2019 State of the City Address (March 25, 2019)
Council President Hayes, members of the Kokomo Common Council, elected officials, distinguished guests and citizens of Kokomo, welcome. I would especially like to welcome my wife Kelli, and my family and friends who took the time to be here this evening.
I also want to acknowledge our city council. Everything our city has accomplished would not have been possible without them. As I have said before, they truly are the best city council in the state of Indiana.
Specifically, I want to thank our two council members who are not seeking re-election this year. Councilman Steve Whikehart has made a tremendous impact, showing compassion and providing great leadership in his term on the council. Thank you for your service to our community.
And Councilwoman Janie Young. All of Kokomo is grateful for your dedication to our community. Personally, I want to thank you for your friendship and commitment, dating all the way back to our time together on the Center Township Board.
Well before serving in public office, your time as a UAW activist was, and is, greatly appreciated. Through the years you have remained a strong ally, confidant and mentor to me as we navigate our way through public service.
I am forever grateful for our friendship and will cherish the memories of working side by side with you.
And for those of you that value history, Councilwoman Young is also a trailblazer. She is the first African-American woman to serve on the Kokomo Common Council. Thank you for your service.
This is the 12th time I have come before you to give the State of the City address. Plenty has changed since the first time I took the podium in 2008. Shortly after taking office, I told someone “This is not the job I ran for.” And to be certain, it was not the job I thought I was running for.
From the outside looking in, the job appeared very different. You never really know the things you will confront, until you are on the front lines, dealing with the problems and opportunities facing, a city on a daily basis.
However, I would be remiss if I did not say, that I have enjoyed the last 11 years. Good times and bad times alike, it has been an adventure, an honor, and the best job I have ever had. Thank you.
Last year was good to Kokomo -- and that is not an opinion – it is a fact. Now I know that sometimes, the facts can make some people uncomfortable. Especially if they do not fit a political agenda or a political narrative.
Just look at Washington D.C. these days. There are plenty of politicians and individuals who are willing to ignore, discredit, and dismiss facts when they do not fit their personal and political goals.
Whenever the truth does not fit the narrative of these naysayers, the spinning starts. I spoke about this problem last year. Unfortunately, the problem has only gotten worse.
The misuse and abuse of social media by self-serving groups and individuals have added a megaphone to what, in the past, has been confined to a small, minority opinion.
Many times an online post purposefully ignores the truth. Then those with political agendas intentionally use that false and misleading post, for their own personal gain.
As the saying goes, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” This concept, that because my opponent is for something, I have to be against it is hurting our society. Recent university studies have shown that it is only getting worse.
Thankfully, we are not in Washington D.C. Here in Kokomo, I prefer to deal directly with the facts. Even though they may make certain people, maybe even a few in this room, uncomfortable.
Let us look back to 2018 and examine the facts.
According to the Howard County Plan Commission, it is a fact that new home construction in Kokomo had its best year since 2003. A look at single-family home building permit requests shows that 113 were issued in 2018, up from 85 the year before.
According to the Federal Government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is a fact that the unemployment rate is near historic lows. Kokomo finished 2018 with just 3.6 percent unemployment. Consider, that the rate was double digits in 2009, at 20.2 percent.
Again, it is a fact, also reported in 2018 by the Federal Government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, that Kokomo had the 4th fastest growing economy in the Nation. More people are working, as our labor force and number of people employed continues to increase.
It is a fact, that the City of Kokomo collected more than 2,500 tons of recyclables in 2018 with its free curbside recycling program. Nearly 16 million pounds of recyclables have been saved from the landfill, in the program’s three years.
It is a fact, according to the Kokomo-Howard County Governmental Coordinating Council, that City Line Trolley ridership reached 378,000 in 2018. That is slightly lower than the 389,000 rides in 2017. And trips made by the Spirit of Kokomo reached 94,000 in 2018, up from 85,000 in 2017.
According to data collected by the Kokomo Police Department and the Howard County Sheriff’s Department, it is a fact that crime is down overall in Kokomo from 2017 to 2018. Violent crimes declined by 13% while Property crimes declined by 14%.
According to the Howard County Coroner's office, it is a fact, that deaths from drug overdoses in 2018 were down 25% from 2017.
