STATE OF THE CITY ’08: We’re making progress each and every day

Here is the text of Mayor A.J. Holloway’s State of the City address, delivered Feb. 11. 2008 during a Biloxi Bay Chamber of Commerce-sponsored luncheon at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino.

(To see online video of the speech, click here.)

Good afternoon. I thank all of you for being here.

For the past two years, you’ve heard talk of our goal to revive the renaissance.

You heard about how we were going to look at the successes of the past and build on them for a bright and promising future.

More than 200 of you came together in the months after the storm to discuss the things that were important to this community.

Affordable housing in clean and safe neighborhoods. Good planning, land use and zoning. Quality public education.

Tree-lined streets and boulevards that move traffic efficiently and drain well. First-class city facilities and services.

And an appreciation for our history and culture.

I asked for — and you delivered — a report and a plan of action that was realistic and doable.

It’s been 29 months and 14 days since Hurricane Katrina devastated our community.

I am proud to say that we are making progress each and every day here in Biloxi.

The state of our city is recovering. The recent report of our self-inflicted demise is greatly exaggerated.

We’ve issued more than 20,000 permits of one type or another since the storm.

Like all cities, we have our share of challenges, but Biloxi, in my biased opinion, is the most compelling story of all of the stories in the Katrina recovery.

We went from a city that was enjoying the greatest time in its 300 year history, to a city that was devastated by a monster storm, to a city today that is reaching a milestone – large or small – each and every day.

Our potential and our promise are greater today than at any other time in our history.

We are on the right track.

We would be remiss if we didn’t again thank the thousands of volunteers who continue to work each and every day in our community.

We have a lot of people rooting for us from across the country and around the globe. We will be eternally grateful for their thoughts and prayers.

At the same time, we didn’t sit back waiting on help to arrive.

As our governor likes to say, we were not into victimhood. We hitched up our britches and went to work.

Here in Biloxi, Reviving the Renaissance is more than a slogan.

It’s more than a report, and it’s more than a vision.

It’s a program of work.

Today, I stand before you with an update on our progress to date and give you an overview of the many initiatives we continue to advance.

We’ve been using the figure “billion” quite a bit lately.

Toward the end of last year, we announced that we had issued more than a billion dollars in construction permits in our city.

Our eight casinos last year generated more than a billion dollars in gaming revenue.

Today, I announce to you that we now have more than a half a billion dollars in requests pending with FEMA, and, depending on construction costs, that number will probably double.

Right now, a total of 153.9 million dollars in public improvement projects has been approved, and money has been obligated for 137 million of that figure.

That means that 137 million is in Jackson and is making its way to us.

While we’re very appreciative of the assistance that we’ve received from our state and federal partners, we still have a ways to go.

We are currently awaiting a federal reply on a huge project — 450 million dollars, at least.

This would allow us to replace and repair streets, drainage, water and sewer, and other infrastructure in ALL areas inundated by the storm surge.

This would be a multi-year undertaking that would see tremendous work – and inconvenience throughout our city.

Different people have different opinions of FEMA, and I will admit that the public assistance process has its share of paperwork, but let me say this:

We have not encountered any problem that we couldn’t overcome.

FEMA’s role is to reimburse local governments, only after insurance and other resources have been exhausted.

It’s important that we make sure to do things right on the front end and throughout the process.

I appreciate the assistance that we have received and are continuing to receive from FEMA, MEMA, the Federal Highway Administration, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Mississippi Development Authority, and our other federal and state partners.

I’m also proud to say that we coordinated an 80 million dollar debree removal effort without incident. We did it by the book and we did it in 18 months.

While we’re working through the approval processes on our major projects, we’re not sitting on our hands in Biloxi.

Affordable housing is the issue you hear most about, and we’re seeing action in Biloxi.

As many of you know, we lost 6,000 structures to the storm.

That means we lost more than a quarter of our homes, businesses, apartments and hotels.

Earlier I told you that we’ve issued more than 20,000 building or repair permits since the storm.

But only 362 permits have been issued for new homes.

Right now, we have eight subdivisions in the works that can accommodate more than 500 new homes.

The Biloxi Housing Authority is making great progress toward its goal of creating more than fifteen hundred housing units.

Last month, the authority completed the restoration of its crown jewel, the Hope VI housing community.

Applications are now being taken so that more than 300 families can begin moving into this neighborhood.

You want to talk about New Urbanism, Smart Growth, walkable communities and charming homes?

Take a walk in the Hope VI neighborhoods.

Here in Biloxi, Delmar Robinson, Bobby Hensley and the housing board were doing it before the storm and they’re still doing it.

