SOTC: A 2020 vision for Biloxi

Here is the prepared text of Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich’s State of the City address, delivered  Jan. 30, 2020 during a Biloxi Bay Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino. 

Opening, from podium

Good afternoon and thank you. It’s great to see so many of you here today…

Welcome everyone to the Biloxi Bay Area Chamber 30th Annual State of the City presentation. Over the years, it has really grown into quite an affair.

            Almost 40 years ago, Biloxi changed to the mayor-council form of government. And then Mayor Gerald Blessey began delivering a state of the city address each year at City Hall.

            After a few years,  leaders of the chamber had the idea of making the State of the City a bigger deal.    The City of Biloxi owes a great debt of gratitude to Tommy Munro, Franklin Kyle, Wayne Hengen and others who promoted that idea and it’s made the State of the City what it is today.

            Look around today. Just about every city and county government is now doing an annual address. And it all started here.

The Chamber stood up for Biloxi 30 years ago, and here we are today, they’re still standing up for us.

            The State of the City presentation itself has evolved over the years. It now includes a video so you can see firsthand the body of work taking place throughout our city.

            We want you to leave here today with a good understanding of the progress made along with that feeling of excitement and promise in Biloxi’s future.

            You know some say now this is a big dog and pony show. 

Along those lines, let’s begin with the dog part of the show.

Please welcome Biloxi Fire Chief Joe Boney and Jack the Fire Dog.

Mayor: Joe, tell me about this fire dog.

Joe: Mayor, he will be around the stations, he will be a goodwill ambassador for the department and the city, and he’ll also appear at schools in our fire prevention and fire safety programs.

Mayor: You mean like Stop drop and roll?

Joe: that’s exactly right, mayor. As a matter of fact, watch this.

[Jack does it, and crowd applauds.]

Mayor: Thank you, Chief and Jack. And he works for treats. I’m talking about the Fire Chief.

That’s the dog portion of our dog and pony show. Now it’s time for the pony portion. I want to show you some real horsepower.

I want to show you the challenges and progress of the past year, and more importantly, I want to show you how we have a vision for the coming year, the next five years and the next decade. It’s all about a vision, whether it’s 2020 Vision or Vision 2020, it’s a vision and it’s a vision for Biloxi.

Now sit back, learn more about our great city, and I’ll be back in 28 minutes with some closing thoughts.

Video presentation

            Nearly all of the plans from the City of Biloxi – and there were a number – uses 2020 as a buzzword. The Blessey administration in the ’80s, there was “2020.” The Holloway administration in the ’90s, there was “Vision 2020.”  And now, here we are in 2020.

            The common thread of all of the plans was to have a better Biloxi, to have a Biloxi that our children and grandchildren will love and appreciate just as much as we do.

            In short, to have a vibrant Biloxi where people want to live, work and play, and a place where visitors want to return over and over.

            These are excellent goals to be sure and, something we certainly all should enjoy.

            Not only do I want our children and grandchildren to APPRECIATE our history,   I want them to EXPERIENCE Biloxi where I grew up, the Biloxi where many of you grew up, the Biloxi that others of you have heard about:

When downtown Biloxi was the thriving heart of our city

When you could go floundering along ouor waterfront

When you could drive down Highway 90 without encountering a sandstorm and piles of sand in the roadway clogging storm drains

            Biloxi has faced many challenges in its 320 year history. It has always risen to the occasion.

            Biloxi’s population was about 17,000 until World War II and the arrival of Keesler Field. Nearly overnight the population jumped to over 100,000.  And you think we have a short term rental issue now!  Today KAFB and everything and everyone related to it is woven into the fabric of BILOXI.

            Perhaps the greatest challenge was Hurricane Katrina and the FEMA Infrastructure Project that it brought to us.   It was to re-build everything that went underwater during the storm: water, sewer, streets, storm drains, curbs, gutters and sidewalks, everything.  Design through construction from 2007 – 2013.

We all know how that worked. 16 design firms, 1 program management firm, 11 contractors … a huge $355M project and still working on it today.

I went ALL IN on the project about 55 months ago in 2015.     At that time, on the peninsula north CSX railroad tracks, about 55 miles of streets and sidewalks were milled up.  It was like stone-age torn up, wholesale disruption    There was no reasonable explanation as to why.

