State of the City: This has been a year of progress

The following is a condensed version of the State of the City address given last week by City Administrator Julia Glanz.

Hello, everyone. On behalf of Mayor Jake Day, I am happy to bring to you the State of the City Address for 2020.

I know it goes without saying, but the Mayor so wishes that he could be here with us, and he sends his love and appreciation to all of you.

As you are aware, this past spring Mayor Day — a soldier in the Maryland National Guard — received orders that he was to deploy to the horn of Africa for a year in support of the Combined Joint Task Force; Horn of Africa.

He reports that things are going very well, and he misses you all very much. Most importantly, Mayor Day wants you to know how much he appreciates the kindness and overwhelming support this community has shown to his family over the past few months. It means so much to him.

Thanks are also due to Council President Heath and the whole City Council for all of the work that they have done, and continue to do, for the citizens of Salisbury.

Jack, thank you for being here to share the council’s message. We must work together in order to make real progress, and I believe that the current administration and council are setting the example for all other governing bodies with our focus on decorum, professionalism, and cooperation.

Thank you for leading, Jack, and thank you for being a tireless servant of the citizens.

A new normal

The year 2020 has been a year which will stand as a demarcation between eras for most of us, and it’s difficult to imagine any sort of return to what we once knew as “normal.”

But “normal” is a relative term, and we will certainly continue to learn and adapt to life in the world of Covid and beyond.

That’s easier to say now than it would have been at the outset. The contagious nature of the novel Coronavirus is such that we had just enough time to know it was coming, but not enough time to have a full understanding of the virus itself.

What we DID know was that our actions had to be decisive in order to keep our citizens safe.

To that end, we closed our zoo and parks immediately, and we took executive action aimed at supplementing stay-at-home and social distancing orders from the state level.

We mandated that all essential businesses inside city limits would require patrons to wear a face mask, and that they would enforce social distancing measures.

The city also took the lead locally by establishing the Salisbury Area Coronavirus Task Force, and the Delmarva Coronavirus Task Force — weekly meetings, held virtually, which have been lauded by participants across all sectors as the single best, most useful resource for sharing institutional knowledge on Covid response in our region.

Co-hosted by SVN-Miller, the meetings are simulcast to their Facebook page, as well as the city’s, and are free for anyone to watch.

Pandemic relief

In May we announced Next Step Salisbury — a package of relief measures for city residents that included rent assistance, plexiglass barriers for businesses, a temporary ban on evictions, grant money for food, facemasks and PPE, tax relief for first responders, and even a commission to fast-track applications for open-air dining permits.

As we began to adjust to this new and unfamiliar way of doing things, we kept our less fortunate neighbors close to our hearts.

Our Vulnerable Populations Task Force, in concert with our Department of Housing and Community Development and other partner agencies held weekly one-stop events where food was distributed to those in need, and citizens were provided with free face masks, access to housing support resources, voter registration, census registration, legal assistance, and other vital resources provided by non-profit community organizations.

We are in our 26th week of these meetings, and they remain an invaluable tool in assisting our most vulnerable citizens.

To ensure that our messages were seen and understood by everyone in the community, in March we began to have them translated into Haitian Creole, Spanish, and Korean — the primary languages spoken by our city’s three largest minority populations.

In the midst of this sea change, city government continued to function with almost no interruption in service — the exception being curbside recycling, which was halted when the county stopped processing recyclables due to the risk of Covid transmission from used food containers.

All other city services continued in force, even as city employees were mandated to abide by masking and social distancing rules, or, in some cases, ordered to work from home.

As for recycling — fear not, it will resume as soon as it is safe for us to do so.

One of the key components of slowing the spread of the virus was the state-mandated closure of many businesses across a number of sectors.

The short-term economic impact of Covid-related shutdowns was staggering for the service industry in particular.

Restaurants, bars, theaters, hotels and the auto rental industry to name a few — all felt the immediate effects of these closures, with millions joining the unemployment rolls nationwide in just the first couple of weeks.

Some businesses found ways to adapt in order to keep the doors open.

Many restaurants, for example, added curbside pickup, or began to offer delivery if it wasn’t already an option.

As the state eases us through the stages of reopening, many businesses are experiencing a slow rebound, and jobs are being added back accordingly.

