I am delighted to be here this morning. I'm delighted to talk to you a little bit about the City and its future and where we want to go. First of all, I want to take a few minutes though for points of personal privilege to not only thank all of you for being here, but particularly some people for being here, including, for not first time, my parents Jack and Dorothy Beutler from down in Omaha. They live in Omaha, but they know more about Lincoln actually. And I want to forewarn the new members of the Council if they say one mean thing about me or do one mean thing, they're going to have to answer to my Mom.
And Judy is here today, my wife Judy. I'm delighted always when she accompanies me to these things that are part of public life. The imperatives of public life are very disruptive on private lives. The expectations for companionship don't always play out in the same way that it's able to happen in other lives. So she's been remarkably tolerant, and I think it's for a number reasons but including, perhaps most importantly, the fact that she cares about this City every bit as much as I do. So thank you, Judy.
I also noticed when I walked in that there are a large number of City directors and City managers here. I want to reiterate something that I've said before, that I think we've put together the best group in history in terms of effective people to run the government of this City, and I think you should all be very proud of that. I hope you are recognizing at least some of the good things each and every one of them are doing.
So having said that, let me weigh in with some of the things I wanted to be sure and talk about today.
Last year, Nebraskans were glued to their TVs on Saturdays watching some of the outstanding second-half comebacks by our gritty Cornhuskers. On several thrilling weekends, we were rewarded late in the game when the momentum shifted, and the game started going our way. It happens in football. I can remember very well in my high school football days being in the huddle or as a college defensive back, I can remember just sensing so strongly in your gut that things were dramatically going your way.
In 2007, when I was elected Mayor, the economy was in the beginning of a tailspin that looked like it might rival the Great Depression. The momentum was against Lincoln, it was against Nebraska, it was against America. To change that negative spiral locally, we did two things: we thoughtfully but decisively tightened our fiscal belts to deal with the immediate revenue shortfalls, and then we began to define a vision of the future beyond the recession - we aimed for the horizon.
First though, we found efficiencies, reduced non-priority spending, and we cut over 140 positions, more than any Mayor in the history of Lincoln. And for the first time in 40 years, we reduced employer retirement benefit contributions. Those steps demonstrated that City Hall meant business - hard-nosed, clear-eyed business. And the people of this City responded by extending more trust to City Hall and the Administration. Most dramatically, they voted for the West Haymarket Arena project in the middle of the greatest economic downtown since the Great Depression.
That was a giant step into the future. That was a game changer. It was a fundamental shift in outlook, generating the singular momentum that the City now enjoys. In the flood of red ink of the recession, Lincoln found a pathway to the horizon. In the middle of economic chaos, the people of this City said, "We will not be victims. We have pride. We have confidence. We will seize the day and we will will ourselves a better future."
The Pinnacle Bank Arena and associated West Haymarket development is living up to and exceeding expectations. The project will be delivered to the people of the City not on time, but early. And it is very much on budget. Good paying jobs were created in building the Arena - 59 percent of those jobs went to Lincoln and Lancaster County residents and another 31 percent to nearby Nebraska community residents who spend their money in Lincoln. They are jobs where the wages earned stay in Lincoln rather than being exported to other states. To date, the Arena has generated more private investment totaling at least $73 million - and I think that figure is very low - with an economic impact that will multiply many times over in retail stores and other new construction and increased economic activity all over town.
Before it has even opened, nationally recognized acts everywhere have been telling the nation they will play in Lincoln, Nebraska at the new Pinnacle Bank Arena. A simple Google search of "Pinnacle Bank Arena" yields over 1,490,000 results. This represents an enormous marketing opportunity for Lincoln that we can use to attract even more new investment and new jobs, keeping us strong and vibrant for a long time into the future.
The Arena project led to the establishment of a new urban neighborhood that appeals to the young professionals and the entrepreneurs who are critical to our future economic success, and it has given our college graduates one more reason to start their careers in Lincoln.
In a few short weeks you and I and every citizen of this community will be able to celebrate the results of Lincoln's largest public-private partnership of all time. But as we stand on the cusp of its grand opening, I think we should take a few moments to reflect on this tremendous community success and apply the lessons of our experience to our vision for Lincoln. What can the Pinnacle Bank Arena experience teach us for the future?
The first lesson is that community investment can not only create opportunities for private investment and for a higher quality of life, but it also creates an overwhelming forward momentum. The Arena has become a symbol of our unity, our vibrancy, and a beacon to the rest of the nation that here in Lincoln, we have talent, we have energy and we have the collective will to make a great community.
