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State of the City Address, "Rockville: The City That Energizes," Jan. 29, 2015

In his address to the country last week, President Obama said that “The State of the Union is Strong.” Well – there went my opening line.

But seriously - the State of the City of Rockville IS strong – and I would suggest that the reason our country is strong – the reason our state and our county are strong – is because our cities – and especially the City of Rockville - are Energy Centers for commerce, innovation, education and transportation.

Our cities are where it’s happening – where people are coming to live work and play – verbs – action - but more importantly – the very same vision that TCAT (the Town Center Action Team) decreed for Rockville’s future more than 20 years ago.

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Winter Meeting in Washington, DC. Talk about energy! Three hundred Mayors all together- you've never seen so many mobile devices in one setting. (I only had one - and I was in the distinct minority.)

On Thursday - Benjamin R. Barber – political theorist and author of “If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities.” – spoke about the importance of cities in today’s world.

“In the face of the most perilous challenges of our time – climate change, terrorism, poverty and trafficking of drugs, guns and people – the nations of the world seem paralyzed. The problems are too big, entrenched, and divisive for the nation state, ” said Barber.

“He asserts that cities offer the best new forces of good governance due to our reign as leaders of the global economy. More than half of the world’s population live in cities and those numbers are growing exponentially. Cities are the primary incubators of the cultural, social and political innovations shaping our planet. But most importantly - says Barber – cities are unburdened with the issues of borders and sovereignty which hobble the capacity of nation-states to work with one another.”

After listening to Mr. Barber – it’s clear that the City of Rockville is in a unique position. We are the County Seat. We work together – and work well - with surrounding jurisdictions like Gaithersburg, Montgomery College, MCPS, the County Council and District 17.

The word “together” can sometimes be part of an overused phrase – but in Rockville – partnerships are the future of our city.

Let me tell you about what helps to make this city such a vibrant partnership:

We work with local and state cities through MML – and on the national level we partner through the National League of Cities.

We support partners like the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department (who incidentally in a few short months will be putting into service a brand new fire engine – a Pierce Arrow Pumper. Councilmember Palakovich Carr and I saw a Pierce Arrow at the car show didn’t we?)

We partner with caregiver agencies such as Community Ministries of Rockville, InterfaithWorks, Manna Food Center, Stepping Stones Shelter and Montgomery Avenue Women’s Center to name just a few.

And Rockville organizations like Peerless, RHE and our fabulous community centers.

Thanks to the Rockville Chamber and REDI - we have a robust business community which in turn supports the Rockville community. And we have a strong network of neighborhoods – multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-generational.

We have embraced our diversity and our location - and we continually strive to be the best city that we can be.

Energy? We’ve got it. Let me show you where.

Let’s start with our finances: (and please don’t fall asleep - it won’t be long)

In FY 14 - Rockville repaid nearly $9 million of debt - and finished with reserves in excess of 22% of next year’s revenues.

We continue to receive AAA ratings from the bond agencies and we haven’t raised our property tax rate in seven years!

We have a robust Capital Improvement Program – constantly upgrading our infrastructure to ensure safe and reliable services.

We now have a strong Financial Advisory Board – citizen volunteers who are experts in their fields relating to finance – and who advise the Mayor and Council on financial matters.

Okay – the finance part is over – you can wake up now.

Which now brings me to volunteers – they never seem to sleep!

Rockville has over 1,000 volunteers – citizens donating their time to our city. We have volunteers at the Senior Center, volunteers serving on one of Rockville’s 27 Boards and Commissions, volunteers coaching sports teams, teaching ESOL classes – knitting hats for infants – the list goes on and on.

This past holiday season – the city’s Holiday Drive collected over $70,000 in food, cash, toys and gift cards and distributed Thanksgiving baskets to more than 500 Rockville households.

Community Ministries of Rockville delivered $25,000 worth of food baskets and gifts.

But it’s not just at holiday time that we show our compassion.

Every day volunteers drive people to appointments, tutor children in reading and math and help deal with bills and bureaucracy.

