2015 State of the City Address

Presented by Mayor William D. Sessoms, Jr.
Wednesday, March 4, 2015, Virginia Beach Convention Center
​​“Bringing it Home to You!”

Good afternoon.  Thanks, Linwood, for your kind words, and thanks to each and every one of you for coming to this signature event.Throughout the year, the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce helps businesses succeed — driving regional economic growth and enhancing OUR quality of life.  I thank the Chamber leadership for all that you do to help ensure a pro-business environment… to strengthen our economy… and to enhance the success, growth and vitality of your members. I’d also like to thank today’s sponsors for organizing and supporting this annual event.

Last but not least, I’d like to thank The Sessoms Family, including my lovely wife, Bev; our three daughters, Mollie, Kate and Anne Douglas; our granddaughters, Madie and Willie; our sons-in-law, Kyle and Fred; my sister, Barbara; and my Mom for all the support and encouragement you give me on a daily basis.  I am blessed to have you in my life.

We are all blessed to live here in Coastal Virginia, and I’ll tell you one reason why….  We have a legacy given to us by the First English Settlers.  In April 1607, they landed at Cape Henry — about seven miles from here where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean.  When they first set foot on our shores at the site we know today as Fort Story, they found a vast wilderness that provided both abundant natural resources, and significant challenges to their survival — challenges that would last for years.  Yet they faced their challenges head-on. They persisted, they survived and, ultimately, they thrived.

Those colonists are still recognized today for their entrepreneurial spirit, their closeness to the earth, and their respect for community. 

That spirit is alive and thriving — right here, right now.  It has sustained Americans for centuries.  And it will continue to sustain us, but only if we face our challenges head-on — just like the First Settlers.

Last year, I shared a vision — a 2020 Vision — with four ambitious initiatives:

  1. The Arena
  2. Light Rail
  3. Advancing Virginia Beach as an international destination.
  4. And establishing Virginia Beach as a destination for groundbreaking research and development, and headquarters of some of the world’s leading innovators in healthcare, bio-technology, pharmaceutical development, and healthcare delivery systems.

Last year, I asked you to hold me accountable, and today, I’m pleased to report to you that we are on the right track to bringing this vision home to you by the year 2020. 

We are the largest market in the nation without a large arena, but today, we are well on our way.  On December Ninth, the Virginia Beach City Council unanimously gave the ar​ena a green light, and the City staff is now putting the finishing touches on a comprehensive development agreement.  Construction will begin this fall.  What a game-changer it will be for this region to have an iconic, world-class entertainment and sports arena right across the street from this convention center.

Would all members of the United States Management team, including The ESG Companies, CMEC, Mortenson Construction, SB Ballard Construction Company, AECOM, Clark Nexsen, and SMG, please stand….

You are entrepreneurial giants who turn grand visions into grand realities.  Thank you for your enterprising spirit and your visionary leadership, and thanks to Eddie Garcia and the entire United States Management team for your confidence and investment in our community.

The $200 million dollar Arena will draw top-rated acts — performances that currently bypass Coastal Virginia.  We will enjoy spectacular events, and tourists will have new reasons to visit our vibrant city, and enjoy our restaurants, hotels and attractions.  More tourists.  More jobs. New opportunities. New revenue streams.  That’s what the Virginia Beach Arena is all about, and we’re working to bring it home to you.

I thank the General Assembly for creating the Hampton Roads Transportation Accountability Commission, which allows “we, the people” of this region to determine where funds generated by new revenue sources established by the 2013 General Assembly will be spent.  Will Chesapeake Mayor Alan Krasnoff please stand?...

Alan, I’d like to thank you for your dynamic leadership as chairman of this new authority.  Already, projects that were dreams — including I-64/264 interchange improvements; the expansion of I-64 on the Peninsula and in Chesapeake; new crossings of Hampton Roads; and other projects chosen by our region… are on their way to becoming realities.  Also, many thanks to our delegation for your robust support of this effort.

It’s fair to say that we all agree about the need to build a comprehensive transportation system — one that will offer the world greater access to Coastal Virginia — by land, by road, and by air.…a system that will also give us better access to the world. 

