Here is the prepared text of Mayor A.J. Holloway’s State of the City address, delivered Feb. 23, 2006 during a Biloxi Bay Chamber-sponsored luncheon at the IP Casino Resort in Biloxi.
Thank you for such a warm welcome. I’m honored to see so many of you here this afternoon. This marks the 13th time for me to come before you to report on the state of our city.
Each year, I have told you about the many projects and programs your city government was providing to enhance and improve the excellent quality of life in our city.
We’ve used this occasion to launch major initiatives, such as a couple of years ago when we announced the appointment of Clark Griffith who helped successfully guide us through the BRAC hearings that threatened Keesler Air Force Base.
Or the year when we outlined a construction-management program with an ambitious timetable to widen Popp’s Ferry Road and build a new Back Bay Boulevard and a new, four-lane Caillavet Street.
You’ve also heard a consistent message each year: The state of our city was excellent, our economy was vibrant and our future was bright.
I told you more than once that we were living in historic times, and we were MAKING history every day. Our city had never enjoyed such a prosperous era.
And, as recently as eight months ago, two months before Katrina, the City Council and I and many of you were in the Saenger for inaugural ceremonies.
It was a time for a new beginning, but it was also a time of promise.
“All of us gathered here today,” I told that audience, “have the unique and unprecedented fortune of being a part of an era that future generations will recognize as the time when our city reached new plateaus.
“When we continued the work to make Biloxi the best city it could be. When we provided our residents with the superior quality of life they expect and deserve.
“When opportunities and prosperity were within reach of all of our residents. And a time when we seized the opportunities that we had before us.”
Today, I come before you in a new age, a literal crossroads.
Today, I come before you to deliver a new State of the City address. Six months after we endured the most destructive force history has ever seen, and with thousands of our residents still in temporary trailers, I come before you with a familiar but re-assuring message.
We’re going to continue to make history – on a larger scale than we could have ever imagined.
We’ve done it before, and we’re going to do it again.
We’re going to do it, to a degree, by remembering our history.
Over the past few years, we’ve made a habit of addressing each of our convention groups in Biloxi.
We welcomed them to our city, and let them know that we were honored that they were meeting here.
We told them of our 300-plus year history, our historic sites and attractions, and we usually told them about this thing called “small-town charm.”
I have to be honest with you. I’ve come to believe that, in our case, “small-town charm” means that everybody in Biloxi knows everybody’s business – and that regardless of how much devastation Katrina wrought, it didn’t touch our productive grapevine and rumor mill.
I found that out when my staff sent me to the hospital the other day after what turned out to be an allergic reaction.
By the way, I want to thank all of you for the many phone calls and kind words. Make no mistake, I’m up to this challenge, just as I know you are.
But I did enjoy hearing the rumor mill. Some were wondering if flags would be lowered, but, of course, we didn’t have any flag poles. All that talk, you would have thought I was Dick Cheney, and I shot somebody.
But this close-knit quality of our Biloxi is what makes this community so great. And we are so fortunate, we thank God, that we didn’t have this storm hit at night, and claim 10 times as many lives.
For that, I also credit our public safety departments, and our community development department, which had won federal awards for our outreach efforts about the dangers of flooding and storms.
But, of course, here in Biloxi, we’re going to have some diehards, who lived through Camille, or other storms, or maybe just don’t heed the warnings.
We used to tell the convention groups about the storms we’ve had over the years, and some of the stories that go with them.
Like the case of Father Dominic, who refused to leave his church on Point Cadet.
The day before the storm, officers drove by in a patrol car, warning him that the water was going to rise. No, Father Dominic said. Don’t worry about me, I’m in God’s hands. The Lord will look out for me.
A few hours later, they came back in a skiff because the water was on the road. Father Dominic was standing on top of the altar inside surrounded by water but he still refused to leave. “Don’t worry about me. I’m in the Lord’s hands.”
Later on, before we had to pull back, they went out again after Father Dominic.
This time they were in a helicopter. Father Dominic was standing on the roof of the church, which was surrounded by water. They hollered down for him to grab the rope they were dangling, but he waved them off.
“Don’t worry about me. I’m in the Lord’s hands.”
A few hours later, when the winds were whipping and the waves were breaking, Father Dominic was clinging to the church steeple. As he clung for his life, he looked up at the sky, with all that rain and wind, and he said, “Oh, Lord, why has thou forsaken me?”
And the clouds parted, and, excuse me for this Bishop, but the Lord said, “Father Dominic, I’ve sent a police car, a skiff and a helicopter, what the hell are you waiting for?”
And that’s where we are today. Amid all of this destruction, amid all of this ruin, we must realize that we have new opportunities. Opportunities to achieve greatness that we never dreamed of before.
We’re well into the recovery effort, and, although we have a number of challenges on the horizon, the people of Biloxi are continuing to move forward in a way that makes me proud to serve as mayor.
Our residents and business community are once again demonstrating the resolve and resilience that for generations have been among the defining attributes of this city.
And those qualities are the foundation of our recovery effort – a recovery effort that promises unprecedented growth and prosperity.
To be sure, we have a great deal of work to do as we move toward that goal.
More than 2 million cubic yards of storm debris have been removed from our city. That’s enough to cover a football field with a pile of debris that would stand more than a hundred stories high.
That sounds like a lot, and it is, but our estimates are that Katrina left almost 4 million cubic yards of debris in its wake. And we see other tangible signs of our recovery.
You know, the difference between Camille and Katrina is that we now have the tools to move forward.
Legalized gambling, and it’s even more promising with on-shore gaming. We’ll see more jobs, more visitors, AND more sustainable development.
