Buckhorn inspires the crowd during his State of the City address

Clarence Fort
"The civil rights movement in Tampa was organized largely by young people like Clarence Fort," Buckhorn told the audience three quarters of the way into his 28-minute long speech. He then introduced Fort, who received a standing ovation from the audience.

Last week, the Hillsborough County Commission voted to begin a "conversation" about the vast transportation needs for the area, the first time the board members picked up that discussion thread since the 2010 transit tax was defeated by county voters. But at that meeting, the word "rail" was barely uttered, as if the presence of Tea Party members and some of the other Republicans on the board would shutter at its declaration.

In today's speech, Buckhorn was less shy, declaring, "We need mobility options now: that means Bus Rapid Transit, that means HOV (high-occupancy vehicle lanes), and it darn sure means rail!"

He then discussed allowing citizens to decide for themselves on rail, a reference to legislation he hopes will get passed in Tallahassee this spring. The legislation would allow cities like Tampa to put up referendums to raise taxes, specifically for rail in Tampa's case.

"Don't tell me that rail doesn't pay for itself. Don't tell me I have to listen to the mayor of Detroit thank me because he's building his light rail system with our money. If folks in Tallahassee don't want to support us, we'll find folks in Tallahassee who do," Buckhorn said.

Though that line was considered a knock on Gov. Rick Scott for rejecting federal funds for high-speed rail in 2011, it also may be an indication that Buckhorn is hoping that House Speaker Will Weatherford will be the Tallahassee leader who paves the way for the city to get the option of taxing itself.

The mayor can be a very funny speaker, but today, his demeanor was mostly sober. It grew downright haunting when he discussed gun violence in the city and how Tampa was going to work with Hillsborough County and other community groups to try to reduce violence, an initiative that was introduced on the County Commission by Kevin Beckner.

Referring to how he went to a park in Jackson Heights where there had just been a shooting death, Buckhorn said he was surrounded by 10 to 15 small orange cones, cones that indicated shell casings. Then he saw a stricken woman on a cellphone who asked him who the victim was.

"'Because it may be my son'," he said she told him.

With the crowd tensing up, Buckhorn described how the woman was trying to reach her son on the phone.

"Fortunately for that mom, it wasn't her son. But it could have been any one of our sons ... we've got to do better," he said.

The comments that followed were reminiscent of Buckhorn's City Council days.

"Ladies and gentlemen, as Jackson Heights goes, so goes Palma Ceia. As College Hill goes, so goes Culbreath Isles. As East Tampa and West Tampa goes, so goes New Tampa."

The mayor did elicit laughs when he declared open season on squirrels, referring to the recent incident in which the city was put on a boil water alert for 36 hours after such a varmint bit into a power line.

"All PETA folks, don't get upset," he cautioned.

Much of the rest of the address was a familiar litany of "Buckhornisms" heard by audiences throughout the past couple of years, and even earlier with his campaign rhetoric.

Sure the RNC is history, but only the verb tense changed in his line about Tampa getting its moment in the spotlight during last summer's political convention.

"We danced on that international stage like we never danced before," he said.

The event began unconventionally, with the big screens in the Kress building showing a sports advertisement-like video of an athlete working out. Buckhorn explained in his denouement that it was about everyone in the city leaving it to become a better place for the future.

"The choice is simple, Tampa: What are you going to do?," he said with intensity, almost sounding like a college basketball coach dealing with his team trailing at halftime of a big game. "Are we not going to settle for second best? Are our aspirations going to reach higher and higher? We don't have to settle for mediocrity folks! This a great place. And we are going to take our place among great American cities. Tampa, this is our time! This is our journey, and this is our destiny!"

click to enlarge Buckhorn inspires the crowd during his State of the City address - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
Buckhorn inspires the crowd during his State of the City address

click to enlarge Buckhorn inspires the crowd during his State of the City address - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
Buckhorn inspires the crowd during his State of the City address

Last year, the audience for Bob Buckhorn's State of the City address melted under a withering sun in Curtis Hixon Park. This year, in uncharacteristically chilly late-March weather, more than 600 people heard the mayor inside the distressed 1929 historic Kress building, a symbol of the potential for redevelopment in downtown. The site was perfect for his inspiration-laden speech, which toward the end sounded like something out of Remember The Titans.

Buckhorn referred to the recent ground breaking ceremony at the old federal courthouse, which is on its way to becoming a hotel and boutique restaurant. The mayor said that next spring the historic building, located a few blocks away on Florida Avenue, "Will come to light. It will be paying taxes, it will anchor this end of the North Franklin Street area, and the Kress building is next."

He said the reason he wanted to hold his address at Kress is because decades ago, the building was the epicenter of a thriving downtown shopping area that also included the old Woolworth's lunch counter, where in 1960, Clarence Fort led the NAACP youth council in a sit-in to be served at the segregated facility.

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