Still, virtually every business in the affected sectors was hit hard initially, and has suffered some degree of loss.

Real estate booming

Some sectors have been able to weather the storm unexpectedly well. In Salisbury, our real estate market has been booming, and new construction has continued with no interruptions or slowdowns.

Year-to-date, Salisbury has permitted over $42 million in commercial construction — a phenomenal amount in any economy, but certainly so during a global pandemic.

It’s a reflection of the continuing optimism that investors and builders have in the future of our city, and we have no reason to expect it to slow down anytime soon.

Still, our economic outlook is different now than we expected it to be at this time last year.

Salisbury has the tools to weather this just as well as — if not, better than — any city in the country.

Increased expenses

But, like any other city in the country, we’re having to step back and reevaluate how we’re spending our money.

Among the Covid response measures outlined earlier, the city also put a temporary hold on parking enforcement and code enforcement, and suspended collection of water bills until the end of the state of emergency.

As we look toward the next couple of years, we know that it will be necessary to tighten our municipal budget to account for this lost revenue, but we will do so responsibly, ensuring that government keeps running, and our employees keep working.

We will learn and adapt. We will exercise caution, always — and we will always side with science when it comes to your health and safety.

The year 2020 brought us an age-defining pandemic which has impacted societies around the globe.

It is virtually impossible to look back at the past 12 months and not feel the overbearing weight of Covid-19 … but we have seen so much progress here in Salisbury during that time, and we’re going to celebrate it today.

Infrastructure addressed

When we discuss progress like this, I think it’s logical to start with infrastructure projects — because they’re typically high-visibility, and they often impact our daily routines with detours and altered traffic patterns.

Salisbury has been playing a bit of catch-up, fixing infrastructure issues which went unaddressed for decades — but the results thus far have been nothing short of transformational.

Take, for example, the beautiful new roundabout at Riverside Drive and Carroll Street.

By eliminating a five-way stoplight, and syncing the lights at Mill Street and Route 50, commute times have been reduced, and the number of accidents has been reduced to almost zero.

Making it as beautiful as it is functional, the Adkins Memorial obelisk rises from the center of the circle, creating a stunning visual anchor for the west end of our Downtown.

Just a block away, our newly-overhauled Main Street is nothing short of breathtaking. The new streetscape is more attractive, and more conducive to the day-to-day functions of an urban center.

In accordance with our Main Street Master Plan, our Downtown now features back-in parking, pay-to-park kiosks, separated bike lanes, one-way traffic coming IN to Downtown as opposed to heading out of Downtown, brighter and more attractive streetlamps, wider sidewalks, and outdoor seating areas for restaurants.

We are excited to announce that we will officially cut a ribbon and declare the work done on (Friday) Nov. 6.

Another vital component in our Downtown revitalization efforts is the pedestrian footbridge which will be constructed on the site of the former Camden Street Bridge.

This river crossing will open up a pedestrian route from the Camden Neighborhood directly into the west end of Downtown, and will augment our Riverwalk and Urban Greenway beautifully. Construction on the footbridge will begin this winter.

To further keep our pedestrian and cycling neighbors safe, this year we officially adopted the Vision Zero plan, and we will continue to implement it in stages over the coming years.

Vision Zero’s stated goal is to eliminate pedestrian deaths by taking common-sense steps such as reducing speed limits, providing crosswalks where there are none, and implementing traffic calming measures.

Environmental work

To ensure that our projects — and everything we do — are undertaken with the environment in mind, we stood up the Environmental Policy Task Force.

Composed of five subcommittees, the task force will provide recommendations on Water Use and Wastewater Discharge, Transportation, Sustainable Design and Operations, Management of Public Open Space, Energy Use, Emissions, and finally, Education and Outreach.

The Environmental Policy Task Force joins an already robust and productive slate of green initiatives which have put us at the forefront of environmental stewardship on the Shore.

This summer, thanks to the efforts of Sustainability Coordinator Alyssa Hastings, we were recognized by the Arbor Day Foundation as an official Tree City USA.

And since we’re talking about feathers in our cap, just this month, as part of our goal of becoming the first official “Bird City” on the Eastern Shore, Salisbury residents weighed in and voted to name the Great Blue Heron the official bird of Salisbury.