According to Howard County Sheriff Dispatch, it is a fact that the number of Kokomo Police Department calls for service declined by 14%. That is nearly 7,500 fewer calls than 2017. Comparatively, calls from the public are down 26% from 10 years ago.
And thanks to the City Council, city department heads, and city employees, it is a fact that the City of Kokomo continues to come in under budget. For the second year in a row, we spent 12% less than what was budgeted. Kokomo has now come in under budget all 11 years of our tenure.
If you want to check that fact, contact the Indiana State Board of Accounts. They audit our city finances each and every year.
It is a fact that Kokomo finished 2018 with the third lowest debt per capita among Indiana’s 35 largest cities. Again, that can be checked with the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance.
It is a fact that Kokomo has maintained its “A” credit rating, according to municipal finance experts, Moody’s.
Now, these are not my personal facts. If the temptation caused by a political agenda provokes you to disagree, you might check with President Trump and our Federal government, Governor Holcomb and our State Government, or Sheriff Asher, Coroner Seele, and other Howard County Government officials.
However, not all facts show good news.
Also a fact, according to a report from the Richard M Fairbanks Foundation as many as one-third of Hoosiers are obese, and our poor health costs the State $8.5 billion each year in economic output. The report also showed that Howard County ranked 80th, of Indiana’s 92 counties, in health outcomes.
And finally, according to US Census data, it is a fact, that Indiana falls well below the national average in educational attainment. Indiana now ranks 42nd out of 50 states in bachelor’s degree attainment, and 31st in high school diploma attainment.
It seems to be popular these days to make political attacks that our city “only focuses on the Downtown.” Anyone who truly wants to, can easily see that public investment has been all across Kokomo. If you think the city is only investing in downtown, it may be because you have only spent time downtown and not actually visited our other neighborhoods.
So let’s look at just a few more items from last year that, again, may be politically inconvenient for a few people.
West side improvements are bringing back the neighborhood feel to the Jefferson/Phillips Street area. Six new homes have been built as part of our city’s urban infill program. Our parks department and street department converted the abandoned railroad line into the beautifully-lit Cloverleaf Trail. New brick entryways, with designated signage, now welcome people coming from the west to the old Silk Stocking neighborhood.
This public investment, which also included more on-street parking, spurred private investment including the renovation of a vacant strip plaza, anchored by the Tangles Styling Salon.
Big Ben Coffee also relocated to the area, transforming an abandoned car wash, on a forgotten corner, into a thriving business.
Last year, the North side of Kokomo saw its share of improvements as well. Motorists on 931 get a great view of the Nickel Plate Trail bridge, especially at night. The Industrial Heritage Trail was expanded by almost 3.5 miles, including the stretch from Elm Street to North Street. The Kokomo Parks department built the new Al Berryman Memorial Park and Splash Pad along that stretch of trail. Again, the private sector responded. EAC Corporation worked with our development department and our planning department to coordinate site improvements. They are investing more than $1.5 million at their current location on North Webster Street.
Quality Plumbing and Heating relocated to Kokomo and expanded its operations. The Country Palace re-purposed an under-utilized building along the trail, and it is now a thriving music hall. And the iconic Miller’s Tavern has reopened under new management.
It should also be noted that Kokomo’s housing growth has not excluded the North side. Abbey Place subdivision saw 25 new homes built, just last year.
The far East side has also seen an influx of new businesses and improvements. Brad Howell Ford moved into Kokomo, hired more employees and now has the nicest, hi-tech Ford dealership in the state. To help make that happen, our administration vacated Cedar Crest Drive, made infrastructure improvements along Saratoga drive, and waived many permit fees. Because our city plan commission and development department worked with owners on site issues, new businesses are opening at the Markland Mall. Improvements represent more than 8 million dollars in new private investment. New businesses include Aldi’s, Ross Dress for Less, Petsmart and Prodigy Bar & Grill. Cedar Crest and Prairie Farms subdivisions saw 8 single-family building permits issued for the few remaining vacant lots.
On the near Eastside, the Apperson Way Facade grant program partnered with business owners to make improvements to their properties. The city council appropriated $50,000 last year for the program and multiple renovations are already underway. And others are in various stages of design.
The Groves at Mulberry completed the first phase of new modern townhomes. Our city council also partnered with the Kokomo Housing Authority on a new facade for their maintenance hub.
