State of the City 2013: A milestone each and every day

Here is the text of the mayor’s presentation on Monday, Feb. 26 duirng the State of the City luncheon, sponsored by the Biloxi Bay Chamber of Commerce and presented at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino.

To see the video presentation,  click here.

Thank all of you for being here.

Today marks the 20th time that I have come before you to make the State of the City address.

This is a time when we talk about what we are doing to improve your quality of life, and how we are making sure Biloxi continues to be a city we are all proud of.

I especially want to thank Transportation Commissioner Tom King for being with us today.

When you hear me talk about Popp’s Ferry Road, or Pass Road or Highway 90, it’s because he’s helping us with state and federal funding.
Thank you, Tom.

I also want to thank our community partners for all of the work that they do.

General Spacey and the folks from Keesler.

Delmar Robinson and Bobby Hensley and the board of the Biloxi Housing Authority.

Kevin Coggin and the folks from Coast Transit.

Superintendent Arthur McMillan, and the school board and staff from Biloxi Public Schools, and, of course, Susan Hunt, who runs the Biloxi Excel by 5 program, or is that Excel by 65?

And to the members of the Planning Commission, the Architectural and Historic Review Committee, Main Street Biloxi, the Biloxi Chamber, and, of course, the Biloxi Bay Chamber.

And, to each and everyone one of you. Thank you for being here.

You are all important to what we have going on here in Biloxi. You help make things happen. You are Biloxi, and I am honored to continue to serve as your mayor.

Finally, I want to thank my wife, Macklyn, who has been by my side through it all, with a loving smile and a kind word of encouragement. At least in public.
Macklyn, I love you.

And, now, ladies and gentlemen, let’s talk about the state of our great city.

We began using video presentations a couple of years ago, and you seemed to like that.
Excuse me for a moment while I go multi-media.

(Begin video)

Our story is one of milestones.
We have a milestone – large or small – each and every day.

It might be a ribbon cutting for one of the 234 new businesses that opened in Biloxi in the past 12 months. Yes, we’ve issued permits for 234 new businesses in the past year.

They run the gamut. Corporations and individuals. Large and small retail. Restaurants. Home-office businesses. And professional services. They’re in all areas of the city.

The ones you hear about the most are the multi-million-dollar openings like Margaritaville. Jimmy Buffett deserves to have a great presence here in Biloxi, and this year we’ll hear about big improvements and a new hotel there.

Of course, the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino announced its new hotel tower, a 32.5 million dollar investment, creating 250 construction jobs, 90 permanent jobs, and 154 first-class hotel rooms opening 11 months from now.

Down at the Isle, the Golden Nugget is spending 150 million dollars. We’ll have new restaurants, new amenities, new meeting space and an excitement that will remind us of those trailblazing years of the casino industry 20 years ago.

We saw a major player, Boyd Gaming, enter the market with the purchase of the IP, and the Palace continues to enjoy the benefits of its 53 million dollar upgrade.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Tourism is our niche. But it’s more than casinos. We are a city with casinos, we are NOT a casino city.

The casino resorts attract the people, but once they get here they fall in love with our community. They find that we are so much more.

Last year I told you that we were changing the way people look at Biloxi. I talked about the newly opened visitors center and the new downtown library and civic center.

These facilities are all enjoying milestones of their own – each and every day.
More than 50,000 tourists walked through the front door at the visitors center last year. The center also hosted 156 special events, with more than 10,000 guests.

As of right now, just two months into 2013, we have more events booked for this year than we had in all of last year. We are guaranteed a record-breaking year at the visitors center.

Every Saturday is booked through June, and we have only a few Saturdays available in July, August and September.

It’s the same story over at the civic center on Howard Avenue. Every single Saturday is booked for the first half of this year.

In all, we held 38 events at the civic center last year, with more than 20,000 people attending those events.

Of the 21 annual events we held, 20 have already signed up to return this year. Carnival balls were about a fourth of our business. Five balls with about 5,000 people.

We also are the new home for Chefs of the Coast. We had proms for Biloxi High, D’Iberville and St. Martin. We held sold-out boxing matches, the chamber’s business expo, corporate meetings, and so forth.

