TAMPA — Mayor Bob Buckhorn used his third State of the City speech Tuesday morning to call for another countywide referendum in 2016 on a tax hike to support light rail and improve bus transit.
“I’d like it to be sooner,” he said.
As the mayor spoke, trucks and cars crept across the Hillsborough River on Interstate 275 in the near distance behind him.
Buckhorn also urged his audience to support Greenlight Pinellas, a proposal to increase transit options in that county through a 1 percent sales tax hike. The referendum goes to the voters in November.
Hillsborough County voters defeated a similar tax referendum to finance transit improvements, including light rail, in Hillsborough County in 2010.
Tampa City Councilwoman Lisa Montelione, who also sits on the county’s transportation planning agency, praised the mayor for making the case that Tampa and Hillsborough will benefit if Greenlight Pinellas passes.
“It’s about time that someone said it out loud,” she said. “We need to step up our game.”
Transit was just part of the hour-long speech Buckhorn delivered to several hundred people gathered within a cavernous concrete-floored room in the 103-year-old Tampa Armature Works building.
The speech highlighted the changes Buckhorn’s administration has wrought over the last year in Sulphur Springs and elsewhere. It honored city residents who have persevered through obstacles. And it also got in some old-fashioned cheerleading for the city Buckhorn has called home since 1982.
“Tell me you don’t feel the electricity coursing through the veins of this city,” he said. “We’ve had three good years. Things are getting better. But we can’t stop now.”
Buckhorn said the Armature Works building – despite its broken windows and leaky roof – represents Tampa’s future as much as its past. The building is a centerpiece of a planned mixed-use riverfront development by SoHo Capital.
Last year, Buckhorn gave his address before a backdrop of peeling paint and aging Art Deco in the lobby of the vacant Kress department store.
“It may seem like I focus on old building,” Buckhorn said. “They are our community’s history, but more importantly, they represent our future. That potential has been held captive by our low expectations.”
At the Armature Works building, a morning cloudburst left part of the floor puddled with water. The leaky room let through the occasional drip on audience members. Buckhorn’s backdrop was downtown’s high-rises and the Hillsborough River.
“This river that you see behind me will be the center of everything we do,” Buckhorn said.
A few dozen yards to the south, the city is rebuilding long-moribund Water Works Park. The Tampa Riverwalk, now making its way up the river to Water Works Park, will eventually pass just outside the doors of the renovated Armature Works building to reach the foot of the North Boulevard bridge, Buckhorn noted.
Over the coming years, the redevelopment of North Boulevard Homes and Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park will help make the west back of the river as active as the east bank has become, he said.
“Look around,” Buckhorn said. “Tampa has changed. Tampa grew and grew up.”
Buckhorn called out 16-year-old Declan Farmer, a Berkely Prep student, who was sitting in the front row of the audience. Farmer competed with the American sledge hockey team in the Paralympics, which followed with Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. His team won gold.
Buckhorn also recognized pre-schooler Legacy Green and her mother, Resheemah McCoy-Green, who live in Sulphur Springs and were on hand last year when Buckhorn took the first ceremonial swipe with a front-end loader to demolish an abandoned house in the neighborhood.
Legacy and her mother were on hand again in January when Buckhorn returned to Sulphur Springs to announce the city would spend more than $1 million to finance the construction of new homes in the neighborhood.
“From New Tampa to Port Tampa, we are all in this together,” Buckhorn said. “Together we’re going to have a renaissance in Sulphur Springs.”
As for Legacy, the mayor, father of two daughters, said: “That’s my little girl. That’s your little girl. That’s all our little girls.”
Buckhorn told his audience Tampa has come a long way, but still has lots of work to do.
“We’re not accepting mediocrity anymore,” he said.