TAMPA — Mayor Bob Buckhorn took the tale of Tampa on the road Tuesday, appearing alongside the mayors of Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, California, to talk about reducing economic inequality in America’s cities.
The four-hour gathering was sponsored by Washington, D.C.-based Politico Magazine, which has developed a series of stories, “What Works,” focused on how cities across the country are reinventing themselves even as they become magnets for people who once fled for the suburbs.
Buckhorn, the Democratic mayor of the host city for the 2012 Republican National Convention, was invited by the event organizers, who paid for his flight there and back.
Buckhorn hit once more upon the theme that has underpinned his first term in office, reminding his national audience that he’s trying to shift the city’s “economic DNA” away from one driven by building housing toward one driven by innovation and tech-savvy young people.
“We built subdivisions for people that didn’t even exist,” he said.
Today, Tampa’s urban core is being reshaped by people who want to live in a denser environment, he said.
“But that doesn’t mean you build a city just for those who can afford it,” he said.
A few hours after Buckhorn spoke, the Tampa Housing Authority officially opened Trio, another addition to its Encore project on the former site of the Central Park Village housing complex.
Located within sight of Channel District condos and downtown’s high-rises, the Trio’s 141 units include 42 that rent at market rates, starting at $840 for a 1-bedroom apartment. The remaining apartments will be for people who qualify for a Section 8 voucher or other subsidy for the working poor.
Buckhorn told the Politico audience that the city requires buildings to include “workforce” housing in their development plans. Pricing lower- income people out of the city defeats any effort to create a diverse citizenry in downtown, he said.
The Encore project has benefited from grants by the federal Housing and Urban Development department and from private investment, led by Bank of America.
Buckhorn said cities like Tampa are being weaned off federal funding. The economic downturn and 2013’s federal budget sequestration both reduced the federal grants the city has relied on to cover some of its costs.
The federal government still has a role to play, however, he said, particularly when it comes to funding roads, utilities and other “basic government.”
Buckhorn hosted federal Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., last month to talk about the declining federal highway trust fund, which is scheduled to run out of money next month. President Obama has called on Congress to pump more money into the fund, which relies on a federal fuel tax that hasn’t changed in 20 years.
“Where we get frustrated is with the dysfunctional Washington, D.C.,” Buckhorn said. “You get frustrated by everything being looked at through the prism of politics, through the prism of partisanship.”
Buckhorn and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti agreed that mayors have to rise above partisan politics and get things done. Both suggested those who live inside the Beltway have a jaundiced view of life on the ground in America’s cities.
“There’s really no Democratic or Republican way to fix a pothole,” Buckhorn said. “You just go and do it.”
Buckhorn also supported immigration as a way to boost the cultural and economic diversity of cities.
“I don’t want to be the mayor of some white-bread Southern city,” Buckhorn said.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” Garcetti interjected.
Buckhorn noted the role that Spanish, Cuban and Italian cigar workers played in building Tampa a century ago.
“We speak multiple languages like you do here in L.A.,” he said. “We recognize that we live in a global community. We’re not just competing with Charlotte. We’re competing with Bogota.”
Buckhorn may have hinted at his own future when asked if the two national parties should consider a big-city mayor for the vice presidential slot in 2016.
As cities grow in economic importance again, mayors have become a political reservoir in the way they haven’t been before, Buckhorn sad.
“The preparation that mayors go through and the job we do makes us great governors,” Buckhorn said. “And eventually prepares us for the national level as well.”