AKRON, OH (WOIO) - Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic delivered his State of the City address Friday.
Below is the mayor's speech as it was prepared:
This year's State of the City is again co-sponsored by the Akron Press Club, the Akron Roundtable, the Kiwanis Club, the Rotary Club and the Greater Akron Chamber. My thanks to these organizations for working together to host this event. My special thanks to the staff of the Chamber for making the arrangements for today's program.
I'd like to apologize to all of you for this raspy voice. I came down with the flu bug yesterday, and rather than passing it on, I won't be shaking hands today.
I'm not going to use this forum to make what could be described as a political announcement. I may give hints along the way, and overall – I intend to keep my talents here in Akron.
By the way, I know that from the applause Russ Pry got in his State of the County speech last week – when he mentioned Akron's prodigal son, I just want to state clearly – Welcome Home, LeBron.
Although I tell people from around the country that he never really left Akron. He continues to give back, and I thank him for not only being the best basketball player in the world, but also for being a role model by continuing to inspire and support Akron's public school children
My flu bug is fitting- emblematic of the last couple of years, during which I've had four operations, and yet, I'm still here, still working. Actually, 10 days after I had major back surgery, I did a 12-hour day. And I'm still confident, not only about the present state of our city, but I'm enthusiastic about our future. But only if we do the things necessary to make ourselves better.
In much the same way, I can dance and move around because I had a major procedure that was unheard of ten years ago—we have to try new things to survive and thrive in the future.
And the future is what I really want to concentrate on, because last week, Russ Pry took credit for all the good things that happened in the whole county in 2014 – new jobs, new business, new housing. If you were here and listened to Russ' speech, he even took credit for ridding the world of Ebola.
Russ also thanked everyone else last week. But there may be a few of you here who were NOT thanked by Russ, so if he didn't get to you—you probably deserve a thank you… feel free to stand up now, and take a bow for all the good work you've done for Akron.
I too have so many people who are responsible for our successes, I can't possibly thank all of them, but I want to acknowledge the members of my family who are here today. Their support has been important to me over the last 41 years.
With good friends like Russ Pry, Garry Moneypenney and the good city council members who are here today, and so many people from so many organizations –they have all helped make a collaborative community even better. I thank all of you.
We have placed at your tables a brochure outlining all the achievements of our city departments in 2014. It's pretty impressive… especially when you consider that we received 34-million dollars less per year in 2014 than we did in 1981 from the state and federal government.
One more thing about my friend Russ. He helped me teach a class at the Bliss Institute—it was really our attempt to pass on some of the lessons we've learned over these many years to a younger generation. I also compliment his staff on scheduling his speech before St. Patrick's Day –he actually got to enjoy it!
But my staff has given me even better advice. Based on the coverage the Beacon gave Russ last week, they've said if I were to wear this—
I'd be guaranteed to get my picture on the front page.
I did talk to Betty Lin Fisher about the article on Leadership. I agree, we need to stress diversity in all of our institutions, whether it be government, private business, or non- profit organizations. To that end, I want you to meet my cabinet, and I'd like to ask them to stand.
They are some of the hardest working people in the city, and every week, I ask them to go above and beyond their normal duties to take care of the residents and businesses of Akron.
I put this truly diverse group of people in the room because I want to hear their opinions.
I also want to thank our city employees because they perform quality work, often with resources that are stretched, and they genuinely care about the citizens of Akron.
Something that every community must look at all the time – is how to replenish the supply of leaders. Just in the last year, we saw the retirements of Luis Proenza, Tom Strauss, Tony Alexander, and soon, Bob Kulinski of United Way and Keith Shy of Metroparks.
There have been other big changes too: for Tim Stover the CEO of Akron General and Tom Malone, the new CEO of Summa. I do want to thank Bill Considine for hanging-in there, even though he's a little over 39.
Incidentally, after last year's speech, some are probably wondering if I'm going to say anything about the medical community. I'm only going to say, "Remember: I told you so."
While changes in health care are coming at all our institutions fast and furious, it may not be so obvious that another of our major corporate citizens is also facing challenges as utility issues confront us nationally. This will be true for Chuck Jones, the CEO of First Energy, and I want him to know that as one of our largest employers, and downtown's largest employer—I look forward to working with him.