As for Light Rail, it’s not a question of “IF”….  Light Rail MUST be a part of this system. 

I’ll be the first to admit that the quest for light rail has been a painfully slow process.  After all, it’s been seven years — seven years — since the General Assembly directed Hampton Roads Transit to study expanding light rail into Virginia Beach.  And it’s been more than two years since 63 percent of 185,000 Virginia Beach residents voted on the referendum — giving the go-ahead to pursue this very reliable, convenient, safe and environmentally clean mode of transportation.  

Every time I meet with members of the business community and with residents on the south side of Coastal Virginia, I’m asked:  “What’s the status of light rail?”  I will be leading the charge and urging every member of the Virginia Beach City Council to bring it home to you.  I’m confident that when it comes to a vote — as early as this Spring — the Virginia Beach City Council will endorse extending light rail to Town Center and, eventually, beyond.  That vote will authorize the city and HRT to proceed with the design for the project, complete the environmental impact statement, and learn the actual cost — putting us in a better position to make a sound decision. 

Let’s not limit our thinking on light rail — it’s more than a transportation issue.  Today’s young adults are not like my generation.  Many of them don’t want a mortgage, and they are not buying houses as soon or as frequently as we did.  They don’t necessarily want to drive everywhere.  If we really want our children and grandchildren to stay in Virginia Beach when they become adults, we must create a sustainable community that supports the lifestyle of future generations.

Time won’t stand still, and neither can we.  Moving forward, the success of Virginia Beach will depend on strategic planning, and strategic planning spurs strategic development. 

Look what's happening around Town Center.  Pembroke Mall is getting its second wind, and we look forward to the grand openings of Nordstrom Rack; an REI outdoor adventure store; Designer Shoe Warehouse; and Uptown Alley, which is a high-tech bowling hotspot.  Fresh Market will soon be added to that list.

Time won’t stand still, and neither can we. 

Imagine that kind of development blossoming in all of our strategic growth areas.  Imagine that kind of development popping up ALL along our light rail line…. Because our greenfield land is just about depleted, our redevelopment strategies have focused on strategic growth areas, and 75 percent of those are right along what will be our light rail line.  It will jump-start significant development in our Strategic Growth Areas.

Time won’t stand still, and neither can we. 

I’d like to thank Governor Terry McAuliffe and Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne for their $155 million dollar commitment to get the wheels turning.  These funds will vanish if we do not use them to advance light rail in Virginia Beach now, so please — let’s get the trains on the track and support our efforts to bring it home to you.

Another painfully slow process is the quest to establish Coastal Virginia as an international destination... with a truly international airport… that has direct flights to major cities throughout our nation and the world.  Norfolk Mayor Fraim and I continue to explore the possibilities, and we continue to meet with obstacles.  The number of passengers who have taken off or landed at both of our airports — in Norfolk and in Newport News — has dwindled.

Clearly, it’s time to seriously analyze our options for the future.  So Mayor Fraim and I are asking Bryan Stephens, President & CEO of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce; and Ira Agricola, Executive Vice President for Government Affairs at the Chamber… to establish a committee to evaluate and make recommendations on how the region can best achieve a world-class air transportation system for Coastal Virginia.  Please know that we’re working to bring it home to you.

At last year’s State of the City Luncheon, I announced the creation of a task force to work with the Virginia Beach City Council and develop a plan for a Biomedical and Healthcare hub in the Princess Anne Commons area of Virginia Beach… because it’s time for us, Coastal Virginia, to emerge as the capital of healthcare innovation in Virginia.  Tom Frantz, CEO and chairman of Williams Mullen and a highly effective community leader, agreed to head this panel, and he asked Lifenet Health CEO Rony Thomas to come on board as co-chair.

This is a tremendous opportunity, and this dynamic task force has set it all in motion and put it on the fast track.  Biomedical and Healthcare experts and educators from Coastal Virginia to Richmond have stepped right up to join forces.  Even a private equity firm is a part of the core team, and due to overwhelming interest, a second group of industry leaders is now serving in an advisory capacity to the task force.

Will Tom, Rony and the entire Biomedical and Healthcare Task Force and the Advisory Group please stand. 

