SOTC 2012: An historic year on many levels

Here is the prepared text of the State of the City address delivered on Feb. 8, 2012 during a Biloxi Bay Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino.

Thank all of you for being here today. I especially want to thank Tina Ross Seamans and everyone with the chamber for organizing this affair.

This is the 22nd annual State of the City address, and it’s the 19th time I have come before you.

In those early years, the chamber struggled to find an audience for this event. They tried it in the morning. They tried it at lunchtime. And they tried it in the evening.

Well, I’ll tell you, we’ve come a long way. This year, half the seats were sold even before the invitations went out.

And today, I am here to tell you that just like the growth of this event, the state of our city is coming into its own. We are determined to see it through to success. And we will.

Last year, I told you that 2011 was going to be the year of ribbon cuttings and building dedications.
I told you we were going to re-assert our position as a leader in culture, in history and in quality of life.

Today, my friends, I’m here to tell you we’re well on our way.

For the past several months, we have had thousands of people pass through the doors at the visitors center.

They are captivated by our rich history and our culture. They discover why so many people have had such a long love affair with our city.

You saw a glimpse of that just last month when we had thousands of Alabama fans visiting our community.

We have a great story to tell, and before you leave here today, you’re going to be excited about where we are and where we’re going.

2012 is going to be a year of unprecedented success and progress.

We are going to see more positive national media attention than we have ever seen. And we are going to do 10 times more work than has ever been done in any other of the 313 years in our history.

Those are not merely bold election-year promises. These are statements that will become fact.

We are going to tell our story on the national stage in a way that we have never done before. It will be sustained and it will be relevant.

— We’ll have two national radio shows broadcasting from Biloxi.
— We’ll have re-opening of the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library.

— We’ll have the opening of Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville.

— We’ll have the 20th anniversary of legalized casino gambling in Biloxi.

— And we’ll also have a huge milestone at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art.

We’ll be making history in other ways, too. You’ve been hearing us talk about this $355 million worth of infrastructure work for several years.

We’ve told you how massive the work was. We’ve told you that teams of engineers have been working behind the scenes laying out the timetable for this program of work.

Today, I am here to tell you that we plan to have much of the construction under way this calendar year.

We’re going to be working on roads in north Biloxi. We’re going to be working on roads in east Biloxi. We’re going to be working on roads in west Biloxi. And we’re going to be working on roads on the Bay of Biloxi.

We were a city that had $16 million in improvement projects in an average year before Katrina.

This year, we’ll have from $160 to $200 million in road work underway, plus millions more in other construction.

Before I provide details on all of these things, I want to re-emphasize something that I’ve said to you more than once during the State of the City address.

For all of the history and the culture and the beauty of our city, it’s the people who make Biloxi the special place it is.

It always gets back to the hard-working, fun-loving people.

Those big crowds of Alabama people we had here a few weeks ago, that didn’t just happen. It took hard work from our dynamic duo in tourism, Linda Hornsby and Beth Carriere.

Biloxi is also people like Dr. Laurie Pitre, the principal at North Bay Elementary, our latest Blue Ribbon school.

And how about the job coach John Shannon did with the Biloxi High football team this year?

Biloxi is people like Kevin Coggin and the folks at Coast Transit who saw their millionth customer this year. And of course that passenger was Jane Shambra, the reference librarian and author.

It’s people like Ernest Ulrich, whose Biloxi Port City Café was so nice, he did it twice.

It’s people like Brigadier General Andrew Meuller of Keesler, who led a combined federal campaign of $730,000 for the United Way.

We have Excel by 5 because of people like Susan Hunt and Emily Burke and Carol Burnett and Sherry Bell.

And on a personal level, I must also say that I’ve been fortunate to have someone who has helped guide me for the past 50 years. Someone who has quietly and not so quietly been my rock, who has shared the many ups and downs, and who has always been there.

I love my life — and much of it is because of my wife, Macklyn.

And Macklyn, let me say this: I didn’t get a pardon from the governor, so I’ll be home in four to six years.

And, now ladies and gentlemen, since you paid such good money for this great luncheon, let me take you on a tour of your city.

