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‘We need to keep doing the things we’re doing’

 

Here is the prepared text of Mayor A.J. Holloway’s State of the City address, delivered Monday, Jan. 31, 2005 during a Biloxi Bay Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino.

 

I’m delighted to come before you again to deliver the annual State of the City address. Thank you for such a warm reception.

I appreciate those of you here today, and I appreciate those watching this presentation on Cable One.

It’s great that so many of you are so interested in your city.

Gary has already introduced the City Council and other distinguished guests in the audience, and I’d like to recognize a few people who help me run your city on a day-to-day basis — the individual department directors.

David Staehling, Administration; Jerry Creel, Community Development; David Roberts, Fire; Ronnie Cochran, Legal; Nathan Sullivan, Parks and Recreation; Bruce Dunagan, Police; and Richard Sullivan, Public Works

I’d also like to recognize another person that you could call a director, at least I do – and that’s my wife, Macklyn.

Today marks the 11 th occasion for me to make this annual report on the state of our city.

Those of you who know me know that there are a lot of things I love about this job. But public speaking ain’t one of ‘em.

My fellow citizens and friends, as your Mayor I am proud to report that the state of our city remains robust. Our local economy remains vibrant. Our quality of life remains excellent and our future continues to hold much promise.

We are doing the things that we’re supposed to be doing here in Biloxi, and we’re seeing the exciting results of our efforts.

We in Biloxi today have the rare privilege of being a part of what will be viewed as one of the most historic periods of our time.

In decades to come, our children and grandchildren will view this era as when our renaissance began – when Biloxi embarked on the most prosperous and most progressive period of sustained growth ever seen in the city’s long history.

To find anything even close to what we’re seeing these days you’d have to go back generations – to the birth of the seafood industry, and when Biloxi was known as the seafood capital of the world.

Today, I’m going to put things in perspective for you. I’m going to detail the tremendous growth we’ve seen in the past year, and tell you about the things we’re doing to keep our city on the right track.

The bottom line, I think, is that we need to keep doing the things that we’re doing.

The rest of the nation and the rest of the world have watched how we’ve handled this growth over the past 12½ years.

And during that time, hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested toward improving our community and our way of life.

No matter how you look at it, you can’t overlook the many improvements that have taken place.

We’ve built new schools, new roads, new fire and police stations, new parks and we’ve financed them in a responsible way.

We’ve seen 18,000 jobs created here in Biloxi.

We’ve worked hard to deal with the issues that come when you see 4 billion dollars worth of development and you see the number of visitors to your city increase from 1 million a year to between 10 and 12 million a year.

And through it all, we can say we still live in – and we still love — this city we’re proud to call home.

In the past year, we’ve continued to attract national and international recognition for the things we’re doing here in Biloxi.

In November, three dozen Japanese educators spent a week in our city, learning more about the Biloxi public school system and its important role in our community.

In March, the White House named Biloxi as one of 20 Preserve America communities for our efforts in preservation and having land-use ordinances that encourage the preservation of historic neighborhoods.

And earlier this month, a member of the British Parliament toured our city and was very impressed with the growth and, frankly, everything he saw.

Of course, we continue to face uncertain times – in terms of the world and even here at home.

In the past year, almost 500 men and women from Keesler served anywhere from 90 to 120 days in locations around the globe.

Our Biloxi folks are serving this country with honor, and our thanks and prayers are with them and their families.

Back home here in Biloxi, Keesler got a new commander, Brigadier General Bill Lord. Keesler was the first assignment for the general and his new bride Cindy.

General Lord is out of town today, but his wife, Cindy is with us.

Cindy, I want to welcome you and Bill back home.

We have an excellent relationship with Keesler because we’ve worked hard to make day-to-day decisions — sound decisions — that would fuel our economic vitality and also protect the things that we all love about Biloxi – our small town charm, our historic districts and our heritage, our low cost of living and our excellent quality of life, our safe neighborhoods, and residents who are known for their friendliness.

I introduced David Staehling earlier, who I made Director of Administration a few months ago. I’ve known David for most of my life, and I appointed him anyway.

David brings a wealth of experience in banking, mortgage finance and commercial development. He’s one of the people I depend on for advice, and sometimes it’s good advice.

David says that people in Biloxi believe two things. They believe what they want to believe and they believe what they read in the newspaper.

