Here is the prepared text of a speech on quality of life that Mayor A.J. Holloway made to the Leadership Mississippi class, which met on Nov. 13, 2008 at Biloxi High School.
I want to welcome you to Biloxi and the final stop on your Leadership Mississippi tour.
I also want to congratulate each of you for being a part of Leadership Mississippi, which is the second oldest leadership program in the country.
You’ve learned about government in Jackson, education in Hattiesburg, healthcare in Greenwood, and economic development in Tupelo.
This afternoon, we’re going to hear a little about ALL of those things because all of them are ingredients in the recipe for quality of life. That’s our subject today — Quality of life.
I’m going to speak for a little while and then have time to take your questions.
First, let’s be sure of the definition of quality of life.
“Quality of life” is the product of the interplay among social, health, economic and environmental conditions that affect human and social development.
That sounds pretty wooden, I know, so let’s see if we can make it simple.
When you talk about “quality of life” you’re talking about why you want to live in a place.
YOU know what you think is important. Think about where you live – your community in general, down to your neighborhood.
Think about why you live there and what qualities attracted you to that community and that neighborhood.
Some people immediately point to “schools” as the No. 1 issue for quality of life.
A good school system is certainly important, but I think you have to look at the basics.
One of the most important and basic things you look at is safety for yourself and your family. Safety in terms of crime, in terms of traffic, in terms of firefighting, in terms of being able to walk the neighborhood sidewalks in the morning or evening without overwhelming fear.
Think about being able to walk in your neighborhood. Do you have sidewalks in your neighborhood? Are they wide enough and unobstructed? Are they well lit? Are they handicapped accessible?
As you can see that one basic aspect of quality of life – safety – covers a wide area.
It covers your police department, your fire department, your Public Works Department that maintains those sidewalks and street lights. It covers the Planning and Zoning Department that makes sure developers install those sidewalks to begin with, and that they are the proper width and that they meet ADA requirements.
I cite this example to give you an idea of how everything fits together on a basic level.
But we all know that quality of life involves much, much more.
For a community like Biloxi, quality of life involves things like providing nationally-recognized public schools, award-winning work in historic preservation, diverse and affordable recreational programs and facilities for children and adults, affordable housing initiatives, citywide economic development, and good streets and drainage.
Those are all of the things that we were doing before Hurricane Katrina. We were nationally recognized in all of those areas.
In fact, this school we’re in this afternoon is a $35 million state-of-the-art facility. It’s more along the lines of what you would find on a community college level.
We were – and are — the first school district in the nation to have surveillance cameras in every classroom in the school district. It’s a safety issue, and it’s an accountability issue.
Over the past 10 to 15 years, we’ve invested $80 million in public education in our city.
We built this school, and three other elementary schools and made improvements all schools in the district.
Right now, we’re spending another $15 million on improvements, including a new wing for the ninth grade outside.
Our teachers are among the highest paid – if not THE highest paid – of any public school district in the state. We’re proud of the accomplishments of our students. We’re a Level 5 district, and a Blue Ribbon high school.
These are the things that are important to our quality of life for our residents, and they are the things that potential businesses and residents look at when they are re-locating.
We like to think that we were doing those things and attracting people before the storm.
We oversaw $6 billion worth of development in Biloxi. Nine casino resorts helped create 15,000 new jobs.
We saw the number of hotel rooms on the Coast grow from 6,000 to nearly 20,000.
We went from a million visitors a year to between 8 and 10 million a year.
We invested tens of millions of dollars in public education, public safety and recreation, we invested in our heritage and culture and preserved historic neighborhoods, and we cut our tax rate in half while we were providing our residents a much-deserved and enhanced quality of life.
We were doubling the size of our airport and were getting ready to start on a project to double the size of our convention center. Then Hurricane Katrina came along.
How important is quality of life? I think it’s very important. No one wants to live in an area that has a poor quality of life. And if they do find themselves in an area with a declining quality of life, they won’t stay there for long.
I hope that you in this Leadership Class will look at it another way. I hope that you will accept the challenge to help improve the quality of life in your community.
I hope that you will use the knowledge that you receive in this tour of Mississippi to find avenues to help lead, to become engaged in the process.
So just how important is quality of life? I think it’s what we do in city government.
City government, you should understand, is the most basic form of government.