We witnessed an early indication of that promise at the outset of 2006, barely five months after Katrina.
Thousands of employees at three of our casino resorts were back at work, and thousands of construction workers were toiling long hours at resorts and businesses throughout our city.
Business is booming. The three casino resorts that came online in December ’05 – the IP, Isle of Capri and Palace – reported more than $60 million gross gaming revenue for the month of January.
In the pre-Katrina days, all nine of our casino resorts regularly grossed around $80 million a month.
To put it simply: We had only 30 percent of our resorts back online, but they’ve accounted for 70 percent of the pre-storm gaming revenue, which, of course, is a vital revenue stream for this city and this state.
This indicates that our customer bases to the east -- Alabama, Florida and Georgia -- are returning, and they’re supporting our recovery effort. Of course, those folks coming from the east could get here even quicker with another bridge.
But with all of the encouraging signs we see, many challenges lay ahead – such as the new flood elevation mandates. We’re going to work through them, just as we’ve worked through so many other issues.
Weeks ago, our Governor brought in a group of folks who some say are among the best and brightest planners and architects in the design world. They’ve worked up a host of suggestions, recommendations and ideas.
The Governor, to his credit, has done an excellent job leading this state’s recovery. And, to his credit, he says that for OUR recovery to work, the local communities have a role to play. How our community will look in the future is in OUR hands, he said, and it’s going to be up to us to go from here.
So today, I come before you to say this: We’re at that point. It’s time for us to take the next step in the recovery.
One of the recurring questions asked by the national media in the weeks after the storm was “Where does Biloxi go from here? How could we possibly rebuild after such massive destruction?” Surely, they said, it would take decades to rebuild, IF we could do it at all.
Well, like I’ve said more than once over the past few months, this is not our first rodeo, but I certainly hope it’s the largest we’ll ever see. We have the spirit and the drive to re-build a bigger and better Biloxi, and one that we can all be proud of.
I think we have potential that we never dreamed of before.
The past 10 to 12 years gave us only a glimpse of the success we can enjoy. The governor wants to see a renaissance; I want to resurrect the renaissance that we were having.
Today, I am announcing the launching of a strategy that will move us forward. Over the next 90 days, we are going to spark a public discussion about our future, our past, our strongest assets, and how those three components will be used in the rebuilding of our city.
What’s right for Biloxi? What’s realistic for Biloxi? I don’t have all of the answers, but I do know how we’re going to get them.The answers to those questions should come from a diverse and broad-based representation of our community.
Diversity of opinions and diversity of cultures has been one of the trademarks of Biloxi for years, and I suspect, I hope we’ll see that trait carried on in this process.
Today, I’m announcing that retired Lt. Gen. Clark Griffith has agreed to help carry out this mission.
Clark is a proven and seasoned leader, someone who loves this community. Clark has been the Commander of the 81st Wing and the Second Air Force at Keesler, and he retired as a three star general.
During his 35 years in the Air Force, Clark saw combat in Vietnam and the Gulf. He also saw disasters, accidents, personnel and policy changes, and many other issues that presented leadership challenges.....so this ain’t his first rodeo, either.
Clark could have chosen to live anywhere in the world, but he chose to make his home here in Biloxi.
Because he loves this city, Clark is willing to devote the time, talent and effort to a project that will require all three. And more than that, Clark has my confidence – and appreciation.
I’ve given you the molasses, Clark, now it’s time to feed you the sulfur.
In coming days, we’ll assemble the Reviving the Renaissance Steering Committee, which Clark will chair. This committee will represent a cross-section of our community – geographically and demographically, for sure.
Its charge will be to address the interests of property owners, business owners, the hospitality and gaming industry, affordable housing, Keesler, seafood and marine industries, recreation, public education, and, two of our most important assets, our history and our culture.
We’ll face some challenges, like the new FEMA flood elevations.
To give you an idea of the impact of these regulations, homes on Point Cadet would essentially look like those out in the Wells Ferry subdivision, or the way homes looked out at Eagle Point, before the storm. That’s something we’ll deal with.
But let me say this: We’re not going to re-invent the wheel. The logical thing to do is to follow the governor’s formula.
I want to see a process in which there’s public input toward developing a realistic plan, with a realistic timetable and a realistic price tag.
And I want to have this tool in hand no later than 90 days from today, so the City Council and I can put it to work.
I certainly don’t have all of the answers, and we won’t have that plan until it’s ready, but there are a few things that I DO know, and that I can tell you will be in this plan.
We’ll restore the assets that helped provide the excellent quality of life we enjoyed here in Biloxi. We’ll rebuild and improve our infrastructure. We’ll find a way to provide affordable housing and new opportunity for our residents – better than we had before. We’ll rebuild and restore our community centers, our parks, and we’ll build even more of them. We’ll rebuild and restore those historic properties that were spared by the storm. We’ll continue to embrace our diversity and preserve our cultural traditions. We’ll go about business just as our ancestors did so many times when facing difficult challenges. We’ll do more than persevere.
There’s a quote by William Faulkner on the Ole Miss library. It comes from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “Man will not merely endure; he will prevail.” And so will we.
In closing, I ask that you remember this thought as you leave here: Biloxi is on the way back, and we’re going to revive the renaissance. I’m excited about the future, and everyone – residents, business leaders and visitors – will play a key role in ensuring that this community has a bright and promising future.
People are going to remember Biloxi not so much for how bad the destruction was, but for how GREAT the recovery effort will be.
To borrow a line from Ronald Reagan: “Our best days lie ahead.”
God bless you and God bless Biloxi.