I don’t know about that, but something that was in The Sun Herald the other day did catch my attention, and, in fact, one of our council members was so impressed that she read it into the record at a council meeting.

In a nutshell, the editorial said that the things happening here in Biloxi are not happening by accident and not because of luck.

Let me read a little of the editorial:

“Biloxi officials were not lucky when they decided to match the city’s infrastructure to the demands of its newest industry — the casinos.

“Rather, they were confident enough to invest revenue from that industry back into the city.

“The lazy look at Biloxi with envy.

“The wise look at Biloxi as an example.”

I want to thank The Sun Herald for those encouraging words.

For the past several years, I’ve stood before you and said that our biggest challenge was moving traffic.

Last year, when I came before you, we had just finished the new Back Bay Boulevard slightly ahead of schedule and slightly under budget.

I also told you that we would be finishing the new Popp’s Ferry Road a year ahead of schedule.

And I also promised you that Caillavet Street would be under construction by the end of 2004 and we would be driving on new parts of it by the end of 2005.

Those things are all happening because I asked for and the majority of the City Council supported the concept of construction management.

The folks on Popp’s Ferry can tell you that the process worked as far as getting things done on time, and instead of hearing about cost overruns and delays, you’re seeing multi-million-dollar projects coming in under budget.

And these new roads do so much more than move traffic – they’re moving this city into a promising future.

I’ve always said that tourism is our niche here in Biloxi.

In fact, property appraisals done by Harrison County show that six of Biloxi’s top 10 property taxpayers are in the gaming industry.

And the top 10 properties account for 43 percent of our assessed value. That’s a concentrated economy.

For our economy to continue to thrive, and for our quality of life to continue to improve, we must strike a balance in our growth.

And that’s what we’ve tried to do – to see growth in the commercial sector, growth in medical services and recreation sectors, which are two key quality of life issues, and growth in residential construction.

The work that we are doing – the work that we need to keep doing – is making those things happen.

These road projects, with their new sidewalks, new curbing and improved drainage, are one of the tools helping us grow existing businesses and helping us create new businesses.

This means new and better paying jobs for our residents, which means an expanded and more diverse tax base.

An excellent example is the Cedar Lake-Popp’s Ferry area, where our 28 million-dollar traffic improvement project is paving the way for that growth.

That’s the big story here. In March of 2000 we began four years of roadwork in the Cedar-Popp’s area.

We widened Cedar Lake Road to five lanes between the interstate and Popp’s Ferry Road.

We added new shoulders and pavement from Cedar Lake to Richard Drive, where we built a totally new road all the way through to Popp’s Ferry Road.

And, of course, we widened Popp’s Ferry Road, and added new sidewalks and curbing and new traffic signals.

While we were doing all of that work, we were also overseeing more than 170 million dollars in development in the Cedar-Popp’s area.

That includes 33 million dollars in commercial growth.

Things like a Home Depot, new medical office facilities offering state-of-the-art outpatient treatment, new bank branches and other professional retail.

Those firms represent the creation of hundreds of new jobs in the Cedar-Popp’s area.

The new high school, new elementary school, new sports complex, expansion of the Margaret Sherry library and Mississippi State’s Coastal Research Center easily represent another 70 million dollars in growth.

We’ve also seen 2.3 million dollars in new apartment construction, and here’s the really significant figure: We’ve seen 522 new homes – 64.6 million dollars in new home construction.

More than 170 million dollars in growth. That’s growth – diverse growth, and it’s in all sectors of the economy. Make no mistake about it. Our road work sets the table for economic development.

It’s the same story with our east Biloxi traffic improvement program. The public investment in east Biloxi – 22 million dollars in new schools at Gorenflo and Nichols, millions in streets and drainage, new fire stations at Back Bay and East End – these are the things that helped lure the 35 million-dollar Hope VI affordable housing project to east Biloxi.

Last month, just before Christmas, the City of Biloxi Housing Authority recognized the first of 233 families that will be moving into the Bayou Auguste section of the Hope VI project.

By the end of this year, we’ll see a total of 387 lease-purchase and market rate homeownership units, which will mean hundreds of new homeowners in east Biloxi.

These new homeowners will help attract new retailers to east Biloxi, revitalizing the economy in one of the oldest sections of our city.

I want to congratulate the commissioners of the Biloxi Housing Authority for their work on this project.