On the near South side, in the Main and Markland Street Neighborhood, three brand new homes were built through the city’s urban infill program, and several will soon break ground. Kokomo’s Parks Department completely overhauled Meridian Park, including new playground equipment and upgrading the Vietnam Veterans shelter. In 2018, Bona Vista completed new housing for disabled adults, after our administration and the Common Council donated part of Meridian Park and waived numerous fees.
We also assisted a private developer in site selection, waiving fees, and rezoning, to begin construction on Phase One of the Trailside Townhomes, in the 1200 block of South Union Street. This project cleans up one of the most, if not the most, blighted parcels in Kokomo.
On the far South side, a private developer is investing nearly 6 million dollars to turn a vacant lot into new student housing, near IU Kokomo. To help make that happen our administration and city council helped expedite permits, waived fees, and secured an abatement for the private development.
Home Builders are also busy at work. Our planning commission and city council authorized a rezoning of 70 lots for the new Autumn Woods subdivision along Center Road. Webster Crossing is also expanding, fulfilling their plans to build 220 new homes over four years. And, finally, Phase Two of the Trailside Townhomes has broken ground on South Home Ave, across from the new Humane Society.
Including 2018, the choices we had to make over the last 11 years were not always easy, and they certainly were not taken lightly. Intensive work and fact-driven research went into almost every single decision. Over 11 years, we have trimmed the City workforce by 36% while expanding services like free curbside recycling and a free bus system. And, while doing so, we analyzed peer cities’ workforce size, while also researching how well they were providing services.
We continue to study ways to make the city as efficient as possible. Every department we operate has been impacted. From the Street Department moving to single-side trash collection, to the traffic department, removing stoplights at 29 intersections and converting our 1-way streets back to 2-way.
A few of these were original ideas, but many others were adapted from other cities, which has led to a few interesting discussions. Occasionally, I still hear some people complain that I should not be comparing Kokomo to other cities.
Now, let us remember what former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels once said, “If you do not keep track, you are not keeping score. And if you are not keeping score, you are just practicing.”
Cities need to keep score. We need to know how we stack up, so we can continue to move forward.
If we only compare Kokomo to Kokomo, then Kokomo will always lose. For example, if you compare yourself, physically, at age 65 to yourself, physically, at age 25, you will most likely be disappointed.
Does anybody think car makers don’t study what the competition is doing? General Motors follows what Ford is doing. Ford follows what Fiat Chrysler is doing. Car makers who do not pay attention, will go the way of Nash, Studebaker or AMC.
Does anybody believe Apple and Microsoft never bother to size up the competition?
Do you think companies like Motorola would still be in business if they had ignored the success of the first iPhones, and stuck with only the Razor flip phone?
Home improvement companies do the same thing. Go into any Menards, Lowes or Home Depot and you will find essentially the same basic products, tools and floorplan. Do you think they are not watching the competition?
If we are being honest, we all know the answer to these questions. Every successful company, corporation, and even university, looks at what the other one is doing, learns from it, and adapts. Sticking our head in the sand may make our jobs easier in the short term but, in the end, will cost everyone in our community dearly.
Comparisons are important. Even if you are not paying attention to our health ranking or education attainment, I can assure you, businesses are. They can find Kokomo’s demographics, and just about every statistic on how we stack up to our peer cities. And, they use all of that information when deciding where to locate or to expand their business.
A recent study from the Brookings Institute, and a similar study from the Ball State Center for Business and Economic Research, shows that many communities in Indiana face enormous risks of automation-related job losses.
In fact, the Brookings study listed Indiana as the most “at-risk” state in the country with, perhaps, half of all jobs facing elimination within a generation. Of course, as with most things, the studies are nuanced, as Ball State Economist Michael Hicks explains.
He says while automation will result in job losses that automation could also create a demand for occupations but with completely different skills. When this happens, companies will seek out cities that can attract and retain workers who are adaptable and well-trained in those new skill sets. If Kokomo does not have the people with these skills, then companies will most likely relocate, or pass us up altogether.
We must retain and attract the most talented individuals. Please do not take my word on this. Just read the numerous studies, books, papers, and articles from economists, universities, and think tanks. They are available to everyone.
