Read Mayor Warr's 2009 State of the City Address - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

Read Mayor Warr's 2009 State of the City Address

The following is the complete, prepared text of Mayor Brent Warr's 2009 State of the City address:

Members of the City Council, distinguished guests, my parents, my wife Laura, Noah and Emma, and citizens of Gulfport.

Good evening and thank you all for coming here tonight.

I stand before you now, nearly four years after the face of our Coast was violently altered by Mother Nature's fury to deliver a vision as bold as the one held by the railroad and oil tycoons who founded this city.

Captain Joseph T. Jones suffered multiple bullet wounds during the Civil War, but he didn't let that stop him. William Hardy saw his hopes of a railroad crumble under the weight of an economic depression, but he didn't quit.

And at this moment in our history, we draw inspiration from the perseverance, sacrifices and hard work of those brave and determined souls who came before us.

The challenge that lies at the feet of our generation today is not to reinvent Gulfport; not to redesign a city based on one man's idea.

But rather, it is for us to come together and use this clean canvas that we have been handed to recreate the thriving port city that Jones and Hardy dreamed of so many years ago.

One year ago almost to the day, I announced to you the Year of Bricks and Mortar.

Tonight, I will share with you many examples of how we are making good on that promise.

I will also share with you our plans to advance this resurrection of one of America's finest cities. And none of these past examples or future plans would have been - or will be - possible without your help.

Since those awful days in the summer of 2005, the people of Gulfport have answered their own call to greatness, rose to meet countless challenges and stood bravely in the face of adversity.

Many who lost everything they owned have given all of themselves in these past years to help save this city that we all love.

People like Peter and Dix Nord, who dug themselves out from under Katrina's rubble to rebuild their home and then their restaurant business.

Laura Hanson, the school teacher and single mother who raised two children inside a FEMA trailer for months after teaching all day and working to rebuild her home in the afternoons.

The police and firefighters who have kept our city safe around the clock while working out of temporary trailers.

These are our heroes, and their individual journeys are the story of our recovery.

Those strong and tenacious citizens never wavered and never tired, despite the heavy shackles of insurance, federal flood regulations and a faltering economy that have plagued our city.

With your support, we have made great strides in growing the number of affordable housing units in the city: Gulfport's Department of Urban Development has helped dozens of families purchase their own home through partnerships, educational programs and financial awareness classes.

We have approved a new tax abatement initiative for the downtown district to help grow development, and with the help of Harrison County, the program should be implemented in the coming weeks.

You should know that my administration is working diligently to make certain that Gulfport's economy avoids many of the difficulties and troubles being felt in other cities.

And with the level of affordable housing on the rise and City Hall doing everything it can for local businesses, it makes sense to simultaneously focus on our most important industry: Quality of life for our families.

On the campaign trail, I made a commitment to you to make Gulfport a place where you could afford to safely tell your children to go outside and play.

And today, the city is responsible for 38 ball fields, 31 parks, 5 tennis courts, 3 gymnasiums, 7 walking tracks, a fitness center, a senior center, a swimming pool, and more than 600 acres of parks and recreational areas.

All of the piers and jetties in the city will soon be fully operational. Eleven in-shore fishing reefs are now located within the city limits.

We have entered the final stages of the $18 million Small Craft Harbor rebuilding project. Last week, we accepted contract bids for the work, and soon it will be one of the finest harbors on the Gulf of Mexico.

The city completed a 12-year effort to purchase all privately owned utility systems in Gulfport.

We increased the paving project budget from $1 million to $8 million, and completed a traffic study that will reduce the drive time on the city's major thoroughfares, such as Cowan, Dedeaux and Creosote roads, and Highway 49.

We hired landscape architect Gus Wesson and horticulturist Bruce Griebel to tend to the city's beautification needs.

In addition, we created a beautification crew for each ward and directed them to focus their efforts along major roadways. And already, some of their work can be seen down medians and along sidewalks throughout the city.

Those are just brief highlights of the many things that we have accomplished, together, with your help.

You know, four years ago, my administration asked you to participate in the plan for rebuilding and you have contributed magnificently to our common cause.

At our city's darkest hour, when Gulfport needed them the most, many ordinary citizens set aside their own loss, their own pain and their own struggles to get involved and work with their government - not fight against it - to ensure that Gulfport would be rebuilt the right way.

