State of the City 2011: ‘This will be the year’

Here is the prepared text of the State of the City address delivered on Feb. 28, 2011 during a Biloxi Bay Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino.

(To see video of the 30-minute speech, click here.)

Thank you for being here today. It’s great to see another sold-out audience, with so many of you interested in what we have going on in our city.

I am honored to provide you a report on the progress we’re making in Biloxi. Today’s presentation is about three things: What we’ve been doing. What we ARE doing. And what we WILL BE doing.

Last year I told you that we were, to borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill, “at the end of the beginning.” Months and months of planning and design had put us in a position to move forward on a number of huge and high-profile projects. I told you that you’d be seeing things come out of the ground. I told you construction would be underway on major city facilities.

As we gather here today to review the state of our city, I hope that you can truly appreciate just how far we’ve come and how much we’ve endured in the past few years.

It was in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that I told all of you what William Faulkner had said about man and the many challenges he faces. As many of you know, I went to Ole Miss, and played a little football. I’m not going to say that I spent a lot of time in the library, but I knew where it was. And I knew there was a Faulkner quote on the cornerstone of the library. It said, “Man will not merely endure, he will prevail.”

A few months ago, we had reporters from the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times in town for the opening of the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art. We reminded them of the Faulkner comment, and we said, “You know, … with Katrina, … with the national recession … with the oil spill and … with everything else, you could say that we’ve been doing a heck of a lot of enduring here in Biloxi.”

And today, my friends, I’m here to tell you that we’re prevailing, too.

This will be the year when all of the things we WERE doing — the design work, the breaking ground and so forth — all of THAT will produce tremendous results. This will be the year when we cut ribbons and dedicate buildings. This will be the year when we plant a flag and say, “Here’s why Biloxi is the name that people know and here’s why Biloxi is the place that people love.”

As proud as I am of where we are today, I know we have a ways to go, and I know that we have plenty of people to thank.

We have city employees who provide you the day-to-day services you expect. We have great partners in FEMA and MEMA, the Mississippi Development Authority, the many design teams and contractors working on city projects, the Biloxi Housing Authority, the men and women of Keesler Air Force Base, the Harrison County Board of Supervisors, Coast Transit, the VA Medical Center, Biloxi Public Schools, the Salvation Army, the Coast Coliseum and Tourism Commissions, our chambers of commerce and the list goes on and on.

And most important is you, the people of Biloxi.

You show your love of Biloxi by going to work everyday, by working with the chambers of commerce, at Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, at your church, at PTO, or in our city sports leagues. You show your love of Biloxi by being the caring and kind and friendly people that you are. YOU are not only enduring, but YOU are prevailing everyday.

Two hundred of you came together months after the storm for a thing we called Reviving the Renaissance.

We were pretty clear in what Biloxi needed to do after Katrina. We talked about having a realistic plan, with realistic goals, with a realistic timetable and a realistic price tag. We talked about the things that had made Biloxi a nice place to visit and a great place to live. We talked about the importance of restoring our historic sites, and preserving and promoting our culture and our heritage. We talked about streets and drainage, and roads that moved traffic better.

Well, I’ll tell you … we talked about a lot of things, and to be honest I’m not big on talking. Excuse me for a second. I’m going up there. (Point to large video screen and exit stage right.)

[Ten-minute narrated video presentation details work on Biloxi Lighthouse, White House fountain, Katrina sculptures, Old Brick House, Magnolia Hotel, City Hall, marinas and piers, Lighthouse Park and Visitors Center, and Biloxi Library and Civic Center.]

Now that’s just a part — a small part — of what’s been happening in Biloxi. We’ve also seen a great deal of productivity from our partner agencies.

Keesler Air Force Base built a cyber-training program from the ground up, 19 courses in all, once again showing that our men and women at Keesler are on the cutting edge. Keesler Medical Center graduated its first class of internal medicine residents since the hurricane, and 25 percent of those graduates went into either combat or home station care. Last year the base completed the last of its 432 million dollars in storm recovery projects. You can see the new Bay Breeze center, the new exchange and commissary, and, of course, the largest military housing project in the history of the Air Force.