I really don't like talking about the past. Yes, we had significant accomplishments last year in the city, but I also know how many things we have yet to do, how many challenges remain. Others may attack me from time to time, but I have to tell you that I'm my own toughest critic.
So let me do what I like best, talking about the future.
As a new mayor 28 years ago – I realized that the question "How much will this cost?" was sometimes not as important as the question, "What is the cost of doing nothing?"
And I've always loved the question from the old TV commercial, "What if".
What if we had a state government that helped cities instead of hurting them?
The Brookings Institute did a study that showed that the Ohio legislature is worse in their treatment of cities than any other state.
Maybe the governor should look to Oklahoma or Nebraska rather than the disastrous tax cutting in Kansas to know how to deal with cities.
I've made a joke in earlier state of the city speeches that I don't want to be North Mississippi… but even Mississippi has passed us in many important areas.
What If we had a federal government that paid half the cost of all of the mandates—that would force Congress to make better decisions about using taxpayers' money.
What If folks in Washington and Columbus stopped fibbing to our people, and started telling them that you get what you pay for. While they cut taxes, our infrastructure is literally falling apart; we don't provide the level of education our youth need to get jobs of the future. This current generation of Millennials will be paying the debt mostly for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, long after we are gone.
Those questions are more pie-in-the-sky, so let me ask REAL questions.
WHAT IF we made advanced training during high school in electronics, trades & construction or the first two years of college available for every graduate of an Akron high school?
I failed to establish the kind of endowment fund I'd hoped for, just as they have in Kalamazoo Michigan and other communities to guarantee training past high school for all students. And quite frankly, I will never forgive myself for not getting that done, by allowing two selfish individuals, who had free college themselves, to undermine our efforts.
But I'm not done. I believe we are closing-in on a way to fund college scholarships for our kids, but today, I can't fully describe the plan that I've continued to work on, to provide additional opportunities for our students.
I do totally support David James' effort to offer more college level courses in Akron high schools, in familiar surroundings with their peers, to give them confidence to go to the University and succeed .He is also working to bring advanced courses in the trades, manufacturing, electronics and technology, so that everyone has an opportunity.
I've spoken on this many times -- we need to up the bar—to provide at least two years of college or technical training for every student. Not out of the kindness of our hearts, but because that's what it takes to get a decent job.
WHAT IF we went around our governor, and established a high speed light rail link to Cleveland?
Twelve hours after winning office, Gov. John Kasich announced that "Passenger rail is not in Ohio's future… That train is dead, "referring to the $400 million federally subsidized project to restore passenger rail between Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland.
The same thing happened in Florida, when Governor Rick Scott rejected over a billion dollars in funds to build high speed rail. Former transportation Secretary Ray LaHood redirected $2 billion to 22 projects in 15 other states.
What if two communities could see high speed rail as a link to a future system?
An investment in a rail link would connect Akron and Cleveland, and solidly place us favorably on the route between Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati for the rest of time.
And it makes sense because it's our history, too. We are standing here today because of the Ohio & Erie Canal—and the first link was between Akron and Cleveland.
Cleveland would get benefits, and we would as well. People in Cleveland might actually think that Akron is in Ohio instead of northern Kentucky.
I have talked with Richard Enty, Metro's General Manager, and we agree that we need to look at the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium plan, especially the Vibrant NEO 2040 that recommends rail service in northeast Ohio.
What If we adequately supported a fund to increase our opportunity to attract and support start-ups?
I appreciate the attention that the editorial page editor of the Beacon Journal Michael Douglas gave to this subject this past Sunday. He highlighted the work of Robert Anthony, director of entrepreneurial services and life sciences for the Biomedical Corridor.
Bob has been tasked with finding new funding for the Akron BioInvestments Fund that we began in 2012. It's a pool of money to support startups. In my state of the city address that year, I announced that Medical Mutual and FirstEnergy contributed the bulk of 1.5 million dollars that has now been re-invested in the community.
As Douglas said, raising $10 million would send a defining signal that Akron means what it says about backing and nurturing the right startups.
Cincinnati has invested $23 million in 54 startups, which has leveraged almost $500 million from venture capital firms, angel investors and the Third Frontier program.
And a key player in that effort has been the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, which looked at the impact of the 2008 recession and chose to invest in job creation.
