Good evening. On behalf of the Wilmington City Council, I come before you tonight to report on the state of our city.
I want to thank all of you for being here tonight, and those who are watching at home this evening.
I know I speak for the entire Council in saying thanks to our families for their patience, support and sacrifice. I especially want to thank my wife, Renee, for her support and all the elected officials who are here tonight.
This Council would also like to thank City Manager Sterling Cheatham, his leadership team, and the employees of the City of Wilmington for their hard work and dedication. The accomplishments we will talk about tonight could not have happened without them or the many volunteers who worked together to fulfill the goals and objectives of this council.
Again this year, we balanced our budget and maintained core services while retaining $23 million dollars in our savings account.
I am proud to say that, right now, we have:
· A balanced budget
· A double A+ bond rating
· And money in our savings account for a rainy day ‐ which in our case could be a hurricane.
Our first priority as a Council, is, and will always be, a balanced budget. Our goal for this year's budget is to keep our tax rates stable with no increases. The city has completed a number of projects and continues to provide a level of service that you, our citizens, have come to expect. I want to thank our city staff for their hard work on these accomplishments.
Through the citizen's survey, street maintenance continues to be the number one priority for our city. This council has made a commitment and has appropriated $41 million dollars to fund a 5‐year plan that will address our infrastructure needs -
· paving streets and sidewalks
· shoring up our Riverwalk
· and repairing our public facilities.
These funds have been set aside specifically for this and cannot be used for anything else.
All of the projects I just mentioned are identified and listed on the city's website. You, the citizens, can keep abreast of the city's progress on each of these projects.
As the economy improves, we must continue to look for ways to support and enhance economic development. We live in a competitive world. The competition for jobs and companies is fierce. Southeastern North Carolina is a great place, yet there are other communities and cities that are good too. And at times, they are vying for the same jobs and companies as we are.
Wilmington offers a great quality of life. But we must also take into consideration to be competitive in economic development, we must look at all available resources that are at our disposal. Resources such as:
Ø and a solid labor force to name a few.
Because of some of the things I've just mentioned, I'm proud to report that we continue to lead the state in overall film production. Of the $376 million dollars that was spent in the state last year, $240 million dollars was spent right here in our community, creating hundreds of jobs, putting money back into our local economy and bringing us national recognition.
I'd like to thank Johnny Griffin, our Film Commission, as well as our local state delegation for all of their work in keeping this industry in our state and in our city.
Tourism continues to be our mainstay industry, employing over 5,000 people and having an economic impact of over $425 million dollars. This year we have seen continuous increases in our room occupancy receipts of 10% over last year.
I want to thank Kim Hufham and our Convention and Visitors Bureau for all of their hard work in promoting New Hanover County as one of the great places to vacation and visit.
And the convention center continues to bring people to our region. The convention center hosted 113 events with a total of over 66,400 people attending. These guests bring money into our community -
· this money is spent in our local businesses
· and this helps our local economy.
The good news is that the convention center already has more than 135 events booked for this year. The city received more good news when we got confirmation that our convention center hotel developer has met a major milestone to build a 186‐room Embassy Suites hotel next to the center. We look forward to working with the developers as they complete the final steps needed before construction can begin later this year. The hotel represents a major private investment of $33.6 million dollars that will help make our convention center even more successful.
Next to the convention center, a 200‐slip marina is under construction. Later this spring, we will begin construction on one of the few remaining sections of the Riverwalk, which will extend it from bridge to bridge. This Council and previous councils have made a commitment to this public investment, which has become one of our community's most popular attractions.
Work is continuing on several other projects in our downtown as well. The biggest and perhaps most important of these is the North 3rd Street Improvement Project. After almost a year and a half of construction, this project is complete except for a few finishing touches. This $10.4 million dollar project was a very successful partnership with the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and the NC DOT that involved replacing:
· old water and sewer lines
· improving sidewalks and lighting
· and re‐paving the street.
I want to thank everyone involved for their hard work to get this project done. This major gateway into our city now looks spectacular and we can all be proud of the progress we have made.
And let's not forget Cape Fear Community College, which is in the midst of a major capital development campaign, including $155 million dollars worth of construction downtown:
Ø The recently completed 1,200‐space parking deck that also houses the Wilma Daniels Gallery on the bottom floor and features work from local artists.
Ø The almost complete Union Station - a 251,000‐square‐foot facility expected to open this summer.
Ø The soon to begin construction on a 159,000‐square‐foot humanities and fine arts center on North 3rd Street that will feature a 1,500‐seat performance auditorium.
