State of the City 2014: We are arriving at a turning point

Here is the text of the mayor’s presentation on Monday, March 10, 2014 during the State of the City luncheon, sponsored by the Biloxi Bay Chamber of Commerce and presented at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino.

Thank all of you for being here today. This is a great turnout.

You know, I’ve worn a lot of hats in my life. A few helmets, too. But I never thought I would wear a hat like this. What do you think?

And now, I present to you the state of the city, the state of your city.

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The move to bring baseball to Biloxi and build MGM Park at Beau Rivage has certainly captured a lot of attention.

And let’s make no mistake about this. This is about economic development, not only for the downtown, but for tourism in general.

I see this being a source of pride for Biloxi, for the Gulf Coast and for the state of Mississippi. I see rivalries between other teams in the Southern League. I see college games being played here. How about LSU and Ole Miss? Or South Alabama or Southern Miss? I see plenty of opportunity.

People talk about baseball, but that’s only part of the story. We need to remember that baseball is only 70 games a year.

I think we’re going to be seeing a lineup of concerts and festivals, and other community events at this new venue. And we’ll see new businesses downtown.

And now, the challenge is to get it built.

As excited as I am about what this new venture will do for downtown and attracting more people to our city, this stadium has not been the only story of the past year.

All you have to do is look around. We saw over $100 million in construction last year.

We also saw the opening of the presidential library at Beauvoir;  the Santa Maria Del Mar; Morton’s Steakhouse at the Golden Nugget; a Men’s Warehouse, McDonald’s and the new gas station at Edgewater Mall; a new car wash on Popp’s Ferry, a new Taco Bell at Cedar Lake, a new pet store at Edgewater village, and the expansion of Shaggy’s restaurant on west beach.

In fact, with the recent opening of the Blue Crabhouse, you can see a row of restaurants coming up on west beach.

And of course, we saw construction completed on the new Platinum Tower at the Hard Rock.

At the same time, we issued permits for even more construction: the Golden Nugget expansion, the White House Hotel renovations, and the Voodoo Bar and Grill and Fuji Japanese restaurant downtown, and the list goes on and on.

But for all of these things, I’m most excited about what we’re seeing in east Biloxi and on Point Cadet. This will be the year of the Point.

We’ll be seeing the new maritime and seafood industry museum and Biloxi Waterfront Park. You’ll come across that bridge and see that gleaming museum with its boat in a bottle, and the beautiful waterfront park with its pavilion and green space, and the majestic oak trees, and you’ll know you have arrived at some place special.

And on the south side of Highway 90, the Golden Nugget is transforming the oldest casino resort in the state into the newest. It’s a first class destination. Next door, Harrah’s is taking steps to revitalize its waterfront into an entertainment showplace.

Down the street, the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum will be marking George Ohr’s birthday this summer with a major milestone – the opening of one of the pods out front.

Across the street, you can see the new Kuhn street boat ramp, with new parking and solar lighting.

A few blocks to the north, we’ll be seeing a new hotel at Margaritaville and a major development at the Biloxi Boardwalk, and we’re working on a new Pine Street to get you to these developments and to tie into Back Bay Boulevard.

As you travel downtown, you’ll see the new million-dollar bait shop over at the small craft harbor. It’s 19 feet in the air, but it’s design was inspired by such Biloxi landmarks as the old Edgewater Hotel. This bait shop is a great and much needed addition to the small craft harbor, and it’s opening by this summer.

You’re seeing excitement in other parts of the city, too. You’ve heard about the new theme park discussed off highway 67. There’s the new development planned for the old federal courthouse, the city place on Main Street, and we’re expecting exciting things from the Copeland folks with the old Bombay site.

The success and the pride we’re seeing in the Biloxi Visitors Center and the Biloxi Civic Center should serve as models for all that we do.

And just consider the numbers we’ve seen. At the Visitors Center, we saw 125,000 people come through the doors last year. We had 222 events at the visitors center, which is a 46 percent increase over 2012. And they’re all being welcomed by someone who first set foot on our shores 315 years ago, Pierre Lemoyne D’Iberville. I remember him, he was a nice guy.

Over at the civic center, we saw a 34 percent increase in numbers. We had a total of 60 events last year in the civic center. Imagine that, an event a week.

We’re going to make the visitors center even more impressive.

We’re going to restore the bay head swamp, which is that area west of Porter Avenue. This year, we closed on the property, and we’re going to make it home to a nature trail and pervious parking.

Protecting our natural beauty is important to Biloxi, and this is a prime location.

As we look at all of these major projects, our city departments are working hard each day to maintain your quality of life.

In Parks and Recreation, we continue to provide affordable, innovative, educational and all-inclusive activities for all citizens of Biloxi –  from those in our Excel by 5 program with Biloxi Public Schools all the way to the most senior of our senior citizens.

Last year, we opened the first dog park in all of South Mississippi, and today we have an average of 400 dogs a week using this park. We also unveiled Frisbee golf at Hiller Park, and we’ve had several tournaments that have attracted more than a hundred Frisbee golfers from as far away as New Orleans and Mobile.

Having quality recreation and first-class facilities is important to our quality of life, and I’m proud of the job we’re doing in that area.

Of course, last year, we saw a new fire chief and a new assistant fire chief, both of whom have plenty of experience and love for their jobs and their city. There’s a new spirit of pride in the department. Last year, we saw more promotions than we’d seen in 20 years.

At the same time, we saw more than seven thousand, three hundred calls for service, with two thirds of those being emergency medical calls.

