By Jim Bleyer
Don’t be deceived by Bill Carlson’s calm demeanor. The rookie city councilman’s passion for Tampa runs wide, deep, and beyond his avid penchant for a good cigar.
Along with enthusiasm for all things Tampeño, Carlson brings to City Hall a world view, willingness to explore and expand Tampa’s potential, and a recognition of what constitutes perception, reality, and where they intertwine.
The president of Tucker/Hall, one of Florida’s more visible public relations and public affairs firms, Carlson spent five years in Singapore as a marketing consultant to international firms and organizations.
But Tampa is home. Carlson earned a Bachelor’s from the University of Tampa. He has worked at Tucker/Hall for the past 25 years with the last 12 as president of the agency.
A newbie to public office sworn in a month ago, Carlson’s citizen involvement made him a standout in a council race where he vanquished two opponents without a runoff. He has served in a number of leadership positions at the Hillsborough Education Foundation, Leadership Tampa Bay, the Tampa Chamber, the Florida Chamber and Rotary International. Carlson is also on the board of the Florida Chamber Foundation, Florida TaxWatch, Florida Museum of History, Florida House DC and the Pinellas Education Foundation.
So much for the resumé. One of Carlson’s priorities is to tap into what he sees as Tampa’s potential as an international city.
He has actively helped boost Tampa’s international profile by promoting the hiring of Joe Lopano as Tampa International Airport CEO. Under Lopano, TIA last year experienced its most successful 12 months ever, with record passenger traffic, record revenues and the completion of the first phase of a $2 billion expansion. The airport has consistently ranked in the top three of U.S. airports.
The Port of Tampa has been slower to tap the city’s international potential. Carlson, who visions the port as the country’s gateway to Latin America, sees some progress. Container traffic has reached 100,000 but still badly trails Florida ‘s three largest ports—Miami, Jacksonville, and Port Everglades—whose annual volume is more than one million each.
”For years, it was acceptable to label Tampa as Florida’s ‘largest port’ but that was by land size, an artificial measurement,” explained Carlson. “The growth of container traffic is far more meaningful and on the right track.”
The growth of port container traffic and international flights at TIA are keys to transforming Tampa into an international city for business and tourism, Carlson went on. International banking is a natural, he said, despite a major setback years ago when the city was scandalized as a laundering center for drug money.
A second priority for Carlson: stimulating the arts scene which he views as a significant economic driver for Tampa.
“Our new mayor (Jane Castor) shows a genuine interest in promoting the arts, an area neglected by the previous administration. St. Petersburg has done a stellar job as selling itself as an arts destination. We can as well.”
The Tampa Mayor’s Forum on the Arts, scheduled Wednesday, June 12, will help determine the arts/government relationship. The free two-hour event will be held at Hillsborough Community College but advance tickets are recommended as a full house is anticipated.
”There will be four half-hour segments: creating an arts vision, exploring grass roots efforts, demonstrating the value of the arts to the local economy, and fielding audience comments,” Carlson said. “Everyone is invited to the table.”
A third Carlson priority: government transparency and accountability.
”There was a widespread distrust of the last administration. As an example of how we’re progressing, the council at its last meeting pulled ten contracts, each with one bidder, from the consent agenda. The public deserves to know the rationale for city expenditures.”
Carlson sees the lack of credible metrics as to where Tampa ranks among U.S. cities as a major obstacle to sound decision making by local government.
“Some locals promote the idea that Tampa is very successful but the reality is, that by several key measures, we’re not,” he said. “Such illusions are an impediment to progress. Florida’s institutes of higher learning may be able to supply an accurate road map for future action.”