The Cadet Point Senior Village opened last year with 77 units for senior citizens.

Next month the housing authority will break ground on 34 more units of mixed income multi-family housing on a Point Cadet site near the senior village.

This month, Keesler will begin moving into the first of its more than 1,000 housing units that comprise the largest military housing program in the history of the Air Force.

And there could be even more promising news regarding Keesler.

As you may know, Keesler Air Force Base is under consideration to be home of a new Cyber Space Command.

Cyber Space command will give the United States the ability to defend from and initiate attacks in cyberspace.

Keesler is already the electronics training headquarters for the Air Force, home to the Second Air Force and has the second largest medical facility in the Air Force.

With those thoughts in mind, we took our case to the military last month, and we’ll soon be taking it to Washington.

This new command would come with a three star general, a two-star general, several one star generals, and more than 500 uniformed personnel.

As you might expect, competition will be tough, but the positioning of this command at Keesler would certainly solidify the future of this base for generations to come.

I want to thank Clark Griffith for his work on this project.

Another area of growth that we’re continuing to work on is the issue of growing the geographic size of our city.

We have a case to grow the city by 12 square miles at our northeastern boundary.

Some people bring up our annexation of Woolmarket back in 1999.

You may recall that one of the reasons we made Woolmarket a part of Biloxi was because we were running out of room to grow.

We could not – and we cannot – afford to be boxed in, like Jackson is, encircled by a group of small cities.

We have introduced land-use and zoning to Woolmarket, and much more.

The fact is, we were beginning to see growth in Woolmarket before the storm, especially south of the interstate, which is where we began our water and sewer work.

We have MDOT approval to install water and sewer lines north along Highway 67.
On January 24th, we received approval from the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.

Now, we are awaiting approval from the Mississippi Department of Health to proceed with that work.

In all, there is 64 million dollars in water and sewer work that will be done in Woolmarket over the next three years.

This includes installing water and sewer lines, water wells, pump stations and a new wastewater treatment plant to serve this area.

Although Woolmarket continues to be in the county school district, the Biloxi School Board last month took steps to make it easier for Woolmarket parents to send their children to Biloxi Public Schools.

The district cut the tuition rate in half for Woolmarket residents.

Biloxi High School was named one of the best in the nation last year, a Blue Ribbon Award winner, and Pamela Manners was named one of the top 6 principals in the country.

I don’t know what Paul Tisdale rated, or if he even rated.

Seriously, Paul was one of those 200 volunteers who worked on the Reviving the Renaissance initiative. I’m pleased to say he’s following through on the ideas in the education section of the report.

This year, you’ll see the groundwork being done for a 14.5 million dollar expansion at the high school to accommodate the move of ninth graders.

This will move six graders to the junior high, and will open the door to Biloxi offering pre-K classes at all of our elementary schools.

And, I’m pleased to say, that these things will be accomplished without having to raise your property taxes.

In fact, for the record, we have now gone 15 years without raising your city property taxes.
And don’t forget that our providing things like free recreation, free pre-K classes, and the lowest water and sewer rates of any city around us means money stays in your pocket.

Another bright spot in our recovery is what we’re seeing in public transit.

Last year, Coast Transit had more than a half-million passengers, more than the agency was transporting before the storm.

And I should note that this is being accomplished without CTA’s most popular route, the Beachcomber Line, which won’t be back until next year.

The Pass Road route had a 21 percent increase in ridership last year, which is the second year in a row for a double-digit increase.

CTA Director Kevin Coggin chaired the transportation committee of the Reviving the Renaissance initiative, and he’s making sure to follow through on the RTR ideas.

He launched the Casino Hopper in April, and it became an instant success. This shuttle service is carrying more than 13,000 passengers a month.

Another RTR proposal called for the creation of a carpooling program.

CTA launched the Coast Commuter vanpool program in 2007 with four vans providing eleven hundred work trips a month.

By the end of the year, they had 12 vans and were providing 4,000 work trips a month.

A growing number of our growing number of residents in Biloxi are finding that Coast Transit provides cost-effective and reliable service.

I congratulate Kevin and the CTA staff on these accomplishments.

These numbers are also an indication of how vibrant our economy is here in Biloxi.

There’s a great deal of discussion these days about the national economy and whether this country is headed into a recession.

We are fortunate here in Biloxi that we have worked to attract and grow two industries that many see as recession proof – the military and the casino resort industry.

I’m sure we’ll still see some impacts of whatever happens in the national economy, but I would think our challenges are not going to be to the extent that some face.

One area of our economy that has exploded since the storm is the Cedar-Popp’s corridor.

We’ve seen millions of dollars of growth in this area. Banks, apartments, homes, restaurants, retail, hotels and more.

