State of the CIty 2015: a city of contrasts

Here is the text of the State of the City video presentation, delivered Thursday, March 12, 2015, during a Biloxi Bay of Commerce luncheon at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino.

Today, as we take account of the state of our city, we stand on the cusp of a milestone year – we mark the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

So many wondered how long it would take for Biloxi to return to Biloxi. How long it would take for our city facilities to be rebuilt, for our roads to be restored, for our homes and indeed our lives to be rebuilt.

Looking around our city today, you realize that some things returned quickly, some more slowly, and while some things may never return, others are better than ever. Our role, our task is to make sure that we restore or replicate those things that made and make Biloxi the great place we love.

Today, the state of our city is a profile in contrasts. While Biloxi faces some of our most challenging financial times in a generation, we have more public works projects underway than at any time in the history of our city. Drive almost any street and you’ll see the signs. The signs may read ‘detour’ or ‘men at work’  — make no mistake they all say your city is on the move.

While we have cut our parks and recreation department budget by 10 percent, we’ve unveiled a new waterfront park adjacent to the beautiful Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum. Together, the provide an impressive gateway into our city. They tell visitors that they have arrived at some place special.

And this summer we’ll be opening two new parks – the much-anticipated MGM Park and the Lighthouse Park.

We’ll see a new multi-million-dollar Public Works facility that will provide our employees a first-class, professional working conditions.

In this coming year, we’ll complete tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure work, we’ll embark on millions of dollars more, and we’ll host media and visitors from around the world who will be dropping in to check on our recovery and rebuilding at the 10-year mark of Hurricane Katrina.

What these visitors will see is a city on the move. They’ll see a city of contrasts.

They’ll see a city where event though our departments faced spending cuts of as much as 14 percent, we are working with less and providing more.

To be sure, the fiscal soundness of the city has cast a tall shadow over the past several years. Controlling costs has had a major influence on decision making in all departments.


Let’s talk about finances right up front. The city spent 53 million dollars last year in providing you the day-to-day services that you expect and deserve as taxpaying citizens of Biloxi. That’s not counting the infrastructure work you see, or the construction of major city facilities, which are mostly federally funded and bump our annual spending that figure up to more than 300 million dollars.

But the fact remains, we must focus on managing the LOCAL costs of government… that 53 million dollars in local money the city spent last year.

That’s more than a million dollars a week or close to 150-thousand a day of your money. That’s what it costs to open the doors, pay the light bill, keep the streets and neighborhoods safe, and provide parks and recreation programs at ball fields and community centers. Once again, we’ve done all of these things without raising your city property taxes, just like we’ve done for the past 20 years.

The running the city and improving the city has dipped into our cash reserves, which, right now are the lowest they’ve been in probably three decades. And that means must continue to decrease spending, to work smarter, to find new revenue sources, and all the while we’re making great and innovative accomplishments in all departments and in all areas of our city.


With budget constraints in mind, Councilmember Dixie Newman set in motion a citizen-based coalition to raise money for Hiller Park, that 100-acre jewel of a park on the Back Bay in west Biloxi. The councilmember and her group conducted a half-dozen fund-raising events – from a Dog festival, a kickball contest, movie nights, Easter Egg hunts and movie nights — and accepted donations from civic-minded businesses to raise more than $12,000.

Mississippi Power stepped in to add new and improved lighting in the park, and, thanks

to agreements with our friends with Harrison County, you can expect to see a walkway and bike path connecting Hiller Park with the neighborhoods to the west toward Popp’s Ferry Road.

The Hiller Park work is not done. You’ll see a splash pad, refurbished restrooms, resurfacing of the basketball and tennis courts, a second dog park, a nature trail and a kayaking trail. Tidelands grants will help with dredging around the boat launch and a boardwalk front the Back Bay.

This is what it takes for local government to be successful in this day and age – vision and looking for new money and new partnerships.

We see another example in The Biloxi Fire Department which appointed a veteran firefighter, Capt. Michelle Crowley, to take on the task of locating and securing available grants. Captain Crowley has had quite the successful year, hauling in $109,000 in grants.

One of the largest grants was a $76,000 was used to purchase three sets of Jaws of Life. This means that all frontline pumpers in the Biloxi Fire Department fleet now have this vital equipment — a milestone that this department has been striving for since the early ’70s, when the city purchased its first Jaws of Life.