(Begin video.)
We are changing the way people look at Biloxi, and it all starts right here in the Biloxi Visitors Center.

This visitors center is a window to our past. It’s a snapshot of the present. It’s a roadmap of how we got here and where we can go.

Since opening six months ago, more than 16,000 people have come through the doors. Along with our neighbors from throughout the South, we’ve welcomed people from Canada, The Netherlands, Germany, Great Britain, France, China, and Central America just to name a few.

These visitors see multi-media exhibits that tell the story of our city, our people and our colorful history and promising future.

It’s not just visitors enjoying this beautiful facility. The Visitors Center has already hosted dozens of special events, like business meetings and convention groups and Mardi Gras krewes, and we’ve even had several weddings and a baby shower.

This center is doing just what we wanted it to do – introducing people to Biloxi and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Next month, the Visitors Center will play a key role in helping tell our story to the rest of the nation. Mississippi Public Broadcasting is hosting the cast of the national radio show “Whada’Ya Know” and then they’ll broadcast their show live from the Saenger. They’ll tell millions about all the things they learned about Biloxi and the Gulf Coast.

If you’ll remember, the same day we dedicated that Visitors Center, we all drove over to Howard Avenue and cut the ribbon on the new Public Library and Civic Center.

Most cities would call it a day after they dedicated a $13 million visitors center, but not us.

We opened a $20 million library and civic center that have set a new level for municipal buildings.

We’ve provided a first-class setting for dozens of special events … banquets, business meetings, weddings and other special occasions.

Four carnival krewes have already said it’s going to be their new home, and we see even more coming our way.

And over in the library, we’re providing a user-friendly state of the art environment where visitors can read a book, go online or step into history in the local history archives.

We already have dozens of special events on the books for the civic center and visitors center. We’ve hired one person to be in charge of booking both locations to make it easy for meeting and event planners. Give Amanda a call.

Let’s not forget that these two facilities – which represent an investment of nearly $35 million – were following up on a year where we made quite a mark. It’s all part of our story…

— the Biloxi Lighthouse,

— the White House Fountain,

— the Old Brick House,

— work at our piers and marinas, which is still ongoing,

— the Katrina sculptures

— and the restoration of the Magnolia Hotel and City Hall.

Yes, we’ve done all of those things, but Biloxi is one of those “what have you done for me lately?” kinda places.

Right now, you can see progress in all parts of our city.

There are projects that have been completed, like the $53 million upgrade at the Palace Casino Resort on Point Cadet.

Or the $16 million Salvation Army Kroc Center on Division Street.
Walmart will open its new 150,000 square foot supercenter in west Biloxi in April.

McElroy’s plans to open the new Harbor House restaurant in March.

J.J.Pierotich plans to unveil his 27,000 feet of retail, Sharkheads, in March.

Down at Point Cadet, the Biloxi Boardwalk Marina is open now. You’ll find wet and dry slips to accommodate 400 vessels. Things are really on the move down there. There’s a ship store, a fuel dock and a new restaurant is under construction, with volleyball courts and more on the way.

Of course, the Biloxi Boardwalk, is just around the corner from Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. In May, Parrotheads from around the world will join Jimmy Buffett for the opening of Margaritaville in east Biloxi. This $53 million dollar development is the first new casino to open since Katrina.

That is going to be a big day for us, for Mississippi, and for Parrotheads around the world.

Let me tell you what else is happening on our waterfront.

You’ve heard about that Promenade over there in D’Iberville, well, we’re building one right now over on the Popp’s Ferry Causeway, and it’s going to be on solid ground. It’s going to be an 11-foot-wide concrete waterside walkway that will run 1,400-foot, from the small bridge on the causeway to the restored boat ramps.

It’s going to be a great place for watching the sunset, and it will be lit for nighttime fishing.

On the east side of the causeway park, we’ve built a boardwalk that loops that gives you an up close look at the beauty of a salt marsh.

We’re spending close to $5 million in federal funds to make major repairs at the Lighthouse Fishing Dock on Back Bay and at the Commercial harbor south of the Hard Rock. We’re installing new bulkheads, utilities, piers and lighting.

