STATE OF THE CITY ’07: The revival is underway and coming to a street corner near you

Here is the prepared text of Mayor A.J. Holloway’s State of the City address, delivered Feb. 12, 2007 during a Biloxi Bay Chamber-sponsored luncheon at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino in Biloxi.

Good afternoon, and welcome to the annual State of the City address. I’m glad to see so many of you here.

Today, I will outline for you what promises to be the largest and most ambitious program of public work ever undertaken in this city.

You’re going to see millions of dollars in improvements in all areas of city services and in all areas of the city.

Today, the STATE of our city is rebounding. The SPIRIT of our city is as strong as ever.

We have arrived at what may very well be the most crucial phase of our post-Katrina world. We are making decisions that will decide the look of our city – AND influence our quality of life – for generations to come.

As I have said so often, future generations are going to look back at this chapter in our history and they’re going to realize that we made thoughtful decisions…
that we made correct decisions… and that we laid a solid foundation on which we built a great city, with opportunity and promise for all.

Before I outline the great things we have in store, I want to make sure that you appreciate just how far we’ve come in the 532 days since Katrina.

On debris removal – and, like you, I’m growing weary of talking about and looking at debris – we have hauled away more than 2.8 million cubic yards of debris. That’s enough debris to cover a football field and stand more than 133 stories high. The 5 percent we have left represents the most time-consuming part of the job.

That’s because we’re dealing with people waiting on their homeowners grants, SBA loans or insurance settlements before they can decide how to proceed. I’m also hoping that we can see the insurance issues resolved so that more people can move forward. These insurance companies need to come to the table to do the right thing. This is holding up our recovery.

One of the yardsticks that we use on population is our public schools here in Biloxi. Right now, school enrollment is 22 percent off its pre-Katrina level of 6,100 students.

Biloxi schools, I remind you, were back in session 19 days after the storm, and with the re-opening of Nichols and Gorenflo a couple of months ago, all Biloxi public schools are back online.

In fact, our students are excelling. Biloxi High was one of four schools in the entire state to be recognized as a top performer for the ‘05-‘06 school year.

In the year of the hurricane, our students were nominated as National Blue Ribbon Winners. I congratulate Dr. Tisdale, the school board, the faculty, staff and the students on this achievement.

Today, employment in our casino resort industry is at pre-Katrina levels.

I congratulate the people in the industry who helped make this happen, but I also want to thank our city teams.

To give you a small idea of the work that goes in on the front end, the re-opening of the Beau Rivage alone required our Fire Department to oversee the testing of 6,972 smoke detectors throughout the resort.

Multiply that times the seven resorts that are open today – and all done in a 10- to 12-month time frame.

I would be remiss here today if I did not recognize the hard work and dedication of the personnel in the Planning, Building and Engineering divisions, and of course the divisions in our Fire Department. They knew the importance of getting people back to work. They knew we needed to revive this economic engine and they did it in days and weeks instead of months.

Another important segment of our hospitality industry — the hotel trade — is rebounding.

Today, nearly 70 percent of the Biloxi casino resort hotel rooms are back up and running. Overall, 55 percent of our hotels and motels in Biloxi are open.

Couple those factors with the renovation and expansion work going on at the Coliseum and at the airport …

Along with the July opening of Hard Rock Hotel and Casino …

Along with the late Spring opening of Treasure Bay Casino and Resort …

Along with the pending expansions at the Isle of Capri and Palace casino resorts…

You get the idea that we’re showing strong signs of recovery in the hospitality industry.

But we’re not there yet, and we still have a ways to go overall.

Let me spend a few minutes to give you an overview of city finances.

Some people have criticized me in the past for being tight with a nickel, but they’ve been thanking me over the past 18 months. Since Katrina, the city of Biloxi took in less tax revenue than at any other time in the past 15 years. And at the same time, we spent more money than at any other time in our history.

The city’s three largest revenue sources – gaming, sales and property taxes — were down 24 percent overall from pre-Katrina levels.

Gaming alone was off 45 percent, and sales taxes were down 24 percent, and Katrina recovery pushed the total cost of city services off the chart – passing 100 million dollars in the past year.

Given all of these numbers, I am optimistic about what I’m seeing in our economy.
In spite of revenues being down and expenditures up, the city ended FY ‘06 in good financial condition.

That’s because we suspended many of the capital projects that were on-going or planned for ‘06. We restricted normal operating expenditures where we could.

We took advantage of the help offered by the federal and state governments, and we fought to maximize our insurance recovery.
In fact, when you figure in the insurance money, that 10 million dollar business interruption policy we bought two months before the hurricane meant that our gaming revenue was actually a little above the pre-Katrina levels.

