President Reed, members of the Board of Aldermen, distinguished guests. Good morning.
I am here again to report to you - and, through you, to our residents - on the state of the City of St. Louis.
Although I plan to spend most of my short time with you this morning looking forward to the next twelve months and beyond, I want to start off by acknowledging the hard work you aldermen do to make St. Louis a great place to live. There is no job in City government that asks so much as does the office of alderman. You are usually the first call - and sometimes the second, third, and twentieth calls - for every municipal service request that doesn't require lights and a siren. The progress all your wards have made in the past year is the best evidence of your attention.
Over the next several months, I hope to meet with most of you to discuss ways in which several citywide initiatives - on beautification, on using City departments smarter and better, on lead safety, on homeownership, on quality affordable education, and on economic development - can work best in your individual wards in the next year.
Greening the City
Spring is a wonderful season in St. Louis. It is the welcome end of winter cold, winter heating bills, potholes, and snow removal. It is the time before summer heat, summer humidity, and summer utility bills. It is the start of baseball, sometimes the beginning of the hockey play-offs, the time of the NFL draft, and it is the time that the City's many public parks and private gardens look their best.
Hardly any of the City's greenery would show to the advantage it does without the efforts of tens of thousands amateur gardeners and the work of several major groups, including Gateway Greening, the Gateway Foundation, the Flora Conservancy, and our own parks department.
Today, I want to recognize one of several groups of honored guests in attendance here this morning: Mary Lou Green and Operation Brightside, an organization that is celebrating 25 years of making St. Louis a cleaner, brighter and more colorful place to live. Year round, Brightside organizes groups of residents to clean their neighborhoods, plant flowers, and make neighborhoods throughout the City attractive places for visitors and residents. Please join me in congratulating Brightside on its work.
If you have been to other cities, you appreciate the clean and attractive environment we have in St. Louis. But, being a clean city in the 21st century is coming to mean a lot more than planting bulbs and cleaning up dumped trash.
I have asked Tim Embree, one of my senior aides, to be the lead Marine on our efforts to make city government - and the City itself - more environmentally friendly. And I have asked Rick Ernst to serve in a dual role as the City's manager of both facilities and sustainability. Both serve on my Greening Task Force, which meets monthly to evaluate the practices of City departments.
As you walk around City Hall today, you should notice that new, efficient florescent bulbs have replaced almost 700 less efficient incandescent light bulbs - and you should know that power lighting them is from Ameren's Pure Power program.
The fleet at Lambert Airport has been converted to alternative fuels. The Streets Department is replacing old traffic lights with LED lights; and the new traffic light synchronization program will lead to more efficient drive times throughout the City. All new municipal buildings - including two recreation centers I am going to talk about later - must be built LEED certified. There are now 27 recycling drop-off points around the City, and the single stream curbside pickup recycling pilot program has expanded into the 21st and 7th wards. By late June, you will not be able to find bottled water in City Hall. And by sometime in June or July, the new downtown multi-modal station will make car-free transportation in St. Louis and Missouri a little easier.
But, I know that the City's efforts alone will not be enough. That is why I strongly support the regional energy initiatives being promoted by President Reed, and that's why I look forward to working with him on this critical project.
Pensions, Retirements, Changes
Virtually every major American city, county and state government faces the same problem: pension systems that are under funded, coupled with the pending retirement of the Baby Boom generation. Passage of a one-half cent sales tax in February has put St. Louis in a unique position. We are one of the first large cities in the country to address its pension system crisis. By dedicating part of the one-half cent sales tax revenue to the public pension systems, our employees will get the pensions they deserve. Many of you supported the effort; and all of you - and every other City employee - will benefit from its success.
Over the next few years, more and more of our top managers and senior employees will be retiring from City service. This will mean the loss of decades of institutional knowledge in some departments. These departures will challenge all of us to help the next generation of managers be prepared to deliver City services without any gaps or gaffes. And these new managers will, in some cases, be bringing in new ways to deliver better services to City residents more efficiently.
Because you are the primary points of contact between City departments and City residents, I will be looking to you aldermen for your suggestions on the sorts of things you hope to see the operating departments do the same, and differently, in the future.
A good example of meeting needs in new ways is Lead Safe, a joint effort by the Health Department and the Building Division, to get children tested for lead in their blood, and to make the places children live safer.
I would like to introduce another group of special guests today: the City employees who work in the Lead Safe program.
Lead poisoning causes lifelong, irreversible health, education and behavior problems. In 2003, I introduced a plan to focus our efforts on eradicating childhood lead poisoning in St. Louis in seven years. At that time, the rate of lead poisoned children was 13.6 percent of the tested children under age 6.
Today, through the collaborative work of the Health Department, the Building Division, and the community partnerships that make up the Lead Safe St. Louis Task Force, the rate has fallen to 4 percent, a reduction of more than 65 percent.
Here how that has happened.
New programs undertaken by the Health Department have helped to identify the housing where children have had environmental exposure to lead, and to correct those hazards before any other child suffers lead poisoning.