Before Katrina, Biloxi was one of a small fraternity of cities that was home to a presidential library. We’ll have that distinction again this summer, when Beauvoir re-opens the Jefferson David presidential Library. It’s an $11 million-plus facility dedicated to the study of the Civil War era.

This summer, the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art will open the largest building on its campus, the City of Biloxi Center for Ceramics. This is the big building on the west side of the site.

It will offer pottery classes for all ages, more exhibit space, and space for meetings, including a glass room at the top of the four-story building. The most important part of this milestone is that the construction equipment will be cleared away. You’ll be able to see the structure as it was envisioned — dancing with the trees.

In May, when the Southern Gaming Summit returns to Biloxi, we’ll mark the 20th anniversary of legalized casino gambling. This milestone will remind the rest of the nation just how far we’ve come here in Biloxi.

The achievements are impressive; $6 billion in investment, 17,000 jobs, $80 million to Biloxi Public Schools- a district that has produced three blue ribbon schools in five years. And as we like to say, the best-paid, best-trained and best-equipped police and fire departments in the country.

In several months, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College will be opening the doors to its first Biloxi facility, the Hospitality and Resort Management center, which is on the Biloxi side of the Jefferson Davis campus.

We’re seeing progress in housing, too.

The new Santa Maria Del Mar that the Catholic Diocese is building off Popp’s Ferry and Cedar Lake Roads. That $24 million project, all 209 units, may be completed as soon as June.

The Biloxi Housing Authority is constructing 77 units on Pass Road in west Biloxi and Phase 2 of Malpass Landing out on Brashier Road has been approved for construction.

There’s the Scarborough subdivision, a 60-lot subdivision being built by Breland Homes on Wash Fayard Road and John Lee Road. There’s the Peacock-Peoples subdivision that’s also on Wash Fayard and Lorraine Road. It’s 172 lots.

Breland is continuing to build out the 72 lots in Villa Tuscano on Atkinson Road.

After years of negotiating with FEMA and MEMA, we have gotten the green light to move forward with plans for the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum at its original Point Cadet site. You should see construction underway by this time next year.

You’ll also finally see construction begin on the bait shop at the small craft harbor.

We have also received the OK to move forward with a new Public Works facility, which will be on a site near the current facility on Delauney Street.

You’ll be able to see all of these, but there’s also some work that we’ll be doing underground.

This year, we began construction on the $355 million worth of infrastructure work throughout the city. For several months now, crews have been working on water, sewer and drainage out in the Sunkist and Ancient Oaks area. Over the next several months and years, you’ll see that work roll out into the14 major project areas and the 30 sub-phases.

We’re talking about 100 miles of streets. More than a than a million feet of water, sewer and storm drain lines and more than 70 wastewater pump stations.

Almost every street, sidewalk, curb and gutter that went underwater will be replaced or repaired.

As vital as this work is, I suspect I will hear from many of you when your streets and sidewalks are torn up. Don’t worry. Our crews will repair, replace and restore the infrastructure that will help our city prosper.

On Howard Avenue, we’re going to be continuing the streetscape project that we began last year. We’ll take it all the way down to the tip of Point Cadet, where it will meet with Myrtle Street and the new fishing bridge.

What we’ll be doing is minimizing the number overhead wires. We’ll have the decorative street lights and curbing and improve the curb appeal of this gateway from downtown biloxi to east Biloxi.

You’ll see that same kind of transformation in a big way over on Fifth Street, which leads into the Margaritaville site.

Like I said, we’re changing the way people look at Biloxi.

I can’t say enough about how Coast Transit is changing the way we look at public transit.

CTA recently invested more than $160,000 to construct specially designed bus stops at the foot of Rue Magnolia, at the new Visitors Center and across from the new library and civic center on Howard Avenue.

I told you earlier that CTA served over a million passengers for the first time last year, and I’m proud to say that CTA’s first and second most popular routes are right here in Biloxi – on Pass Road and Casino Row.

Our federal installations had an exceptional year, too.

Keesler launched two undergraduate cyber training courses and graduated 183 cyber warriors. The Angels over the Bay air show with the Blue Angels attracted a record 160,000 visitors to Biloxi and the Gulf Coast.