Some will suggest that we have done enough for the time being and that the recent surge of community investment has run its course. I understand that apprehension. Growth and progress have come at a dizzying speed here in Lincoln. It is natural to want to pause and to catch our breath after achievements of this magnitude. We can certainly choose to slow down the pace.
But that's not the path I would choose. In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Brutus says, "There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood results in greater fortune."
I believe our time is now. Destiny is calling. And as William Jennings Bryan said, "Destiny is no matter of chance. It is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved." There is a great deal of truth in that statement. And I truly believe that we can be the very finest City in America.
The hard work that we have all done together has brought great success and national recognition many times over. We should use the new community energy, the powerful new partnerships and the heightened citizen confidence to achieve even greater goals. The Arena's momentum can be the momentum that builds new roads and creates new jobs, and fosters new economic opportunity all over again. The Arena can be the momentum that builds the South Beltway, a public investment that will pay big dividends, especially in relief of the traffic congestion that challenges so many growing communities.
The Arena can be the momentum that finally repairs the broken sidewalks. For too long at City Hall, we have bemoaned the decision of the voters requiring the City, rather than individual homeowners, to pay for sidewalk repairs. Instead of rising to the challenge, we've made excuses for why we can't get the job done. It doesn't have to be that way. Sidewalks are important to neighborhood quality of life, healthful living and social interaction. They are an investment worth making.
Parks and recreation help Lincoln families thrive. The unrestrained joy in our playgrounds, the quiet contemplation of the natural world, and the physical and mental release of vigorous exercise are true community blessings in an urban environment. Parks are one of the reasons that Lincoln does so well in all of the national standings that look at cities taken together.
Our community momentum should be tapped to replace aging playground equipment, to fix bathrooms, and upgrade other parks infrastructure. We cannot neglect our current commitments and allow the slow decay of one of our greatest community assets.
Our emergency response times are slowing as the community grows. Since the last time a fire station was built in 1996, Lincoln's population has increased 58,000 people - communities the size of Lexington and Grand Island put together - and has grown by more than 21 square miles in area. Emergency response times are slowing. In 2012, we met the four-minute travel time standard for life-threatening emergencies only 77 percent of the time, when our standard, our goal, has been 90 percent. That number will slide if we do not address the location of our fire stations.
Using the most modern GIS technology, Lincoln Fire and Rescue has developed a plan detailing where these stations should be located to bring the maximum number of people and businesses back within that four-minute range. The proposed station relocation plan would move four fire stations at a one-time cost of $8 million, plus the cost of land acquisition. But it would not add any ongoing, year-to-year expenses for new firefighters to the budget. We have a very fine plan devised. It is the most cost effective means of addressing a challenge that will only become more difficult if we do not act.
The Community Learning Centers are improving the lives of our children, both from an educational standpoint and in providing the positive activities that keep kids out of trouble and keep them on the right path. They are a cost effective solution for building strong neighborhoods and strong families, which in the end, means strong kids.
Those are just a few of the investment decisions that will define our community in the coming years. There are others. There will be many opinions out there. Some will argue that we can make these investments solely by re-arranging our priorities or finding efficiencies or reducing spending in other areas. I agree that City Hall must relentlessly pursue opportunities to do more with less. That's why we have cut and reorganized departments and maintained a sharp eye on employee benefits and employed several new technologies in the last few years. Tight management signals that we have kept our priorities in order and continue to make tough choices day after day. They assure the public that City Hall can be trusted to take on projects like the Arena in the future.
We continue to work together to make City government as efficient as possible. If savings can be found that help us make investments in streets and sidewalks and parks and fire stations, if those savings can be found, I am open to all of those ideas.
But we have to also be realistic. Almost 80 percent of City spending goes to the City's safety and security and efficient transportation programs alone. Slashing the remaining 20 percent won't yield enough to meet the investment challenges before us, and it would devastate our libraries, our parks, our pools and our low-income services.
In short, we have to make tough choices. It would be simply dishonest to tell you that community investment comes without sacrifice. We all know that's not true. After all, the Arena wasn't built for free. As part of our community discourse over the coming months, we need to talk about how we want to pay for the South Beltway and other investments.
I have already proposed rearranging our priorities by better allocating the tax levy from the Railroad Transportation District. The Legislature has recently given Lincoln the ability to raise the sales tax by a quarter or a half percent with a vote of the people, another option to consider. I am sure there are other ideas, both for shifting resources and for finding new revenue. I hope to work closely with my Council colleagues, other public officials and the public generally in finding common ground on these issues.
