Recently I got the chance to meet Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn at the Equality Florida Tampa Gala, where he accepted the Voice of Equality Award on behalf of the City of Tampa. We spoke briefly and he expressed interest in talking to Hotspots on the record about Tampa’s LGBT rights legacy, his own personal support of the LGBT community, and which places to go, stay and play that he recommends everyone experience.

I thank Mayor Buckhorn again for speaking to me in this exclusive Hotspots interview.

The City of Tampa received the Equality Florida Voice of Equality Award this year. How mayor_1proud were you to accept that award?

I was very proud. I think you heard me tell the story about how the year before [in the HRC rankings], we had finished third, behind Orlando, and I was not happy about that. So I called Nadine [Smith], and I said, “Nadine, tell me what we need to do better so we can be the most pro-equality city in the state of Florida.” We had a series of conversations, and we set out to have Tampa be the city we all knew it could be.

Can you believe how far Tampa has come in such a short time?

Yes, I can. I’ve been around long enough to remember an incident involving my boss at the time, the former mayor Sandy Freedman, due to her passing the first human rights ordinance. I recall vividly the animosity and the fervor of the debate…the public hearing attracted 3,000 people; half were for it and half were against it. The City Council at the time had the courage to do the right thing and we were one of the first cities to pass a human rights ordinance that addressed LGBT issues.

We’ve come a long way, but especially in the last five years, considering we’ve passed everything from domestic partner benefits to the partnership registry…we’re just leading the way and I couldn’t be prouder of us.

When it comes to LGBT equality, how much further does Tampa have left to go?

I think in terms of what we are able to do under the law, we’ve gone about as far as we can. I think, symbolically, I think there are things we can do still. I’ll give you an example. When I crossed the Bay and marched in the St. Pete Pride parade…even though it wasn’t a Tampa event, I thought it was important to use the weight of my office to make a statement, without saying anything. I was happy to march in that parade and now we’ve seen changes; there is a new mayor of St. Petersburg now, and I am fully confident that Mayor [Rick] Kriseman will lead the parade this year. But I think it’s important to show people that everyone has worth, and I think what I did, going into a jurisdiction that I don’t even represent, and standing up for that ideal…I think that was a good day. It was a good day for everybody.

Do you want to see Tampa get its own gay pride celebration?

I think it’s interesting because St. Pete Pride has become the biggest in the state, the most organized, the most effective, the largest…and having another one right across the Bay may dilute that, and I don’t know if that would necessarily be a good thing. But if the organizers in Tampa choose to do that, then I would be supportive of it. I like that we’ve become a regional powerhouse, not just St. Pete vs. Tampa. I like that St. Pete Pride is looked upon as the “Tampa Bay parade.” But if the folks in Tampa want to have one, they are most welcome to do so, and I would be there.

Say if they did decide to organize a celebration, would you like to see the GaYBOR District host it?

Potentially, yes. GaYBOR really has become a destination for tourists and for locals. It’s been amazing to watch the success of the businesses in the GaYBOR District, both gay and straight. Everyone gets along, everyone recognizes that GaYBOR is an eclectic part of an eclectic community like Ybor City. GaYBOR is more than capable of hosting such an event if they choose to.

Tell us your own story of how you started to champion gay rights issues and causes. What was your evolution like on this topic?

I’ve always been supportive, because I was always taught to treat people fairly regardless of their standing. When I became mayor, I really saw how important my role was and how important that I speak to issues of diversity, how I celebrate diversity and how I set the tone and tenor of this community, what we’re going to tolerate and what we’re not. I needed to call out people who will divide us, based on ethnicity or race or orientation or the God you worship. I just wasn’t going to allow division to happen, and there were reasons for that.

First, it’s economic; I saw very clearly that we are far more competitive as a community in growing and attracting jobs if we treat everyone fairly and if everyone’s value is accorded the same weight. We can’t attract companies to move here if their employees think they will be treated differently because of their station in life. It just puts us at a competitive disadvantage. Then, I get to see how much better our community is because of our diversity, how much stronger the community is. In our diversity, this community becomes a better place to live, and that’s the kind of city I want my daughters to grow up in.

Do you think Tampa should be marketed more as an LGBT travel destination? What should occur in order to make that happen?

Any time we put heads in beds, it’s good for our economy. Anything we can do to attract more people to come here and visit is to our benefit, and I would include the LGBT community in that. For us to be able to attract the LGBT community to a city that is welcoming, that has places for people to visit and socialize and enjoy, I think would be a great thing. It would complement everything else we’re doing. Visit Tampa Bay really could and should focus on that segment as a piece of business that they want to compete for.

Orlando is opening up their SunRail system in the next few weeks. How long do you think it will be before Tampa Bay gets a similar system? Does this area need local rail service?

The answer to your second question is absolutely yes. If we’re going to be a city that attracts bright young people, we have to have transportation options, and one of those options is rail. Roads are a part of the mix, but roads are not the entire solutions. Rail has to be a part of our multi-modal transportation scenario.

I think in the next three to five years, we will be in a position to have a referendum on transportation. I think it will pass, and then I think we can start the process to build these options, including rail. Pinellas County has a referendum coming up in November. I have told everyone, publicly and privately, that I am supporting it and I hope they will as well. That would be a great first step and that would build a lot of momentum.

We’ve got to find new ways to connect Pinellas to Hillsborough, and rail has got to be a part of that equation.

Which landmark and which restaurant do you feel are Tampa’s best-kept secrets?

Landmark…the Hillsborough River. If you take one of those electric boats from the Convention Center at night, and you come up the channel between Davis Islands and Harbour Island, and you go underneath the bridges that are all lit up, and you come into downtown with the minarets at the University of Tampa lit up, and the Tampa Museum of Art and the Children’s Museum and the skyline lit up…you will see that your city has grown up and it is a really cool sight.

As for a restaurant, you’re going to get me in trouble for picking just one, but it’s called Osteria Natalina. It is on Macdill Avenue and I think it has some of the best Italian food in the city.

What do you order there?

Lasagna. It’s the best lasagna I’ve ever eaten. Every time I go, I get the exact same thing.

What would you like to see happen in Tampa by the end of the year?

Here’s what I’d like to see happen…the announcement of a major supermarket chain opening a location in downtown Tampa. I’d like to see it happen and I think it will happen. That would be a game-changer for downtown.

I agree, because some people still think downtown Tampa is a place that shuts down at 5 p.m. every day.

Not anymore! Ten years ago, 600 people lived in downtown Tampa. Now look at it and tell me it hasn’t been transformed. I think in the next year and a half, five new residential towers will be under construction. There’s more demand to live downtown now than there is space.

I know now when I walk in downtown on the weekends, I see people walking their dogs. And if you’re walking a dog in an area, that tells me that you live there. I’m seeing a lot of dogs in downtown.