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Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. Photo via Chase.

TAMPA— When I arrived in this sun-drenched Gulf Coast city late Monday afternoon, things were a bit quiet. Just a sleepy start to the work week, I presumed.

But then one of the locals informed me what was really going on. The entire city just got done celebrating the 111th annual Gasparilla Pirate Festival, a citywide party with parades, concerts and a full-fledged pirate invasion of the City Hall that in some respects resembles Mardi Gras.

“Everyone is still hungover,” the person said.

Bob Buckhorn obviously survived the staged pirate attack of his offices, since the hard-charging and well-regarded mayor turned up Monday night at the kickoff event for Tampa Bay’s Startup Week festivities. The event, organized by UP Global and sponsored by Chase, includes a week-long slate of activities, everything from ping pong in the park to fireside chats with startup leaders to hands-on entrepreneurial training sessions.

tampstartupweekBuckhorn — a Democrat who is facing no serious challengers in his bid for re-election this year — is working hard to turn Tampa into a place where entrepreneurs (of the non-pirate variety) feel welcome. In fact, he says Tampa has the chance to become the “economic engine” for southeast Florida.

I caught up with Mayor Buckhorn after his remarks (and a very short DJ set he busted out with the Startup Week mix master).

Buckhorn said there’s a lot of promise in an up-and-coming $1 billion development known as Channelside, a once-blighted area just east of downtown that’s being redeveloped by Tampa Bay Lightning owner and former hedge fund operator Jeff Vinik. The project also has the financial support of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, whose investment company joined the effort late last year.

“I think it is huge,” said Buckhorn of the project. “We are going to recreate a whole landscape there. It is going to be hip. It is going to be 18 hours per day. It is going to be walkable and pedestrian friendly. It is exactly the type of environment that startups would love to be in.”

Buckhorn also noted that the money behind the project is “real,” citing both the involvement of Vinik and Gates. In fact, Buckhorn said that Gates got involved through his Cascade investment fund because Tampa Bay Lightning minority owner Tod Leiweke used to be CEO of the Seattle Seahawks.

There are all sorts of parallels between what’s being proposed at Channelside, and Seattle’s own burgeoning South Lake Union neighborhood — home to Amazon.com and a number of biotechnology companies. (I hope to explore this in more detail during my visit).

“You come back in five years, and you will not recognize downtown Tampa,” said Buckhorn, adding that the entrepreneurial community in the city really has started to take root in the past six or seven years.

“It is really exciting,” he said.

Asked if there is one thing holding back the startup community in Tampa, Buckhorn pointed directly to a lack of venture capital. He said Florida as a whole has struggled in building up a solid base of venture capitalists.

“They are more traditional givers. They like to touch what they invest in,” said Buckhorn. “So getting beyond that mentality and getting these young entrepreneurs in front of the money, really can make a difference. There is plenty of money here. We just have to expose them to some of the alternative investments.”

While progress has been made, Buckhorn admitted that there’s a way to go. “I am never satisfied,” he said.

Editor’s Note: GeekWire has partnered with UP Global and Chase to cover four Startup Week events around the country, starting with the Tampa Bay Startup Week from Feb. 2-6. GeekWire will be filing daily reports from this emerging startup hub this week.

Previously on GeekWire: Welcome to Tampa: A startup scene emerges in this beach paradise

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