Bob Buckhorn was asked a simple question to begin Tuesday night's "Green Bench Conversation" regarding Greenlight Pinellas at the freeFall Theater in west St. Petersburg. What was he doing there?
"What happens in Pinellas County affects the people I represent," the Tampa mayor said said about the transit tax that Pinellas voters will be asked to approve this November. He told St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce head Chris Steinocher and an audience at the freeFall that the chances of a similar measure in Hillsborough County in 2016 would be determined by what Pinellas does. “The future of the bay area is going to be determined by the outcome of this election. I can tell you that in no uncertain terms.”
Buckhorn was joined by three Pinellas mayors for the "Green Bench conversation" — St. Pete's Rick Kriseman, Clearwater's George Cretekos and Indian Rocks Beach's R.B. Johnson — all of whom will definitely have their cities changed if the measure passes later this year.
There was plenty of discussion about lessons learned from Hillsborough County's failed transit tax referendum back in 2010. Both Buckhorn and Kriseman said the politics of 2014 are different than those of 2010. Kriseman said the economics were also different, though Mayor Cretekos said it's never easy asking citizens to raise their taxes (the Greenlight measure would raise the sales tax by a penny). Looking at the proposed map of the 24-mile light-rail network that would run from St. Petersburg to Clearwater Beach, Buckhorn said it was far superior to what took place in Hillsborough. "They couldn’t tell you what it was going to cost, they hadn’t arrived on a decision about the routes, there was a lot of elected officials that were attempting to, we refer to 'love it to death,' ... there wasn’t confidence in the local bus system ... I don’t think any of that exists in Pinellas County, as an outsider looking in."
The No Tax for Tracks crowd made their presence felt before the meeting by lining up along Central Avenue in front of the theater — that's the group organized to bring down the measure. Buckhorn seemed to be directing his comment to that part of the audience when he said that the question for elected officials is if they just want to "kowtow to a small, vocal minority who would take us to a different place and a different time, that's not the kind of leadership that we need."
There was also a lot of happy talk about how the cities that the mayors represent are enjoying a great moment right now. Mayor Cretekos discussed a recent Urban Land Institute study,
released last Friday, that focused on how the city can rebrand its downtown corridor. Cretekos said that the Capitol Theater and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium are two tourist destinations, but the importance of improved transportation was critical.
And in discussing how impatient the public can sometimes be, Cretekos jokingly mentioned how he received an email just hours after the ULI study was released, asking when the city would implement it. "My response back to him was if I had a magic wand it would happen. But this isn't Hogwarts and my want doesn't work, so when you look at this map [of the proposed light-rail network], realize it is a vision that needs to be built one step at a time."
No Tax for Tracks' Barb Haselden was not impressed by the event. She questioned why the event was even called a conversation when the public wasn't allowed to challenge the mayors' advocacy of the plan. "It’s not a conversation, it’s a lecture," she complained.