The fire department used a million dollars in Community Development Block grant funds – federal money – to purchase a new ladder track, to help fight fires in buildings of 10 stories or more, and to help keep our aging fleet up to date. That truck is being built right now and will join the fleet this year.

We need top-performing equipment because last year the Biloxi Fire Department responded to more than 6,470 calls, of which 4,100 or 66 percent were emergency medical calls. For the first time in years, we’ve seen a drop in emergency medical calls because of a re-evaluation of non-emergency calls. We’re working with AMR to reduce the number of non-emergency transports responses. But make no mistake, if you’re in an emergency, Dial 911 and public servants with superior training will respond.

Every member of the Biloxi Fire Department is a trained first responder, and today we now have 36 nationally registered EMTs and two nationally registered Paramedics,

Not since the early ’80s has the department had paramedics and never has the Biloxi Fire Department boasted this many EMTs among tis ranks.

The Biloxi Police Department also recognized the talent within its ranks in 2014, and undertook an 18-month process that resulted in the largest round of promotions in recent history – two majors, two captains, eight lieutenants and 12 sergeants. These leaders instill a greater degree of accountability in the rank and file.

Despite a huge number of special events throughout the year, the department kept overtime within budget.

And then there’s the issue of keeping our community safe. The 124-member department saw aggravated assaults cut in half and traffic fatalities limited to 5 in all of last year.

The Biloxi Police Department responded to 123,000 calls for service, made 7700 arrests and conducted almost 17,000 traffic stops. Of all the arrests made, only 3 percent required forceful means, a testament to the discipline, training and professionalism of the men and women of the Biloxi Police Department.


In Parks and Recreation, continuing the concept of sharing the expenses, the city partnered with Harrison County open the East Biloxi Seniors Center at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art. This location provides a gathering spot for seniors to enjoy fellowship, create arts and crafts and pursue other meaningful activities.


Of course, on Point Cadet we also opened the much-anticipated Point Cadet Plaza, with its open-air pavilion, splash pad, and children’s playground.

Just next door, we also saw the opening of the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum.

The seafood museum, with its boat in a bottle concept, is, of course, next door to the waterfront park, the open-air pavilion, splash pad and green space that we unveiled. We were delighted with the huge success of the Biloxi Seafood Festival, which returned to huge crowds in 2014.

These types of outdoor venues are important to showcase Biloxi’s appeal to visitors and accentuate our great weather and inviting sense of place. That’s the concept for our work at the park being constructed next to the Biloxi Visitors Center, where we saw another 21 percent increase in visitors last year.

Many of those 149,000 people who walked through the doors at the Visitors Center last year will welcome the new parking at the Lighthouse Park site, as well as the elevated nature boardwalk, which will traverse a children’s playground, a small pond, native marsh plants and an outdoor open-air pavilion on that will be a gathering place for students studying our environment and a great venue for weddings, family reunions and other special events.

Our goal is to remind our residents and show our visitors that unique charm and colorful history of Biloxi. That’s why you see a first class civic center, where we hosted events ____ last year.

We were also delighted to see the rebirth of the White House Hotel, where owners have painstakingly restored this gem to its opening-day charm and grace, while also providing the sophistication of today’s world.

Harrah’s did a wonderful job in removing the remnants of an abandoned construction site and transformed it into the grand lawn, a magnificent venue for waterfront concerts.

We’re also proud of the tremendous investment that Landry’s made in rebranding and restoring the Isle into a premier resort, the Golden Nugget, and we’re anticipating a forthcoming announcement for exciting plans at the former Casino Magic site.

Of course, the drive for more development in Biloxi continues to face the challenges associated with the cost of insurance, construction costs and elevation, coupled with tight market for private financing.

Our Community Development Department reports $111 million in construction last year. That’s a $7 million increase over 2013, an uptick primarily attributable to two projects, the city-funded MGM Park at Beau Rivage, which received a permit for $30 million, and the Arbor View Apartment complex off Popp’s Ferry Road, a huge development that was permitted at $23 million.

We also saw 101 new homes built last year in Biloxi, with new homes accounting for $24.2 million in permits.

We’re continuing to be encouraged by the new home construction, particularly in the Woolmarket area of the city, where elevation is not an issue and the Public Works Department has invested millions in introducing city water and sewer service.