I also want to thank our many partners on this project – our local banks, realtors, contractors and everyone who has had a hand in this success story.

Near the end of the year, the Salvation Army hopes to break ground on the Ray and Joan Kroc Center of Hope at Yankie Stadium.

This 7.5 million-dollar facility, which will be supported by a 15 million-dollar trust fund from the Kroc family, will include an indoor lap pool, an outdoor recreational pool, a performing arts center, a gymnasium and a centralized location for a number of social service agencies.

You’ll find a daycare operated by Moore Community House, after-school activities operated by the Boys and Girls Club, and job training classes.

Caillavet Street stands to be the most ambitious phase of our efforts to use roadways to drive economic development.

We’ll have the four-lane boulevard as the centerpiece, but the real story will be the 36 parcels of land and 7.3 acres we’re revitalizing on Caillavet’s east side.

The eight-foot wide sidewalks and attractive landscaping will help this area be a success.

As you know, the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino will open next door in August or September.

About the same time or sooner, 400 new hotel rooms and a new, larger casino will be coming online at the Isle of Capri.

And two casino resort projects are now going through the permitting process in east Biloxi – one on Caillavet Street and one on Back Bay Boulevard.

These projects promise thousands of new jobs and a significant boost to our economic base.

As Mayor, I know that my primary responsibility to you is to provide the basic services that you expect – safe neighborhoods for you and your family, good schools for your children, good recreation, a clean city, and, most importantly, do all of these things without raising your taxes.

That’s why economic development and striking a good balance in our local economy are such important issues.

There’s been a fair amount of talk over the years about the good fortune that the gaming industry has brought to our city, particularly our city government.

Make no mistake about it, city government and providing essential services have become big business in Biloxi.

Over the years, some have said that Biloxi was a wealthy city. I’ve always maintained that Biloxi is healthy, not wealthy — and we faced years of catching up before we could move forward, before we could see the improvements like we’re seeing now.

Let me give you a brief explanation of how your city government operates. We have three main sources of revenue: Gaming taxes, sales taxes and property taxes.

Gaming revenue accounts for 35 percent of our annual city operating budget, and sales tax collections represent almost 24 percent.

To be exact, 58.6 percent of our annual revenue comes from gaming and sales taxes.

And most of that money is coming from those 10 to 12 million visitors now coming to our city each year.

Only 17 percent of our annual revenue comes from property taxes.

See what I mean when I say tourism is our niche here in Biloxi?

That point hit home for many of us back in September.

I traveled to Pensacola with several of you here today to bring hot meals to those who were overwhelmed by Hurricane Ivan.

Our hearts go out to those who are still recovering on the Florida and Alabama coasts, but, at the same time, we can clearly see that a direct hit here would have been – and would be — devastating.

That’s why the work going on right now to protect the waterfront gaming industry is so important to our city and to our state.

We’re seeing some promising trends in our local economy. Monthly reports show gaming tax revenue has increased 10 of the last 12 months.

Our monthly sales tax revenue has seen increases in 12 of the last 15 months.

I see promising trends in our property taxes, too.

I told you about the growth in the Cedar-Popp’s area, but overall we’ve seen 756 new homes built in Biloxi in the past four years, and we’re seeing tremendous growth in a related area — the condominium market.

Right now, Biloxi has 561 condominiums. When they were built years ago, those condos represented about $11 million in construction. Right now, we have 215 condo units under construction – representing 43.9 million dollars in construction.

And developers have proposals to build more than 1,000 more units – investing more than 120 million dollars in new construction.

This is not to say that we’ll see all of those proposed condos move forward, but the units under construction right now will represent a significant boost to our property tax base.

And, most importantly, they signal a diversification in the appeal of our city, and they’re something else we have to offer.

Consider this: An upscale condo in Destin might go for 800,000 dollars. You could easily get that upscale condo right here in Biloxi for half that.

People considering retiring to Florida are going to start looking here, and they’re going to like the lower prices, along with our overall lower cost of living and better quality of life.

Protecting and growing those three revenue sources is important to us because they help us grow the economy.

Ten years ago, in 1995, we spent 6.1 million dollars on major projects.

In the past few years, we’ve averaged spending between 18 and 22 million dollars a year on capital projects.

By the end of this year, the so-called surplus that you’ve heard about for the past few years will be down to a 10 percent cushion.

