Mayor gives annual progress report
Published 10:43 pm Friday, January 3, 2020
To the Citizens of Suffolk:
As 2019 comes to a close and we share the excitement of entering a new decade, the members of the Suffolk City Council would like to provide our thanks for allowing us to continue to serve you and hope you and your family had a joyous holiday season.
It is also customary that we present our annual Progress Report, and as you’ll see, it has been another remarkable year for Suffolk as the city continues to strive toward excellence.
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If there’s one thing I’ve come to appreciate over the years, it’s the knowledge that inspiration and growth only come from adversity and from challenge, from stepping away from what’s comfortable and familiar, and stepping out into the unknown. As a city, we’ve also done just that, and we have a remarkable success story to share as people and businesses alike continue to make the decision to come grow with us.
Our population numbers are growing, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. We’ve recorded a steady population increase every year since 2012, and we’re the only locality in Hampton Roads projected to grow 10 percent or more in each decade between 2000 and 2040, according to the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. We continue to be one of Virginia’s faster-growing localities.
When it comes to our financial success, we can proudly report that the city received its third AAA rating from Moody’s Investors Service late this fall, now joining Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s Rating Service in bestowing this coveted designation upon the city. As a result, our sound and fiscally-responsible financial policies will certainly continue to benefit our citizens and allow us to maintain the high level of services you deserve and expect of your government. Suffolk now joins Virginia Beach as being the only Hampton Roads cities to have achieved AAA status from all three rating agencies, a designation shared by only a handful of other Virginia cities.
We’ve taken advantage of our improved credit standing and historic low interest rates by refunding outstanding debt resulting in cost savings of close to $240 million dollars. Further, staff has aggressively pursued non-capital project grants and secured more than $2.78 million dollars in grants in fiscal year 2018 alone, thus alleviating some of the tax burden on our citizens.
In 2019, we continued to invest in our employees and fully funded the requested budget for Suffolk Public Schools. In fact, local operating funds for public education have increased by more than $10 million dollars in the last six years, including an additional $4 million dollars for Fiscal Year 2019.
We’ve also recently invested more than $60 million dollars to build two new schools that opened this fall: the Col. Fred Cherry Middle School and the Florence Bowser Elementary School.
In recent years, I’ve shared with you how the health care options in our city have continued to blossom and flourish, and this year is no different. Sentara Belleharbour’s growing campus in North Suffolk includes the completion of their $33.5 million dollar expansion. Bon Secours will be building a new $77 million dollar hospital on the campus of Bon Secours Health Center at Harbour View, making it Virginia’s first inpatient facility with a surgical focus. Sentara Obici Hospital’s expanded campus continues a legacy of providing residents of Western Tidewater with high-quality, patient-centered care. It’s evident that excellent medical care has been brought closer to people in the neighborhoods where they live.
A city can only move forward when it has a strong foundation to build upon, and we know that public safety is our fundamental building block. We can proudly state that we are not only fortunate to have the very best public safety professionals in the region, but they are also prepared with the latest equipment and technologies — all designed to keep our citizens safe.
Public safety is more than just response times and crime stats — it’s also about engagement. Nowhere is the commitment to the community of our public safety professionals more evident than in our National Night Out celebrations, or what we refer to as our “going away parties for crime.” While we realize we can’t place first in the nation every year, Suffolk continues to be one of the highest ranking cities in Virginia, and in 2019 was again ranked in the Top 5 in the nation in our population category, making this the 14th straight year we’ve achieved this honor due to the overwhelming participation of our citizens and businesses. Involved, active neighborhoods are essential to the quality of life that we enjoy.
Here, hometown charm isn’t a cliché — it’s our way of life and something experienced and exhibited in Suffolk every day. That is especially true as it relates to our historic downtown and the ongoing renaissance of our commercial core. We continue moving ahead with our Downtown Initiatives Plan to support new business growth and to provide entertainment options including concerts and community gatherings to draw even more events and people downtown. Projects currently under way include the review and update of Historic District design guidelines, downtown branding to include wayfinding and parking signage, and the expansion of the parking lot on Commerce Street. Enhanced lighting and landscaping upgrades will also certainly add to the ambiance and atmosphere.
We’re also continuing to make great strides in the design process for the Festival Events Venue and our new Central Library, to be known as Library Square, as the anchor of a new active public space on West Washington Street. This much-anticipated public facility will allow citizens to access the tools and ideas they need to dream big and lead Suffolk into the future. Also included is a mixed-use residential historic rehabilitation that will stimulate new activity in the eastern half of downtown, to include the Phoenix Bank block.
