SOREP/SMPS Tampa Bay Mayoral Candidate Panel Discussion

On Tuesday, January 15, 2019, I had the pleasure of taking part in a Tampa mayor candidate panel discussion, hosted by SOREP (Society of Real Estate Professionals) and SMPS Tampa Bay (Society for Marketing Professional Services.)  The questions focused mainly on real estate development, architecture, engineering and construction in Tampa Bay. I would like to share all of my answers to each question that was submitted to the forum. I will include my opening statement, as well.

18 years ago I fell in love.  And it was truly love at first sight.  That love was for the city of Tampa. I remember the first time I walked out to the end of Ballast Point Pier, and saw the way the skyline of Tampa played with the reflections of the water.  I knew I needed to make this place my home, and the view at Ballast Point Pier still gives me chills to this day.

Peter Kageyama, the author of For the Love of Cities states that people should love their cities the way they love other people.  When I read that insight, I got it. I got it beyond an intellectual level; it was visceral. I asked myself what about that statement made me feel the way that it did, and it didn’t take long to discover what it was.  Design. I get design. I get that design is how buildings communicate to the people around them and to the people inside them. Intentional design creates an environment that is undeniably clear.  Intentional design to a building is like wordsmithing to a marketing message; the little things become big impressions and may consciously go unnoticed, but can reach out and grab hold of our hearts.

And, like any healthy, loving relationship, one should never get comfortable and lazy about how we treat our city.  Loving our city requires effort. It requires thoughtfulness, and it means always trying to keep things new, exciting and fresh.  This is what our relationship with our beautiful city of Tampa is about.

If we focus on intentional design, transit-oriented development and affordable housing, we can make sure that the residents of Tampa love Tampa, the way they love each other.

Our current Mayor, Mr. Bob Buckhorn, has done a wonderful job getting Tampa to fall back in love with Tampa.  Now we need a Mayor who can get the world to fall in love with Tampa…and I know I can be that Mayor. My name is Topher Morrison. I am a hard-working, small business owner with a big vision; and I have the tenacity and the connections to make Tampa the most livable AND loveable city on earth.

QUESTION #1:  What industries do you feel need to be focused on developing in order to retain/attract talent in the Tampa area? Is the environment we are building now competitive with other markets?

We need to continue developing our medical fields.  USF Medical is a great resource for this city, and with the new nursing college at University of Tampa, our two main universities can collaborate to help us have a strong medical component to our economy.  Recession-proof industries like health care are key to making sure we have a strong city. I think we could do better competitively in our development to ensure that every building–commercial, and multi-family–are built with intention to help foster a livable, walkable community.  These are the things that matter to our upcoming generations.

QUESTION #2:  In your opinion, what is the most important urban planning issue in our city that can be effectively addressed by new public policy?

Any policy that helps to create a more livable, walkable space, that is transit-friendly, will be a top priority of mine as your Mayor of Tampa.  Within that space, there are several issues to tackle. We need to get rid of our archaic minimum parking standards that burden developers; and once we do that, we must update our building codes to ensure that the ground floor of commercial spaces, condos, and apartment buildings adhere to the most current principles for development.  Charles Montgomery, the author of Happy City has shown that active storefronts make a measurable difference in residents’ level of happiness. So, updating our codes to require active storefronts is a must if we want to be a competitive city in the future.

QUESTION #3:  Are you concerned about the growing affordability problems in housing, and if so, what policy initiatives do you propose to ensure the city plays a tangible role in encouraging the inclusion of affordable units?

I am absolutely concerned about this issue.  Our current cost of living, mainly affected by housing costs, is growing at a rate far greater than that of our average salaries.  Yes, in the short term, developers may be profiting from the booming real estate demands; but if gone unchecked, they run the risk of shooting themselves in the foot and having development grind to a halt when the system can no longer support the growth.  Affordable housing and workforce housing can reduce this risk, but more importantly, development being made now must be transit-oriented. When this happens, people don’t need a car, which is typically the second or third largest family expense. Eliminating the burden of a car payment, car insurance, maintenance and fuel can go a long way toward affording to live where someone wishes.

QUESTION #4:  Mayor Buckhorn made downtown and the riverfront priorities for redevelopment during his administration.  If you could pinpoint a target for redevelopment and investment, what area of the city would it be?

For redevelopment, I want to implement an ambitious green energy policy that moves Tampa toward a 100% renewable energy city. The downtown core is the economic engine of a city; and strong, vibrant core creates a ripple effect into the communities.  I will continue to move Mayor Buckhorn’s vision forward to have Hillsborough River be the centerpiece of our downtown core, not the edge. This means more development to the west side of the river; but done in such a way that makes the area more accessible, walkable and livable.  Beyond our core, I believe we need to be looking at how we connect our neighborhoods to our downtown. This means transit-oriented development in our neighborhoods. Downtown, we need apartments with retail on the ground floors so we can have active storefronts, plus active transit accommodations for increased accessibility, and no more minimum parking standards.

