Downtown's fate is council's call
By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2001
TAMPA -- The Tampa City Council will find itself in an unusual place when it meets this morning: the seat of power.
The council, frequently seen as a rubber-stamp committee for policies favored by Mayor Dick Greco, can make or break Greco's costly, controversial plan to remake downtown as an arts hub.
So far a majority of council members have expressed opposition or ambivalence toward the plan, despite Greco's having courted their votes in recent weeks and scaling back the plan.
"He's going hat in hand," said political observer Scott Paine, a former council member. "That has not been a hallmark of the Greco administration by any stretch."
At play are a host of political forces.
Greco can't run for re-election, which blunts the steamroller of his political clout. Three council members want his job, none wanting to be perceived as lapdog to an outgoing mayor. And there's the debate surrounding Greco's plan itself, which would enlist the so-called Community Investment Tax to finance a $27-million art museum and a $12-million zoo expansion.
Critics of the mayor's plan say the half-cent sales tax revenue, which is budgeted in five-year cycles, should be spent on improving the city's neighborhoods, on drainage ditches, crumbling roads, and blighted lots.
"The council members are thinking in terms of not only the next election but down the road," said former Mayor Sandy Freedman. " 'This is five years' worth, and we don't get another crack at this, and is this really what we promised the voters when the CIT passed?' "
In weighing the political costs and dividends of their votes, council members must calculate the risk of alienating one of two powerful groups: thousands of voters who favor spending on neighborhoods, or the well-heeled, well-connected set who are among those pushing for the downtown projects.
"It takes money to get elected, and people who give money and raise money are some of the major proponents of the zoo and the museum," Freedman said.
The closing years of the Dick Greco administration are beginning to look a lot like the tail end of the Sandy Freedman years, said Paine, the former council member, who teaches communications and government at the University of Tampa. It was Freedman's lame-duck status as mayor, many believe, that prompted the council in 1994 to ax her plans for a convention center hotel.
"All of a sudden the wind went out of the sails, and the mayor was becalmed at that point," Paine said. "I think it's happening now. People are looking at the post-Greco future. He's a lame-duck mayor and there's less he can do for them in the long run, and always voting with him is a liability in the long run."
Seeking to define themselves as candidates, mayoral aspirants may distance themselves from Greco's stress on developing downtown, which includes a boom in Ybor and the planned arts district along the Hillsborough River.
"In the neighborhoods of Tampa, there's a strong current of, 'Anything you're doing for downtown you're doing against us,' " Paine said.
"The mayor's been used to saying something, and everybody just following along," said Mike Scionti, chairman of the county Democratic Executive Committee. "But when you become a lame duck, that changes the whole posture."
So, where does the council stand on Greco's plan? At last count, Bob Buckhorn, one of the mayoral aspirants, was the only certain vote against the plan. Council members Linda Saul-Sena, Mary Alvarez and Shawn Harrison have said they will vote for it. Gwen Miller is on the fence. So are Charlie Miranda and Rose Ferlita. Both want to be mayor.
"I have no idea how it's going to turn out," Greco said Wednesday.
Ferlita said she initially opposed Greco's plan, but the modified version presented last week, which channels $10-million more to road improvement funds, "makes it more palatable."
"I had my mind made up, but then I changed my mind," Ferlita said.
Ferlita said she would pray Wednesday night for the wisdom to do what's right for her constituents.
"Everybody feels that since there are some potential mayoral candidates on the council that everything we do is based on the fact that we are running for mayor," she said.
Still, she acknowledged, "Everybody is a little more squeamish about how they're going to vote and why they're going to vote that way."
- Christopher Goffard can be reached at (813) 226-3337.
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