Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio has a little over a year left in office before her tenure ends at City Hall. Like the mayors of virtually every major city in the country these days, she's dealing with the ramifications of one of the worst economic spells the U.S. has seen in nearly a century, which means 2010 will bring news from 315 E. Kennedy Boulevard of more cuts in services and jobs.
At the same time, Tampa, and in particular its downtown, is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. But there's lots of work still to be done. Iorio's much-discussed Riverwalk is coming together, but needs millions more to complete as it winds northward from the Tampa Convention Center into what is known as the Heights project.
There's also the proposed one-cent sales tax referendum on transportation that is expected to go before voters this fall. The mayor is determined to see the ballot measure succeed, and says that win or lose, her support of light rail will continue after she hands off the reins of power next year.
Last Thursday, Mayor Iorio sat down in her office with this reporter and CL editor David Warner to talk about these issues and more. Afterwards, she drove us to the Tampa By History Center, which has just celebrated its first year of existence, for a walking and water-taxi tour of the Riverwalk. We expressed surprise that she didn't have her own chauffeur; she explained that after the death in a hit-and-run accident four years ago of her bodyguard and personal driver, Tampa Police Detective Juan Serrano, she was so shaken by the loss that she has opted to forgo that luxury ever since.
Here is a condensed version of our interview.
MP: It's been a big month for you, with the opening of the new Tampa Museum of Art, the new Curtis Hixon Park and the Riverwalk developing. Is it coming together as you maybe hoped when you were contemplating this in your first years in office?
PI: I drove by Curtis Hixon Park yesterday — you know it's packed, it's become like an instant gathering place, a focal point for our downtown — and people say to me, "Now I can enjoy the river." And I say, "That's that I wanted to achieve... I wanted us to look at that river as an asset and something we can interact with. One of the first things I nixed when I got into office: ...[W]here the new TMA is, there was going to be a condo tower. A condo tower! And I said, "I'm not approving a condo tower in a public park." I mean, condos can go anywhere. They can go in private land. But public park space in a city is precious, green space is so important, and so, that was the first thing that I didn't do. I took that and said that's not ever going to be signed, that project's going away... [T]his whole thing as you've chronicled in your paper has had a lot of bumps along the way... but you know in the end, after seven years, I think it's all worked out...
Now I have one year left and I've got one other big item that I think is so important that I will never give up on [it]... that is, bringing modern transit to this county and ultimately to this region. First we've got to get the majority of the board to put it on the ballot in ordinance form. Then we've got to work to get the referendum passed on November 2nd ...I don't know what I will do next after being mayor, but this issue will be something that I will always work on as a former mayor, in different capacities. It will always be on the forefront of what I work on because it needs a lot of care and attention in order to be done right...
MP: What about oversight?
PI: I think you always have to hold the mayor and the county administrator and the director of HART accountable from here on out... If there's a person running for mayor who doesn't say, "Implementation of this light rail and this expanded bus service is number one," we've got trouble, because this system is being built in the city of Tampa...
David Warner: Do you see any candidates who won't have this as a priority?
PI: (Pause.) Well, let's see. I'm sure it won't be a priority for all of them. Let's see who steps up and offers leadership on this issue...
MP: Let's talk about the stimulus plan [the one-year anniversary of which took place the day before our interview]. Tell us what it's done for the city of Tampa.
PI: Hey, you know what? (Thumbs-up gesture). We've had a great start to this year. First we got... $28 million to invigorate the Central Park Encore project which has been a priority of mine. Then, the president and vice president come to our community and give us $1.25 billion and we are going to be the focal point for high-speed rail development in this country. Hey, this is great. Plus we got an extra $10 million in foreclosure help. February 26th is the groundbreaking for the Crosstown Connector. We were discussing the Crosstown Connector back when I was on the County Commission and the MPO 20 something years ago. It's going to go to construction probably February 26th — that is a nearly $400 million project, of which $80 million came from stimulus money, otherwise it'd be sitting on a shelf, still. So that is invigorating... [Y]ou'll never hear me say this has created blank amount of jobs, because I don't know. But all I know is that as a community we are better off with these investments than without.