And tonight, because of their input and willingness to work together, we have dozens of major projects either in motion or already completed, and dozens more in the planning stages.

Tonight Gulfport, the state of our city is one of promise and possibility.

A promise that each day will be better than the last and that together - through our common labors and sacrifice - we will free ourselves from the clutches of economic recession and storm recovery.

And by reflecting on what we have achieved in this past year, I am confident that any venture this city undertakes in the future, any project, any challenge; together, we will succeed.

Tonight, despite the condition of our nation's economy, my administration has remained steadfast in our commitment to afford everyone the opportunity to own their own home.

And through the use of $9.2 million in grant money, the city has established the HOMELINE program, which - by the time it is through - will allow nearly 165 families to use up to $50,000 as a down payment on a new home. 

The first 6 families closed on their new homes before Christmas last year. And so far this year, more than 50 have moved into a new house.

This program is important to our city. In addition to spurring movement in the sluggish real estate market, HOMELINE is helping many hardworking people build equity and net worth by becoming homeowners rather than renters.

In addition, the new construction of more than 1,800 affordable homes has been approved; some are complete and others are being built as we speak.

In the past year, more than 15,000 low- to moderate-income residents have benefited from various programs and projects funded through the Community Development Block Grant and Home Programs, such as the reconstruction and repairs to nearly a dozen community centers - several of which have reopened in recent months: Willie Locke, Katie Booth, Gaston Hewes and Hansboro to name a few.

Tonight, these centers are giving our citizens a place to come together again for reunions, celebrations and meetings, and they will be essential to creating a sense of unity within our individual communities and neighborhoods.

In addition to the centers, the grant money has allowed us to complete street drainage improvements, and open summer camps and tutoring programs in many communities.

In recent months, we have established other vital services, including the Coastal Family Health Center, the Women's Center for Non-Violence and Feed My Sheep, which will benefit our residents greatly for many years to come.

The Gulfport Fire Department has put a 100-foot aerial truck into service at the Central Fire Station, which allows our firefighters to reach tall buildings downtown and along the beachfront when disaster strikes.

A new rescue truck is now in service at Station 9 on Dedeaux Road to better serve the citizens north of I-10.

We have rebuilt or repaired fire stations 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 11, 12 and the Central Fire Station downtown. Plans are moving forward for a new Station 7, which some of you know as the Beach House on Cowan Road.

What's more, the city has earned a fire rating of 4, and is closing in on 3, which is even better and will help lessen the cost of insurance for every property owner in the city.

And you should know only one other city in Mississippi has a better fire rating than Gulfport.

Back in 2007, with the help of the City Council, we funded more than 75 percent of the gap to bring the salaries of our employees closer to a recent market survey.

The survey showed Gulfport workers had been earning less than their counterparts in other cities for far too long.

And in September, we funded the last 25 percent, finally bringing our hard working employees up to par.

Tonight, more than 70 percent of all city facilities that were damaged by Hurricane Katrina have been rebuilt or repaired - more than $65 million in construction. 

In the past year the Department of Public Works has completed 14 major infrastructure projects - including a massive overhaul south of the railroad tracks and the use of additional grants to rework sewerage systems in places like Biloxi River Estates in Orange Grove.

In addition, there are 9 other projects in motion and by the time they are finished, the city will have completed an infrastructure overhaul worth more than $120 million.

And while we have clearly turned our focus from immediate storm recovery toward the future, and excitement grows in anticipation of the next chapter in Gulfport's history, it is important to remember that there is still clean-up work that must be done.

In the past year, our Department of Urban Development has helped nearly 2,000 private owners clean their properties. The city, itself, cleaned 845 private properties that had been neglected and become a hazard to public safety. Several cases were prosecuted before municipal or county courts.

Of those clean-ups, 9 of which were complete demolitions, the cost to the city was $0.

Gulfport is taking a more aggressive stance than ever before, and it shouldn't have to be that way. It should not be the city's responsibility to tell private owners to clean up their properties.

But yet, here we are. And the time has come for property owners to act.

Tonight, new streetlights are burning along Highway 90 and the Main Street Association is overseeing a $7.6 million project downtown to add landscaping along sidewalks and down the medians of several major boulevards.

Main Street is also using a $4.4 million grant to put more than 80 new exteriors on downtown buildings.

We recently broke ground on Grass Lawn and the historic courthouse on Courthouse Road.