We took over program management in 2016. We worked hand-in-hand with MEMA and FEMA to complete the North Contract and to move forward with the construction south on the railroad tracks. We inspect the construction, pay the contractors and get reimbursed by MEMA/FEMA in a timely way.

Today, those 55 miles of streets in the North Contract have base course of asphalt on them.  Final subsurface video and inspection, sidewalks and walk-throughs are happening.  Final surface asphalt, striping, fence replacements and landscaping will follow shortly. 

On the South Contracts, we promised that you would not see the total destruction that you saw on the North contract. It’s been painful, but we’re making progress. Hemphill is expected to complete its work in March. We will have all of Howard Avenue open in time for the parades.

Down on Point Cadet, Lane Construction is working on replacing water, sewer and drainage in the oldest part of our city. That $10 million project covers the area from the CSX Railway, north of Howard Avenue over to Keller.

So you ask, what’s left and when will it be done?

Here’s an overview.

It started with the $355 million.

In Eagle Point, we installed new water, sewer, drainage and new roads, sidewalks and curbing.

In the neighborhoods off Rodenburg north of Pass Road, we installed new water, sewer, drainage and new roads, sidewalks and curbing.

Off Brasher Road in the North Bay area, we installed new water, sewer, drainage and new roads, sidewalks and curbing.

On the North Contract, we’ve spent $105 million of a $129 million contract to install new water, sewer, drainage and new roads, sidewalks and curbing.

South of the rail road tracks from downtown to Seashore Methodist campgrounds, we’ve spent $17.5 million of a $25 million contract to install new water, sewer, drainage and new roads, sidewalks and curbing.

On Point Cadet, we’ve spent $400 thousand of a $10.5 million contract to install new water, sewer, drainage and new roads, sidewalks and curbing in the area south of the rail road tracks and north of Howard Avenue.

We have about $100 million to complete remaining the work. We still have work to do along the front beach headed down to the Coast Coliseum and some down on the Point, south of Howard Avenue.

            We’ve had a few bumps in the road with FEMA following through with money that was promised for this project. Greg Michel and MEMA has and does support Biloxi every day. I thank Greg for his help. And most importantly, I wish to express our appreciation to our Congressional delegation — Senators Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith, and Congressmen Steven Palazzo and Bennie Thompson for encouraging FEMA do what was right for our city.

            Let me remind you: We’re replacing a sewer system that was installed in the ’50s with a 25-year life span. When we’re done with this work, the oldest part of our water, sewer and drainage systems will be in West Biloxi. We’re working on that right now, with projects in the Tanglewood and others areas.  

That brings us to Keesler Air Force Base. After being talked about for decades, you’ll see a new, convenient, main gate that will create an economic development corridor on Division Street, from I-110 to the new entrance at Forrest Avenue.

This is a major undertaking, a $37-million, City, State and Federal undertaking that will bring Keesler up to post-911security standards.

A new roundabout at Division and Forrest will take you inside the gate, to new Keesler Visitors Center and Contractors Office. You’ll see no train tracks and other obstacles.

Division Street from Forrest to I-110 is going to be a divided four-lane boulevard, with underground utilities.   Keesler’s plan is to begin using the gate after the commercial check point has been constructed by the end of 2021, and the gate will be fully operational in 2022, when the visitors center will be completed. 

Infrastructure work inside the gate is nearly complete. We’re progressing on about $6 million in property acquisition. In fact four old Biloxi homes were saved from the wrecking ball.

Bids on the work outside the gate will go out by this summer.  You should be driving on it after an estimated one year construction period. No major sub-surface or re-work of the North Contract is expected.

We’re looking for the same type of transformation in downtown Biloxi.  You know, Keesler was the key factor for Biloxi’s vibrant downtown years ago. Biloxi was a hopping place when the “soldiers” got paid and could leave the base.

With a nod to its past, restoration of that hopping, vibrant downtown and Howard Avenue is underway.  This resurrection is aimed at the generations that want to live, work and play in a happening, vibrant place.

We’ve re-opened Howard Avenue to two-way traffic.  I think the hand-layed brick surface is more than a street, more like a venue.  The table for economic development is set and that’s what we’re seeing.