The Arena has also taught us the importance of public unity. The project was the result of a long public conversation about our civic goals as a community, culminating in the people's resounding vote in favor of the Arena.
That public consensus and unity is the result of a shared vision of what we, as a community, hope to accomplish and the will of many, many individuals to be a part of that solution. People want to be involved in something larger than themselves. I think that we are proud that the place we call home is a national leader in business opportunity and quality of life in dozens of categories.
Our unity was tested during the last election, as it is in many election cycles. The rough and tumble of political debate threatened to weaken the fabric of our cooperative efforts and jeopardize our ability to work constructively toward a common goal. Fortunately, however, Lincoln's City Hall does not suffer from the dysfunction of Washington precisely because we recognize that people can and must work together after an election, however tough, for the common good. While I don't regularly quote Harry Potter novels - in fact, I've never quoted one before, I don't know how staff got me to do this - but I believe the author said it well, "We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided."
Let's renew that commitment to unity again today. Let's come together and pledge that our differences will not define us, but our Nebraska-bred common sense and reasonableness will. That is the foundation for the consensus that will determine whether we pull ahead or fall behind those other communities that are working smoothly for the common good. It is perhaps the most important of all of the Arena's lessons.
So let me start by saluting our City Council. Jonathan Cook and Jon Camp are the senior leaders, now serving their 15th year - that's a lot of abuse - providing us with experience and institutional memory that has served us well. Doug Emery is doing what he does best: telling it like it is and finding the common ground that moves us forward. I'm sure he'll have a comment or two on these remarks. Carl Eskridge's thoughtful and dignified leadership as Chair is an example to which we should all aspire. Our newest Council members - Leirion Gaylor Baird, Roy Christensen and Trent Fellers - have demonstrated keen intellects already and a willingness to work together in their short time on the Council. Hopefully they'll keep in mind my Mom over here. But I look forward to working with all of them on what we can accomplish over the next couple of years.
Establishing unity requires public involvement. The more people who sit at the decision-making table, the better the result. I believe that. The Pinnacle Bank Arena was put to a public vote so Lincoln residents could evaluate the proposal for themselves. We put together a public governance structure, the Joint Public Agency, so that decisions on those particular investments of the people were more transparent and could be evaluated better by the people.
Next week, we will be unveiling our plan for determining the public's priorities. For five years now, the Taking Charge process has allowed thousands of residents to make their voices heard on our City budget through Internet surveys and in-person community conversations. Since we have moved to biennial budgeting we will not release a new budget this year - not until next year. This allows us to focus the Taking Charge process this year on strategic planning. What direction should Lincoln take? What goals are most important? These are the questions the community will help us answer and help us by way of setting our course.
Successful companies have clearly stated goals that clearly reflect the expectations of the Board of Directors. The Council and I view the citizens of Lincoln as our Board of Directors in a great joint public venture. Knowing the prerogatives of the people helps us, as your chosen leaders, develop the policies that meet the public's expectations. So I want to ask everybody in the public to participate in so far as they possibly can.
The importance of community investment and consensus are not the only lessons of the Pinnacle Bank Arena adventure. Strong oversight by the Joint Public Agency and public transparency ensured that the project has remained on time and on budget. I want to express my gratitude to my JPA colleagues throughout the process who have worked so hard to make the Arena a success. Tim Clare has asked tough questions and fought constantly for transparency. Former JPA members Gene Carroll and the late Jayne Snyder used their business and development experience to ensure accountability. Our newest member, Doug Emery, is a leader who asks the right questions.
Oversight isn't just a matter for elected officials though. The Arena Watchdogs and other community groups have kept their eyes upon us and encouraged us to sharpen our thinking on the project at every turn. Accountability and transparency must continue to be a central characteristic of our next public investments so that we can continue to keep faith with the public.
Seizing opportunities is another valuable West Haymarket lesson. When it became surprisingly apparent that the private development was happening years faster than originally anticipated, it became imperative for the JPA to up its game and accelerate the construction of parking to meet the needs of the business community.
By doing additional parking garages now, rather than in the future, the JPA saved on construction inflation, while making it possible for a multi-million dollar private investment to proceed years earlier than planned. It was a wonderful problem to have!
Just as in the business world, adjusting our course in response to sudden opportunity allows investment at opportune times. For instance, we were able to take advantage of $1.6 million in available private donations by using tax increment financing resources to assist in building Civic Plaza. Next year, we will have an iconic addition to the downtown without raising taxes. That, I think, is just a smart way of doing business.
