Ask the Locals: Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn

click to enlarge The mayor at Water Works Park. - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
The mayor at Water Works Park.

Though recent weeks have been less than smooth sailing for Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, there remains no more vocal or effective cheerleader for the city than the man who has what he calls “the best job in American politics.” During our interview with him at Ulele Restaurant and Water Works Park, two popular projects that came to fruition under his watch, he acknowledged that there have been rumors about him preparing for a possible gubernatorial run, but says he’s focused on his current job: “Every day that goes by is one less day that I have to be the mayor, and that doesn’t make me happy.” Until then, he’s focused on the details of projects like Jeff Vinik’s redevelopment-in-progress in Channelside — so much so that he once paced out the size of the sidewalks on St. Pete’s Beach Drive to get an idea of the optimal dimensions for a walkable streetscape. “I literally was doing this on the sidewalk,” he said, standing up to show his step-by-step measuring method, “and my kids were looking at me like, ‘Aw, Dad! Would you stop being the mayor?’” Buckhorn, 57, grew up outside of Washington, D.C., and came down to the Tampa area in his early twenties, becoming a top aide to Mayor Sandy Freedman and a city councilman before being elected mayor in 2011. He lives on Davis Islands with his wife, USF Health exec Dr. Cathy Lynch, and their two children, Colleen and Grace, who, he says, aren’t impressed with his office: “The 9-year-old couldn’t care less that I’m mayor, and the 14-year-old thinks I’m dumber than a bag of rocks.”

Splashing around at WATER WORKS PARK: “What really makes me happy is when I see 200 or 300 kids who’ve come across the river to the park, to see them here just having a blast.” He did the ice-bucket challenge at the park, enduring 60 gallons of icy water being dumped on him.

Where he and Cathy escape for dinner: “ We like OSTERIA NATALINA — a very great small intimate Italian restaurant on MacDill. We know the chef very well, love the food. For me it’s nice to sort of be away from crowds and not have to be the mayor — though when you’re the mayor you’re never off.”

Especially at the grocery store: “My kids hate going to a Publix with me because they know they have to stop for about 20 pictures and listen to people ask me about potholes.”

His favorite Davis Islands hangout: “We like THAI ISLAND a lot. I can be there, put on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt and not worry about running into anybody but my neighbors. I like the spicy rice with chicken. I like heat in my food, which no one else in my family does. We’re all Irish and we’re used to bland food, but I’m the anomaly.”

Where else the spice is nice: INDIA's GRILL. “After Bollywood [the IIFA awards] and after spending time in Mumbai as part of that, I really developed an affinity for Indian food.”

When he’s on his own for lunch: “Sometimes when there’s nothing on the schedule I’ll just take off walking downtown — EDDIE & SAM’S PIZZA , or when I’m feeling healthy I go to URBAN JUICE . I try to patronize new businesses that have invested in downtown. I want them to know I appreciate they have taken the risk. Four years ago it was a risk. Now it’s paying off.”

Must-stops on the campaign trail: “All the coffee shops in West Tampa [ WEST TAMPA SANDWICH SHOP , EL GALLO DE ORO , ARCO IRIS , LA TERESITA ]. Fortunately I love Cuban food.”

The best Cuban sandwich? “I’d say [ COLUMBIA RESTAURANT owner Richard] Gonzmart is in the running. Five, six years ago, they realized they were getting pedestrian in their approach, went back to the original recipe, changed the machines that were cutting the hams, and re-energized the Cuban. The West Tampa Sandwich Shop has good Cubans, too.”

Best meal ever: “The lasagna at OSTERIA is the best lasagna I’ve ever had — and I’ve had a lot of great meals — BERN’S , OYSTERCATCHERS — just by nature of what I do I get to eat at a lot of great places. In 10 years at Osteria I don’t think I’ve ever not ordered the lasagna.”

Go-to pizza joints: “Normally we’re big fans of GOURMET PIZZA COMPANY . Sitting at home, if we order out, we always order Gourmet. My new favorite, FABRICA WOODFIRED PIZZA , just opened in the Channel District, run by a young [Venezuelan] couple in Pierhouse [apartment complex]. They do really, really good thin-crust pizza.”

Favorite fishing spot: “I tend to fish the flats — relatively shallow areas — anything around Davis Islands or down by Egmont Key, Fort De Soto. I spend more time fixing my boat, because it’s been sitting for way too long, than I do getting out and actually fishing. When I was out of office I was fishing a lot.”

Favorite spots at the city across the bay: “A lot of times I will go down on Sunday morning to the little restaurant on the water — FRESCO’S — with the kids. I’ve eaten at a lot of the restaurants along Beach Drive — BELLABRAVA , CASSIS — I really enjoy what they’ve done there.”

Tampa vs. St. Pete? “Rick [St. Pete Mayor Kriseman] and I, we’ve been friends for 25 years. We will not allow our cities to get into this petty parochial discussion about one vs. the other. We absolutely are in lockstep as far as where we want to take the region. You’re not ever going to see me criticizing St Pete. I don’t do it, I don’t allow my folks to do it. I want Rick to succeed because if St. Pete does well Tampa does well.”

The Tampa we’ll see in five years: “The USF Med School moving into downtown, that’s a game changer — bigger than baseball in terms of long-term economic strategy. It’s an exciting time. I can’t wait to see what this experiment looks like at the end of my time here. After these four years, Tampa’s going to have a helluva story to tell — the sory of a city that got knocked to its knees in the recession and has emerged stronger and better and looking forward to its next chapter. Whether I choose to do anything or not, that’s going to be the exciting part. This is a city whose best years are yet to come.”

And maybe baseball is still in the mix? “It’s a very real possibility. Rick needs one vote over there to get the Rays the ability to go look.”

The ideal spot for a downtown Tampa stadium? “There’s property between Ybor and downtown, largely occupied now by Section 8 housing, Tampa Park Plaza. The city owns a park in the middle of that at the apex of Nuccio and Nebraska. A stadium in that environment would connect downtown and Ybor. The trolley then becomes an asset. Existing parking garages that we paid a fortune for in Ybor City that are bleeding red ink would all of a sudden have [people coming in for] 80 games.”

The chances of a downtown stadium in that spot coming to pass? “60-40. But don’t ask me how we pay for it. The lingering bad taste about [financing for the] Bucs stadium will affect this; we won’t ever be able to go to a referendum to pay for it. This deal would end up being done by multiple financing sources: tourist development taxes, rent car surcharge, private equity, city/county. It’ll be smaller — look more like Pittsburgh’s than New York’s — though a dome is a hundred million [dollars] more. MLB doesn’t want suburban stadiums, they want them in the downtown core, where people empty out of these towers for a 4 p.m. game [so there’d be] 18,000-25,000 people downtown for a game.”

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