You don’t call Jackson or Washington when the neighbor’s dog is barking at midnight. You call the city.
You don’t call Jackson or Washington when your water bill is too high. You call the city.
And you don’t call Jackson or Washington when your neighbor’s grass is too high. You call the city.
City government is where the rubber meets the road. Quality of life is what we’re all about.
On many occasions I have told people that our role in city government is to set the table for economic development.
People get the mistaken impression that I’m talking about casinos and condos. I don’t mean casinos or condos, per se.
What I’m talking about is 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. Those are quality of life issues.
At the same time, don’t get the idea that casinos and condos are dirty words.
Those and other businesses provide the revenue for us to be able to provide quality of life improvements.
The jobs they create are what attract residents and visitors to your community.
I think another important thing for us here in Biloxi that’s just as important as quality of life is a thing called quality of place.
We’re in a city that’s on a peninsula bounded by the Mississippi Sound and the Bay of Biloxi.
We’re a city that has two rivers running through it.
Our location provides a host of recreational opportunities for residents and visitors alike, as long as we can make those areas accessible to visitors.
As such, important to our quality of life and quality of place is making sure that we have things like good boat launches, good harbors and marinas, fishing piers and places to access to the waterfront.
That means we’re able to host fishing tournaments and things like Smokin’ the Sound or Cruisin’ the Coast or the Blessing of the Fleet. These are all cultural affairs that are part of our quality of life.
So, now that I’ve told you all of these things, you might wonder how we go about maintaining or restoring our quality of life after a catastrophic event like Hurricane Katrina.
Katrina destroyed 6,000 homes and businesses in Biloxi. Hundreds of historic home were leveled. Dozens of city facilities were demolished.
In the weeks and months after the storm, Governor Barbour said he wanted to see a renaissance as part of the rebuilding process. We agreed, and we reminded everyone that we were already having a renaissance when the storm hit. Our goal was to REVIVE the renaissance.
Following up on the governor’s words that it’s going to be up to the local communities to determine the look of their respective cities, we began planning for our long-term recovery.
We had about 200 volunteers come together to look at the things we were doing successfully before the storm and how we could do them again.
Let me read some of the names of the committees. You’ll see all of the ingredients of quality of life.
We had three general areas. They were Infrastructure, Economic Development and Human Services.
Infrastructure included things like Affordable Housing, Transportation, Land Use and Historic Preservation.
Economic Development included Tourism, Small Business, Seafood Industry and Marine Resources, and Military and Government Contracting.
Human Services included Education, Health and Human Services and Non-government organizations, which includes your social service and civic agencies.
What we looked at was all of the things that we felt were important to our quality of life.
And just like that walk in your neighborhood, all of them are intertwined.
So where are we today?
We’re getting ready to embark on a $355 million project to replace or repair all of the streets, sidewalks and curbs that went underwater in the storm.
The state is just about ready to finish its $90 million project to rebuild Beach Boulevard.
In a few months, we’ll be breaking ground on a new Visitors Center north of the Lighthouse, and a new library and cultural center downtown.
Our small craft harbor is just about ready to open, and we’re ready to begin repair work on Point Cadet Marina.
It’s all a time-consuming and costly process.
You have to remember that we’re rebuilding a city that it took us 300 years to build the first time. It’s not going to happen overnight, and it’s not going to look the same.
I like to think that it’s going to look better. We’re making sure to build back smarter.
We’re thinking about things like those wide sidewalks, safe and efficient roads that drain well, underground utilities where we can, and building back in a way that we will minimize the risk from future storms.
All of that is easy to say, but the devil is in the details. It takes quite a bit of money and time. But it’s exciting to see it all unfolding.
We have a compelling story here in Biloxi, and let me tell you why.
In the decade before Katrina, we were enjoying the most prosperous and productive time in our 300-plus year history.
But months after Katrina, even as we were dealing with day-to-day issues of recovery, we came to realize something.
The decade of prosperity we were enjoying before the storm was only a glimpse of what our potential is today.
We stand poised to reach even greater plateaus of prosperity and opportunity.
Armed with the new legislation to allow shore-based gaming, the casino operators, condo developers, our local community and our loyal customer base are all seeing the same thing in Biloxi: a promising and exciting future in Biloxi.
The people of Biloxi have shown time and again that we’re up to this challenge, and I’m confident that we will not only endure but we will prevail.