Buckhorn enters final year of consequential mayorship

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Tampa's mayor, Bob Buckhorn, has one year left. With the close of his term nearing, Buckhorn stood overlooking Channelside Bay Plaza. Most of it has been demolished, leaving a space for a new park. 

"I thought this spot could be opened up," Buckhorn said.

Across the street is the USF health school, under construction for the better part of a year, its steel girders stretching into the sky.

"There is going to be $3 billion invested here," Buckhorn pointed out.

And beyond all that is Jeff Vinik's Water Street project, slated to re-do the street grid and add a slew of hotels, restaurants, homes, and shops.

"You say to yourself, 'I get it now. I see it. I feel it,'" Buckhorn reflected.

But he still remembers the feeling of being a mayoral also-ran; mayoral aide, city councilor, the loser of the mayoral election in 2003. 

"Pretty much everybody had written me off," he remembered.

In 1982, he was a college graduate with nowhere to go but Florida. City politics became his passion. But in 2011, he beat a field of five to finally become mayor.

"When they called the election, my family and I came down the stairs, right here, down to the courtyard. There were hundreds of supporters and people who worked really hard for me," said Buckhorn. "We were just in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression. We had been knocked flat as a city."

The courtyard at Channelside is now the center of the city's transformation. Since Buckhorn took office, commercial real estate brokers Cushman and Wakefield say office vacancy rates have decreased by 17 percent.  

Rates for residential rentals are up 15 percent. The first new office buildings since 1992 are scheduled for construction. 

TPD says overall crime is down by a third. 

Visit Tampa Bay says hotel occupancy is up 9 percent. 

The west side of the Hillsborough River is being redone. 

"As we laid out this narrative, we did things that allowed them to believe it was working, that it was doable, that it was not just political rhetoric," Buckhorn explained.

While he admits the improvement of the national economy helped, he argues having a top aide solely focused on the economy and the streamlining of the permitting process also chipped in. 

Then there's the Riverwalk, built thanks to a 2012 federal grant.

"When people look back, the completion of the Riverwalk will be the singular most important event that has occurred in downtown in decades," Buckhorn said.

Much of his final year is planned on a whiteboard in his office. He promises to complete development of the west river and work on less-glamorous master plans for things like solid waste and reclaimed water.

"When I have to leave April 1 of next year, they will pry my cold, dead fingers off that desk," Buckhorn joked.

The last seven years weren't only gravy. He battled accusations city police were heavy-handed in stopping black bike riders, fought a sex discrimination case against a pregnant firefighter that cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars, was bashed for an armored SUV some said is unnecessary, and taunted a serial killer who targeted Seminole Heights.

But his office showed us an internal poll of 350 city residents that places his approval rating at 75 percent; 77 percent of blacks approve of Buckhorn and 70 percent of Republicans gave him the OK. 

When he leaves, most of the projects that began under his term will still have to be finished, but in politics, a good start is usually all you have time for.

"When I leave in a year, my jokes will not be as funny. The phone calls will not be returned as quick as they normally are, and I will be totally invisible to many people. And that's OK," Buckhorn said.

There are two things he will not say: Who he wants to succeed him and what he plans to do next.