For more than a century and a half Grass Lawn meant so much to Gulfport that it was given its own place on the city's official seal. The Courthouse was the site of Jefferson Davis' final speech.

And the resurrection of this great Southern home and famous courthouse are stunning symbols of our city's recovery; glaring reminders of what we've been through and just how far we've come.

My administration made a commitment back in August of 2005 to do whatever we could to reclaim those important pieces of heritage that were swept away.

And since then, we have delivered.

  • In addition to Grass Lawn and the courthouse, historically accurate renovations of City Hall and other city-owned properties are in motion.
  • And plans are coming together to redevelop the Gulfport VA property and preserve at least 10 historic buildings that survived the storm.

As I speak to you tonight, plans are coming together for several major developments elsewhere in our city, including the Sportsplex, harbor and Jones Park.

The $12 million plans for Jones Park will make it the centerpiece of our city, rather than a dusty parking lot.

And just today - literally hours ago - we finally received the deed for the entire 92 acres of the VA property, which will be transformed into a grand center of commercial and community activity.

We have created the Gulfport Redevelopment Commission - which consists of some of the best and brightest minds in our community - to find developers for these very important projects, and to create responsible investment in our city.

New businesses, many of which never would have considered Gulfport after the storm, are again taking interest in our city.

Many businesses that we are already familiar with are vowing to face the economic challenges with us, and some of them are even expanding against great odds.

For example, Orange Grove, which already included the Crossroads Shopping Center and Prime Outlets, recently added more heavy-hitters to its impressive lineup.

A 140,000-square-foot Super Sam's Club just opened in January and another large shopping center, anchored by a new Best Buy, is flourishing.

And it's not just big-name retail or national restaurant chains that are opening in Gulfport.

For instance, places like Coop's Barbecue, The Dock and Tug's Warf have become some of the most popular places in the city.

And Bob Taylor, who owns High Cotton Grill, will soon open the Half Shell Oyster House in the heart of downtown.

But while new businesses are coming to Gulfport and others are growing in Gulfport, we must remain mindful of the sobering fact that our nation's economy is hurting in a profound way.

The fires of anxiety and doubt are burning on every street corner in our city. In addition to the cross of storm recovery that we have carried for nearly four years, our people must now deal with the full weight of one of the worst economic slumps since the Great Depression.

But we are a resilient city and in these past years we have shown that by refusing to let Katrina get the best of us.

And we need to be resilient once more.

I want to talk frankly tonight about the city's finances. This pervasive crisis has touched every city in America, and Gulfport is not immune.

In September, the City Council passed a $322 million budget, inflated mostly by storm related expenditures and FEMA reimbursements.

Two weeks later, following the fall of Washington Mutual and Wachovia, President Bush spoke on the severity of the crisis and warned that more banks could soon fail.

Credit has since dried up and Americans have stopped spending. And as a result, sales tax numbers in Gulfport for the first quarter of this year are down significantly from previous estimates.

Collections for 2009 are now expected to fall short of our budgeted amount by about $2.3 million.

In addition, we now believe that the city's health care costs will exceed budgeted amounts this year by $2 million.

My administration is not taking this news lightly. We must act now to fix this problem before it gets worse.

And we MUST have the full cooperation of the City Council if we are to succeed.

Twice since I have been mayor, my administration has asked the council to consider a change in our health insurance program for city employees. And twice - with great resistance from some members - the council has denied our request.

Twice, my office has warned the council of rising insurance claims that could stretch beyond our financial reach. And twice - with the same resistance from the same few members - the council has ignored those warnings.

Tonight I'm asking the City Council to get ready, because we are going to come to you again in the next few weeks for a third time. And this time, the need is urgent.

I need you. City employees need you. And the people of Gulfport need you to finally get behind our plan to find lower-cost health care.

In addition to cutting our own internal health care costs, my administration is implementing a three-part initiative tonight that will keep our operating budget stable until our nation finds its way out of this dark recession.

First, back in November, when the early signs of this crisis were being noticed, we asked each department head to go through their individual budgets line by line and scratch those items that could be cut.

This required drastic action from each director in this administration.

It is time to rein in spending, and if done correctly, the city could save as much as $3.6 million this year.

Secondly, tonight I am implementing a citywide hiring freeze. Currently, about 10 percent of the city's budgeted positions are vacant.

Eventually, we could get to 15 percent without effecting city services, and save an additional $4 million this year.