Prior to the collaborative program, lead remediation of homes was done in several different departments, and only a few hundred homes were remediated each year. Since the collaboration and consolidation of the remediation programs in the Building Division, new programs have been introduced to encourage participation of homeowners, landlords, and developers alike to prioritize lead-safe conditions in housing.
Last year, more than 800 homes were remediated through City programs alone, and dozens more were made lead-safe through community partnerships. The City is in good standing with federal, state, and foundation grant programs. Referral sources to the Building Division have been expanded, and now more than 75 percent of the referrals being made are from families whose children are not lead poisoned.
Using City employees, community partnerships, grants, and data in new and more efficient ways, we are well on our way to comprehensive primary prevention of childhood lead poisoning in St. Louis.
This is the sort of innovative, collaborative, and efficient effort that we need to apply across the board in City government.
Another problem now plaguing St. Louis and communities across the country is foreclosures.
I am proud to tell you we beat the federal government in establishing a program to help residents who are having trouble making their mortgage payments. We created the St. Louis Alliance for Home Ownership Preservation and we set aside a half million dollars to help families keep their homes. Last year, nearly 2,500 homes were foreclosed in the City of St. Louis. We are worried there will be even more this year.
Home foreclosures do incredible damage. They ruin lives, family finances, and neighborhoods. Vacant and abandoned buildings can become sources of blight and bring down property values. Obviously, we all know how the mortgage crisis is dragging down the economy.
Right now, the City is working with five agencies to help as many people as possible save their homes. We are able to provide financial counseling to help families who can still afford their homes get their loans restructured or refinanced. If homeowners can afford to make their payments after the loan restructuring or refinancing, the counselors can also help them budget their money. When the situation is hopeless, the counselors can help families with the transition to rental housing.
In some cases, through our partner agencies, the City is able to provide direct mortgage assistance in those cases in which the agencies believe a family would lose their home without it. The maximum assistance is $1,500, limited to principal, interest, taxes, insurance, and fees. We will not authorize mortgage assistance if we think it will only delay an inevitable foreclosure.
If we do all this correctly and without trying to help people who are really beyond the scope of this program, a thousand families keep their own homes in the City. Your role in this program - and it's a tough one - is to assist us in identifying those families who can best be helped.
Recreation centers, rec programs
Speaking of families, several of you have spoken to me about the need for more and better recreational activities for all residents, and for more and better after-school programs for students. I strongly agree with you.
I am sure many of our families will enjoy the two new state-of-the-art recreation centers that voters approved last year. Ground has already been broken for the Carondelet Park south side center, and work will begin soon on the O'Fallon Park north side site. These new rec centers will give our residents the same opportunities for high quality recreation that exist in some parts of St. Louis county.
This same tax is also providing after-school and evening recreation programs. The Parks Department has partnered with the Police Department to sponsor a successful basketball program that saw more than 100 young men playing in a new league. The Parks Department has started a new partnership with ARCHS, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and other entities to begin new and expanded after school programs in City schools.
Creating more of these opportunities should be one of our highest priorities this year. I look forward to hearing more from you about the opportunities you see in your neighborhoods.
Schools, Public Education
Which brings me to the continuing challenge of education in our City.
I am a strong advocate of public education. Wherever I meet them, parents and employers want better public schools, not in five or ten years, but right now.
We must meet that expectation.
In addition to supporting on-going efforts to improve the St. Louis Public School District, I believe that the urgency of the situation requires us to create additional public education options in St. Louis.
Most of you know that I have issued an invitation to educators, parents, and entrepreneurs to create new, quality charter schools to serve the needs of all our families - regardless of race and income.
Charter schools are free, public schools, open to all. In exchange for freedom from many of the rules and regulations that apply to traditional public-school districts, charter schools are required to demonstrate positive outcomes such as individual student growth, parent involvement, and overall school academic achievement.
While most St. Louisans believe in competition in business, it is hard for some of us to think the same for our public institutions, particularly for schools. In reality, though, the City school system has been in a competition - and, generally, losing it - for years. They have competed with parochial and private schools for families with financial resources. And that competition with parochial schools will soon get much tougher as the archdiocese rolls out its plans to offer scholarships to hundreds of needy students.
But the most important competition the St. Louis Public School District is facing is with public schools outside the City. The City has been losing families for decades to public school districts in the suburbs.
Since 2000, while the City's population has increased overall, the number of children enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade has declined. And the number of school-age children in the City has fallen. The only place we have seen substantial enrollment growth is in public charter schools, with nearly 8,000 children attending charter schools this year.
Charters are growing because parents and educators want them. They offer real advantages. Teachers can choose to work in a particular school that matches their interest. Principals can be the instructional leaders of their buildings. Parents can choose where to send their child. Schools can be held accountable by their sponsors for achieving state standards and school-based goals.
I strongly believe that charter schools can be a tool to help the public school district re-invent and renew itself. And public schools designed for the 21st century - in content and rigor - will attract and retain families.