Weddings have been big business for us at both facilities. Receptions, engagement parties, rehearsal dinners, and plenty of small wedding ceremonies.
Rarely does a week go by when we don’t have Judge Fountain or Judge Strong presiding over two or three small ceremonies at the visitors center. On December 12 of 2012, the famous 12-12-12, we had four weddings before noon. Word is spreading. This year, we will host brides from California and Washington state.

Let’s not forget about the state-of-the-art library on Howard Avenue.
In the 18 months since it opened, we’ve had 112,000 people through the doors, and they’ve checked out more than 156,000 items. That’s more than three books or DVDs for every citizen of Biloxi. And that’s only ONE of our three libraries.

We’re also making improvements at both facilities.

We’re adding parking at the civic center.
At the visitors center, we’re creating Lighthouse Park, with nature trails, gardens and green space that will stretch over 7 acres, covering three blocks, from Gill Avenue all the way to Benachi Avenue.

This park will be a slice of serenity that will be an ecotourism attraction for visitors and locals alike.

And the statue of the explorer Pierre LeMonyne D’Iberville will be back on the Visitors Center lawn this year, along with the marble tablets and bricks displaying the names of our leading families.

Like I said, one milestone after another. Each and every day.

Last year, I also told you about the upcoming openings of the new Wal-mart Supercenter, McElroys, Sharkheads, the Biloxi Boardwalk Marina and so on.
Those were all tremendous milestones, and they are making an impact.

The new Wal-mart helped Edgewater Mall enjoy a robust year, with new businesses opening inside and outside the mall.

We’re working with Commissioner King to add sidewalks on Switzer Drive so we can connect Edgewater Mall, Edgewater Village, and the Wal-mart with the nearly 1,200 apartments a block away.

We’re also continuing to see a surge of economic development downtown. The Half Shell Oyster House has been joined by eight restaurants, and eight art galleries or antique stores in the past 12 months. Yes, that’s right. More than 16 small businesses opened downtown in the past year. We even have a couple of clothing stores in the Mary Mahoney’s complex.

Our goal is for more of the thousands of people south of Highway 90, at the Beau and the Hard Rock, to come north of Highway 90, to explore the shops, galleries and restaurants downtown.

That’s why the Mardi Gras Museum is returning downtown this year.
We had a peek in the museum last month when we made the transition from Christmas at Beauvoir to Carnival season.

And what a great event Christmas at Beauvoir was. It called attention to the national landmark in our city. It created a new fourth-quarter holiday tradition. And it reminded people that we have a presidential library opening later this year.

Another great idea was Main Street’s Finally Friday. This block party attracts hundreds of people downtown each month.

I also congratulate our other community partners for achieving milestones of their own.

Keesler dedicated a new dormitory as “Biloxi Hall” to recognize the strong bond between the base and the community. After months of preparation, hundreds of Keesler Airmen cheered, and one blue dragon danced, when they heard the Air Force inspector general deem the 81st Training Wing as “excellent.”

Next month, the men and women at Keesler will find out how they fared in the Commander-in-Chief’s Installation Excellence Award. For the second year in a row, Keesler has been chosen one of the top two military installations in the world. The base is up for a 1 million dollar prize, which will be used for quality of life improvements. Congratulations to Team Keesler. You are already winners in our book.

And what can I say about the great things in Biloxi public schools? We have six schools in the Biloxi school district. Three are Star schools and the other three are high performing schools. They scored all As and Bs.

In fact, our entire school district was named a High Performing district, and we were just a few points shy of being a Star district. We jumped from No. 20 in the state to No. 9. And when we say Biloxi means business when it comes to education, we mean it. In the state stock market game this year, Biloxi High won first, second and third place.

I also congratulate Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College on next month’s opening of the Hospitality Resort Management Center at the Jeff Davis campus.
The 50,000-square-foot center is sort of a working laboratory to train future workers in our resort industry. There are four teaching kitchens, a 400-person conference center, computer labs, a full-size hotel room, classrooms and a whole bunch more.
When you walk in the front door, you’re greeted by a full size hotel front desk.

Like I said, tourism is our niche, and we’re making sure that we have a well-trained workforce.

And talk about affordable housing… Our Biloxi Housing Authority served 575 families before Katrina. Today, it serves 1,700 families.
Next month, the housing authority will begin leasing the 75 units of new family housing at Beauvoir Pass, the oak-filled development on Pass Road.