And, if you include all of the the insurance money, our overall revenue was only 3 percent off. We actually were able to recover 99.4 percent of our 40 million dollars in insurance coverage.

For the record, we have now gone 15 years without raising your city property taxes. With your approval, I’m going to do my best to keep that promise for at least another six years.

In the past several months, we’ve been seeing record levels of gaming revenue in Biloxi. Sales taxes are at 85 percent of their pre-storm level.

This trend is going to mean more of our tourist amenities building back, which means more jobs and a stabilizing tax base.

I drive the same streets of Biloxi that all of you do. I see the barren blocks of land on Point Cadet, on Back Bay, in Eagle Point and Sunkist and the empty lots on front beach. I know that on Point Cadet we face the prospect of having to build affordable housing in an area where property in unaffordable…… In an area where 45 percent of the households had an income of less than 24,000 dollars… and a significant number were renting.

We need to face the fact that Point Cadet will never look the way it did before.
The fact is, based on their preliminary flood elevations, FEMA is going to declare the majority of Point Cadet to be in a flood zone.

This means new home construction will have to be elevated, driving up the cost of construction even more.

So often over the past several weeks and months, people have wondered where we go from here. Some have wondered if we have a plan. Others have said it looks like we have too many plans.

Some things, like the diversity of opinions we have in Biloxi, will never change, regardless of what crisis we go through.

This talk about whether we have a plan reminds me of one of the most common questions that visitors have at Disney World. Everyday, in the Magic Kingdom they have a parade down Main Street. Disney workers will tell you that the most frequent question they get is: “What time does the 11 o’clock parade begin?”

What they are really asking is “What time does the 11 o’clock parade GET TO ME?”

It’s all about communication.

It was during the State of the City luncheon at this time last year, a mere six months after Katrina, when I announced the Reviving the Renaissance initiative. We were going to look at our past, what was working and let that be the guide for our future. I asked for a realistic plan, with a realistic timetable and a realistic price tag.

More than 200 Biloxians – many of you in this room — answered the call to serve on this important project. You devoted your time and talent toward resolving a multitude of quality-of-life issues.

We had input from a world-renowned panel of urban planners and architects who served on Governor’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal. And the RTR effort included the work of the national planning consortium Living Cities, which focused on east Biloxi.

Hundreds of Reviving the Renaissance books have been mailed to residents throughout the city, and we mailed an abbreviated version to 24,000 mailboxes in the city on the first anniversary of the storm.

So when people ask about a plan, yes, we have a plan. It’s a plan that came from our citizens. And there’s nothing Mickey Mouse about it, and it’s not Fantasyland. And today I’m here to tell you it’s already taking shape in the city.

The revival of the renaissance is underway and coming to a street corner near you.

In fact, the Biloxi Housing Authority is going to be restoring dozens of street corners in its neighborhoods – and building or restoring more than 1,500 homes along the way.

The Housing Authority has been approved for 41 million dollars in federal funding to improve existing and create new affordable housing in Biloxi. That Hope VI project that we were so proud of before the storm – where families had only just moved in before Katrina came along – is going to once again be the crown jewel of affordable housing initiatives across the country.

It’s going to be better than it was before Katrina and it’s going to be sooner rather than later.

Tenants in the Hope VI project are expected to start moving back into the Bayview site next month. And the Senior Village on Point Cadet, which was under construction at the time of the storm, will see tenants moving in shortly.

I congratulate the City of Biloxi Housing Authority Board members, “Mr. Chairman” Delmar Robinson, and the staff on these accomplishments.

I’m glad to see the leadership from Keesler Air Force Base here today. Several months ago, Keesler unveiled a new Hurricane Hunter, the Spirit of Biloxi, and when you talk about housing, just look at what Keesler is doing.

Right now, the base is on the verge of the largest residential housing project in the history of the Air Force.

This 288 million dollar undertaking will see 1,067 new housing units in all.
Work on the first quarter of the units will be underway next month and more than half of all of the homes will be under construction by the end of this year.

This work essentially will mean new neighborhoods at Thrower Park, Falcon Park and Bay Ridge.

And Keesler, I’m happy to say, is building these new neighborhoods inline with the issues we discussed in the Reviving the Renaissance report.

The base has established a standard of 18 feet above sea level for these new units, and the neighborhoods will be well-lit, pedestrian friendly and safe, with an eye to green space, parks and preserving large trees, particularly magnolias and live oaks.