QUESTION #5:  It seems that the primary trademarks of this development cycle, and of Tampa’s growth in recent years, are the “mega projects” that the city has managed to attract (Water Street, Westshore Marina District, Midtown, for example). What in your view are the pros and cons of such projects, and how would you manage the risks and opportunities posed by similar projects in the future?

The pros are very clear; these projects increase the property values of the neighborhoods in their surrounding areas.  The cons are clear as well; these types of projects can lead to gentrification, making it so that the residents who made those neighborhoods what they are can no longer afford to live there.  We need to be better stewards of humanity and make sure that we aren’t forcing low income families to the periphery of our cities. Not only is it the wrong thing to do, it isn’t economically intelligent.  A diverse neighborhood is a strong neighborhood. Workforce housing and rent control must be a conversation we aren’t afraid to have. The most progressive, strongest cities have rent control in many of their trademark development projects.  This shouldn’t scare us. The strength of a city can be measured by how the city takes care of their marginalized residents. And, with me as your mayor, every resident–regardless of their station in life–can wake up every morning knowing that I’ve got their back.

QUESTION #6:  What is the most pressing need, with respect to Tampa’s real estate and development environment, that you could feel your administration could begin to address in the short term? What need would you plan to address over the long term?

The most pressing need is one that I’ve already mentioned: we need to update our code enforcement and eliminate minimum parking standards.  If we want to become a walkable city, one that has placemaking as a forethought not an afterthought, we need to eliminate these out-of-date policies.   For the long term, I believe our development needs to compliment the brand of our city. If we don’t have a sense of self in Tampa, something that all residents can stand shoulder-to-shoulder and say “This is who we are.  This is what we stand for,” then we won’t be able to fight for what matters in our city. As the developers at this event well know, design matters. Design creates an energy for a city; and if done well, can become the defining mark that makes a city unique.  One idea that I’ve proposed is for Tampa to become the Rooftop City. This brand could influence the development of all of our buildings and create a theme throughout our downtown and neighborhoods. It would also compliment the Water Street development, which is already headed in that direction.

QUESTION #7:  Give us some insight as to how relationships with other local governments (neighboring cities and counties) could be leveraged to tackle regional issues. What are some regional issues that could feasibly be addressed this way? How would your administration go about leading such efforts?

Collaboration can only happen when all parties share a common vision, and have a governing set of principles they can all agree to.   A perfect example of this would be the regional MPOs that need to work together for a common good. The moment an individual MPO places their individual interests above the group’s well being, collaboration runs the risk of failing.  We see this happen all the time in government when one party puts the needs of their party over the needs of our country. We see this happen when Hillsborough competes with Pinellas instead of collaborating. A deal that is good for Hillsborough but bad for Pinellas is a deal that is bad for the Tampa Bay region.  I am the right person to lead such efforts; I literally wrote a book on collaboration called Collaboration Economy. I will use these same techniques of leadership and collaboration to get our neighboring government bodies to all play in the same sandbox.

QUESTION #8:  How do you feel about the transportation options currently available in our city? Do we have enough options? If not, what will you do to increase those?

I think the transit options look very bright for our city’s future.  With the All for Transportation referendum passing, we will now have the funding necessary to address our long-overdue transit needs.  But this is cautionary optimism; the funds shouldn’t give our city and our county a blank check to simply start spending in ways that benefit their special interests.  With regard to options, no we don’t have enough of those. Far too many people are more concerned with promoting their individual transit agendas and laughing at the ideas of others. We won’t get anywhere with leadership that mocks another person’s ideas for transit.  I’ve already stated publicly that I’m in favor of ferries, and that wasn’t my idea. But let’s look outside of America and see what other progressive cities have done to solve similar problems. I think one of the biggest challenges we need to overcome is the expectation that transit has to look a certain way, simply because of preconceived notions.

QUESTION #9:  How are you committed to strengthening Tampa’s public schools and ensuring that every student has access to a high-quality public education?

Let’s be clear; the Department of Education is not within the authority of the Mayor.  At best, the mayor can use their bully pulpit to fight for issues they feel are important. That being said, I will use my bully pulpit to advocate for the reintroduction of the arts into our education.  STEM is good, but STEAM is way better. Look at what is happening to our society; on one end of the spectrum we are divisive, vitriolic, and even violent to people who disagree with us. On the other end of the spectrum, we have become overly sensitive, easily offended, and unable to cope with some of life’s day-to-day stressors.  I think these are the effects of a generation starved of the arts. Think about it. Through the arts, we learn about creativity, imagination, and wonder. The arts teach us, through story, about love and heartache, peace and war, victory and defeat.  A generation of students have been robbed of these gifts from the arts, and and we are now seeing the effects.  The arts make us better humans. I will be the Mayor who presses to put the arts back into education.