You’re seeing this huge amount of private investment out on Cedar-Popp’s because they don’t have the issues like flood insurance and elevations that are slowing the recovery in other areas of our city.

You’re also seeing this area blossom because of the tremendous amount of improvements we made in streets, drainage, infrastructure, the sports complex and let’s not forget the new high school and elementary school.

Our role in city government is to provide all of the essentials to give you an outstanding quality of life.

Our role is to set the table for economic development. And you’re going to continue to see more of that.

What you WILL see in 2008 is a continuation of major thoroughfare improvements that move traffic and move our economy.

And I want to see these improvements on the same par as the tremendous work we did on Caillavet Street.

Design work and property acquisition continue on the widening of the last phase of Popp’s Ferry Road, as well as on Brodie and Brashier Roads.

Another project that we’re continuing to make progress on is the creation of boulevards at Veterans Avenue in west Biloxi and Pine Street in east Biloxi.

This year you’ll see the re-paving of Pass Road from Keesler all the way to Debuys Road.

We’re also repaving all of Irish Hill Drive, as well as that part of Popp’s Ferry Road north of Pass Road.

And we’re completely rebuilding Howard Avenue from the Vieux Marche all the way to Myrtle Street.

MDOT is on track to open all lanes of the Biloxi Bay Bridge WELL ahead of the April schedule.

Work also continues on rebuilding Highway 90 from one end of Biloxi to the other.

The new Highway 67 into Biloxi is scheduled to be opening before too long, too.

As chairman of the transportation committee for Gulf Regional Planning Commission, I met with Governor Barbour to ask for his assistance in helping us move forward with another major transportation project.

It’s a project that has been talked about for years – a new east-west corridor to span the Gulf Coast.

I asked the governor to help secure the necessary federal funding for an environmental assessment for this project.

This is a five-million-dollar task that would take place over a three-year period.

Another major transportation project that I’d like to see progress on is another north-south connector for Biloxi.

As you know, this is another one of those projects that has been talked about for years.

The Reviving the Renaissance committee voiced objections to the proposed H route, which would have seen an elevated roadway slice through neighborhoods and would have been in the path of some of those 1,000 housing units that Keesler is now building.

Today, I announce that on March 4 an informational meeting will be held to discuss how we can make Popp’s Ferry part of a bonafide north-south connector.

We already have a 30 million dollar roadway with our work on Popp’s Ferry Road.

Now we want to see how we make the most of that roadway with a new bridge or bridges.

These east-west and north-south corridors are not going to be easy.

They are going to take years of planning and millions of dollars, but I think we need to continue to do the ground work because they are very important to our future.

Last year, at this time, I told you that our Biloxi Community Center would be ready by the end of the year.

It hosted its first carnival ball in January. This is a brand-new 40-year-old facility.

In a typical year, we might have one or two architects working on city projects.

Right now, we have architects working on 10 major public facilities in Biloxi.

They include a new Visitors Center and Lighthouse Park, which will be located north of the Biloxi Lighthouse, and at the same time a new, larger east Biloxi community center and a state of the art library.

We also have architects drawing up construction plans for the repairs to the Biloxi Lighthouse, the Old Brick House, and many of our fire stations.

They’re also preparing repair plans for City Hall and the City Hall annex, the Magnolia Hotel across from Mary Mahoney’s, and restoration of the administration buildings at the small craft harbor and Point Cadet Marina.

In all, those projects will account for tens of millions of dollars in construction, once we get to that phase.

They’re going to give us city facilities that are going to be better than they were before the storm.

Much of the work that you’re seeing is coming directly from the pages of the Reviving the Renaissance report.

You told us that you wanted to see city facilities better than they were before.

You told us that you wanted us to save historic structures where we could.

You told us you wanted quality schools, quality health care and convenient public transit.

That’s why you see the refurbished community center on Howard Avenue.

The restoration of the Old Biloxi City Cemetery, one of the oldest sites in this city.

Or the new Coastal Family Health Center on Division Street.

All of these things were suggested in the Reviving the Renaissance report.

These are things that you said were important to our quality life.

As we were making progress on our long-term recovery, our city departments and divisions were continuing to provide the vital day-to-day services essential to our excellent quality of life.

We currently have a total of 722 city employees and we’re staffed at 85 percent.

We’ve now purchased more than five and a half million dollars in vehicles and heavy equipment for city departments, most to replace vehicles and equipment destroyed in the storm.

You already see many of 41 new police cruisers and dozens of public works vehicles out working the streets now.

We’ll see the arrival of four new fire trucks in a matter of weeks.