We have a total of ten residential developments in one stage or another at the present time.

Of course, we’re anxiously anticipating the renewed interest the Biloxi Shuckers and MGM Park will spark in our downtown area. You already see the Sal & Mookie’s restaurant going up just north of the Town Green.

And speaking of development, Keesler Medical Center last year began a major three-year, $74 million renovation that will realign the outpatient specialty clinics on the second through fourth floors and reworks the surgical floor with new state-of-the-art operating rooms and a new centralized minor procedures suite.

This huge project will provide new hematology-oncology and dialysis suites and infusion center. It moves the dental and mental health clinics into the medical center and divests nearly 48,000 square feet of aging infrastructure.

We were also delighted to have the Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James participate in our popular Preservation in May series. The secretary was able to find out about the great relationship that has existed between Biloxi and Keesler for 72 years now.

Thankfully, it was a slow hurricane season in the Atlantic. Still the 403rd Wing’s Hurricane Hunters flew nearly 1,000 hours to collect tropical storm data.  Two 10-day deployments covered three storms that struck Hawaii this year.

At the end of this month, Team Keesler will be hosting the Air Force Thunderbirds and the Army’s Golden Knights parachute team and many other flying demonstrations. It will be an exciting weekend.


There’s also a great deal of  excitement at Biloxi Public Schools.

Let’s talk about what we’re seeing in our A-rated public school district, where we’re No. 3 in the state academically behind only Pass Christian and Clinton.

This year, the prestigious Milken Foundation awarded a $25,000 grant to Cagney Weaver, a fourth grade teacher at North Bay Elementary.

Our Biloxi High School, in partnership with the National Math and Science Initiative, offers 16 college-level courses, which saves parents thousands of dollars in college tuition.

Another appeal of Biloxi Public Schools in the many extra-curricular activities offered for our students.

Our music program has been recognized as one of the best in the nation, due in no small part to the director of bands, Travis Coakley, who has been named one of the Top 50 band directors in the nation. The band was in the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day parade last year, and this year they’ve been invited to the National Cherry Blossom Parade in Washington, D.C. next month.

The Biloxi arts program offers instruction in ceramics and pottery, visual arts, drawing and painting, art history and art appreciation.

To be sure, these are the caliber of programs that you would expect to find on a college campus, and they’re being offered right here in our award-winning, top-rated Biloxi public school system.

Here’s another milestone in our recovery from Katrina, Nichols has a Head Start program with seven classrooms and 140 children from Biloxi and throughout Harrison County and today, we are proud to announce that the enrollment at Biloxi Public Schools is at 5,714 students, which is 92% of what it was pre-Katrina.

When you think of Biloxi Public Schools, remember, it’s like Superintendent Arthur McMillan like to say, “We’re not just a school district, we’re a nation, an Indian Nation.”

Last year, we told you about Biloxi Regional’s plans to build a second medical center north of the Bay, in the Cedar Lake area. Work on this effort continues to make its way through the regulatory process, but, meantime, as exciting as that prospect of a second hospital is, let’s not overlook the extraordinary things that Biloxi Regional is accomplishing these days. Having quality health care speaks volumes about the quality of a community.

Consider this:

Biloxi Regional is currently one of two medical centers in the country and only one of three in the entire world that is using a revolutionary piece of angiography equipment called the GE Discovery IGS 740. By utilizing this state-of-the-art, laser-guided angiography system we now have the ability to offer multidiscipline clinicians an unprecedented diagnostic imagining tool. It was designed and now allows us to address a much wider range of vascular disease via endovascular procedures, be it cardiac or peripheral.

Another area where Biloxi Regional has distinguished itself is in the area of orthopedics. Whether it’s knee or hip replacements, Biloxi Regional was the first and remains the only medical center on the Gulf Coast that utilizes a Mako robot, which allows orthopedic surgeons pinpoint accuracy in the vital areas of knee or hip replacement. As a result of its success, Biloxi Regional has seen its number of orthopedic cases double in the last three to four years.

Biloxi Regional for three years in a row, has been recognized nationally as a Top Performer on Key Quality Measures. The hospital is also taking steps to give patients easier access to services. Biloxi Regional’s first floor is currently under construction with a $1.6 million project to renovate the registration area and emergency room.