And then there's the private sector investment that really shows the improvement in our local economy and the continued desirability of our downtown. A few examples are:
Ø The construction of the $15 million dollar, 125‐room Courtyard Marriott at the corner of Second and Grace.
Ø A proposed $25 million dollar Hotel Indigo on our northern Riverfront.
Ø And construction is also expected to begin this year on the $20 million dollar "City Block Apartments" on North 3rd Street.
And with regards to the process of regulatory reform, we the city are undertaking a review of our policies and procedures to find ways to spur further economic development. This includes a new urban zoning district that will make it easier for vacant properties to be re‐developed.
And we're getting ready to start work on a long‐term comprehensive plan that will guide the city's growth and development for the next 20 years.
Even as these things are happening, we continue to improve our public facilities, which also have an impact on economic development. Let me give you a couple of examples:
At Olsen Park, which was built with city and county park bond funds, the softball fields remain full - we held 14 tournaments there last year, drawing in more than 11,000 people to our area. We already have another 22 tournaments scheduled for this year and we are only in the month of January. Those 11,000 folks stayed in our hotels and shopped in our stores and ate at our restaurants. The total economic impact from those tournaments is estimated at more than $1 million dollars.
And we can't mention Olsen Park without talking about the remarkable private fundraising effort that took place to build a Miracle Field, which is a specially designed field built to accommodate those with physical disabilities. The Wilmington Believes in Miracles campaign has raised more than $1 million dollars and the field is almost competed. This achievement is a great example of a public/private partnership that leverages the assets of both government and private business for the betterment of our community.
And here's another example of the economic impact our public amenities bring to our area: 25 tournaments and events were held at the Althea Gibson Tennis Center in Empie Park. Those events brought over 3,000 athletes to our area and had a total economic impact of $3 million dollars. This year will be even busier - we already have 24 tournaments and events planned and again... it's only January.
Also this year we have made improvements to several of our parks. The newly constructed playground at Portia Mills Hines Park that was built in one day with the help of more than 200 volunteers. BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina generously donated the playground materials, and brought 100 volunteers from Durham to help build it.
We must also thank the national non‐profit organization KaBoom, which coordinates similar projects across the country to help children have safe places to play in their neighborhoods.
And of course none of this would have even begun without the help of the New Hanover County Blue Ribbon Commission on the Prevention of Youth Violence, which led the charge to make this happen with a core group of community advocates.
Another exciting project that we have begun work on is the 40‐acre Alderman Preserve next to Alderman Elementary School. This will be a passive park with walking trails and we expect to complete that project this spring.
Also underway is more work on the Gary Shell Cross City Trail. I'm proud to report as I stand here tonight that the entire 15‐mile trail is now fully funded. This is in large part due to the $550,000 in funding from BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina and the $325,000 from the NCDOT. That money will be used to help build one of the final stretches of trail - a 1.2mile long path from John D. Barry Drive on South 17th Street to Wade Park off Waltmoor Road in
We've done a lot of work this year to connect different parts of the trail. We've completed:
Ø a bridge over the headwaters of Bradley Creek which will connect the College Acres section of the trail to Eastwood Road.
Ø We've made pedestrian improvements at Eastwood Road, Military Cutoff, and Rogersville Road.
Ø And will continue to work on other crossings for our citizens' safety.
All told, more than 11 miles of the trail have been built. When complete, the trail will give our citizens a safe place for families to ride bikes, take a walk or go for a jog.
With the tremendous popularity of the Gary Shell Cross City Trail, the city is currently working on a comprehensive greenway plan with the county. This will be a blue print for a connected network of greenways throughout the city and county. Work on the plan has been going on for over a year. Included in the plan, will be a network of water trails for people who enjoy kayaking and canoeing. This will be completed by April and will give future leaders a vision for the city and county greenway needs.
Although a significant amount of work has been done in our downtown area, this City Council continues to make improvements throughout our entire city. Let me give you a few examples:
Ø We continue to make improvements to our stormwater system that will help reduce flooding.
Ø This year, we made improvements in the Cedar Avenue, Cavalier Drive and the Mineral Springs areas.
Ø These improvements, totaling $4 million dollars, will help reduce flooding in the neighborhoods along College Road, Eastwood Road and Oleander Drive.
We just started a project on Cardinal Drive in College Acres, and we also expect to start work on stormwater drainage improvements at Inland Greens this spring.
While we remain focused on stormwater improvements, we're working on infrastructure in other areas as well.
Street paving is always a high priority with our citizens. We have completed a review of the condition of all city streets and began an accelerated repair program this summer to repair and repave those roads based on priority needs. Again this City Council is committed to improving infrastructure throughout our entire city. We have paved several streets such as:
Ø Ridgeway Drive
Ø Bagley Avenue
Ø Parkway Drive, as well as several others.