Third, and perhaps the most drastic of all, we are halting future capital projects to help create additional cash reserves to shore up future deficits and help us better survive this turbulent time in our history.

Those projects that are already in motion will not be stopped. But those that are on future schedules, and have not yet been contracted, will have to be put off for now.

This is not an easy pill to swallow, but given the stark realities of the day, we must all make sacrifices.

And while the cost of these actions that I have put forth will be significant, the price that future generations will pay for our inaction would be enormous.

The next challenge we must confront is the need to lessen the impact that this global recession is having on our local businesses.

I am asking the City Council to join my administration in the coming months to do everything we possibly can to help the businesses in our city.

The national forecast is grim, but tonight, your city leaders are laying the groundwork that will allow our businesses - no matter their size - to continue to thrive in the face of this crisis.

I am asking the City Council to finally act on the amendments to our zoning text that they - along with our Planning Commission - created more than a year ago.

That is just a small part of a much larger strategy to create a new comprehensive plan for Gulfport, which will help guide our city for years to come.

In addition, I am urging the council to support our plan to incorporate the best parts of form-based zoning into our current codes to make it easier for small businesses to open - not just downtown or in the retail corridor of Orange Grove, but in communities throughout our city.

Now is the time to act if we are to weather the worst of the economic storm that many believe to be on the horizon.

And because of the work we are doing now, when we do come out of this crisis, and prosperity returns to America, Gulfport will be ready.

A recent study by the Gulf Regional Planning Commission said that of the 73,000 new jobs that will be created in Harrison County in the next 20 years, 42 percent of them will be in Gulfport.

And we must be ready.

Gulf Regional projects 30,000 new residents in Gulfport during the same time frame.

And we must be ready.

New billion-dollar plans to expand the Port of Gulfport will eventually make our port one of the largest container ports in the nation.

And we must be ready.

The things we are doing today - growing affordable housing, adding vital infrastructure and stabilizing our economy - will allow us to help advance this future boom rather than slow it down.

Gulfport truly is in a period of rebirth. We have come a long way in just four short years.

But make no mistake - we still have a long way to go.

And, as our city embarks on the next leg of this journey, it is important that we do it as one.

Whether it has been for political gain or personal contempt, some people have criticized Gulfport and the strides we've made as a community. They have fought against us, rather than working with us.

When Gulfport was in peril and her future was at risk, some sought to deliver a knockout blow.

Just as hard as you and I have worked to rebuild this city, they have worked to stop it.

Just as we have worked to speed progress, they have worked to slow it.

Gulfport has been plagued by political bickering and gamesmanship for generations, and in these past four years that backbiting has continued.

So tonight, I am calling on those who have worked against us in the past, and spoken ill of our city's efforts, to put an end to those tactics.

At no time in our history have the stakes been so high. And it is time to come together as one force that will carry the torch of recovery into the future for this great city.

And to those who say Gulfport hasn't made progress since the storm and that we've fallen behind, I say, "Look around you."

The results are obvious.

By working together, we have made tremendous progress toward rebuilding our city.

And if you hear someone say that we have fallen behind, I urge you to ask them, "In what area have we stumbled?"

Is it our safe streets, blue-ribbon schools? Or maybe it's our housing growth, our business boom or our use of grants to remake the exteriors of downtown buildings?

Or could it be our negotiating the transfer of 92 acres along the beachfront for city development, our revival of the harbor and Jones Park, our landscaping and streetlights along the highway, or our infrastructure overhaul?

How is it that Gulfport has faltered?

But to those citizens who have joined us, I say "Thank you."

You have continued to fight against impossible odds, continued to work through hard times with a common belief that the future of our great city is bright.

And tonight, nearly four years since you first chose me to guide this city, I am again asking you to join my administration and the one that follows, as we continue along this road to recovery.

The next four years will be exciting for our city. The seeds we have planted along the way have taken root, and are now becoming visible.

I plan to work tirelessly for the remainder of my term, and beyond, to make sure a new and better Gulfport is raised upon the foundation that we have laid. And tonight, I am asking you to do the same.

The storm and the recovery have presented us with many challenges that no city in the history of our nation - not one - has ever had to face. 

But we are finding new solutions, blazing new trails, and conquering each challenge with the help of so many fine department heads and employees, men and women who come to work each day - rain or shine - and lay it all on the line.