The Biloxi Housing Authority continues to make sure that opportunities are available for everyone in our community. The authority used a 21 million dollar grant and other funding to purchase Seashore Oaks, which will be used for seniors housing and assisted living. There’s a new 75 family rental complex going up on Pass Road at what used to be a trailer park, 337 single-family, moderate-income units at Crown Hill Commons, which is off Three Rivers Road; and the authority partnered with other agencies to provide clinics and head start centers at its sites. The Biloxi Housing Authority is making things happen — and Delmar and Bobby have more on the way.

For the third time in only five years, Biloxi is in line for another national Blue Ribbon School award. I congratulate the administrators, teachers, parents and students at North Bay Elementary for achieving this honor. Three Blue Ribbon awards in five years. We’ve had a number of great superintendents over the years at Biloxi Public Schools, and to my knowledge, most of them was brought into this community from somewhere else. That is, until Paul Tisdale came along. Dr. Tisdale will be retiring from Biloxi Public Schools this year after more than 30 years in education. On behalf of the thousands of students you have taught or mentored, and on behalf of the thousands of parents who entrusted their children to your care, I thank you for your many years of service you have given our city. I wish you and Wanda all the best.

Our own city departments have also excelled this year, despite cuts in personnel and pay. We implemented a number of cost-cutting measures when the new budget year began in September. We choose the cuts that we believed would allow us to continue to provide high quality services and avoid becoming part of the recession frenzy. We choose reductions in overtime and furloughs instead of layoffs. We chose program reductions instead of program eliminations. As long as people have jobs, they have hope, and they will continue forward.

We increased fees for garbage collection and debt service for the Harrison County Utility Authority. For a long time — a very long time — the residents and business owners in Biloxi enjoyed the lowest water, sewer and garbage rates of any city in south Mississippi. In fact, Biloxi’s rates were so low that they did not even cover the cost of providing these services. With the economy the way it is, we cannot afford to do that.

In our parks and recreation department, we had to begin charging minimal fees in our youth leagues. We’d gone more than a decade with free sports leagues. I’m proud of the thousands of dollars we’ve saved moms and dads over the years by not having these fees. Even with the increased fees, 25 to 30 percent of the kids in our summer camp come from one of our neighboring cities. This, I think, says something about the quality of programs we offer here in Biloxi, and it says we still offer a good deal.

Our Community Development Department is overseeing more than 230 million dollars in development that is now working its way through the system. Our work in floodplain management saw our rating improve from a 7 to a 6, which meant a 20 percent discount on flood insurance for those in flood hazard areas and a 10 percent discount citywide.

Fees were another issue that came up in the Community Development Department. For the first time in more than 20 years, we adjusted the fees we charge for building permits. They are more in line with what other cities charge. And more importantly, the fee is sufficient enough to cover the cost of delivering the service.

You all saw the two big fires our Fire Department dealt with several weeks ago. That’s a small fraction of what this department does. This past year, there were more than 7,000 calls for service, and more than 5,000 of those calls were emergency medical calls. Our Fire Department saw an 8 percent increase in calls this past year. At the same time, our firefighters performed nearly 4,000 inspections of businesses, and under went more than 25,000 hours of training during the year.

Another department where you see training pay off is in the Police Department.

Our Police Department, like our fire department, has the latest in technology and equipment. Last year, our officers responded to more than 66,000 calls for service. They made 8300 arrests and conducted more than 17,000 traffic stops. And with all of the calls and all of the arrests and all of the traffic stops, they had to use physical force in less than 1 percent of the cases. This, I believe, is due to the discipline and training of these officers.

The National Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement agrees with me, and last year, the Biloxi Police department became one of only 14 in the state to become nationally accredited.

Our Public Works Department has completed thousands of work orders and our in-house construction crew completed three dozen major construction projects. Things like repairing sewer lines, water lines, drainage lines, sidewalks, curbing and so on. This department has had the difficult task of keeping our streets and drainage systems on life support until we got approval to move forward with the FEMA infrastructure work. Our Public Works folks have had to put band aid on top of band aid, and I appreciate the work that they have been doing. This department, like all in the city, has also seen its share of budget cuts and personnel cuts,

In fact, 2010 was a year when we ALL had to do more with less. And, I remind you, we made it through another year — the 17th straight year — with no increase in your city property taxes.