Current state law allows the St. Louis Public School District to establish and operate its own charter schools. I hope that they do so this year.
Establishing district-run charter schools will provide opportunities to tap into the intellectual capital that exists inside the public school district and create schools seasoned with 150 years of tradition. Reopening shuttered public school buildings in City neighborhoods as district-sponsored charter schools will add vitality to your wards. And the lessons learned in charter schools will spread through the rest of the district.
Over the past several months, we have seen plenty of evidence that St. Louis is not completely immune to the sorts of economic problems that have hit much harder in cities like Detroit, Miami, Denver, and Las Vegas.
Housing foreclosures will certainly be up this year throughout the region, and new home sales will be down. It will be harder for a St. Louisan to borrow money to start or expand a business, or to attend college. Some developers will find it harder to tap into lines of credit to build new projects.
I refuse, though, to only talk about the negative.
Last year, for the fourth straight year, the Building Division issued permits for more than one billion dollars in construction activity that included residential, commercial, and industrial new construction, as well as the historic rehabilitation of older homes and conversions of vacant and underutilized commercial buildings into condos and lofts.
New retail development included small neighborhood shops and restaurants in neighborhoods throughout the City: along Macklind in the South Hampton neighborhood; in MLK Plaza at Grand and Martin Luther King Boulevard; in the old automotive buildings along Locust; and at Loughborough Commons and in Maryland Plaza. In these places, and in plenty of others, City residents are finding new places to shop and eat right in their own neighborhoods. In Downtown alone, more than 90 new stores and restaurants have opened since 2003
Later this spring, I will invite you to join me in announcing an initiative for nearly $150 million in new development over five years in the predominantly African American neighborhoods in north St. Louis.
Throughout the City, homes and condominiums continue to sell steadily, but the pace of sales has slowed, particularly in the mid-priced segment of the market where prospective buyers must sell their existing home in the suburbs before purchasing a new condo or loft in the City.
Institutional development remains strong: St. Louis University recently completed its research building and opened Chaifetz Arena - where I plan to host a reelection fundraiser on May 9th. The Washington University Medical Campus and Harris Stowe University both have projects underway, and Shriner's Hospital is planning a move to the Washington University Medical Center campus, from Frontenac.
And, there is more.
If you are driving along Highway 44 and look to the north at Jefferson, you will see the Union Club, a $12 million mixed use development being built on the former location of a vacant grocery store. In the Central West End, a Texas developer is in the process of building an apartment complex on the old Salad Bowl site with 196 units, and 16,000 square feet of retail-this same developer is planning a new mid-rise apartment development across I-64 from the BJC Medical Center in Forest Park Southeast.
The 14th Street Mall in Old North St. Louis next to Crown Candy recently completed its financing for the historic rehabilitation of a number of buildings and you can listen to the power tools while you eat a BLT at the soda fountain.
Construction will be underway this year on the second phase of the Cochran Gardens HOPE VI development; Joe Edwards has a boutique hotel under construction in the City part of the Delmar Loop; construction has begun on the Roberts Brothers new residential tower next to their Mayfair Hotel; and Solae is starting to occupy its new headquarters in CORTEX.
Despite the cautions ahead, this is still one of the most exciting and productive times in the history of our City. All of the construction workers, scaffolds, and cranes are evidence of the new value we place on our historic buildings - and evidence that old and new can work together. It is proof of the confidence people - residents, bankers, developers, and businesses - continue to have in the future of St. Louis.
Conclusion: The Action Plan Updated
Seven years ago, we began with a plan-an aggressive Action Plan that aimed high and set out a roadmap for tackling the City's problems-not one at a time, but all at once.
I believed then, and I believe today, that our challenges are interdependent. We don't have time to deal with problems one by one in a linear fashion.
I am pleased to say that we've made a lot of progress - not just on one part of the plan but on many parts, all of which have an impact on the City's quality of residential and business life.
We've added more people, time, and money to the most vexing problems - and crime is down, homelessness is down, public health administration is improving, and jobs training programs are actually preparing people for the workplace.
Taking risks has been crucial. If the Mayor doesn't step forward and advance new ideas and problem-solving strategies without worrying excessively about criticism, who will?
If we pay too much attention to the naysayer community, if we worry too much about what people will think if we fail, if we're afraid to try something different, how will any tough problem ever get solved?
I know that revitalizing St. Louis is very much a team effort. No mayor, no matter how determined; no developer, no matter how well financed; no program, no matter how well conceived, can revitalize a city alone. Change takes teamwork. Working together, we are making St. Louis a great city again.
My goal today remains the same as it was seven years ago: to make St. Louis a city where more people choose to work, more people choose to live, and more people choose to visit.
Many issues have an impact on whether or not we reach this goal, the most important of which is that we spend at least as much time recognizing and promoting our strengths -like our location, our eagerness for development, our historic buildings, our wonderfully diverse population -as we do complaining about our weaknesses.
I believe if we can do at least as well over the next year as we have in the past year that this same occasion a year from now will find us a stronger and healthier community.
Thank you, and God bless you.