Diabetes; Cardiovascular Disease; Neuroscience; and Traumatic Brain and Wounded Warrior Injuries…. We are all impacted by at least one of these — either directly or indirectly.  And thanks to the work of our Biomedical and Healthcare Task Force, we are going to be part of the solution, while diversifying and expanding our economy at the same time.

Just last month, the City Council received a consultant’s market assessment and report that offers three powerful recommendations that will empower us to bring it home to you:

One - The region — from Virginia Beach to Richmond — should enhance efforts to establish companies right here, in order to generate long-term, sustainable benefits… in order to diversify and grow the overall economy… and in order to create high-paying jobs.

Two – An enhanced focus on researchers who can create translational research — the kind that generates groundbreaking discoveries that can be commercialized.

Three – We should establish a public-private organization to “prime the pump” and help grow our new life science and biomedical cluster.  We’ve already asked the General Assembly to provide us with start-up funds to establish this regional organization, and hire its first CEO.  And I will ask the City Council to match these funds in our upcoming budget.

The Task Force has completed Phase One of its mission. As a city and region, we now need to move on to implementing these recommendations.  As part of this, I will ask my colleagues on the City Council to transfer 155 acres of City-owned property on Princess Anne Road to the Virginia Beach Development Authority.  This will allow us to move forward in the planning and development of a new bio-related business park… so that we can provide researchers and businesses a place to grow.  This initiative will complement the investments made by Sentara, Bon Secours, CHKD, and Operation Smile.

It’s time to stop talking about how disappointed we are that our young people graduate from college and seek well-paying jobs in other cities… because there aren’t comparable opportunities here at home.  We must all step up — in the local, state and private sectors — so that we can stop talking and make this happen. 

Last year, I asked you to hold me accountable.  The members of the Task Force have worked very hard and now, we ALL have to hold ourselves accountable. 

Ladies and gentleman – I am very excited about the arena.  I’m very excited about light rail.  However this is the answer….  This is the BIG one to focus on… for our children and our grandchildren.  For decades, our economy has been based on a three-legged stool featuring tourism, defense and agriculture.  It’s time to create a fourth leg for that stool, and this is it.  This will give birth to our new economy.   This vision will help transform our future.

Every facet of our 2020 Vision is designed to bring long-term and sustainable prosperity to Virginia Beach and Coastal Virginia.  But let’s not lose sight of great things that are happening all around us now.

State of the City Video Presentation

​​ Did you notice that Housing Resource Center in the video?

The City of Virginia Beach has already designated $29 million dollars to build the center, which will become the portal of solutions for homeless people in Virginia Beach, and a BIG enhancement to our efforts to end homelessness.  It’s a model that we know can work, as the Union Mission model has worked in Norfolk….  It will help homeless people get housing, and it will help reduce the impact of homelessness at the Oceanfront.

The City’s dedication of funding is an amazing start and demonstrates our commitment.  I want you to also know about additional efforts, and I’d like to start by asking Pastor Ray Bjorkman of Beach Fellowship; Pastor Michael Daniels of Enoch Baptist Church; and Pastor Steve Kelly of the Wave Church to please stand….

Ray has been a tireless volunteer for more than five years — helping form the BEACH Community partnership that is the foundation of our community’s efforts.  And these three pastors have joined forces to form a non-profit organization to raise a minimum of one million dollars to eradicate homelessness in our city.  Thank you, pastors, for leading the charge.

Today, I am calling upon each of you to support this solution to homelessness… so that we can deliver everything we need beyond what the City alone can provide.

Together, let’s enhance Virginia Beach’s reputation as an innovative city capable of solving its problems through partnerships.  Please review the packets that you’ve been provided and make a pledge in support of this noble effort.

The video also featured many economic development projects….  Our Economic Development Department is out there every day — working with businesses of all shapes and sizes, to improve the sustainability of our City.

Let’s take a look at what our friends at GEICO are doing.  Just this year, GEICO has seen significant growth in their workforce, which now represent over 2,800 associates that are attracted to not only a first-class company, but also to a first-class city.  This next generation of employees for the second largest insurance company in the U.S. will become an important asset to the future of our community. 

