Emerging Issues: Mayors' State of the City Addresses Express Cautious Optimism

March 15, 2010

by Bill Barnes, Will McGahan, Lisa Lowry and Caitlin Geary

Mayors expressed, in early 2010 "State of the City" addresses, a commitment to important local initiatives, cautious optimism about their city's economic future and a sense of the hard work ahead.

Declarations of pride and determination are common in the speeches across city size and region. Caldwell, Idaho, Mayor Garret Nancolas asked, "Will we remember this as the great recession or the recession that made us great? I choose the latter." New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg described his city as "proud of our progress, but fully aware that it's not enough." Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson titled his address, "The Pulse of a Brand New Day: Seizing opportunity at this critical moment in time."

National economic conditions and each city's local economy are present in these speeches. They emphasize "forging ahead," as Mayors Ralph Becker of Salt Lake City and John Peyton of Jacksonville, Fla., both expressed it, to seize potential opportunities for the community, rather than enumerating troubles.

Lioneld Jordan, mayor of Fayetteville, Ark., said that this can be seen as "'the best of times' because we have faced and dealt with the financial effects of the national economic recession, 'the worst of times' since the Great Depression." 

"We cannot rest on what we've already done," declared Mayor Buddy Dyer of Orlando, Fla., "or, we risk getting run over by this big locomotive we call the national recession."

NLC President Ronald O. Loveridge, mayor of Riverside, Calif., focused on his community's "Renaissance" initiatives to promote arts and culture. He framed other initiatives as "Seizing our Destiny" and "Routes to Take." Like many other mayors, he spoke forcefully about neighborhoods, "where quality of life is experienced: Good neighborhoods are the building blocks of a good community and a successful economy."

NLC Second Vice President Lester Heitke, mayor of Willmar, Minn., observed that his city is "growing as an inclusive community with vibrant multi-cultural activities, events and services." His speech emphasized major changes regarding the city-owned hospital and utilities.

Some patterns and common themes emerged from this analysis by NLC staff. The project looked at 33 State of the City and several inaugural addresses that were delivered during the past few months in a cross-section of cities by size and geography.

Economic development and jobs, for example, constitute a prominent theme in many of the speeches. Brookings, S.D., Mayor Tim Reed spoke about attracting new, talented residents by improving the city's quality of life. Mayor John DeStefano Jr., of New Haven, Conn., laid out plans for redeveloping four specific districts and for training local construction companies to make it easier for small construction companies to do work in the area. Richmond, Va., Mayor Dwight C. Jones described combining the economic and community development departments.

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino  and Jacksonville's Peyton outlined waterfront development plans. Menino's plan envisions an "Innovation District" for green, biotech, health care and Web development businesses.

Most of the addresses emphasized sustainability and green jobs. Referring to rising sea levels due to global warming, Ventura, Calif., Mayor William Fulton declared, "We can't prosper if we are drowning," and he colored his city green - green jobs, green streets, green infrastructure and green technologies.

Orlando's first step will be to make city buildings green in order to save taxpayer money. Mayors in Portland, Ore., Salt Lake City and Boulder, Colo., used sustainability or livability as major themes of their speeches. Mayors Jerry Sanders (San Diego), Sam Adams (Portland) and Loveridge highlighted  plans to create green jobs and businesses.

The Riverside and New Haven speeches, among others, recognized the economic development contributions of local universities. DeStefano highlighted companies that have spun off from work done at Yale. Loveridge mentioned the advantages that the presence of higher education institutions offers when attracting new businesses.

From New York to San Diego and from Memphis, Tenn., to Tucson, Ariz., all of the speeches reflect great concern with balancing the local budget and streamlining municipal government to increase efficiency and reduce costs.

Mayor Joseph Maestas of Española, N.M., said that, to answer citizen demands for "a new level of fiscal responsibility and ethical reform," City Hall "looked inward to reorganize" and implemented "new policies and procedures, new philosophies, and a new, higher level of accountability, customer service and professionalism." 

Spokane, Wash., Mayor Mary B. Verner described a new program of Employee Led Innovation - employees coming up with ideas for making the city more efficient. 

Specific infrastructure projects got special attention, especially from mayors of smaller cities. Heitke spoke of "exploring renewable energy opportunities," burying electric lines and a new wastewater treatment substation. Mayor Dick Norton of Green, Ohio, discussed the financial feasibility for new construction of restroom and concession facilities at the city's sports complex and park.

In Belle Isle, Fla., Mayor Bill Brooks described the Five Year Capital Improvement Program, including extending water lines and improving parks. Carbondale, Ill., Mayor Brad Cole, spoke about the need for quality drinking water, effective sanitation services, transportation projects, including the Saluki train service and improving parks. Mayors of Troy, N.Y., Fairhope, Ala., and Española reviewed arrays of initiatives including rehabilitation of pipelines, airport development, sidewalk improvement and parks improvements.

Partnerships and collaborations were another theme of many of the speeches. In a view common to many of the mayors' addresses, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said, "Our success is tied directly to that of the region."

In her inaugural address, Mayor Annise Parker of Houston proposed regional public safety initiatives and partnerships with other stakeholders on a range of issues. Orlando Mayor Dyer solicited ideas for his speech beforehand from other local leaders, and he spoke about contributions to regional improvement by elected officials from other cities in the area. Robert Walkup, mayor of Tucson, urged citizens "to consider uniting this region into one streamlined metropolitan government."

Some mayors addressed issues concerning at-risk youth and young adults. Topics included: connecting youth sports programs to schools to keep kids off the street in Orlando; major efforts in New Haven and New York to reduce recidivism among young adults; tax incentives in Richmond to companies that hire teenagers for summer employment; and plans for aggressive school system reforms in Boston and New Haven. 

Forging ahead. Seizing opportunities. Routes to take. Despite difficult times, these speeches set a pragmatic, determined, problem-solving tone and approach for the future of nation's cities.

Details: Full texts of many of the State of the City addresses mentioned here will be posted soon on the "Emerging Issues" page at www.nlc.org (under the "About Cities" menu). Comments about this column, which appears regularly in Nation's Cities Weekly, and ideas about "emerging issue" topics can be sent to Bill Barnes at barnes@nlc.org.