Since the storm, our Community Development Department has issued more than 8,500 permits involving storm repairs, and new residential and commercial construction. We’ve saved residents nearly 160,000 dollars by waiving fees on storm repairs. That saves you and your neighbors anywhere from 25 to 250 dollars or more in permit fees.

Right now, we have 19 residential subdivisions under review, which will account for more than 350 new lots for new homes. And in addition to that, we are currently reviewing Belle La Via, a mixed-use development that straddles the current northern boundary of the city. The 1,400 acres of this project has a total of 5,500 residences.

Katrina claimed 6,000 homes and businesses in Biloxi, and those projects I just mentioned account for nearly 8,500 homes.

Better than before Katrina.

I realize that affordable housing is the biggest challenge facing this city.

Over the past 17 months, while we were dealing with debris removal, restoring city services, streets and drainage, and reviving the economy, we were also chipping away at the time-consuming process required to make major improvements for our long-term recovery. As a result of this work, you’ll see tens of millions of dollars in major improvements take shape in the next several months.

Over the past 10 years, we’ve spent an average of 16 million dollars a year on capital projects. Today, that budget is 53 million dollars, with another 60 million working its way through the FEMA pipeline.

We’re investing as much as 10 million dollars in repairs and improvements at Point Cadet Marina and the Biloxi Small Craft Harbor. Our work is going to make these facilities better than they were before the storm.

We have four contracts totaling nearly 3 million dollars underway right now, bringing new street signs, traffic signals, school cossings, sidewalks and curbing to 680 streets throughout our city. That’s work on more than three-quarters of the streets in our city. MDOT plans to have the first two lanes of the Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge open nine months from today.

You’ll see more lighting on U.S. 90. It was only a matter of weeks after Katrina when we had a good many of the streets lights restored in the center median. Now we’re embarking on a project that will see ALL of this scenic highway lit. It’s going to be better than it was before Hurricane Katrina.

Caillavet Street, a project that was running several months ahead of schedule before Katrina, is expected to be completed within 90 days, ahead of schedule and under budget.
In fact, today I am also announcing that we’re going to slightly expand this project to pave Caillavet Street all the way down to U.S. 90, so we’ll have a new road from one end to the other.

And for all of you in the audience today who are in carnival groups, I have some good news. We are embarking on a project to refurbish the Biloxi Community Center on Howard Avenue for use as a temporary community center.

I say temporary because the improvements we’re going to make – such as adding an elevator – are going to help accommodate the future long-term use of this facility, which is to house our senior citizens activities.

Architect David Hardy assures me that this temporary community center will be ready to host activities by the end of this year.

And there’s even better news for the property across the street from the temporary community center. A number of you in this room responded to a survey we conducted before the storm. We were in the initial phases of designing a new and larger community center to be built in east Biloxi.

Today, I am also announcing a plan to construct a state-of-the-art facility on Howard Avenue. It will house a new and larger community center on its first two floors, able to accommodate the larger carnival balls that have been forced to move to the Coliseum.

And on third floor, visitors will find the Biloxi Library, along with research and multi-media rooms, and the library’s invaluable genealogical archives, which have been restored since the storm.

We’re hiring an architect, the same architect working on the restoration of Beauvoir, to help us restore the Old Brick House, one of our surviving landmarks. We’re also going to take steps to restore our signature landmark, the Biloxi Lighthouse, which has stood so proudly since Katrina.

All of these ideas are not things I dreamed up. The ideas come from pages of the Reviving the Renaissance report.

They came from you. And by combining uses of buildings, we become eligible for 90 percent funding from FEMA.

So you see, the real Reviving of the Renaissance will be the same things that you were seeing before the storm: improved city services and facilities… safe and clean neighborhoods…… state-of-the-art schools … and boulevards and neighborhood streets that move traffic and drain effectively…… In short, you’ll see the return to an excellent quality of life that you so rightly expect and so richly deserve.

As we move to the future, we’ll be guided by our past. That’s been my consistent message – before AND after Aug. 29, 2005.

The Caillavet Street project is a perfect example of following through on smart growth. This project helps move traffic in a safe and efficient manner. It’s well-landscaped, well-lit and pedestrian friendly. It creates opportunity for small businesspeople, which creates jobs and enhances our tax base.

To those of you who worked on the RTR effort, I promise that your work will not have been in vain.

Now, some have worried about all of the talk of casinos and condominiums.

I’ve said in the past that we could see as many as 20 casinos in 10 years here in Biloxi, and right now, we have proposals for more than 12,000 condo units. Some say we could see as many as 30,000 hotel rooms in our community and as many as 30,000 people working in the casino industry.