Our foundations have done a tremendous job of supporting worthwhile projects in the community, but I believe they need to continue their recent examination of the economic underpinnings of Akron - -to help lead the way to a sustainable future
A replenished BioInvestments Funds is part of attracting and retaining talent, and enhancing our existing strength in biomaterials.
This has been another year of growth and achievement for the City's Global Business Accelerator at Canal Place…. where international companies can have a "soft landing in the United States as they develop plans to expand into US and worldwide markets.
In 2014, the Accelerator again set new records assisting 38 companies:
• in raising almost 13 million dollars in investment,
• generating sales of almost 30 million dollars, and
• producing 20 million dollars in payroll for 446 jobs, 106 of them newly created in 2014.
The Accelerator opened The Bit Factory software accelerator with help from a grant from the Burton Morgan foundation. It provides guidance to software startups by mentoring from successful entrepreneurs with a high level of technical expertise.
Last year in this speech, I announced that we would create a new program called Bits and Atoms where people can come and make or create new products for the market place. Anthony Margida, CEO of our award-winning Accelerator developed the plan even before we saw a similar facility in Omaha called, Maker Place, to assist young, bright, potential inventors.
In 2014, we received a 2.5 million dollar state grant, and also received 2 million dollars from the Commerce Department's Economic Development Administration.
The Center will include a state-of-the-art maker facility – the latest technology so that individuals can become a member, pay a modest fee, and use state of the art CAD equipment to design products that they can then prototype on a 3-D printer. In the past, this process would not only take months or years… but also require a big investment and mold-makers, casters, extruders and others to produce a single prototype. At the Bits and Atoms Center, one person, working on their own conceivably—could do it all on their own.
We hope to open this facility – at a location soon to be decided -- in 2016.
And people who have talent in the arts, and creative skills also need to be included. I've spoken with Art Museum CEO Mark Masuoka about bringing an element of the visual arts to the Bits and Atoms Center, so that engineers who are focused on technical details get the benefit of interacting with artists.
Joe Kanfer, the CEO of GOJO, also believes that we need to place people from different industries together—so that a team working on a health care issue might get the benefit of cross-pollination by having a team working on tire tread design look at their project. They might come up with an approach they never would have come up with on their own.
Another effort we have finalized is based on our work in attracting international companies that have found Akron to be a nurturing place to focus on another of our strengths: Water. Through some great forward-thinking by some of our younger managers, Jeff Bronowski who runs our water plant and Brian Gresser who runs our Water Reclamation Facility. They have created the Akron Global Water Alliance, or AGWA, and we made the announcement several weeks ago that 5 Israeli companies are coming to Akron, and I want to compliment them.
WHAT IF we could be a leader in race relations again?
In the future, we need to re-establish the kind of dialogue on race that Akron was once praised for. It's been 17 years since President Bill Clinton came to E-J Thomas hall and conducted his First Town Meeting on Race.
Events of the past year demonstrate that this remains a topic that we need to address.
I was privileged to be invited to participate in the events at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama to commemorate the moment when the struggle for civil rights really jolted us, and called out to the residents of the north as well as the South. Being in that church was an unbelievable emotional experience. The bombing was an act of pure hatred, terrorism. On a Sunday, September 15, 1963, members of the Ku Klux Klan planted 15 sticks of dynamite attached to a timing device beneath the front steps of the church, killing four little girls and injuring 22 others.
To be asked to moderate a session was an honor for me personally, and then last July, the president of the National Urban League Marc Morial asked me to participate on a panel at their national convention to discuss underemployment, education, technology and innovation. Akron, working with Fred Wright at the Urban League, is recognized nationally for our work in this area.
What 2014 has said to us—is that we still have a long way to go when we examine racial bias in the context of police and community relations. While we have done a lot in this area, we can also do more. I've asked assistant police chief Charles Brown to work with Birmingham to follow up with an offer that a friend of mine, Mayor William Bell made to me—to bring in their police training program on diversity, to help ease conflict between African Americans and our police officers.
My job is hard every day, but there is no moment in my life that is harder than getting a message that an Akron police officer or firefighter has been injured while serving this city.
Such was the case last November 16, when Police Officer Justin Winebrenner was shot and killed while confronting an armed subject at approximately 2:00 am on East Market Street. A patron became disorderly and was ejected from the business, and returned, brandishing a handgun at the staff and customers. Officer Winebrenner and others confronted the man who opened fire.