The new Community Bank building on the corner of Howard and Lameuse is coming out of the ground. This three-story building is a multi-million dollar investment at the center of our downtown. It’s going to have a look of old Biloxi and it’s going to be a great downtown addition. Not only is it going to be a full-service bank of 15,000 square feet and 25 employees, it’s going to have two rooftop terraces and a community room. Starks Contracting expects to deliver this beautiful three-story building by early 2021. 

The heart of downtown Biloxi beats stronger and louder each day. As you know, we have a performance-based strategy with developers.  The District on Howard Avenue owns a half-dozen buildings downtown. The goal is to see 230,000-square feet of boutique shops, local breweries, restaurants, and music venues; 330 residential units…one(1), two(2) and three(3)-bedrooms and 20,000-square feet of office space.

With the planned $54 million in development, they could realize millions in tax breaks.

So where are we?  Over the past couple of months, all of the utility conduits were buried behind the Barq’s building and they are in the final stages of planning renovations for new businesses that will be announced shortly.

Axe throwing is opening in the former Woolworth’s building at 808 Howard Avenue.   We may have some of the City Council meetings there.

The District is continuing discussions with a permanent operator, they in the process of re-opening the Kress building temporarily as a venue that can be rented out for parties, weddings, and events.  Sitting along the parade route for Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day, and in the thick of our Biloxi downtown block party for Cruisin’ the Coast, Kress will be seeing new life in the coming months. 

We’re sealing the envelope over at the Saenger Theatre. The fly tower at the rear of the building is being rebuilt.  We are replacing the roof, sealing exterior walls and replacing the heating and air conditioning system.  The contractor has been given notice to proceed. We’re working to get this gem of the coast open as soon as we possible after the one (1) year construction period.

The Saenger is important to our quality of life, but the work we need to do on refurbishing the interior is also a costly proposition. We continue to work with private and public sources for funding.

Rest assured, we know the importance of the Saenger.

Across the street from the Saenger, is the Biloxi Transit Center, the only multi-modal facility between New Orleans and Jacksonville. We have this premier facility and now all we need is trains.

The Southern Rail Commission has been working hard to bring daily passenger rail service between New Orleans and Mobile. Could you imagine, dropping off hundreds of visitors in the middle of thousands of hotel rooms, a block away from MGM Park, near the waterfront, and near the casinos and a vibrant downtown Biloxi.

It’s a no-brainer, we want train service. I will be asking the City Council to commit funding to upgrade the platform to meet Amtrak standards. We’re still waiting to see if Mobile commits to its funding, but I don’t want anyone wait on Biloxi.  We encourage Mobile to move forward.

Sports betting has increased the gross gaming revenue. Many folks came in just to bet on events. They also brought others with them. We also realized a linkage to the increase in sales tax to the City.

Overall gross gaming revenue was up by about $50 million dollars last year. The numbers show that Biloxi is still an expanding market.

The success and growth in Biloxi has generated new interests in Biloxi.  What do I mean? It’s not just about casinos. It’s about casino resorts, conferences, conventions, shopping, and recreation — and doing it midweek Monday through Thursday.

On Point Cadet this year, you’re going to see the $140 million amusement park, 300-room hotel and parking garage coming out of the ground at Margaritaville. The $12 million Ferris Wheel has been ordered. The landscape of the Point is going to change when it opens in the spring of next year.

No doubt it’s going to create excitement along with it more traffic.  That’s why I think an exit from the westbound lane off the Biloxi Bay Bridge onto Howard Avenue will be needed.   It could be the beginning of a much talked about East-West corridor.  

I should also mention, as part of our work to close six (6) of the 20 railroad crossings, we’re building new and improving connector roads alongside the tracks in East Biloxi.

The idea of a conference/convention center in East Biloxi has been studied through a public/private initiative.  We already have thousands of hotel rooms within a one (1) mile radius. That’s where it needs to be alongside a 500 room conference center hotel. Several sites for the conference center have been identified.

At the same time as we’re seeing renewed interest in a multi-million dollar projects at the Tivoli and Broadwater properties.

You’ve seen the success of the West Biloxi Boardwalk, a project with Harrison County. On the second phase from Veterans to Treasure Bay, the contractor has been selected and construction is about to begin.