Does gaming have a big impact on our city? You bet it does, and I submit to you that this is the way it was supposed to work.

Gaming was designed to revitalize our economy, create jobs and help improve the quality of life for all of our residents.

That’s why it was so alarming a few months ago to hear rumors that our Legislature could look at revising the current gaming laws, reducing the share of gaming taxes for local communities.

This would be catastrophic to us, and I appreciate the Biloxi Bay Chamber’s recent resolution telling our legislature how much of a mistake this would be.

To give you an idea of how much we’ve grown in the past few years, we’ve gone from a city operating budget of 25.5 million dollars in 1995 to 51.8 million dollars a year ago.

Police and Fire Department spending has gone from 10 million dollars 10 years ago to 22 million dollars a year ago.

If we want to see these services continue at their current level, we need to keep doing the things we’re doing.

The road work I’ve talked about today is not the end of the road, so to speak.

In fact, major road construction and drainage improvements will continue in ’05, too.

Design work is underway right now and we hope to begin construction by the end of the year on widening Popp’s Ferry Road from Cedar Lake all the way to the D’Iberville line.

We’re also expecting to begin right of way acquisition so we can improve several key intersections on Pass Road.

We want to add turn lanes and better synchronized signals at Eisenhower, Popp’s Ferry, Beauvoir Road and other major intersections on Pass Road.

We’ve been successful in having 4 million dollars in federal funds budgeted toward a new Popp’s Ferry bridge, one that will not be subject to repeated openings for marine traffic, and one that will be a dependable evacuation route in times of need.

And we’re continuing on our promise to deliver city-quality services to the Woolmarket community.

The engineering work has been done on the first phase of installing water and sewer service in the Eagle Point area and the Highway 67 corridor.

Construction is underway right now on a new elevated water tank and a new water well to enhance water pressure.

A new fire station on Oaklawn will be in operation in the next few weeks.

All of these things I’ve told you about up to this point are the major initiatives we’ve been working on.

It’s a pretty ambitious program of public works, but everything I’ve told you so far is only part of our success story.

In the past year, we’ve invested more money than ever in delivering the services that you depend on.

And we’re talking about services that can mean life or death.

In the past year, for instance, the Biloxi Fire Department saw a 24 percent increase in the number of calls it received last year, and the biggest increase of the calls was for emergency medical responses.

Research shows that heart attack patients suffer the most long-term damage in the first few minutes of a heart attack, so immediate attention is vital.

A few years ago, we equipped all of our fire trucks with defibrillators, and we gave our firefighters training to be first-responders.

With eight – soon to be nine – fire stations strategically located throughout our city, the Biloxi Fire Department is usually on the scene before AMR – and we’re saving lives.

We’re up to 176 firefighters today, and to help better oversee our firefighting efforts, we doubled the number of battalion chiefs.

For the first time in our city history that I know of, we have a battalion chief on duty for south of the Bay and one for north of the Bay.

This is important because the Battalion Chief is the one responsible for directing fire combat since they arrive on the scene with the first trucks.

I’m also proud of the job our Police Department is doing in light of the tremendous increase in traffic and people in our city.

An area of importance is the drug interdiction efforts out on Interstate 10.

In one four-day period last month, our officers confiscated 38 pounds of marijuana, and over a quarter million in suspected drug money.

In all of last year, our police officers confiscated almost 900 pound of marijuana, 85 pounds of cocaine, and 800,000 dollars in drug money.

They took away these drugs and that drug money before they made their way to our streets and neighborhoods.

The truth of the matter is we’re finding better ways to occupy our children – with education.

I’m happy to tell you that with completion of the new stadium at Biloxi High, the Biloxi Public School System has now completed its seven-year 70-plus million-dollar capital construction program.

These improvements are showing results in the most important place – in the classroom.

If you look at the benchmarks in the federal No Child Left Behind initiative, you’ll see that Biloxi students are either above or well above the national averages for elementary schools.

On state testing, our students have among the highest scores in state.

I congratulate Superintendent Paul Tisdale, our school board members, our faculty and staff, and, most important, our students and their parents.

As Mayor, I am also proud that the school board and administration have been able to accomplish all of these things while keeping our city school taxes the lowest you’ll find on the Coast.

In fact, our millage rate is half of some Coast districts. We’re doing the things that we need to be doing, and things are working the way they’re supposed to be working.