Throughout this year, as we draw nearer to the August 29, we will be reminded of our many successes. We find inspiration in the resolve and resilience of our people.

We find confidence in the remarkable recovery of our community, but we are still confronted by challenges.

Among the challenges that frustrates many, the length of time major recovery projects take. It’s simply reality. A decade of rebuilding is a blip in time for a 316 year old city.


Since late 2008, we have talked about the City’s massive $355 million Restore Biloxi Infrastructure Repair Program. Let’s talk about where we are today with this effort.

While the storm struck on Aug. 29, 2005, the millions dollars for our infrastructure work –more than $355 million – was not fully obligated until May 2011, some six years later. Since that time, we have designed and built several projects and have a number of others underway.

Currently, more than $20 million in construction has been completed and another $156 million is under way…work to repair and replace our infrastructure – that network of storm drains, water lines and other utilities that were installed under our streets, in some cases, generations ago.

Consider what has been accomplished so far:

Work has been completed in the Sunkist neighborhoods, on Walda, Alicia, and Christi Lane, on Rodeo, Rodenburg, Wiltshire, Sharon Hills, Live Oak, on Jordan, Saylor and Melissa Drives.

But the big story is what is underway at the moment.

By the middle of this year, we’ll complete the $9.1 million project on Kensington, Bayview, Lafayette and Forest, all along the eastern end of Keesler.

In the second quarter of this year, we’ll complete the $3.4 million worth of work in Goosepoint, Runnymeade and Channel Mark, and in the third quarter of this year we’ll complete the $11 million in work in the Pin Oak, Eagle Point and East Shorecrest areas.

And by the end of the year, we’ll complete the 11 million in work in the neighborhoods south of Brasher and east of North Haven to Destiny Plantation, as well as Kimbrough.

You will also see the Edgewater Drive/Balmoral work, a $1.8 million project completed by the end of this year.

These active construction contracts listed above total more than $156 million.


Not too far down the road is another 115 million dollars in improvements. The centerpiece of this will be the so-called South Contract, which is the areas south of the CSX Railway from Point Cadet to St. Peter Street. That project went out for bids in February and we expect to award a 940-day contract soon with completion slated for fall 2017.

The final phase of our infrastructure work – known as the west contract, will be to install a new water line from St. Peter all the way to DeBuys Road. This will be a 720-day contract and we expect to advertise it later this year. This is expected to be a $30million project which is contingent on the final acquisition of easements along Highway 90.

These efforts will continue to require a community-wide partnership that remains focused on rebuilding a solid foundation from which Biloxi can grow and flourish. We know we are building to improve the quality of life in Biloxi both for this generation and the next.


Today, we can confidently say that we expect to see the majority of this infrastructure work completed within the 36 months.  We are asking the residents to keep in mind that before Katrina, the City of Biloxi’s typical capital construction projects for this type of infrastructure work averaged approximately $2 to $4 million a year.  However, with the Infrastructure Repair Program that is currently underway, the City’s goal is to complete nearly 50 years’ worth of construction in the next three years.

But this year, this benchmark year, is the one when we will turn the page. This is the year when we will ask people to begin focusing on our recovery more than the tremendous devastation of that storm 10 years go.

We’ll begin telling that story in a huge way later this month when the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art unveils six-month Katrina +10 exhibition.

This daily showcase will be a retrospective of the storm – yes, the catastrophic devastation from one end of the coast to the other, but more importantly it will bring attention to the inspirational recovery that we have seen, again from one end of the coast to the other.

Now, more than ever, is our opportunity to tell this story, to show the rest of the country and the rest of the world how Biloxi and the Mississippi Gulf coast have returned, have rebuilt in innovative fashion, smarter and stronger than before, and built in a way to minimize damage from future storms.


That’s a testament to our vision of being guided by the past, to preserve and promote and perpetuate those things that made so many people fall in love with Biloxi.


Generation after generation, one things stands clear. It’s something we’ve said every year and it remains true today: It’s the people who make Biloxi the special place that it is. The people who work so hard every day. The people who enjoy life in Biloxi. The people who keep our traditions alive. The people who welcome every day with enthusiasm. The people who have the resolve and resilience to overcome any obstacle.  They are all people who make Biloxi the special place that it is. The place we call home.

God bless all of you, and God bless Biloxi.