We’re working on more boardwalk projects. We’re about to open the boardwalk that will link Golden Nugget and Point Cadet Marina with the Seafood Museum.  Another will link, the Palace Casino Resort and the Point Cadet Plaza.   

On Back Bay, Seymour Engineering is designing a boardwalk that will link the Forrest Avenue T-Pier with Kensington Drive. It will be an attractive promenade with benches and shaded areas. Those ugly rocks will be gone and once again you’ll have access to the Bay. It had great soft-shelling as well as regular scheduled power boat races.

One I’m most proud of is what we’re doing on East Beach between the Small Craft Harbor and Oak Street. Funding was secured thanks to Governor Phil Bryant for the Back Bay boardwalk but also for  an innovative 10-foot boardwalk cast on top of the existing seawall.  On the sand beach edge will be an 18-inch kneewall that raises the seawall profile and should keep sand on the beach — and not blow onto the highway.  The project includes sand beach replenish.  Covington Engineering studied our sand and is finding the source for heavier sand that will be placed on that stretch of the sand beach.

Many people and visitors have seen the ugly outfall pipes that drain water off of Highway 90. They have been there since seawall construction in the 1920’s.  Some think they are sewer pipes.

I want to thank Governor Bryant for his vision in seeing the new waves constructed along our front beach. It succeeded in replacing the unsightly structures that have been with us for decades. Those three built in Biloxi are actually a new attraction.  We look forward to a day when all the outfalls are gone.

With all our progress along our waterfront, we suffered an environmental and economic catastrophe last summer. 

The Corps of Engineers opened the Bonnet Carré Spillway, releasing a flood of polluted Mississippi River water into the Mississippi Sound for an unprecedented 123 days and for the first time all the way into August, killing oyster beds and the nursery grounds for shrimp, crabs and finfish, and causing the blue-green algae bloom that essentially shut down our beaches for weeks.

This disaster caused over $215 million in losses for our Coast to commercial fishery and seafood businesses and millions to tourism businesses.

Biloxi’s Special Counsel, Gerald Blessey, began the organization of a coalition of governments and businesses to stand up for the Coast against further harm to the Mississippi sound and to seek long-term, win-win solutions to protect us from pollution coming from 31 states and 2 Canadian provinces.

The Mississippi Sound Coalition has taken legal action against the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and the Mississippi River Commission to compel them to find win-win ways to avoid or at least minimize opening the Bonnet Carré spillway.

It has asked Congress to adopt a new law, the Mississippi Sound and Lake Ponchartrain Protection Act of 2020, to give the Coast a permanent seat at the table before opening any spillways and require the federal government to find better ways to avoid flooding New Orleans without killing the Sound.

In 2019, we saw continuing issues with the Popp’s Ferry bridge. This 42 year-old, low-level two-lane draw bridge opened a 567 times last year.  It caused headaches and made headlines 19 times when the bridge malfunctioned. It was either the span, or the crossing bars, control systems or any number of other issues. Regardless, it’s an inconvenience for everyday motorists, and it’s unacceptable when you consider this is an evacuation route.

Replacing this bridge is a $120 million proposition but the process has started.  It will not be a draw bridge, but high enough to accommodate the marine traffic. It will be four (4) lanes, with four (4) lane approaches on the northern end and the southern ends. The south end of the bridge won’t touch land until Atkinson Road.

In our 2020 Vision, Popp’s Ferry will also be part of the Biloxi Beach Connector that will connect Highway 67 down Shriner’s Blvd, run from I-10 at Woolmarket exit all the way to Highway 90 west of the Coliseum.  We’re already working on the south end, the plans are with MDOT now. We’re working with our State and Federal leaders to get the $255 million needed for this. We need to make it happen.

There are opportunities in Woolmarket.  I still meet every Thursday morning at the Chevron station with the Woolmarket planning commission.  So know that Woolmarket is on my radar.

Working with Harrison County, we have moved the Woolmarket library from a cramped trailer to the North end of 5,000-square foot building that will be known as the Woolmarket City Center. The library has been up and running for a year and half. The contractor is doing interior work on the community room. This summer, we expect exterior, parking lot and landscaping work to be completed.  We’re looking forward to opening the Center for family gatherings and other special events. That would also include a voting precinct.