In terms of strategic planning, we recently announced Canada Metal Pacific’s decision to locate their U.S. headquarters here in Virginia Beach… in an effort to expand their growing footprint, and to service their U.S. consumer market in the marine and defense industries — once again benefitting from our superior workforce, business-friendly climate, and strategic access to their customer base.

Today, I am happy to announce the decision by another international company to call Virginia Beach “home.”  The French-owned Haulotte North America will move its U.S. headquarters to Virginia Beach this summer. 

Recognizing that our superior location close to the Port of Virginia will reduce their cost of operations and improve service to their customers, Haulotte North America plans to create 67 new jobs with an average annual salary of $70,000 dollars. 

Would Claude Fuger, CEO; and Cyrus Copenhaver, Vice President; and Mike Garavaglia, CFO please stand and let us welcome you to Virginia Beach.

With this addition to our business community, I am pleased to announce that more than 1,200 jobs have been created thus far in Virginia Beach since July 2014.  This serves as proof that our strategic plan for growing our economy is working. 

The state of our city is strong.

For the fifth consecutive year, Virginia Beach is the only Coastal Virginia city rated AAA by all three major bond-rating agencies.  That’s proof that our conservative financial practices and strong management are paying off.

Forty-seven percent of our operating budget goes to education here in Virginia Beach — one of the best school divisions in the nation.  An Achievable Dream Academy is in its first year at Seatack Elementary School, and members of the first class are here today.  Would you please stand and let us recognize you?

This groundbreaking public-private program provides year-round, extended-day learning — complete with enrichment classes, field trips, and strong support from community partners, the military, and mentors. 

Tourism continues to be one of the largest industries in the City and a powerful economic engine.  2014 showed record-breaking increases again in lodging sales — up 5.1 percent to $315 million dollars, compared to 2013.  Restaurant sales were up 3.6 percent to more than one billion dollars.

The Virginia Beach Amphitheater is beginning its 20th season.  What a fine example of a public-private partnership, and I’d like to thank Bill Reid and Bill Harrison — another team who turned grand visions into grand realities — for getting it off the ground more than 20 years ago.  Through 19 seasons, the Amphitheater has held 531 events attended by more than five million people, and generated more than $23 million dollars in direct revenues to the City of Virginia Beach.  The amphitheater paid for itself in nine years, and last year was the best ever — $1,762,000 dollars in revenues were added to the City Treasury by the Amphitheater. 

Virginia Beach is one of the safest cities in the nation, thanks to our stellar police, fire, EMS and 9-1-1- departments, our sheriff’s office, and our citizens.  Our crime rate is the lowest it’s been since 1963, and our clearance rate for crimes-solved is 75 percent.  Compare that to the national average of only 38 percent for cities of 250,000 and up.

Virginia Beach is one of the five best-run cities in America and one of the best places to live, according to 24/7 Wall St.

All of this makes me happy, and today, I’m happy to proclaim that hit song “Happy” by Virginia Beach’s own Pharrell Williams  — and with his permission — is the Official Song of Virginia Beach.

Behind every good man is a good woman, and although Pharrell couldn’t be with us today, I’m very pleased to introduce his mother.  Dr. Carolyn Williams — please stand. 

Dr. Williams is a former teacher and librarian for Virginia Beach City Public Schools.  Today, she’s doing a fabulous job as chairwoman of the board, and director of education at Pharrell’s foundation — From One Hand to AnOther.  I have personally seen Dr. Williams working with students in STEM educational programs… and making a big difference in the lives of children in Virginia Beach and beyond. 

 In all corners of our city, great things are happening to make Virginia Beach an even greater place to live it up.

This city has a positive ViBe — one that you can feel, and now that the Arena is in clear view, we have the opportunity to bring a new dynamic to our thriving Resort Area — one that will support creative enterprises, attract new entrepreneurial opportunities, and create more year-round activities for locals and visitors alike.

The new ViBe District, located just a few steps from this convention center, from 16th to 22nd streets, and from Parks to Atlantic avenues, is already home to numerous successful businesses and attractions, including Old Beach Farmers Market, the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, and numerous successful surf shops.