One of the most impressive milestones is Seashore Oaks, on the front beach. This facility has assisted living and market rate units – and it’s not what you would typically find in public housing: granite counter tops, a beautiful community room, amenities such as housekeeping and on site food service. There’s also a swimming pool, on-site security and, of course, that beautiful view of the Gulf of Mexico.
You won’t find public housing like this anywhere in the country.

Coast Transit saw its fourth straight year of record ridership. CTA served more than a million passengers in 2011 and 2012, and the numbers are already six percent higher this year.
This is the state’s largest public transit system, and its two most popular routes are right here in Biloxi, the Casino Hopper, with 22,000 passengers a month, and the Pass Road Route.
CTA also worked with Main Street on the Rue Magnolia gateway, and we can all see the new Rodenberg Avenue comfort station taking shape on West Beach.

The Catholic Diocese will open the Santa Maria Del Mar senior housing off Cedar Lake later this year, and it will be just around the corner from where Health Management, the parent company to Biloxi Regional Medical Center, wants to construct a 132 million dollar state-of-the-art medical center.

A few months ago, the state gave the green light for the 144-bed hospital, but hospitals in neighboring cities have appealed, so we’re going to have to wait a few months for the groundbreaking.

When we see competition like this in South Mississippi, some people ask, “Can’t we all just get along?”

Which brings me to another issue: annexation.
Annexation is how a city grows. Were it not for annexation, the west end of our city today would be the Biloxi Lighthouse.

We annexed Woolmarket and Eagle Point in 1999 because we needed room to grow, and that was our path of growth. At the time, there was no land use plan or zoning for Eagle Point or Woolmarket. If you had a half million-dollar home someone could have built a junk yard right next to you.

We’ve invested tens of millions in city services in the annexed area, and, yes, water and sewer service. Just in the past year, we spent 3 million dollars installing sewer service.

Now, let’s talk about the two recent annexation cases. Biloxi did not initiate either of one of them.
D’Iberville tried to annex land that would have boxed us in on the northeast. Then Gulfport tried to annex land that would have boxed us in on the northwest.

D’Iberville lost its case, but continues to appeal. Gulfport lost its case, too, but they say they’re going to try again. Now, as we prepare to present our case, they want us to walk away, and throw away the time and money we’ve invested in this.

Everyone has had their day in court, and now it’s Biloxi’s turn. To walk away would be irresponsible. And I am glad that all seven members of the City Council have agreed with me.

Our role in city government, as we’ve said time and again, is to set the table for economic development.

Last year, we also did some clearing of the table. Our Katrina blight program removed 22 eyesores and brought 24 other buildings up to code and ready for business.
These are all certainly milestones, large and small, but nothing is going to be more high profile than what you’ll be seeing as you come into Biloxi from across the Biloxi Bay Bridge.

Over the next several months at Point Cadet, the new Waterfront Park will be taking shape, with the new pavilion, splash pad, green space and promenade.
And the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum’s boat-in-a-bottle concept will let people know that they have arrived at something special — by day and by night.

This new gateway is only one bright spot along our waterfront.

We re-built, re-wired, re-dedicated and renamed the Lighthouse fishing docks as the Sherman Canaan Back Bay Fishing Docks.
The new piers, ramps and parking at Forrest Avenue and Kuhn Street should be completed this summer. In fact, we WOULD be completed were it not for Hurricane Isaac. Speaking of Isaac, we expect to have repairs to the end of the Lighthouse Pier completed this summer.

The commercial fishing dock next to the small craft harbor will be completed in a couple of months, and the small craft harbor bait shop and fuel dock will be complete in the spring.

The Point Cadet Fishing Bridge will be open within the next several weeks. This is a 9 million dollar milestone, built back better than it ever was. We have lights for nighttime fishing, ADA sidewalks, and turnarounds at the midway point and end of the bridge. It’s going to be a fishing and pelican-watching paradise.

It was a cold and windy day when we dedicated the Popp’s Ferry Causeway park. But the reception has been very warm for the new boat ramp and piers, the waterfront promenade, and the new lighting and the benches. This is a great place to fish, or watch a beautiful sunset.
We’re working on a grant to build nature trails, an interpretive center, and gardens with educational exhibits. We hope to have a great 10-acre nature preserve along the Popp’s Ferry waterfront.

Of course anytime you mention Popp’s Ferry, people think about how we need a new Popp’s Ferry bridge.
Well, let’s talk about Popp’s Ferry. ALL of Popp’s Ferry.