And to close out the year, the Biloxi VA Medical Center unveiled more than $150 million worth of improvements, including a 100,000-square-foot mental-health center; a 105,000-square-foot addition to the extended-care facility addition; a 1,000-car parking garage; primary and specialty clinics; and outpatient surgery facilities. On top of that, there’s another $150 million in improvements in the works at the VA.

While all of these things have been going on, our day-to-day work has produced its share of achievements and successes.

We tightened belts and cut expenses, we made tough decisions.

Our management also caught the attention of Wall Street financial analysts. As a result of how we managed your money, we received the lowest interest rates that I think this city has ever seen – a 1.9 percent interest rate on $9 million of outstanding debt. That’s saving us $700,000 in interest.

A number of factors – like an improving economy, pro-active police work, and educating the public – led to a 19 percent decrease in property crimes. That’s a huge drop in burglaries.

Our police department responded to more than 66,000 calls for service. That means we’re responding, on average, to nearly 2,000 calls for service a day.

In the fire department, we continued the trend of record-breaking calls for medical emergencies. We had nearly 7,200 medical calls this past year, which is more calls that we responded to last year, and more than the year before that. It’s the most ever, in fact, and it’s a number that’s rising every year.

Our fire department also reached about 12,000 people through public education programs, such as extinguisher classes for businesses, high school students and teachers.

We installed more than 253 smoke detectors, and we even conducted a fire academy for kids. It was a one-week camp that gave children important lessons on seat belt safety, water safety, basic first aid and life safety techniques.

Biloxi Police reached out to youth, too, through the Explorer program, and school programs like DARE and GREAT to steer our young people away from drugs, gangs and crime.

Reaching out to young folks – along with old folks and baby boomers – is the specialty of our Parks and Recreation Department.

Last year, our sports leagues, summer camp, senior dances and after school dances all combined to engage thousands of people, from toddlers to senior citizens.

And let’s not forget our partnership with Biloxi Public Schools help us become a certified Excel by 5 city. This means that Biloxi provides the resources to help parents prepare their infants and pre-school children for their first day of class.

But another area that I’m especially proud of is the holistic approach we take to recreation. We’re all inclusive.

Biloxi is the first and only city in south Mississippi that has been offering the Little League Challenge Baseball team for those with physical or mental challenges. We grew from 20 players in 2010 to 40 players last year.

We had 400 students attend an art disability workshop for Special Ed classes, and we saw the Arbor Day Disability walk and run attract 150 participants in 2011, a 100 percent increase from 2010.

Living on a peninsula as we do, we continue to appreciate the lessons of the past.

Our emergency management division installed a citywide network of siren towers to signal residents about pending danger, such as tornadoes.

We’re also spending over a million dollars in federal money to retrofit three of our fire stations with wind-resistant roofs.

Our efforts to regulate construction in flood zones is expected to provide another 5 percent drop in flood insurance rates this year, meaning Biloxi residents will see a total of a 25 percent decrease because of our efforts.

Working with Back Bay Mission we have rehabbed 20 homes in 2011, and we invested more than a quarter million dollars in a program that has helped a half-dozen property owners improve the facades of their businesses.

Using legislation created especially for Biloxi, we’re pushing owners of 58 blighted properties to take action to clean up their commercial properties form Hurricane Katrina damage, and we’re seeing results.

Our Public Works Department has completed 20 in-house street and drainage projects, and at the same time, the department is overseeing the construction plans and engineering for dozens of FEMA-related projects.

In Woolmarket, we’re installing sewer lines on Landing Court, Scenic River, Parker Circle, River Estates Circle, Parker’s Creek Road, North Oaklawn Road, Thomas Road, Husley Road and a segment of Woolmarket Road. This $2.87 million project is expected to be completed this fall. This year, the new $17 million treatment facility in Woolmarket will come online.

By this time next year, we’ll see electronic water meters serving Biloxi’s 13,000-plus water customers, construction will be underway on the Maritime and Seafood industry Museum and the bait shop at the small craft harbor.

So, there you have it. The past, present and future. What do you think?
(End video.)

Thank you. I have two more things I want to say to you:
God bless you and God bless Biloxi.