I know my reputation in the police department is being tough on the few bad cops, who poorly represent the outstanding department, and that I admit I've been as tough as any mayor in demanding professional conduct.
But when a Justin Winebrenner, when any police officer does his or her job properly, and employs the training that citizens provide, then it is our duty, our obligation, to stand with the men and women who put their lives on the line to serve and protect us.
Because of that dedicated service, I want to honor and thank the members of our safety forces today.
Under the leadership of Police Chief Jim Nice, crime rates have gone down the last two years, and we've done that with the lowest number of police officers in decades. It is worth noting that for the second straight year, Akron Police have been extremely successful in solving and closing over 90 percent of the homicide cases, well over the national average sixty-seven percent, and all of the arrests in these cases have resulted in convictions.
The Akron Fire Department responded to 36,000 calls requiring an EMS response
Former chief Rob Ross, now my Director of Public Safety and Fire Chief Ed Hildebrand struggled for over 11 years, trying to keep this department working properly despite a federal judge who has thrown every obstacle he could in a case filed by a small group of greedy firefighters, some of whom never passed a test, but were ordered to be promoted over people who did pass the test, including minorities.
Later today, on the first day legally possible, I will promote one deputy chief and ten district chiefs. We held a special meeting two days ago of the Civil Service Commission, to procedurally allow for the finalization of a list for promotions…from the first actual examination we've been permitted to give in twelve years. We will wait until Monday to see if we get the ok from the union on my proposal to promote lieutenants. The citizens of Akron need to know that I have personally met with three union presidents to propose solutions to this maddening case, because we are bound by state law to negotiate with the unions. I appreciate presidents Russ Brode and Jim Knafel before him, when union members actually voted to turn down one of my proposals. If the latest proposal is rejected, I will assure you that I am looking at whatever emergency powers I have, to move forward with much-needed promotions.
You also need to know that it is an absolute lie that I have delayed promotions for monetary reasons, and it is also a lie that I haven't tried every way to settle this so that we can promote.
But I will not voluntarily give up the right for the fire chief to run the department, nor will I voluntarily agree to give out an unearned windfall of hundreds of thousands of dollars to a small group of greedy individuals, who because of their greed, and a spiteful, bitter judge, have screwed up a well-run fire department for over 11 years.
WHAT IF we could organize a construction company owned and operated by the city to make sure our citizens get the jobs they deserve, and assure competition where there isn't any now?
This is a suggestion I have proposed to city council, for one basic reason. One Billion dollars is being spent on addressing our combined sewer overflows, and what we are trying to make certain is that the residents who are paying the bills, benefit by having them do the work.
By the way, Richard Enty pointed out that the city of Los Angeles did something similar 25 years ago with its subway project.
I refuse to accept the recent suggestion by certain city council members that since we tried something new once, and it didn't completely work…therefore, we should not ever try anything new again.
We can train our residents for jobs, and I need to thank Fred Wright, Malcolm Costa, Glen Stephens, Pat Darrow, George Johnson and all of the unions and other people who have helped in the training of individuals so far.
I also do not accept the suggestion of that councilman that our public workers do not provide the quality and performance as the private sector. Some of the most dedicated, hard-working people are on our payroll.
And consider this: We had 3,400 full-time city employees in 1981. Today, 1,850 doing the same jobs successfully for the taxpayers of Akron.
And yes, occasionally a city employee may get into trouble…just like the one or two at the company you work for. But ours always end up on the front page. We are under increased scrutiny as a public institution —as we should be – but to use the actions of a few to paint all city workers is unfair.
There's another argument that these naysayers have brought back into the discussion.
That we are just the government—and they are the business sector, .and we should just stick to our job and butt out where private industry is already working.
Thank God we didn't listen to the same arguments during my early years on city council. Back then, Akron had private ambulance companies. Half of them were owned by funeral homes… and I want you to think about THAT conflict of interest!
A mother who lost her daughter in an accident believed her child could have survived if only she had received proper emergency medical treatment by the first responders.
I wasn't Mayor. I was Public Safety chair of Council, and listened intently to information about ambulance company workers who had no training, and realized that if the City took over, and could actually treat at the scene, and transport to the hospital, we could save thousands of lives in the future. And that's exactly what we did.