Remember the nightmare of the narrow, two-lane Popp’s Ferry Road we used to have to endure?
We widened Popp’s Ferry Road from Cedar Lake all the way to the bridge.
We can see the success in the Cedar-Popp’s corridor, and more is on the way.

We’re clearing land now for the 5-laning of Popp’s Ferry from Cedar Lake to the city limits with D’Iberville.

At the south end of Popp’s Ferry, we are designing a four-lane boulevard that will take you all the way to Highway 90. This Spring we will be ready to unveil the preferred route, and we’ll be ready to begin acquiring right of way.

We’re making progress on the new Popp’s Ferry Bridge, too.
What we know is this: The new bridge will be 65 feet tall at its highest point, about as high as the I-110 highrise. It will have to open maybe one or two times a week.
We also know that the new bridge is going to cost 70 million dollars in construction alone. Right now, a survey team is determining the right of way we’ll need.

These three projects – widening the north end of Popp’s Ferry, extending the south end to Highway 90 and building a new bridge – would be huge milestones that have been years in the making. You’re talking about a hundred million dollars in public money.

I am glad to hear that Commissioner King wants to see the idea of a new I-10 connector revived and made a priority. We need a new connector in Biloxi, and making use of the improved Popp’s Ferry Road makes sense.

Everyone is also anxious to see more of our massive 355 million dollar infrastructure work.
You know it’s 355 million dollars. You know it’s a million feet of water, sewer and drainage lines. You know it’s about 100 miles of city streets. What some of you may not know is when it will be in your neighborhood.

Well, if you live in Sunkist or Ancient Oaks, you’re driving on new streets. We’ve completed our work there.

If you live in Lake Villa or north of Old Bay Road, you know that we’ve been installing new drainage, and water and sewer lines. We’ll be wrapping up that work in the next several weeks.

We’ve never said this would be easy, nor would it be overnight. We’re doing 20 years worth of work in three to five years. Some of our milestones are a marathon, not a sprint.

Construction along Back Bay, around Kensington Drive, Yorkshire and Donwood should be under underway in the next two to three months.

In west Biloxi, at Goose Pointe, Runnymeade and Channel Mark, we received bids last week, and we expect to begin work in weeks.

At Pin Oak, Eagle Point and East Shorecrest, and south of Brasher, we expect to be out for bids in April.

The largest share of our work will be in east Biloxi. These are massive contracts — 130 million dollars north of the railroad and 90 million dollars south of the railroad.
We’ll be doing another 30 million dollars worth of work along Highway 90, all the way to west beach.

These contracts depend on CSX permits and Highway 90 easements. Our goal is to have all of these underway this year.

We have acquired 26 of the 34 easements needed to extend the Howard Avenue streetscape all the way to Myrtle Street. The design is 95 percent complete, and we expect FEMA to allow construction to begin this year.
You’ll see the new sidewalks, new ornamental street lights and other amenities on Howard Avenue.

But not all of our milestones are as obvious as others. For instance, when you turn on that faucet in the kitchen, you don’t think about where the water comes from. This summer we’ll be wrapping up 3 million dollars in repairs to the city water wells that serve homes and businesses in Biloxi.

We’re more than 50 percent complete with digital water meters throughout the city. Instead of meter readers canvassing the city each month, a sophisticated computer network will provide 24/7 monitoring of our water system. We’ll have more accurate bills, if you have a water leak, we’ll spot it right away.

Incidentally, we are still a couple thousand customers short of the 15,000 water department customers we had the day Katrina struck.

In fact, let’s talk for a moment about pre-Katrina Biloxi and where we are today, 7½ years later.
The census says we have almost 45,000 residents, or 13 percent below the more than 50,000 we had when Katrina hit.

The year before the storm, we had 54 million dollars to operate the city. Last year, we had 52 million dollars to run the city.
Two of our three revenue streams – sales tax revenue and gaming tax revenue – are off from their pre-Katrina levels.

Remember, the country has been suffering through the worst financial times since the Great Depression. But still, we saw 234 new businesses in Biloxi last year. We issued 75 million dollars in building permits.