The energy of entrepreneurs is palpable downtown, and if you haven’t joined us lately, come experience, see and taste what so many are talking about. The focus is a fusion of cultures, and here you can find it all.
I proudly serve as the chair of the Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission, and while the needs of the entire region are a top concern, I’m also extremely vocal about the needs of our city. I can’t remember when I’ve seen more orange cones and construction going on, as we know that in order to keep our economy moving, we’ve got to keep our people and our goods moving.
City staff also continue to seek out opportunities to fund infrastructure needs. As a result, the city has been successful in leveraging local dollars to obtain significant state and federal funding. We were also awarded $16.1 million in funding from VDOT for the Nansemond Parkway/Wilroy Road overpass from the Commonwealth Railway project to provide a long term permanent solution to the ongoing traffic and train conflict at this intersection.
More and more people are choosing to call Suffolk home, and we’ve seen the largest percentage increase in home sales in the region, growing by 8.6 percent over the previous year. We’re also ranked in the Top Ten when it comes to affordable housing in Virginia.
Our recreational opportunities are also continuing to expand and develop thanks to our nationally accredited Parks & Recreation Department. In the not-too-distant future is the highly anticipated Bennett’s Creek Recreation Center. Plans have already been completed for the renovation of the former U.S. Army Reserve Center the city obtained via a land exchange at that location, which will serve the densely populated northern growth area.
Our Lone Star Lakes Park, a true jewel in our city, will be enhanced with more trails, road improvements and the incorporation of an interpretive meeting space. A water access study as part of the Parks & Rec Master Plan is currently under way to explore ways we can provide our citizens with even more opportunities to enjoy our waterways, including multiple sites on the Nansemond as well as the Blackwater River.
We opened our first inclusive playground this fall at Lake Meade Park near downtown, which offers an inclusive experience for people with disabilities, their families and friends. Another such playground is in the works for the northern end of our city.
In Suffolk, when it comes to economic development, we’ve cultivated an environment that is ideal for growing a thriving business. Our continued success is rooted in carefully planned strategic growth and investment that helps us maintain a strong financial standard and sound foundation on behalf of our citizens. More exciting announcements are on the horizon.
Realizing opportunity is the name of the game in economic development, I’m pleased to see an opportunity realized at Obici Place. The site that sat vacant for a decade is now two-thirds complete in four short years. This development presented an opportunity to bring new to market residential and retail options to central Suffolk. Additionally, it has presented an opportunity to bring a use that has been of interest in the area for as long as I can remember. Our Economic Development Department and the Economic Development Authority are finalizing negotiations with Cinema Café for one of their amazing “dinner and a movie” concept theaters at Obici Place.
The exciting work also continues at The Point at Harbour View. We first shared with you last year preliminary news about this 55-acre mixed-use development off of Interstate 664 that the Suffolk Economic Development Authority is working on together with Gee’s Partners. This site also serves as the gateway to the amazing 300-acre former Tidewater Community College site that sits on the James River. The TCC Real Estate Foundation is making great strides as they continue to prepare this extraordinary, one-of-a-kind opportunity for development, and we are a partner in this initiative. The Suffolk City Council previously approved funding for the engineering of the 1.3 miles of shoreline in order to protect this irreplaceable asset from erosion as we plan for a future public space that will span the length of the entire waterfront.
As the mayor of Suffolk, I have the humbling opportunity to see and experience the many facets and interworking of my community and the people that make it all possible. I see the challenges, the struggles, the opportunities and the celebrations. And no matter the high or the low, I’m always left with the impression of the incredible human spirit that exists in our city. We all get the same 365 days every year. The only difference is what we do with them.
In closing, my fellow council members and I hope that this new year brings many opportunities your way to explore every joy of life, turn all your dreams into reality and all your efforts into great achievements. Happy New Year 2020!
Mayor Linda T. Johnson
Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett, Cypress Borough
Council Member Curtis R. Milteer Sr., Whaleyville Borough
Council Member Donald Goldberg, Suffolk Borough
Council Member Tim Johnson, Holy Neck Borough
Council Member Michael D. Duman, Chuckatuck Borough
Council Member Roger W. Fawcett, Sleepy Hole Borough
Council Member Lue R. Ward Jr., Nansemond Borough