Duluth Mayor Nancy Harris chose “Duluth Apps,” similar to those she uses on her mobile telephone and iPad, as the theme of her 2012 State of the City Address. She described Apps as a way to organize and share information with millions of people. “Today, you are my millions of people,” she told her sold-out audience of 250 at Tuesday (Jan. 24).
Her Apps addressed city finances, economic growth, neighborhoods, retail, commercial, residential, infrastructure, public safety, health, recreation, the arts, and more. A video of the mayor's entire speech will be available for viewing on the city's website. A video of excerpts accompanies this article.
The city has had to tighten its belt, Harris said. Property tax revenue declined over past five years. The inability to use radar to catch speeders because of the service delivery dispute with Gwinnett County cost the city $1 million, the mayor said. The number of building permits (and the associated revenue) dropped. Only three commercial building permits were issued last year, she said.
In response to these financial challenges, the city identified additional sources of revenue, approved a slight (.8 mill) tax increase in 2010, adjusted employee benefits, and utilized reserve funds. “The city did not have to increase taxes in 2011, and l’m optimistic we’ll not have one in 2012,” the mayor said. The city is financially stable and has enough reserves to operate for a year, she noted.
The city was able to give its employees one small pay raise since 2008, she said. The mayor didn’t mention that despite the downturn in the economy, Duluth has not had to lay off a single city employee.
The eighth annual State of the City Address was sponsored by the City of Duluth and the Duluth Civitan Club with proceeds benefiting five charities: Annandale Village, Camp Big Heart, Creative Enterprises Inc., Driving Magic, and Rainbow Village. Duluth Civitan Club President Jerry Robb introduced the event’s major sponsors Republic Services, Accent South Media, Gwinnett Medical Center and Gwinnett Center. A Business Expo preceded lunch and the mayor's speech.
Duluth Civitan President-elect Chris McGahee, the city’s economic development manager, recognized special guests Charlotte Nash, chairman of the Gwinnett County Commission; Lawrenceville Mayor Judy Rhodes Johnson and Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson. McGahee also introduced new Duluth City Manager Tim Shearer.
City leaders and staff implemented a proactive economic strategy to grow the city and create jobs, Harris said. Ten new businesses, including a Pure Taqueria restaurant, opened in historic downtown Duluth during 2011.
Ryerson, a leading processor and distributor of metals, acquired the former O'Neal Steel building along North Berkeley Lake Road for a warehouse. Progressive Lighting opened a large distribution center. AGCO, a Fortune 500 company already located in the city, expanded by opening a Global Education Center on Rivergreen Parkway. Annexing part of the Blue Ridge Industrial Park brought eight businesses into the city limits.
The city is working with the Korean Task Force, Harris said, to inform Asian businesses along Pleasant Hill Road currently located in “unincorporated Duluth” about the advantages of becoming a part of the city.
“Duluth needs a hotel,” the mayor continued. “We’d like to have a boutique hotel downtown.” There’s plenty of space along Pleasant Hill Road for other hotels to be developed, she added.
The city is dedicated to supporting its long-time businesses and focused on filling vacant spaces, Harris said. She encouraged shopping locally. “Seventy percent of what our small businesses make comes from us," she said.
Phase I of a Wayfinding signage program was implemented downtown to make it easier to find city facilities and attractions in 2011. Improvements to Davenport Road, including sidewalks to increase pedestrian mobility, safety, and accessibility to downtown shopping, earned the city a PEDs Award. Planned medians along Buford Highway will make the highway "a more walkable corridor,” Harris said.
As for neighborhood revitalization, the city received a $245,000 Community Development Block Grant for improvements to the Hill Community.
Downtown Duluth welcomed the “Eddie Owen Presents” live music venue at the Red Clay Theatre, which has been attracting audiences and attention to the city, in December.
A Living Honorarium and an Eastern Continental Divide marker were erected on the Town Green and dedicated in ceremonies last fall. “Thanks to AGCO, another piece of public art will be added in the next 18 months,” she said.
As she has in the past, Harris emphasized the importance of preserving the city’s history, especially the old buildings downtown. “History” and “authenticity” attract people to a place, she said. “We want to keep our city authentic.”