And our city departments are doing more with less.
Daily attendance at the Natatorium, our indoor Olympic sized swimming pool, reached 20,000 last year, plus another 10,000 swimmers at the Snyder center.
Our Biloxi Elite swim team jumped from 98 to 150 swimmers and we went from 60 to 80 on the Red Tide team. We gave 456 swimming lessons last year, a 40 percent increase.
Why all of the interest? We think it was the 2012 Olympics and the Gold Medals the U.S. won in swimming.

Our police and fire departments handled 106,000 calls for service last year, a 32 percent increase. Think about that: Almost 300 times a day, our public safety people respond to a 911 call, a motorist in need, a fire alarm, a medical emergency, or a traffic stop.
69 percent of the calls to the fire department are emergency medical calls.
We had three year lows in traffic crashes and traffic fatalities last year. Our overall response time is 1.7 minutes in the police department, which is remarkable, and it’s 3.5 minutes for the fire department on emergency calls.
Our bomb squad worked its second Super Bowl this year. For the record, we did not touch the light switch.

Our firefighters performed nearly 30,000 hours of training, tested all aerial ladders and trucks, and every one of our firefighters was re-certified in CPR and operating AED devices.
We put in stronger and better-looking roofs on stations at Veterans Avenue, Pass Road and Popp’s Ferry Roads.
Our network of tornado warning towers had its first deployment in March when we warned citizens of tornadoes, which damaged residences in North Biloxi.

I also want to thank our Fire and Police Departments for the fund-raising work they did and the trip they took to help the victims of Super Storm Sandy. We had a number of businesses – like the Palace, the Hard Rock and the Beau – help in this effort, too.

We know the long road those folks have in front of them. Since Katrina, we’ve spent more than 175 million dollars in rebuilding our city. That’s an average of about 22 million dollars a year on major construction and repairs to city facilities.

Right now, we’re constructing an 8.5 million dollar Public Works complex to replace the old, dilapidated warehouse that was damaged by Katrina.
Our new complex will have four buildings – an administration building, a warehouse, a Shop Building, and a Vehicle Maintenance facility.
This is all being built on the site north of the railroad and will be completed in 19 months.
Our public works department oversaw dozens of streets and drainage repairs in the past year. You see the new traffic signals, turning lanes and new sidewalks at busy Pass Road intersections.

And let me say that I’m proud of what we’re seeing in west Biloxi. Look at what the Mladinich family has done with the Shoppes at Popp’s Ferry. Or what they’ve done with the former Blockbuster at Beauvoir and Pass Road.
And, of course, we’re all anticipating the opening of the White Pillars, which is destined to become a local, state and national landmark.
It’s one Mladinich milestone after another.

The same thing is occurring in downtown by a group known as the Rue Vieux.
These local businesswoman – 25 in all – are dedicated to the resurgence of downtown retail and arts. So far, they have purchased, rehabbed and re-opened four downtown sites. And they’ve done all of this in 18 months.

This is the kind of hard work and dedication that has made Biloxi the great place that it is to live and work.

Finally, for all of these accomplishments we have enjoyed, and the challenges that we face, we must remember to cherish the blessings we have each and every day.

The beauty of our surroundings. The majestic sunsets. The deep-sea and freshwater fishing, the championship golf, the great restaurants and shops. The small town charm. The climate that is so inviting to our visitors.

The many traditions and events that celebrate our heritage and our culture. A few weeks ago, we enjoyed another great Mardi Gras parade, and now we’re gearing up for a great St. Patrick’s parade.

We’ve seen the birth and growth of events like Cruisin’ the Coast, and the arrival of others like Christmas at Beauvoir.

Three hundred people turned out last year to see the resurrection of the Biloxi Sports Hall of Fame. It was a great evening. We had young and old athletes, some were parents and grandparents, and it was a proud night for everyone.

All of these things make us a special place. They define who we are. They make us an exciting and vibrant community.
These are the reasons that people like Tom Wall and thousands of Keesler retirees decided to make Biloxi their home.
These folks could have chosen to retire anywhere in the world, but they chose Biloxi.
That says something special about us.

I go back to what I have said time and again. It’s the people. The people make Biloxi the special place that it is.
The colorful, the out-going, the hard-working, the caring and the compassionate.
I am proud to be one of you. I am proud to be your Mayor, each and every day.

So there you have it. The State of the City 2013. A milestone, large or small, each and every day.
What do you think?

(End video)

Thank all of you very much.

In conclusion, let me say, God bless all of you, and God bless Biloxi.