A very, very rare opportunity has also presented itself by virtue of a moment in time, and what we do with this and our decision could have a great lasting impact on the natural heritage and on our economy. Lincoln was once a Capital City amid a sea of prairie grasses, and it is within our power to restore a very real image of that time. The Haines Branch Prairie Corridor project is a 7.5-mile stretch linking Pioneers Park to Spring Creek Prairie along the Haines Branch of Salt Creek. Our long-term vision for this area includes the creation of the most extensive tall grass prairie along the I-80 corridor, an ode to our past and a recreational and tourism moneymaker for our future.
Over the next decade, we will work with our local Natural Resources District, the Nebraska Environmental Trust, national trusts and foundations and other partners to purchase land interests from willing sellers. We will pay respect to our Native American and our pioneer forefathers and preserve the remaining natural resources that sustained them, re-establish native prairie and create new habitats for wildlife. The trail will connect Pioneers Park west to Conestoga Lake, and south through the Village of Denton to Spring Creek Prairie. The Prairie Capital corridor has enormous economic potential. Eco-tourism is a rapidly growing industry nationally. We may not have beaches or mountains, but we can have something special and authentic to us - the beauty of America's tall grass prairie on the edge of our Capital City preserved for all time.
Over $2 million has been leveraged for the project's first phase, with only a small financial commitment on the part the City. This includes a $900,000 Nebraska Environmental Trust grant and matching funds from many of our partners. It is another chance for the City to capitalize mainly on private donations, grants and community partnerships to make Lincoln an even more attractive place to live, economically better, environmentally better.
Let me say just a couple more thank you's. The same partnerships that drove the Arena's success and partnerships will drive our future success. Working in conjunction with the Arena project, the private sector - think for sure the 2015 group - is investing tens of millions of dollars in new hotels, restaurants, new living spaces, a new ice center. The private sector has raised millions of dollars for Centennial Mall, Union Plaza, Sherman Field, Civic Plaza, the Arena and the many other smaller Lincoln projects.
The prime force behind these partnerships that strengthen City policy is our relationship with the Chamber of Commerce. They have done an outstanding job of marketing the community and advocating for policies to create growth. They have been the kind of partner who told me when they thought I was wrong, supported me when they thought I was right, while always maintaining a positive relationship. I want to express my deep appreciation to and for the Chamber's President Wendy Birdsall and her board. Wendy's professionalism and diligence is driving the community rapidly in the right direction. I want to thank you, Wendy.
Another example is the work we have done to strengthen neighborhoods by eliminating blighted housing Our commitment to neighborhoods is staunch. Our collaboration with NeighborWorks and our neighborhood associations is allowing us to rehabilitate problem properties, strengthening and beautifying the neighborhoods and making every neighborhood a great place to live. I want to recognize Mike Renken of NeighborWorks for his organization's fine work, and also say thank you to you, Mike.
And of course, throughout Lincoln are other benevolent partnerships that every day are trying to insure that every member of this community can share in our growth and our success. There are many families in this city who are still struggling to make ends meet despite our near lowest unemployment rate in the country. Thankfully, our sense of community includes caring for these families as well, from backpacks full of food to volunteers providing needed health care "with a heart." A successful City is one that sees that every adult has a chance and every child has a future. Lincoln is that place, and through our many partnerships, we can do even more, I believe, as we forge ahead.
The Pinnacle Bank Arena will open its doors to the public on August 29th. It will be a great night, where the people who made a choice to invest in their community get to see first hand how their vision and their faith in their City has turned into reality. It will be a night of celebration.
For me, it will be also a contemplative time to think about what's next on Lincoln's horizon. Certainly, I will revel with all of you in the moment, not just in the Arena's success, but in the broader success of the community. The Pinnacle Bank Arena is emblematic of a City on the rise, a growing player in regional and national and even on the world stage. The evidence is overwhelming. We've recited those pieces of evidence to you in the past - the low unemployment rates, the hundreds of millions of dollars of investments, the high national rankings time and time again, and the spirit of renewal and momentum most of all.
But because I believe that we are a community that has strived to always look forward rather than dwell on our past successes, I will look out from the Arena's soaring glass concourses and think about the challenges that lie ahead of us, and the excitement of a new journey where the Arena is not the end of our success, but just the beginning. Let's ride this tide. We have the resources. We have the confidence. We have the momentum. We can seize the day and embrace once again intelligent change, while keeping the gritty character and the quiet charm that has always been ours.