Buckhorn says State of the City is good; Tampa protesters disagree

04/03/12 Janelle Irwin
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Mayor Bob Buckhorn bragged about his efforts to bolster Tampa’s economy by revitalizing the city’s waterfront during his state of the city address this morning at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. On the shade-less lawn with the Hillsborough River and the University of Tampa as his backdrop, Buckhorn told about 150 people that plans to revive Tampa’s economy are well underway. That includes continuing plans for Riverwalk that Buckhorn said will eventually connect the channel district to Tampa Heights.

“It is amazing the transformation – the energy – that has taken place as people come downtown for the first time and they say ‘wow, look at this; I’ve never seen this before. I’ve never been to Taps. I’ve never looked at Zach Street as a promenade of the arts and I’ve darn sure never seen a green river’.”

Buckhorn insisted that Tampa’s waterfront will not be ignored, but added that’s not the only way to encourage economic development. He said it is important to streamline the city’s permitting process for construction projects as small as a backyard fence to ones as large as a 50-story tower and that initiative is already taking shape.

“We’ve reorganized the construction services so that everyone involved in the permitting process is in one building. I can’t tell you how proud I am of the men and women in the construction services. Change is never easy folks, but they stood up and they said ‘we are all in.’”

But behind the barrage of cheers from supporters there were the few but loud voices of opposition. Reverend Bruce Wright, a long-time activist for people without homes, shouted several times from the crowd – even after being warned to stop by a Tampa police officer. He said the mayor is ignoring bigger problems – like poverty - to focus on the upcoming Republican National Convention. And he called Buckhorn’s “Clean Zone” ordinance proposal hypocritical. It limits how many people could protest and for how long and prohibits demonstrators from wearing gas masks.

“Wearing a gas masks – it says at one point that they are not going to allow masks or gas masks of any kind, even masks for demonstrations so that it would not prevent poisonous gas from affecting them. In other words, it’s saying, ‘we don’t want you to use gas masks because we may use gas and it could cause you harm and we don’t want that harm to be minimized.’”

The proposed ordinance requires groups over 50 to obtain a permit and would only allow them to protest for one hour. The measure is up for public discussion at a city council meeting this week. Occupy Tampa’s Kade Kelly spoke at a press conference following the State of the City address to speak out against the proposal.

“Buckhorn has given us the ability to purchase back our basic human rights, the same rights that we claim makes this country the beacon of freedom’s light in the form of a permit allowing protesters freedom of speech for one hour at a time. We the people of Tampa want to know who worked with Buckhorn to draft this ordinance. Who is this ordinance designed to protect? What gives Buckhorn the authority to pass such oppressive legislation and trample on the constitution? Why should anyone have to pay for free speech? How are police going to be able to distinguish who is protected under these permits and what measures will the city of Tampa take to prevent inevitable incidents of police brutality during demonstrations and who will be held accountable?”

Buckhorn mentioned plans for RNC, but didn’t talk about the Clean Zone ordinance at all. One protester booed the mayor as soon as the topic was brought up. Another asked if Tampa was going to be known as a place that restricts free speech. But Buckhorn continued talking through the shouts.

“I know we’re putting a lot of stuff aside to do this, but it is the right thing to do. We have got to do it right. We have to do it better than anybody and at the end of this, this will be an opportunity. Not only in the short-term capital infusion, but the long-term impacts of having Tampa mentioned tens and thousands of times. This is our chance and I need you to step up and do it right and I know you will.”

Even though the two sides didn’t agree on much, they did share one common goal – and that is to create jobs. Buckhorn touted the newly finished Center for Advance Medical Learning and Simulation facility as a way to attract people and businesses to the area.

“They will have over 30,000 visits from doctors and surgeons from all over the world who will come to downtown Tampa at a USF facility to train on simulation and robotics. We estimate that that will generate over 10,000 room nights in downtown Tampa. That investment, that facility, is a game changer.”

Occupy Tampa’s Joe Jay is glad the mayor is committed to job growth in an area where unemployment is so high. But he still isn’t convinced Buckhorn has his priorities completely in order.

“I think that’s great. I think that those are good ideas, but as long as it stays focused on boutique hotels like the renovation of the courthouse and Bayshore and basically upper-class – expensive homes and condos and boutique hotels and things like that – it’s not really going to help the rest of the city. I think if we don’t focus on affordable housing – especially public transit – if we don’t focus on bringing in more blue collar jobs and more working class jobs, I don’t think it’s really going to make much of a difference to the rest of the city.”

During his speech, Mayor Buckhorn also laid out plans for downtown Tampa. He said he wants to see some of Tampa’s major corridors revitalized because they are what will connect the city’s sprawling suburbs to the downtown he is so fixated on. The event was held at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park because, as Buckhorn explained, it represents a catalyst for change.

Photo slideshow by Mike Madison

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