But we didn't look at it as: business over here, and government over there.
We created an Emergency Medical Service system within our Fire Department, and cities from around the country came to Akron to see what we did to try and duplicate the service in their own towns.
We started with only 3 ambulances, and now we have them at every fire station in the city, and all firefighters are trained as full paramedics.
And I'm sure you'll agree. Thank God that we didn't listen to the same exact arguments always made by people against change—that you're the government and you shouldn't do anything.
There are times we need to look at things differently.
What I'm trying to do with this construction company is create competition.
We have one major concrete company in this city. I don't want them to dictate terms or go through the games that have already been played, arbitrarily deciding that they aren't going to deliver concrete.
I'm trying to take control of a situation, just as Chief Carl Best and Chief Jim Harris did, going through all the aggravation, and yes the liability and extra work of adding EMS to the fire department.
The line between the Public sector and private sector has been blurred for some time.
We had our heads in the sand—and I'm being kind – while governments down South gave incentives to rubber companies to move jobs there. That sure sounds like a developer. And remember, our rubber shops didn't go to China or Mexico—they went to southern states where government offered incentives – land or buildings, and that sure sounds like private business.
Since I've become Mayor we can point to numerous partnerships that have been successful marriages between government and business:
• Our Industrial Incubator, now our Global Business Accelerator
• Akron's Industrial parks
• Our Land banking program
• Our Joint Economic Development Districts.
In fact, we started another kind of construction company years ago when we established the Urban Neighborhood Development Corporation to build housing in the city, when no private company was building housing in Akron.
I believe we can create the competition needed, and I definitely know we can train people in Akron to perform these jobs using our own dollars. And we will always be judged by comparing our costs and benefits to projects done in the private sector.
What if we could actually incorporate our younger generation in a REAL life process to plan our future, and help prepare them for leadership roles?
In looking at how to include young people in leadership roles, I give our community credit for starting Leadership Akron and supporting young professional groups. Now some – in a political way - might put 20 year olds at the table as window dressing.
Some – in an irresponsible way, might hand over the keys, and get out of the way—as some 20-year old know-it-alls, might wish.
But what if we asked a responsible group to help develop the actual plan for the future and then implement it?
That's my idea, and that's why I have had a preliminary meeting with the leadership of the Torchbearers -- an affiliate of Leadership Akron – to ask them to be the lead organization, to take the original Imagine.Akron:2025 report that was completed in 2000, evaluate it, analyze it, and then using that as a foundation, devise their own plan for the next 10 years and most importantly, help lead the implementation of that plan. The 28 year olds will be 38 in 2025. The 30-somethings will be in their 40's, and hopefully will be more prepared for leadership having gone through a thoughtful process of developing a plan with goals and objectives. And during that 10 year period, the people who want to do the work—the real do-ers, and therefore the real leaders – will surface.
In my initial discussions with Torchbearers president Craig Horbus and vice president Nicole Mullett as well as Kyle Kutuchief of Knight Foundation and Mark Scheffler of Leadership Akron, I have said that they need to be inclusive – you know 40-50 year olds. And use some of us older folks and other community resources while we are still here to help them.
Now I have not personally picked the leadership of the Torchbearers, nor will I in the future. And their decisions will be their own, especially on what kind of community Akron will be in 2025 and how to get there. A real life project. With real life consequences, yes.
But I have confidence that while they may make a few mistakes along the way, the outcome will be a better Akron, and that's what I've spent almost my entire adult life trying to create.
I should thank Steve Hoffman for writing a few years ago, a line that I've used to describe the naysayers—"a small group of dissidents, who have spread an astonishing array of half-truths, exaggerations, and outright lies."
That's a quote from him. So I don't have to say that they are a group of _____.
But just this week he wrote that I have "a lot of irons in the fire."
We are taking on a tremendous number of challenges. A close friend of mine asked me recently, Why at your age – and yes, I was ticked off at him – why at your age are you doing these training programs, talking about starting a construction company, and taking on a federal judge?
Ladies and gentlemen, it's the same reason I'm here today. Not talking about the successes we've had but the hopes and plans, and yes—maybe even some dreams of a bright future. Because probably until the day I die, I will have been thankful for the opportunity I have had to serve this city, and will always work to make it better.