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Former mayors offer vision for a better Tampa Bay

Mark Parker



From left: Former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and former Sen. Jeff Brandes at the 2024 Florida Housing Summit. Photos by Mark Parker.

Tampa and St. Petersburg have evolved into national destinations with vibrant downtowns and thriving economies; two former mayors believe their respective cities are now victims of that success.

Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and former Senator Jeff Brandes shared a stage Wednesday afternoon at the 2024 Florida Housing Summit. The Florida Policy Project (FPP) hosted the event at the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus.

Brandes, who launched the FPP in 2023 after leaving office, noted that attendees heard myriad housing discussions before he and the former municipal leaders concluded the day-long summit. He asked them to instead begin their discussion by explaining “what makes a great city.”

“We had to create an environment where you could live, work and play,” Buckhorn said. “Where you could create the jobs of the future, and you could attract the workers of the future.”

Buckhorn, who led Tampa from 2011-2019, said he stole many ideas from his predecessor across the bay. Baker served as St. Petersburg’s mayor from 2001-2010.

Creating an urban environment that attracts “intellectual capital” was Buckhorn’s primary goal. He noted that many young professionals fled to places like Charlotte and Austin in search of better careers and environments.

The former mayors focused on revitalizing their downtown waterfronts – with much success. Baker said that enticed creative minds to relocate their businesses to the area.

“You don’t have to spend $1.6 billion on a big project,” he added. “You can change the pedestrian scale. We built Beach Drive. Sidewalk cafes, European piazzas, coffee shops all over the place, the arts, the farmer’s markets and the events … and then focus on residential.”

A sculpture at the intersection of Beach Drive and Central Avenue in St. Petersburg.

Buckhorn and Baker said their cities are now, to some extent, “victims of our own success.” While Tampa Bay continues to see an influx of new residents, many are also leaving due to a lack of affordable housing.

However, Buckhorn called transportation the region’s Achilles heel. He stressed the importance of creating a multimodal transit network that includes efficient buses, light rail in urban areas, highspeed rail to connect cities statewide, autonomous vehicles and ride-share companies.

“If you can’t move people from where they live to where they work, you’re going to strangle the goose that lays the golden egg,” Buckhorn said. “It’s going to be costly. It’s going to be time-consuming.

“We have to make those investments, and those investments will not be for us. It will be for our kids and the next generation.”

Baker is developing several housing projects in Winter Haven, about 50 miles east of Tampa. While he and his colleagues cannot control interest rates or construction costs, he said they could build smaller units to increase the housing supply.

Baker said he could charge significantly less for a 300-square-foot apartment and believes renters would sacrifice space for a safe and clean home in a thriving area. He also explained the benefits of creating urban cores in smaller cities.

Baker said that would attract more residents and reduce the housing crunch in larger municipalities. “And the cost of living there is significantly less,” he added.

Buckhorn noted the importance of regionalism. He said Tampa and St. Petersburg garner more national attention and success when acting in concert.

“Those bridges shouldn’t be barriers – they should be conduits of cooperation,” Buckhorn added. “As a region, we have to realize that we’re all in this together. And I think the region has got to that point now where those … ancient rivalries are to a much lesser degree than they have ever been before.”

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    May 9, 2024at8:47 am

    It was great to hear about what is working in the housing market. It would be great to see some of what Rick Baker is working on happen here in St Pete. Smaller square footage apartments allow for affordability in a high interest rate, expensive insurance market and expensive labor and building material market. Local workers just want a safe, clean place to come home to and a large percentage of them want to be in the downtown core. Let’s continue to focus on smart and practical approaches to adding housing supply. As the local builders said, we need to follow and support quality developments that add much needed attainable housing supply.

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    Hugh Hazeltine

    May 6, 2024at10:07 pm

    “Baker is developing several housing projects in Winter Haven, about 50 miles east of Tampa. “

    There it is, my former Mayor’s interest now lies elsewhere. Crafting a livable urban environment is way more complicated than building housing in Winter Haven. The name almost says it all. Those of us here want to craft a year round environment for people to thrive.

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    Linda Watson

    May 2, 2024at5:03 pm

    The bridges shouldn’t be barriers but they are especially for paratransit services! I would love to occasionally go to the Straz Center and go to a Broadway show but can’t without paying an arm and a leg! Just to go to the Tampa airport from Pinellas Park costs around $150 or more! There has to be better accessible AFFORDABLE transportation in the ENTIRE Tampa Bay area!!!!

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