Thanks to the initiative of people like Andy Fine, Laura Wood Habr and Kristina Chastain and others, who pushed for creation of the ViBe District, we’re seeing a new rush of small business activity in the Resort Area, from the establishment of new co-working spaces that will encourage entrepreneurial collaboration… to the new home for Chesapeake Bay Distillery and their award-winning craft spirits.

If you haven’t already been to a First Friday ViBe in the District, you won’t have to wait long — we’re only two days away.

Whether it’s helping large manufacturers like STIHL or IMS Gear in meeting their workforce development needs, or providing assistance to young, independent software developers in starting their own companies, our responsibility is to build a Virginia Beach for all generations.  Supporting opportunities for small business and entrepreneurs, expanding our year-round creative industries.  Establishing new places like the ViBe District, help us meet this obligation.

We must think big, we must act big, and we must seize every opportunity to shape our future in a great way — and from all angles.  Time and time again, we have reaped the benefits of kick-starting projects like the Boardwalk Seawall, Princess Anne Commons, the Amphitheater, the Convention Center, and Town Center. 

 In Virginia Beach, we get ahead because of effective partnerships, and I’d like to recognize a few of the people who are making big things happen.  Will all members of the Virginia Beach City Council please stand?

It is an honor and a privilege to work with each and every one of you.  Your vision, your commitment to the citizens we serve, and your passionate leadership are at the heart of our community.  Thanks for making Virginia Beach “A Community for a Lifetime.” 

 Our successful and unprecedented “YesOceana” plan to roll back encroachment — designed to overcome the Base Realignment Closure Committee’s recommendation to close Naval Air Station Oceana — is a model program for cities across the country.

Will the following members of the United States Armed Forces please stand:

  • Admiral Philip S. Davidson, Commander of U.S. Fleet Forces;
  • Captain Frank Hughlett, Commanding Officer of Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story;
  • Captain Kit Chope, the outgoing Commanding Officer of NAS Oceana; 
  • Captain Lou Schager, the incoming Commanding Officer of NAS Oceana; 
  • Brigadier General Timothy P. Williams, Adjutant General of Virginia; and
  • Colonel Elena Scarbrough, Commander of Camp Pendleton.

I can’t tell you what an honor it is for me to be in the company of these courageous leaders.  More than 100,000 active-duty personnel live here in Coastal Virginia.  It’s no secret that we are very proud of you, and very glad that you and your families are part of our community.  Will all military members — both active and retired — please stand and let us salute you.

Thank you for your selflessness, dedication and service to ensure our freedom.

As mayor, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with hundreds of City employees and volunteers, and let me tell you — they are among the most competent, most dedicated, and most hardworking people I’ve ever met.  From educators to public safety officers who handle life-and-death situations, to public works and public utilities specialists who ensure a clean water supply and sanitary sewer system, to librarians, social workers, parks and rec professionals, public health experts, customer service reps., and emergency communicators — our Virginia Beach City and Schools workforce are second to none.

At 23 years and counting, City Manager Jim Spore is the longest-serving chief executive officer of a major city in the country.  Thanks for your excellent leadership.  Jim, would you and all the people who work and volunteer for the City of Virginia Beach please stand and let us recognize you.

Managing the City’s budget through the recession and the recovery has been a daunting task.  For seven consecutive years, we’ve asked departments to do more with less.  We’ve asked the same of our City employees and their families.  I know the recession has been hard on you.  I know you are struggling to keep up with inflation.  I know how much you strive to give your all while serving the citizens of Virginia Beach.  So I am proposing that the next City budget provide pay raises for all City employees, because you have earned it, and you deserve it. I will be meeting with Jim Spore and the City Council to discuss how we can bring this home to you.

Friends, I’d like to leave you with this….  I’ve been serving this city with integrity since 1988, and I never thought I would have to endure the circumstances of the last four months, which have been a tremendous burden on me, my family, my friends, my former employer, and City staff. 

I am humbled by the overwhelming support you’ve shown me.  From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for your confidence in my leadership.  You’re the best, and I am as committed and determined as ever to work with you to advance the community we all love — Virginia Beach, the greatest city in the world.

Thank you.

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