One thing it would do us all well to remember is that it was not too long ago when this city was in dire straights. I’m not talking about Hurricane Katrina. I’m talking about the ‘70s, the ‘80s, and pretty much anytime before August 1, 1992.

I remember when we had to borrow money from your water deposits to meet payroll……
and when city employees took pay cuts…… and when they had to park the trucks at Public Works because they couldn’t afford to buy gas. Some of the businesspeople here today remember those days when the city was 6 to 9 months behind on paying its bills.

People need to remember what this industry has meant to this city and our way of life. And they need to remember that we’ve taken steps all along the way to protect, preserve and even enhance our quality of life.

In short, we use gaming money to improve your life. We use this money to keep your taxes low and to provide the services that you expect and deserve.

Our role in city government is to set the table for economic development. By that I don’t mean casinos or condos, per se. I mean providing good schools, safe neighborhoods, quality parks and recreation programs, and a low cost of living.

When we talk about economic development, those are the things we’re talking about. But don’t get the idea that casinos and condos are dirty words.

Today, I say this to you: Do not be afraid of the future. Be a part of it.

To Clark Griffith and those 200 people who served on the RTR committee, I say thank you. You are helping ensure that our children and grandchildren come to know and love the same Biloxi that we have.

Fourteen days ago, I vetoed the proposal that would have seen a 29-story condo tower in west Biloxi. As many of you know, I am an advocate of growth, and I appreciate the fact that people have property rights. Land use and zoning is not an exact science.

Property owners are entitled to two things by law: They are entitled to make application for certain land uses and they are entitled to apply for variances. That doesn’t mean either will be granted.

Today, I am announcing that you will see an update of the city’s comprehensive plan – this year – to help better guide our rebuilding.

We already have a height overlay district that holds the missions of Keesler as sacred.

Tomorrow, I plan to approach the City Council for approval for a survey of residents on the issue of height and land-use. We need to reach out to the general public instead of listening to the requests of developers and the small percentage of people who have time to come to public meetings.

We cannot control Mother Nature, but we can build in a responsible manner, and make responsible decisions that will make our future a great one.

We owe this to the rest of the country. We owe this to the thousands of volunteers who came in the wake of the storm and are still here today, with more still coming. God bless them all. We owe it to ourselves and to the rest of the country to do this right.

In closing, let me repeat something that I have said on more than one occasion over the past 17 months since Hurricane Katrina. The real story of our recovery here in Biloxi is not the casinos or condos or how massive the destruction was from this storm.

The real story has been and continues to be YOU, the people of Biloxi and how you have dealt with this ordeal.

Governor Barbour likes to tell the national media about how the people of Mississippi are not into victimhood. How we didn’t look for someone to blame. We got knocked down and we hitched up our britches and went about the work of picking up the pieces of our lives.

In our city water department, we had about 13,000 customers before the storm, and a number of them were senior citizens on fixed incomes living on the Point. On the third of every month, they would receive their Social Security checks and they’d go by the water department on Main Street that afternoon to pay their water bill.
The staff over there built up quite a relationship with those folks, many of whom they don’t see anymore.

But about two weeks after the storm — a week before we even were able to open the office — the staff was sweeping out the water and mud. They had the doors wide open to clear out that smell…. You know that smell we all remember and we all want to forget.

And on one of those hot and humid days, a little old lady from the Point drove up and made her way into the office.

She had her water bill in one hand and her change purse in the other. She had lost everything she had in the storm, but she was there to pay that bill. She had everyone over there in tears.

And, just as we’ve seen so many of our people do so many times in the wake of this storm, she hugged one of the girls in the office, and said, “Don’t worry, darling, it’s going to be OK.”

I wish I knew who that lady was, because I’d give her a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. She’s the stuff that the people of Biloxi are made of.

At the outset of this speech, I told you that future generations are going to look back on this chapter in our history as a time when we made the right decisions …
when we cherished and protected our culture ……and we did things to improve and enhance our quality of life. They’re going to see this as an historic time.

If that sounds familiar, it’s something that Haley Barbour said in his State of the State address last year. It’s something I also said to you in 2004, more than a year before Hurricane Katrina.

You see, we were on the right track before this storm, and we’re going to stay on the right track.

We in this room today and all of the people of Biloxi have a unique opportunity. We are in the midst of something most people can only dream of. We were making history before this storm, and we stand poised to make history again.

Imagine that…. Some people are lucky to be a part of history once in their lifetime. We have the chance to be part of history TWICE in our lifetime.

To paraphrase Haley Barbour’s mentor, Ronald Reagan, “For all of the success we’ve seen here in Biloxi, our best days lie ahead.”

God bless all of you and God bless Biloxi.