QUESTION #10:  Hillsborough County is ninth largest school district in US – as this county continues to grow are there enough school facilities to house these students? What can be done locally to help the school districts with the needed funding to renovate and build new schools?

Our educational facilities are long overdue for some upkeep.  With the Save our Schools referendum passing, we can expect the facilities to get the support they need.  But I’m more concerned about giving the teachers the support they need. Our schools can accommodate the growth, but can our teachers?  Teachers are underpaid. Period. And if we want our schools to be better at educating our students, we will never make that happen while paying our teachers what they get right now.  Florida’s public education quality ranking is currently #26 in the US, even though our teachers’ pay is ranked #42.   Imagine the kind of top talent we could attract and the results we could produce if we were among the highest ranking in pay as well?

QUESTION #11:  Mayor Buckhorn continually referenced not losing his daughters to Austin, Charlotte or Nashville and making Tampa a place where college graduates return to after graduation. How will you push to make Tampa an attractive place for young professionals to move to and start their careers?

This is one of the reasons that I would be a great Mayor for our city; because I’ve been listening to the needs of our next generation for years.  As a Professor of Practice at University of Tampa, I hear the needs of college students all of the time.  And do you know what their #1 complaint about Tampa is? They’ve inherited a dinosaur transportation system from their parents and grandparents that they JUST. DON’T. WANT.  One student in particular, Sarah Daniels, is a brilliant graduate from UT. I worked so hard to find her a job in Tampa, working for a local construction firm. And she had many opportunities, but she chose a firm in DC.  Why? It’s a more livable place for a college grad who doesn’t want to have to drive everywhere to get where she wants to go.

If we are going to compete with the cities you’ve mentioned, we must ensure that we’ve created an environment where any resident can get from any neighborhood to another, easily and efficiently, by the modality that THEY WANT TO USE.  If we want to be competitive, the answer isn’t easy; but it is simple. We need affordable housing and world-class transit solutions.

QUESTION #12:  As Tampa continues to grow, we are seeing many new firms open offices here, and out of state developers coming in to develop projects in our city. As our new mayor, how will you streamline the building permit process for companies that are not local to Tampa to ensure they continue to do future work here?

Regardless of whether a developer is local or non-local, our permitting process needs work.  And I don’t blame our city workers, I blame our IT systems. I’ve sat with developers and I’ve seen the frustration in their eyes when permitting hits a snag and their profit evaporates .  Peter, a local developer, was all ready to break ground and build four townhomes on a lot he purchased that was zoned and approved for a multi-unit sub division. In the 11th hour, the water department told him that the water main wasn’t large enough to supply sufficient pressure, and it would be his cost to expand from a 4-inch to a 6-inch water pipe… at an additional expense of $90,000. This wasn’t his fault.  I speak with Matthew, the co-owner of Burgerim in downtown, almost every day on my way to work; and what has taken him over 16 months to do in our city he has done in 2 months in Brandon. Where do you think he will open his 3rd restaurant? I don’t know the answer, but I can promise you that without some changes to our permitting process, it won’t be in the city of Tampa. This is why we need to invest in an AI and machine learning infrastructure.

I’ve made it public knowledge that I plan on investing in AI and machine learning IT for our city so that each department is able to communicate as seamlessly as our right leg communicates with our left to help us walk.  With the advances in technology today, there’s no reason why our permitting process should take so long. Before our current Mayor, it could take up to 6 months to get through permitting; he got that down to around 6 weeks.  I want it to happen in less than 5 hours. It’s an ambitious goal, but one that absolutely is possible if we refuse to accept mediocrity and demand excellence.

QUESTION #13:  How will you promote using our local task force for large-scale projects in and around Tampa Bay? A good majority of the well-known projects underway are using architects and contractors that are not local to Tampa – how would you encourage or incentivize developers to keep it local?

I’m your small business mayor. 98% of our local economy is because of small business in Tampa.  So I’d much rather offer tax incentives to developers for hiring local people, than offering incentives for Fortune 500 companies to move to Tampa. We already have certain ordinances that that require a certain percentage of subcontracted work to be awarded to minorities; why don’t we get creative and do something similar to protect our local architects? When we support a local business, 70% of each dollar stays inside the local area. When we support national companies, less than 30% of each dollar stays inside the local area.

This is a big deal; the more we support our local businesses, the stronger our economy will be and the better we can ensure that when the economy shifts, and development slows down, our local architects, engineers, builders, and developers are getting the jobs in their own city to make sure they stay robust and profitable.