There is not enough time to name them all, but you will notice that some are seated throughout this room. I would like to ask city employees to stand and be recognized for all they have achieved this year and in the years since the storm.

All that has been reported here tonight is the result of their dedication, hard work and love for Gulfport.

Each of them has what it will take to get us to the finish line in this recovery marathon.

They understand the enormity of the challenges that lie ahead. And I know that together, with these fine employees and each resilient citizen of this city, working side by side, we will get it done.

In the past year, we have moved many of our plans from paper and computer screens to actual bricks and mortar. New buildings are being born and old ones are being brought back to life.

A renewed spirit and enthusiasm is spreading across Gulfport, touching every corner of our city and even reaching beyond our borders.

But as we have moved forward rapidly in the past 12 months and in the months and years since the storm, I want you to know that my administration has never lost sight of its highest priority: Keeping our residents and neighborhoods safe.

Police Chief Alan Weatherford and his staff have taken the most progressive and community-focused approach to law enforcement in our city's history.

Chief Weatherford is a strong believer in neighborhood meetings, which allows the department to develop personal relationships with residents and gather a firm understanding of the needs in every community.

And because of these efforts - in the past 12 months - Gulfport has witnessed a 23-percent reduction in violent crime. It has been more than 10 years since the city's violent crime rate was this low.

Aggravated assault is down 21 percent; auto theft dropped 40 percent; property crimes down 23 percent; and robberies were cut by 26 percent.

And the GPD has accomplished all of this while working cases out of temporary trailers and holding court in an elementary school.

But those working conditions will soon change.

The largest of all municipal projects - a 65,000-square-foot government complex - is coming out of the ground as we speak at the corner of 23rd Avenue and 15th Street downtown. 

This building - when construction is complete - will be the premier municipal court in the country.

Local architects Taylor Guild and Johnny Olsen designed this new $22 million facility that will house the city's police department headquarters, municipal court and other services.

And when it is done, we will name it the Robert J. Curry Public Safety Center in honor of the police officer who - last year - gave his life for the city he loved.

Rob Curry loved to laugh. He loved to put a smile on other faces. But when it came time to work, he was dedicated to protecting our city each and every time he put on that uniform. But more than that, Rob was a loving and devoted father and husband.

This city is tremendously grateful and profoundly proud to have known Rob and his legacy will be forever celebrated by this amazing law enforcement facility.

It is those strengths that Rob possessed - the power to laugh, to remain positive and committed under the most demanding circumstances - that each of us will need in the coming years as we set out on this long march toward recovery.

You know, in 10, 20 or 30 years from now, our children may remember little from the years of devastation and rebuilding.

The time spent by their parents negotiating with insurance adjusters or homebuilders will be a faded memory.

They may not recall the hard work, the long days and sleepless nights that seemed to engross the energies of everyone on this Coast during those early years after Katrina.

But I believe that decades from tonight, when our children and grandchildren drive through town, taking their own children to school or soccer practice, the fruits of the hard work we are doing now will be obvious on every street corner and in every community in our city.

We have come so far already, and we must continue to push on.

So tonight, let us ask ourselves, which Gulfport will our children inherit when they grow old?

Will they inherit a Gulfport torn apart by political differences and an unwillingness to work together?

Or will they inherit a Gulfport that was built on a strong business core, safe streets, good schools and unified communities that came together after our country's worst natural disaster to recreate one of America's most beautiful and greatest cities?

I'm betting on the latter.

In the past four years we have built a solid foundation for greatness, and we have paid for it in blood, sweat and tears.

I care for this city too much not to do everything in my power to perfect it.

The pain I feel for having to walk away from her now is great.

However, I'm comforted by the thought of knowing I gave Gulfport everything I had.

And the city's future means too much to me - to my children and their children - to come to work just one day, and not be completely focused on the tasks at hand.

Centuries from now, no one will remember me, or my own personal story, or this night, or the words in this speech.

But they will remember us, as a collective people that triumphed over disaster, scratched and clawed our way back from devastation - often times at great risk - so that future generations might live in harmony in that thriving port city that Jones and Hardy first envisioned.

And it is my hope that when our great grandchildren thumb through history books and see what Katrina left us, and what we were able to do with it, they will be inspired to continue this journey on the same course that you and I are plotting right now - a journey toward a bigger, better, and brighter tomorrow in Gulfport, Mississippi.

Thank you for coming tonight. May God bless you and may God bless the City of Gulfport.

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