Education is the key to raising good children, and we’re doing that, but to have a well-rounded quality of life, children need good recreation programs. And I’m proud to say, we’re doing that, too.

In the past year, we saw a 16.8 percent increase in the participation in our youth leagues.

We had almost 5,800 kids in our various youth leagues. That’s almost triple the 2,000 youngsters we had four years ago.

To handle the increase, we’ve built new recreation facilities and upgraded existing ones.

In fact, this year you’ll be seeing the final phases of construction wrapping up on the 11 million-dollar sports complex off Popp’s Ferry Road.

Soccer, softball and baseball teams have been playing at the sports complex for two years now.

This year, we’ll begin playing on five new Little League fields, and we’ll wrap up work on concession stands and restrooms to support those fields.

In all, this 67-acre complex will have four softball fields, a baseball field, five Little league fields and enough soccer fields to play eight soccer games at the same time.

We’re also going to add tennis courts, a maintenance facility and a walking trail.

At Causeway Park, construction is underway for a waterfront boardwalk and nature trail through the marsh, new lighting, parking, a concrete fishing promenade, upgraded boat ramps and fishing piers to enjoy the beautiful sunsets.

I want to thank Supervisors Bobby Eleuterius and Connie Rockco for their help and support on the sports complex and causeway park projects.

You’ll also see design work underway for a new Community Center to replace the current Community Center on Howard Avenue, which has served us so well for more than three decades.

We expect to dedicate a new Mardi Gras Museum at the Dantzler House this fall.

We’re expecting this beachfront location to significantly increase the annual attendance at the museum.

And, as you can see, the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum continues to go up.

We’ll also begin construction of a new downtown plaza and stage area at the former site of the Golden Fisherman in the Vieux Marche.

In May, as part of the Blessing of the Fleet, we hope to dedicate the new site of the Golden Fisherman at Point Cadet.

Just think about it. Coming across the bridge you’ll be greeted by the Golden Fisherman throwing his net and then you’ll come to the Frank Gehry museum dancing with the oaks.

These type projects are important to our efforts to preserve and promote our colorful past and our great quality of life.

They are what prompted First Lady Laura Bush to name Biloxi as one of those 20 Preserve America communities last year.

Another reason we received that honor is because of the work we’re doing in upgrading the appearance of our neighborhoods.

Our Community Court and code enforcement efforts oversaw the cleanup of 1500 properties throughout our city in the past year.

That’s a 133 percent increase over 2003.

These are important quality of life issues, and are vital to continuing the success of our city. These are the kinds of things that we need to keep doing.

And one of the most important things that we city leaders need to do as stewards of your tax dollars is to make sure that we are getting the best return on the money we spend.

We had that thought in mind when we became the first city in Mississippi to accept a challenge from President Bush to help formulate plans to end chronic homelessness in the next 12 years.

The challenge is to have an organized and coordinated effort among the growing number of social service agencies that serve our community.

Social service spending by your city has grown from less than 100,000 dollars 12 years ago to more than a million dollars a year for the past several years.

This idea of getting the most out of the resources that we’re spending is a challenge that we face these days.

As many of you know, the city is now managing our harbors and marinas, which were previously the responsibility of the Biloxi Port Commission.

With this change, the city took on more than two dozen employees, and a 1.3 million dollar annual operating budget.

In the past year, the city also assumed a bigger role in how we operate our water

department. We picked up almost two dozen employees as a result, and we created two in-house construction teams in our Public Works Department. Those two teams have completed 30 neighborhood streets and drainage projects in the past year.

We’ve taken on all of these responsibilities at a time when we were already spending more money than ever before on major projects and providing the enhanced services you have come to expect.

It’s a matter of accountability – and accountability, of course, starts at the top.

You will be holding me and the City Council members accountable this year, in elections that are going to signal the significant population shifts that we’ve seen in our city.

A number of you may be voting at new locations or in new wards because of the growth in west Biloxi and north Biloxi.

I hope that all of you take the time to vote, and get involved in your city government.

In closing, let me say this:

We are truly blessed here in Biloxi, and we just need to keep doing the things that we’re doing.

The things that keep our city on the right track.

The things that keep our city the place that we call home, and millions of visitors call paradise.

God bless all of you. God bless Biloxi, and God bless America.

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