Who? Jason Busto is a 36-year-old fifth-generation Tampeño, a London School of Economics-trained trilingual world traveler and COO of his family-owned plumbing business.
Sphere of influence: They don't call him the "unofficial mayor of West Tampa" for nothing. He's been a passionate advocate for aggressive redevelopment of Tampa's urban core in a style that would be closer to the great cities of Europe than the car-crazy U.S. He envisions 2- to 3-story residential buildings lining major roadways from downtown to Westshore. He's also a historic preservationist, fighting to keep former cigar factories and the Guida House from being demolished. Busto is a key player in re-emergent progressive Democratic politics in Hillsborough, helping encourage fresh blood like recently elected Tampa City Councilwoman Mary Mulhern. And he's the only unpaid citizen member of Tampa International Airport's seven-county International Air Service Development Committee, a group he prodded airport officials to create to increase the number of international flights here.
How he makes a difference: He is a self-proclaimed "connector," a behind-the-scenes cultivator of big ideas and energetic people who want to serve as a curative to Tampa Bay's "stale and calcified" power structure.
CL: What qualifies you as the "unofficial" mayor of West Tampa?
It's because I see Tampa and Tampa Bay as a region for somebody like I am, who loves people and government and civics and citizenship. I see it as a place that is a blank slate that kind of has been mothballed, in its own way, by mediocre management over the years .... We have an opportunity to build the model post-car American city in the 21st century. We have in the urban core -- which is my area of focus, not just West Tampa -- skeletons, a built environment that would allow us to really build green, dense, rich, diverse and wonderful cities within our region.
Is West Tampa a metaphor for all of Florida?
In some ways, it's a metaphor for the entire nation. My frame to understand our region is we have city builders and we have Wauchula. I love Florida. I'm half-cracker; I'm half-Latin. I have a really good flavor for where this place came from and why we're where we are at today. It is a model for what's right and what's wrong with our nation.
So what's right and wrong with Tampa Bay?
One element that bonds the whole thing culturally to this city, first of all we are very young, and that gives me great cause for hope. We have beautiful wonderful people here, and more and more are coming every day. Historically, you've had the city managed by a small group of business leadership, primarily. The last round of real leadership was in the desegregation era. What I sense here in this market today is a lot of the older people who are leaders are not effective transition-makers, and they don't prepare the successor generation adequately for the next round of leadership. You end up with what we have today, which is sort of a drive to the bottom to get the lowest common denominator.
Why the big deal about getting more international flights?
The airport for me is a metaphor for where this community and region have been and are going. Tampa International proves that we can accomplish greatness as a citizenry when we work together. Way before Walt Disney went into Orlando and bought up all that land, our airport was the leader. [Today, however,] the average person here has to pay $100 and $500 more just to leave the country. There is an obstacle between us and the world that should not exist and need not exist but for good pitching and good marketing. We only have five international flights; we had 10 [flights] 10 years ago. So we approached the airport. They were insistent: We were wrong. There was no problem. We had our facts wrong.
How does that relate to the larger issue of progressive change here?
The mindsets are stale and calcified. We are a region, and we are an economic unit as a region. This city is developing a critical mass. We can take that force into doing what I presented to you, which is building a city we can all love. There are a lot of people who love Tampa, but that love is unrequited because the equity and the power structure is not enough. It's imbalanced.
You've lived all over the world -- San Francisco, London, Moscow, Hong Kong, Madrid, D.C. -- but decided to come back to Tampa. Why?
I went all around, and I did very fascinating and enjoyable and meaningful work in these places, but this is my home. And I am tired of seeing all my friends who want urbanity, who want quality of life, who want everything the global economy has to offer but don't want to live in Los Angeles or New York or London or Washington D.C, or any number of other cities, [leave the area]. They want it here.
You make it sound like there aren't too many people who see things your way in politics around here?
Oh, but there are many, many people who get it. [He named Hillsborough Clerk Pat Frank, Tampa City Councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena and Mulhern as examples.] We just don't quite have control of City Hall yet. But when we do, you will have this interview, and you can hold us to it.
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