Everything that we’ve been doing up this point — all of the work that I have spoken about — has been above ground. You can see it take shape right before you eyes.

And now, we’re going underground.

Over the next several months, we expect to begin awarding the first of the projects in our 355 million dollar infrastructure repair and replacement program. It’s taken quite a while to get where we are. With FEMA’s approval, we hired more than a dozen engineering teams two years ago.

But only a few months into the process, FEMA ordered us to stop design work while they reviewed the rules. I did not like the delay, but it was too much money and too much work for us to walk away.

FEMA and MEMA have been very good to this city. What we needed to do — and what we did — was to be diligent. To be determined, and we needed to stay the course. As a result, funding is secure for what will be the largest program of work in the history of our city.

In fact, it will even be one of the largest programs ever funded by FEMA.

We’re talking about 355 million dollars worth of work. Before the storm, we spent about 16 million dollars a year, on average, on major projects. Ordinarily, the amount of work we’re getting ready to do would take 20 to 25 years to complete. We want to get it done in five to seven years.

Take a look. [PowerPoint shows 14 sections and typical streetscape.]

We’ve divided the city into 14 major project areas, and those areas have been broken into 30 sub-phases.
We have to do it this way to make it a manageable project. You have to remember that we’re talking about 100 miles of streets. More than a than a million feet of water, sewer and storm drain lines. More than 70 wastewater pump stations. Almost every street, sidewalk, curb and gutter that went underwater will be replaced or repaired.

And what you see on top of the road is just part of the story. As I said earlier, we’re going underground. A typical neighborhood street project will include repair or replacement of sanitary sewer lines, storm drain lines and water mains. And, finally, if the street, curbs and sidewalks have to be demolished in the course of repairing the pipe work, and I suspect many of them will, they also will be repaired and replaced.

The real challenge here is going to be the coordination of this massive work, and making sure that we keep the lines of communication open between residents and contractors. I don’t want you coming home one day and find out that you don’t have a street or a driveway. Or worse, I don’t want a fire truck going down a dead end road.

Another challenge is going to be what’s actually under the road. Much of our work is going to be in the oldest part of the city. In fact, in one three-and-a-half square mile area of Point Cadet, we’ll be doing nearly 200 million dollars worth of work.

You see the new streetscape that we’ve done on Howard Avenue from the MLK Boulevard to Keller Avenue. I want to extend that streetscape project on Howard Avenue all the way down to Myrtle Street. We can do it while we’re doing the infrastructure work. We’ll be leveraging FEMA money with CDBG money and whatever other funding we can find to get the biggest bang for our buck.

I also want to see us do a few other important things. I want to see two-way traffic in the Vieux Marche.
In West Biloxi, I want better ingress and egress on the west side of Edgewater Mall, so we can improve traffic in and around the new Walmart and the other businesses it will attract.

Make no mistake about it. There will be short-term inconvenience. There will be short-term interruption. But we have a clear goal. Our goal is to set the table for long-term growth, for economic development, for jobs, for better neighborhood streets, for better traffic flow, for a better quality of life.

Achieving those goals will require investment from the private sector. It’s the private sector that makes so many things happen. As we’ve said so many times, the growth that you’re seeing — and will see — in Biloxi is widespread.

Whether it’s the Palace Casino Resort expansion at Point Cadet, or the new Margaritaville at Clay Point, or the Kroc Center in East Biloxi, or McElroy’s coming back to the small craft harbor, or the Half Shell Oyster House downtown, or the new Shaggy’s or Sharkheads on west beach, or the new Presidential Library at Beauvoir or the Wal-mart supercenter in west Biloxi, or the new hospitality and resort management center at the Jeff Davis campus of Gulf Coast Community College, or the new Catholic Diocese senior housing or the Bay Cove Condominiums north of the Bay, or the three-million-dollar Stribling Equipment site on Oaklawn Road.

These are things that are real, and they are only a part of what’s going on throughout our city.

In closing, I remind you. This will be the year when all of the things we’ve been doing will produce tremendous results. This will be the year when we cut ribbons and dedicate buildings. This will be the time when we re-assert our position as a leader in culture, in history, in quality of life. We are going to remind you why Biloxi is the name that people know and the place that people love.

God bless all of you, and God bless Biloxi.