburg. They’re not drawing the attendance that they need to be successful. The commercial development of that site is more beneficial.
Keeping the Rays as regional assets requires new thinking. Tampa and Hillsborough County will be ready for that conversation. We have sites available. The dynamics and the demos are there to allow that to occur. The Rays need the opportunity to look and Hillsborough needs the opportunity to make their best case. Otherwise we don’t keep them in the region.