A large portion of Woolmarket has access to public water and sewer. We still have more to accomplish and we’re working on it. We have a $1 million grant from MDOT that will add more sidewalks this year. This past November, we opened Fire Station #10 on the east end of Woolmarket to reduce response times. It will also result in a better fire insurance rating.

We will begin construction on a new six-acre park in Eagle Point. It will include a walking track, basketball court, playground, pavilion for parties, restrooms and more.  Ward 7 Councilman Nathan Barrett led that funding effort. I also want to thank the Harrison County Board of Supervisors and the Harrison County Utility Authority for the help with the work we’re doing in Woolmarket.

With all of these projects and growth happening I would certainly be remiss if I did not mention the workforce behind this City, our dedicated employees.  We currently have 667 individuals that provide the day-to-day services that you expect and deserve.

Last year the Community Development Department issued over 3,500 permits, including 221 for commercial buildings and 770 for residential buildings.  The staff worked with developers, entrepreneurs, home owners and many others to guide them through the process.

Additions to our business community include the new Hilton Garden Inn Hotel and the stylish

Waffle House in East Biloxi.  We saw the Brick and Spoon restaurant, Kay Jewelers and Verizon Wireless store open south of the Edgewater Mall.

The Biloxi Fire Department, is made up of 178 employees and now including Jack the Fire Dog.

Fire Station #7 and Fire Station #10 are now manned and operational. This is the first time in the department’s history to have a designated training facility with state of the art classrooms and training tower.

With all of the shootings around the country on an all-too-frequent basis, we tend to become de-sensitized to the hurt and the pain a community experiences.

The Biloxi Police Department and all the citizens of Biloxi had a stark reminder of the dangers our first responders face on any given day, when one of our own, Biloxi Police Officer Robert McKeithen was gunned down in the parking lot at the Lopez-Quave Public Safety Center while on duty in May.

The 24-year Biloxi Police veteran was an outstanding officer who went about doing his job each day. The tragedy struck not only his family and family in blue but the community and the nation.

There was a tremendous outpouring of support and sympathy from throughout the South and indeed the country. I commend Police Chief John Miller, all of the men and women in the police department along with all departments from the surrounding communities, for their professionalism in handling this tragedy. I also commend one of our own officers, Michael Wheeler, who spotted the accused shooter the next day and assisted with his apprehension.

Our 131 sworn officers answered 105,000 calls for service last year with 62% of those being self-initiated. The department is very proactive. They are still having to deal with 70-80 encounters with transients/homeless every week. It’s a problem that plagues communities across the country. To help expand the reach and effectiveness of our police department, we implemented a new community crime camera program last year, to deter crime and solve crimes that are committed.

Our Public Works Department last year processed more than 10,000 work orders. It mowed over 6,000 miles of grass, performed over 600,000 feet of maintenance/repairs to drainage ditches and saw a 35% increase in water meter installations and repairs.  Every day, this department maintains 23 water wells throughout the city, 104 wastewater lift stations and makes sure our 2,700 fire hydrants are working properly.

In reality, our city departments and divisions are tasked to provide the level of services that you expect and deserve. Our economic develop initiatives and quality of life improvements are designed to grow our economy.  We also want grow our 5.7 million visitors per year to pre-Katrina levels of 8-10 million per year.

These numbers are important just as growing our population from the 44,000 to where, I think, we need to be…about 55,000 residents. 

By the end of March, about 10 weeks from today, it’s going to be time for the 2020 Census.  It is vital that you take part in this process. It will determine your representation in federal, state and local governments. The information compiled guides the distribution of federal funds, grants and other support to communities. For the first time, this census can be accomplished on-line, by phone or by mail.  Please encourage everyone to step up, complete the surveys, help your City and your nation.

Never overlook the continuing accomplishments of our Biloxi Public Schools.  Biloxi is once again an A-Rated District with the #1 Jr. High and the highest PreK scores on the Coast.  Since the state accountability system began, the Biloxi School District has earned the top rating 25 times. Biloxi High School’s 2019 graduating seniors received over $11 million dollars in scholarships.

The City Council and I recognized more than 50 students who had earned an ACT score of 30 or more. In fact, Biloxi Public Schools was fourth in the state for highest ACT scores. The term state of the art is used a lot these days, but you can actually see it every day at Biloxi Public Schools.