This year, we will continue that work on Park Avenue, Clear Run Drive and 17th Street. And we also continue to improve city facilities to make them more energy efficient and handicap accessible, including:
Ø installing 363 handicap ramps added to city sidewalks
Ø energy efficient lighting at city buildings
Ø and energy efficient street lights you can see outside as part of the North 3rd Street Improvement Project.
The city also made great strides to go green in another way this year - our voluntary recycling program. Just this month, the city began using large blue recycling carts to replace the small red bins we had been using. The thinking was that the city would save money by switching to a bi‐weekly pickup schedule, which allows our customers to recycle more with the larger containers. This program has exceeded all our expectations and continues to grow every week. Case in point: we've gained 5,000 customers since we started talking about the program last spring and now more than 65% of city customers choose to recycle. Our citizens are recycling more and more, which means less waste goes into the landfill and the city pays less to put it there.
Let me recognize and thank not only Public Services Director Richard King and all his staff for working so hard to make this program a success, but also our citizens for stepping up to recycle more.
In the area of public safety, we have seen significant progress again this year. First let me commend Chief Ralph Evangelous and the entire police department for their continued efforts over the last couple of years to increase safety. Those efforts are paying off, as evidenced by 2012 year‐end statistics. I am pleased to tell you that 2012 set a new record low in violent crime in our city.
I want to thank our Police Chief, who also established a 16‐member Downtown Task Force with law enforcement officers from both the WPD and the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office. Since its implementation, the Task Force has been active and visible day and night, seven days a week. Task Force members often are on foot, but they also patrol using bicycles or Segways and conduct undercover operations as needed. Their emphasis is on reducing crime and maintaining safety throughout the area, and their efforts are making a difference.
On behalf of this Council, let me again thank the chief and all the officers of the WPD for their efforts to make our downtown and our entire community safer.
Under the leadership of Chief Buddy Martinette, our fire department continues to reorganize and position itself so that it is better equipped to handle today's challenges. The new $2 million dollar fire station at Empie Park was completed this summer, on time and on budget. This station is one of the most heavily used in the city, so it is good to have it back in operation. But perhaps most importantly, Chief Martinette continues to focus on a collaboration with the New Hanover County Fire Department to make sure the city and county work together to give all our citizens top quality fire protection. We can see the benefit of this collaboration in the automatic aid agreement our department carries out every day now with New Hanover County to get the most efficient use of our resources and the quickest response times for our citizens.
Chief, thanks to you and all the fire personnel for all you do to keep our community safe.
And now, let me talk briefly about transportation. I'm happy to report we have made progress in this area also. Along with completion of the North 3rd Street project I already mentioned, we have finally begun work on the long‐awaited widening of Randall Parkway from College Road to Independence Blvd. This is a 15‐month project that when complete, will reduce traffic congestion in the area of Kerr Avenue and College Road. It will also add lanes for future traffic growth and extend the Cross‐City Trail from UNCW to the Randall pond bridge. More than half of the project's $5.6 million budget comes from federal and state monies, with most of the remaining funding coming from the 2006 voter‐approved
Another area we'll be working on closely this year is collaboration with our local lawmakers. This is especially important as the long session of the NC General Assembly gets underway later this week. This council has adopted a legislative agenda that focuses on forming partnerships with other city governments to find ways to increase local revenues, including tax reform. It also focuses on funding for infrastructure and transportation needs and support for local job growth. We appreciate the efforts our local delegation has made to reach out to us and we look forward to working with them in the coming months to find ways to benefit our local community.
Along with our lawmakers, we will continue to make every effort to partner with New Hanover County, including new chairman Woody White and his fellow commissioners. We have more things in common than differences and look forward to finding ways to reduce the cost of government and also be more effective by working together, as we have already seen with both our police and fire departments.
In closing, let me say that the issues and challenges facing our city are many. Yet these challenges create opportunities where we as a council look for ways to make government more efficient and responsive to the needs of our citizens. As elected officials, our job is to continue to look for ways to:
· Improve our quality of life
· Improve our infrastructure
· Improve our public safety and
· Improve our local economy.
When opportunities arise, it is our responsibility to the citizens of this community to investigate the potential impact for the sake of our future. This can be challenging... and at times controversial... yet it must be done.
I pledge to you, on behalf of this City Council, that we are committed to working together to get things done. There is no doubt we will debate the issues, and we will sometimes disagree, but then we will come together and continue to move this city forward.
May God bless you and may God bless the great City of Wilmington, North Carolina.