Over the last few years, you have heard me repeat the advice of many experts on how we grow Kokomo through attracting and retaining these talented individuals.
This can be accomplished by improving the quality of life of both our current residents and our future residents.
Also, by the way, Governor Holcomb agrees with this strategy. Last October, we were both invited to talk about this topic at the Manhattan Institute’s “The New American Heartland Conference” in Indianapolis. The presentation’s video is available online for all to see.
This also should be noted.
Since 2014, just 53 of the Nation’s largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas, or MSAs, have accounted for over 96% of the entire country’s population growth. And two-thirds of all of the U.S. economic growth. That means96% of ALL population growth was concentrated in just 14% of the Country’s largest MSAs.
It is vital for mid-sized cities like Kokomo to tie our economy to larger regional metros, like Indianapolis. Howard County’s future “economic success” depends on us looking South.
I am going to shift gears for a moment. Soon I will be 54 years old. I have lived in Kokomo all my life. Three things about myself: I love History. I love Kokomo. And I love the History of Kokomo.
We must strive to keep Kokomo’s historic successes and failures in our memories. The past can be an asset as we move forward. But we must be careful, as it can also lead us astray.
We cannot be naive about our history. We cannot look at our history through rose-colored glasses. And we cannot use our own jaded memory as an excuse to discredit any future progress.
Because, if we are honest about Kokomo’s history, we know our history is not filled with complacency and fear. We know our past is filled with risk-takers and innovators, who built a Kokomo that is every bit as forward-thinking as any of today’s most progressive cities. Our founders had pride and belief in themselves and this community.
Does anyone believe George Kingston ever said the words “Slow down, things are changing too fast?”
Did the Apperson Brothers quit, because one person did not approve of what they were doing?
And, let’s not forget Elwood Haynes. Did he immediately throw up his hands and cave-in, when a handful of townspeople complained that a strange “horseless carriage” was making a god-awful sound, as he test-drove it around town?
Of course not.
There are many ways we can interpret our past that could lead to drastically different futures. One way can lead us to generations of growth and prosperity from true innovators, big thinkers and risk-takers.
But another, that focuses on fear of change, will put Kokomo on the path of a slow, yet inevitable, decline. On this path, Kokomo will truly be the “dying city” we were once labeled. We will be forced to simply manage the impact of that decline.
President John F. Kennedy said in his famous “Moon” speech, calling on all Americans to aim high, “The United States was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them. This country was conquered by those who moved forward.”
So, what can we look forward to for the rest of 2019?
This year we will continue to work with the Community Development Corporation, Realtors Association of Central Indiana, and the Howard County Home Builders. You will see continued efforts to revitalize our neighborhoods through the city’s urban infill program, with the ground-breaking of more than 10 new homes on currently abandoned lots.
This year, as part of our long term control plan, we will continue updating and investing in our combined sewers. This will help mitigate the flash flooding that some neighborhoods experience, now more frequently, as the result of climate change.
This year, we are expanding the Orange Line Route of the City Trolley, adding more stops on the East side, making it easier for our residents to travel around Kokomo.
This year, the City of Kokomo Parks Department will introduce a free-to-the-public, recreational bike sharing program along the Industrial Heritage Trail. This will be available to all residents and all visitors to our city. Expect more details soon.
This year we are adding a new aquatic playground to Kokomo Beach and revamping the current slides. This the largest single investment in Kokomo Beach since its opening in 2002.
And in the Fall of 2019, The growth of the IU Kokomo athletics program continues with the addition of Women’s Collegiate Soccer. I am proud of our city council and our administration for making it possible for this to happen at Municipal Stadium.
Finally, we will not solve our toughest challenges if we ignore the facts and ignore the hard truth. Because ignoring reality only blinds us to the best path forward.
Even though our national economy has been strong for years, unfortunately that strong economic growth has not been shared equally. For the first 7 years of this decade, two-thirds of Indiana’s counties have been drastically losing population. Howard County has avoided the substantial decline of some counties, but our population growth has been modest, at best.
We can choose growth or we can choose decline. It all hinges on the decisions our leaders make. I am confident that with the right attitude and strong conviction, Kokomo will make the right choice.
I look forward to seeing what the future holds for the city I love and the only city I have called home.
Thank you, and God bless you and Kokomo.