Mansfield Kaseman Health Clinic served 2,096 patients last year and individuals from around the area donated 1,585 volunteer hours. (And Clinic Chairman Jim Marrinan has proven that there are bigger and better opportunities after retiring from the Council.)

The kitchen at Jefferson House was completely renovated by volunteers from Clark Construction Group – six months of work done in a week!

Partnering with the Chamber on Rewards Cards allowed the city to leverage our money multiple times providing needed support to caregiver agencies.

And volunteers from Parks and Rec, the Environment Commission and neighborhood friends spent several Saturdays cleaning stream beds to protect our waterways to the bay.

Aristotle said: “The energy of the mind is the essence of life.”

I say that the energy of our citizens is the essence of our community.

And if you have any doubts about that – just watch this past Monday night's Council meeting. The backbone of our city is our neighborhood civic and HOA associations who give countless hours of their time and – in many cases their own dollars – prodding and advocating for a better community for all of us. Your Mayor and Council look forward to continuing to work with you and thank you for all of your energy. You energize us!

Please join me in thanking ALL of our volunteers who help to make us the compassionate community we are all proud to call home.

Rockville is fortunate to have an energized business community – due in large part to the efforts of REDI and the Chamber.

Rockville is home to the federally recognized Maryland Women’s Business Center - recently awarded a half million dollar 5 year contract from the Small Business Administration.

The Rockville Innovation Center continues to see companies grow and graduate making room for new start-ups.

We are a great Life Sciences location with a growth industry in cyber security, IT, and general technology.

Choice Hotels will open their flagship property – Cambria Suites this Spring - spurring additional business and personal travel activity in Town Center.

And most importantly – at 4.4% - the city continues to have the lowest unemployment rate in Maryland.

With all these benefits comes opportunity.

The Rockville Pike Plan is one of our biggest and most exciting opportunities to pave the way for Rockville’s future. No pun intended.

Recent testimony from our citizens and property owners – and recent action by the county and state re: Old Georgetown Road – speaks to the need to narrow our plan lest we discourage transit, bikes and all the good that will come from a walkable community. It also puts us at odds with our neighbors to our north and south.

We’re seeing more and more that people want to work where they live and live where they work – which encourages small neighborhoods to form in places we previously thought of as only a place to drive to – or drive through.

It seems counter-intuitive – I know – but the theory of “induced demand” proves that if you make streets bigger – there will be more cars. And when you make them smaller – with less traffic lanes– drivers find other methods – like transit or bikes or walking.

Rockville Pike is such a place. Who would have thought that Rockville Pike would become the next “best address” in Montgomery County? Move over Potomac – here comes the Pike Plan.

We are indebted to our Planning Staff and our volunteer Planning Commission for their tireless efforts to envision this transformation (and the 26 work sessions – who says we don’t have energy?).

These new neighborhoods – will be on the dividing lines of Rockville – (the Pike, the Marc Train and Metro) – and, with thoughtful planning – will be able to bridge the gap so to speak – to build a nexus between the east and west sides of our city.

And - as we discuss and debate the design and zoning for these new opportunities – we must give careful consideration to the impact these new neighborhoods will have on the existing and adjoining neighborhoods – and work to ensure that we create connectivity, parks and gathering spaces.

Speaking of connectivity - this past November – I was one of eight Mayors from throughout the country invited to attend the Mayor’s Institute of City Design in Tampa, Florida. Sponsored by the National Endowment of the Arts and the University of Florida – this opportunity for the city was incredible.

Director of Planning Jim Wasilak was instrumental in putting my ideas into action and I want to acknowledge and thank him again for his help.

Back in the 1990’s – The City of Rockville held a Visioning Process better known as Imagine Rockville. Through that came committees – the Environment Commission, Rockville Science Consortium, the Bicycle Advisory Committee for example. TCAT – the Town Center Action Team - held monthly meetings generally with 50-75 attendees. Honestly – it was an incredibly energized time in our city.

One of the ideas generated through TCAT - was undergrounding Rt. 355 at the Rockville Metro and creating an at grade plaza providing a safer and more inviting pedestrian experience – not just from the Metro – but connecting East Rockville and Lincoln Park to the Town Center.