I see the Biloxi Fire Department becoming more and more involved in the community, with parades, civic groups, churches and schools. Fire prevention and education are a big part of the role of the Biloxi Fire Department.

We also saw some re-organization in our police department. Chief Miller is making sure his command staff is cross-trained and gains valuable insight in the different functions of our nationally accredited Police Department.

We responded to more than 130,000 calls for service. Imagine that – 130,000 calls for service. That’s comes out to a call for service every four minutes of every hour of every day of the year.

We unveiled a new online crime mapping system that allows our residents and business owners to know what’s going on in their neighborhoods. I’m proud of the job that our police department is doing to protect our city and ensure our quality of life.

One city department that is often overlooked is our Public Works Department. In times of emergency, they like to say they clear the way for the police and fire departments, and you saw that in the ice storm we had the other day.

We welcomed a new director with a great deal of experience in our Public Works department, and we’re putting Dan Gaillet’s experience to work.

I got to tell ya, I looked on the internet and I saw what Dan had done for the streets of Jackson, and I said we need that guy.

Seriously, Dan has a philosophy for Public Works, and I like it.

The Public Works Department touches all parts of our lives — When your turn on the faucet, flush the toilet, or bring out the trash, they take care of the rest. They take care of the streets you drive on and the sidewalks you walk on.  They really do touch every phase of your life.

I’m looking for some great things from Dan and his folks, and we’re giving them the tools to do the job. This year, we’ll be opening a new Public Works administration building. It’s the first part of an $8.5 million complex that will also include a warehouse, a Shop Building, and a Vehicle Maintenance facility

Speaking of public works, allow me to update you on that huge infrastructure project that we’ve been talking about for so many years.

You’ve heard about this $355 million project. Some of you have endured it OR you’re enduring it right now.

I apologize for the inconvenience, but I’m NOT apologizing for the new streets and curbs, and the better drainage that you’re seeing when our work is done.

We completed work in the Sunkist area.  We completed work on Walda, Alicia and Christi Lane. We completed work at Rodeo, Rodenburg and Wiltshire. We completed work on Sharon Hills and Live Oak. We completed work on Jordan, Saylor and Melissa Drives.

This year, we’ll be completing Kensington, Yorkshire and Donwood. This year, we’ll also be completing Goose Pointe, Runnymeade and Channel Mark.

We’re going to have Eagle Point and Brasher Road finished late next year.

All of those projects I just mentioned either complete or getting there, that’s almost $55 million worth of work right there.

And right now, the big thing we’re working is moving into east Biloxi. Next month, we’re unveiling a $120 million project – by far the largest in the history of the city.

This is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime project.

It’s a three-year project that will cover a huge area north of the CSX railway, essentially from I-110 to the Point.

To make sure everyone knows the impact, we’ll be sitting down with neighborhoods  to let them know what we’ll be doing on their street, just as we’ve done in every part of town where we’ve done work.

The final part of the infrastructure work – and I’m glad to be able to say that word “FINAL” – will be the south and west contracts. These are $90 million and $30 million respectively. They go from the Point along the front beach. We’ll be awarding that later this year.

One thing I ask you to remember is this: We’re doing 50 years worth of work in the next three to four years. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s getting here.

While FEMA is paying for the infrastructure work, and so many of our other improvements, we’re still having to keep a tight rein on our finances. Last year, we kept our expenditures to 90 percent of the budget, saving 5.4 million.

Our sales taxes recovered slightly, too, up 4 percent over 2012, and since October, our sales tax revenue is up almost 7 percent.

Students and teachers in our Biloxi Public Schools are continuing to excel. Let’s remember that we are home to an A-rated school district — the No. 3 district school in the state, behind only Pass Christian and Clinton. We’re seeing our enrollment continue to increase, too. Today, we are nearing the 6,100 enrollment we had pre-Katrina.

And I’m glad to see our Keesler leadership here today. Keesler, like everyone, has faced fiscal challenges, but let me say this: The men and women of Team Keesler continue to excel in their missions.

We have the best Air Force Base in the world right here in Biloxi, Mississippi. Keesler has been and continues to be a cornerstone of our economy. More importantly, the base is vital to the defense of country, whether it’s our world-famous Hurricane Hunters, the electronics training or cyberspace programs, or the second largest medical center in the Air Force.

Let me close with this. ….

A year from now, we will be looking to the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Everyone knows it was the worst natural disaster to strike our country. Everyone knows it decimated our city and the Gulf Coast.

Today, we are setting the stage to arrive at a turning point. Instead of focusing on the destruction of the storm, we want the story to be one about our remarkable recovery, the progress that we made.

You see the multi-million dollar casino resorts. But we are so much more than that. We are one of the oldest communities in the country. We celebrate our history.

You see it in the exhibits at the Seafood Industry Museum. The George Ohr pottery at the Ohr museum. The costumes at the Mardi Gras Museum. Beauvoir. You see it at the Old Brick House, and inside the Visitors Center. You see old and new Biloxi when you see that schooner sailing off the beachfront. You see it when you watch a shrimp boat heading out for another day on the water.

When people look at how far we’ve come since Katrina and the work we’ve done, they will realize that we made thoughtful decisions. The right decisions for today and for the future, for our children and our grandchildren.

All these things I’ve told you today make Biloxi a great story.

I have always said and I’ll say it again today….

The real story of Biloxi is our people, you people here today. Your resolve and your resilience. The determination and the drive to overcome any challenge we face and to move forward just as we have done for 315 years.

It’s a great story, and we’re making it happen every day.

Thank you. God bless you and God bless Biloxi.