In 2005, the year of the storm, we had more than 123,000 emergency calls to our police and fire department, more than at any other time in our history.

I’m pleased to report that in 2007 we saw the numbers back to pre-Katrina levels, at 76,000 calls for service.

On average, our emergency dispatchers answer 1,100 calls a day, and I’m proud of the professional manner in which they handle those life-and-death situations.

Our Police Department today is staffed at 94 percent, as far as the number of sworn officers.

I’m proud of the job that Chief Bruce Dunagan continues to do in leading this department.

Bruce took action to modify work shifts to help retain officers, and he continues recruitment efforts to ensure that our police department is well-staffed, with personnel who exemplify our excellent level of professionalism and integrity.

In 2007, our firefighters responded to more emergency medical calls than ever, and in the past year.

They underwent more training than at any other time in the history of the Biloxi Fire Department. 35,000 hours of training in all.

We’re asking them to do more, and they’re meeting the challenge.

At the same time, we’re working to provide better facilities. In fact, this year, we’ll be moving back into stations on Back Bay and East End.

In fact, we’ll be making significant repairs to just about all of our fire stations, and we’re building a new 1.5 million dollar station at Cedar Lake and Popp’s Ferry, the fastest growing area of our city.

Our Public Works Department oversaw the completion of nearly two dozen major construction and repair projects in 2007, including the complete re-lighting of Highway 90, completion of Caillavet Street, drainage projects at Rue Petit Bois, C.T. Switzer Drive, and the widening and paving of Oaklawn Drive.

Every major project in this city, whether it’s with public or private funding, goes through our Public Works Department.

Many of you have already attended a carnival ball or two at the restored Biloxi Community Center.

You’ve seen the repairs at the sports complex and other playgrounds and parks throughout the city.

In addition to those accomplishments, our Parks and Recreation Department is back up to more than 3,500 participants in our youth sports leagues and summer camp last year. Our goal is to get back up to 5,000.

In a few months, we’ll re-open the Biloxi Natatorium, where a new roof is being installed now, along with a refurbished swimming pool and refurbished restrooms.

Now that the tennis courts are completed at the Biloxi Sports Complex, we’ll begin paving the parking lots and dressing up the entrance to this 10 million dollar facility.

Design work also continues on our public piers and boat ramps.

FEMA has obligated 4.5 million dollars for the removal of the fishing bridges at Back Bay and Point Cadet, where we plan on building back better facilities.

In our Community Development Department, we’ve issued more than a billion dollars in permits since the storm.

Half of those were for non-casino and non-condo projects.

In the past year alone, we issued an average of 20 permits every working day.

We created the Development Review Committee a few years ago to provide a one-stop shop to streamline the process and reduce the response time.

These changes have helped increase the DRC project approval rate by 23 percent over the past two years.

But let me add this:

Complex projects – those with significant impacts on traffic and demands on infrastructure – SHOULD NOT and WILL NOT be rushed through the regulatory process.

Before we issue a permit, we must address issues such as life safety, drainage and the impacts on traffic, water and sewer and other infrastructure.

As we go about the rebuilding process, we will continue to face important land-use and zoning decisions that will have long-term impacts.

As I have said before, casinos are the engine driving our economy, but I want to be a city WITH casinos, NOT a casino city.

When people think of Biloxi, they’ll see the great things that casino revenue has allowed us to do.

It’s incumbent upon us to try to strike that balance that we had before the storm.

We’re seeing more and more construction coming out of the ground along Beach Boulevard.

We’ll continue to see more as some of the big challenges like the cost of land, insurance and construction come back down to earth.

Finally, I thank our many federal and state partners and others who are helping us make things happen.

Earlier, I mentioned FEMA and the state, the Federal Highway Administration, HUD and the volunteers.

But there are so many more who help us make things happen.

We rely on our local partners. The Biloxi Housing Authority. Keesler Air Force Base, the tourism industry, Coast Transit,

Biloxi-Gulfport International Airport. Biloxi Regional Medical Center, the Harrison County Development Commission, the Harrison County Board of Supervisors,

Biloxi Public Schools staff and administrators.

And the many social service agencies that we support.

Most of all, we rely on you.

You are the people who have worked hard to help us get where we are today.

You are the people who have continued to show patience and persistence.

The people who for the past 29 months and 14 days have been up to the challenge.

You wake up every day, and you go out and try to make it a better day.

You help your neighbors and others in need.

You support our cultural events, our museums, and our social service agencies.

You volunteer your time to coach in our youth leagues.

You are the people who make Biloxi the great place that it is.

For that, I say thank you, and I’m proud to continue to serve as your mayor.

God bless all of you and God bless Biloxi.

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