We’re going to create a new landmark to honor one of the most famous Biloxi High School graduates and the most famous person in our history.

April will mark the 50th anniversary of Apollo 13, a mission that has been called NASA’s most successful failure and a mission that united the world in hope, prayer and problem solving as this troubled space craft made its way back to Earth.

Our own Fred Haise, a Biloxi native who grew up on Back Bay, brought tremendous pride to this city, to this nation and the entire world, as the Apollo 13 lunar module pilot.

Today, since Adam and Eve, Fred is one of only 24 people to have flown to the moon and back. He has been a tremendous asset to Biloxi and the Coast, inspiring students in Biloxi Public Schools, and being the driving force in creating the Infinity Space Center near the Stennis Space Center.

We have a statue dedicated to the old world explorer Pierre LeMoyne D’Iberville down at the Biloxi Visitors Center, and I want to see a statue, a new community landmark that pays homage to our new world explorer Fred Haise.

And finally, I want to close today with something that I saw earlier this year.

Over at Guice Park, just north of the Biloxi small craft harbor, we unveiled another landmark in Biloxi last year. It’s the Gold Star Families Memorial. Biloxi is one of only a handful of cities across the country to have a Gold Star Memorial, which pays tribute to those families who lost loved ones in service to our country.

It was a moving ceremony with the last living Medal of Honor winner from the Battle of Iwo Jima, 96-year-old Hershel “Woody” Williams. We had a host of families there from across the Gulf Coast, who spoke about their departed family member.

What a setting it was. Right there under the oak trees at Guice Park, in the shadow of the Purple Heart Memorial and at the USS Biloxi mast, with the small craft harbor and waterfront in the background.

Down the street you had the Hard Rock and Beau Rivage casino resorts. Across the street we had the brand new Hilton Garden Inn, and next door to it was the Santa Maria Del Mar which is being transformed into a new upscale all-suites hotel called Legends. It was all connected by our new pedestrian bridge.

To me, that scene said it all about what’s happening in Biloxi. Economic development, access to the waterfront in a beautiful setting, tourism amenities, an appreciation of the past and a vision for a bright future. It’s a 2020 Vision.

God bless you and God bless Biloxi.

End video

Closing from podium:

            Thanks again to everyone. I hope you can appreciate the body of work that we have going on.  We’ve covered a lot ground this past year, and I’m not just talking the North Contract.

Many things that were talked about for years are now popping-up out the ground.

            A lot of things had basis in Biloxi’s past, like the bricks on Howard Avenue, but now they’re becoming something that will make all of us proud.

            Ronald Reagan used to say that America’s best days are ahead of it. I’m convinced Biloxi’s best days are every day, and our future is bright and full of promise.

            As noted in the video, this past year, more than most, our city faced many challenges but rose to the occasion.   That was done through cooperation and teamwork with our partners in the federal, state and county governments, our sister cities, along with a number of community and faith-based organizations.

  I want to thank all of team and all our department directors who manage their departments with professionalism and dedication.

            In particular, I want to express my appreciation to our 600+ city employees. We want them all to be proud to work for Biloxi and dedicated to doing a good job.

            Of course, I owe special thanks to the members of the Biloxi City Council. Without their support nothing would be possible.  Thanks to them all for their love and dedication to Biloxi.

            Let me say thank you to all who have supported me… encouraged me, and even complained to me, since I became your mayor about 56 months ago, but who’s counting?

            I especially want to say thank you  to my wife Serena, Biloxi’s First Lady, and my first lady for 51 years, as she says “the good wife.” She does it all, all three: support, encourage and complain.

            Vincent Creel wrote a CORN BALL closing for me today. It was supposed to give you that MOTHER, APPLE PIE, stand up RAH-RAH feeling.  It goes:

            What I know is that there is NO  “I”  in  MAYOR, but VISION has two eyes, and I hope that’s what you’ve seen here today… a vision for this City for today and for well into the future.

            Pretty good right, but let me add that BILOXI also has two eyes. It has great vision, and with your help, all of us together,  we will give Biloxi PERFECT 2020 VISION.

            I’ll close by asking God to bless you and to bless our beloved Biloxi and to bless all who will come to her. 

Thank you.

End (“I can see clearly now”)