This green space could also be the gathering space for Hometown Holidays, farmers markets, concerts.
Think of it as our own DuPont Circle!

Now – I can read your minds – some are saying “Too expensive”. Well – that’s what people said in 1957 when the Mayor and Council made the difficult but visionary decision to purchase the Lyon estate – now known as Rockville’s Civic Center Park with Glenview Mansion – and then three years later - they built our host tonight – the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre.

According to Rockville Historian Eileen McGuckian - “Rockville’s Civic Center proved to be the magnet Rockville’s citizens imagined it to be.”

Well – TCAT was also ahead of its time. Think about Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, the Big Dig in Boston, Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco and Harbor Drive in Portland.

Each of these projects have transformed – energized if you will – their city – spurring economic redevelopment, improving both environmental health and the quality of life for their citizens, businesses and visitors.

The second idea I brought to MICD - was to turn the blighted MCPS property along Stonestreet into a row of townhouses with owner-occupied mixed income housing. How long have those tractor trailers been sitting there filled with old desks and outdated books? At least 30 years.

I envision brownstones fronting Stonestreet with garages and yards behind - adding needed and valuable housing and creating a more comfortable and pleasant walk from the neighborhoods to the Metro and Town Center.

One of the Mayor and Council’s priorities is creating more affordable housing and last year I joined The Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. We have an opportunity to put together a public private partnership – and a partnership like this could help to accomplish that goal by revitalizing properties like the MCPS trailer park and creating owner occupied mixed income housing.

Revitalizing, creating economic incentives and opportunities - and energizing. Joining together to enact one of our priorities.

Good development is also at the cornerstone of creating and preserving an energized city. Monday night's three plus hour Public Hearing – the second one I might add – brought out over 80 people. And though the Council may have been lacking in energy the next morning – we heard loud and clear from both sides of the issue - that while people want a vibrant city – they don’t want to further overburden our schools.

I’m going to suggest that we harness that energy and the brilliant minds in Rockville to come up with alternative ways to solve our overcrowding problem. Is it using some of the two million square feet of vacant county office space? Is it requiring developers to pay a more realistic cost of that seat in the classroom? Is it moving boundaries? Or is it going to Annapolis with our county colleagues and delegation and negotiating a way to get our fair share?

I suspect it will be a combination of efforts. In the meantime – we thank the county for proceeding with RMES #5 and renovating Julius West Middle School.

As a city, as a county as a state – we own this problem. Where Rockville goes – there goes the county. And where the county goes – there goes Maryland.

We know that we are the economic engine of Maryland and we can’t rely on the past success of our schools, our neighborhoods or our businesses.

We have to use our intellectual and creative energies to find solutions so that we can continue to grow in careful, measured and sustainable ways. Just like any living thing – if we stop learning – improving – growing – we will die.

The City of Rockville has a strong foundation – our developers will certainly tell you that - remember - we’re built on rocks.

But stronger than rocks– we’ve had great leaders – Mayors and Councilmembers, city staff, Board and Commission members and our very active community members –partners all - who have had the foresight and initiative to lay the foundation for the City That Energizes.

The other day as I was reflecting on what I wanted to say tonight - I reread my speech from our inauguration. At times that day seems like a lifetime ago – and at others only yesterday. (Right?)

I got to thinking about all the energy we are putting into our city – working together to make things better.

And if you know how my mind leaps from one thought to another – you can imagine how I was reminded that Warren Buffett recently purchased Duracell – the company known for its Energizer Bunny.

Well – Mr. Buffett – if you’re thinking of buying Rockville – you’ll need a lot more money if you want to catch the energy in our city.

I’ve said it before - and I still believe – Together We Can Do Great Things.

If we put our energies towards creating a sustainable city for the future – we will leave a legacy for those that follow.
We will leave a city that leads –

a City that ROCKS -

and a City that ENERGIZES!

Thank you all for coming.

Please stay to mingle and chat.

Drive safely, stay warm and may God Bless the City of Rockville.