You may have seen one or two on the Riverwalk — perhaps next to the beautiful new edible garden behind the old Market Street books.

This project, a partnership with the Coastal Association of Realtors, brings sustainable, edible gardening into Downtown, and it provides a virtual smorgasbord for pollinators.

Fire Department

Speaking of being called to save lives, the Salisbury Fire Department benefited tremendously from the funding of 12 additional positions thanks to the SAFER Grant.

Over the past year, the department has been able to assemble an effective response force for all structure fires within 9 minutes, 100 percent of the time.

Mogan’s Oyster House in Downtown Salisbury is among several locations in the heart of the city where outdoor dining has surged in popularity.

That 9-minute window is crucial to controlling developing fires, and containing them to the room of origin, and thanks to the SAFER grant, we have been entirely effective in hitting that target.

Standing alongside our career fire and EMS staff are the brave women and men of our volunteer ranks. Traditionally, those ranks were fuller than they have been in the past decade.

Nationwide, the number of volunteer firefighters has been on a gradual decline, but some fire companies have been able to buck that trend through recruitment and retention efforts, and that’s what we’re doing.

This year we added a Volunteer Recruitment and Retention Coordinator who will develop and lead a comprehensive program to attract and retain qualified volunteers to serve with the Salisbury Fire Department.

Business Development

Knowing how much of an impact Covid has had on our business community, the next couple of years are going to require our Business Development Department to look for new and unique ways to support and promote local businesses — but in the first days of the pandemic, the focus was on giving businesses the tools they needed to keep the doors open.

We successfully pursued a grant for the purchase and manufacture of PPE, and partnered with M4 Reactor to provide acrylic barriers for 38 businesses around Salisbury. An additional micro-grant program administered by the city was responsible for the distribution of over $58,000 to 27 businesses that had been impacted by Covid.

It used to be that the term “frontline workers” was reserved for first responders — police, fire, and EMS. The reality of life in the midst of a global pandemic has shown us that frontline workers are all around us, and their work is vital and necessary to maintaining our way of life.

Field Ops, Housing

The city’s Field Operations department is out there every day, keeping Salisbury clean and beautiful, and making the necessary repairs to keep our infrastructure working so that you don’t miss a beat.

And as we cautiously return to hosting public events, Field Ops is right there, handling everything from setup to cleanup. These are not teleworking positions — these are jobs that require the employee to be physically present every day, and Field Ops is always there.

Now from big construction to small, here are some of my favorite projects we’ve completed this year. Our Housing and Community Development Department  installed these eight “little libraries” at the Boundless Playground, Doverdale Playground, Waterside Park, Woodcock Park, Truitt Community Center, Prince Street School, and at playgrounds in the Harbor Point and Brookridge townhomes. The little libraries were an immediate hit with the children who live nearby.

This coming year will be a busy one for HCDD as the Newton Community Center comes online, Joining the Truitt Community Center as a key resource for children in traditionally underserved neighborhoods.

HCDD, by the way, has been in a period of transition, but you wouldn’t know it thanks to the steady-handed management of Ron Strickler, our new Director of Housing and Community Development.

Ron comes to us from the town of Ocean City, where he was Recreation Director for 15 years. Taking over a department in a new organization is a feat under normal circumstances. With HCDD handling so much Covid-related community outreach on top of their normal workload, you can get a sense of the added weight.

Giving children a place to go, a meal, and a study partner — these seem like such small things, but they can have the biggest impact on a kid’s life.

Keeping our city’s youth out of trouble and out of the justice system means that they won’t have to start from a point of disadvantage.

My favorite part of the budgeting process is seeing much-needed projects come to life, and we got to do that this year with the completion of a brand new, 6,000 square foot building for our Parks Department, which has long been in need of a facility to call home.

This building is one piece of a larger overhaul of the City’s Operations Center at Mack Avenue. If you have driven past, you may have noticed the changes, as multiple demolitions have taken place around the property to make space for updated facilities which are long overdue.

Still to come are a 10,000 square foot administrative building, and a 14,000 square foot maintenance building, both of which are funded and past the conceptual phase.

With an eye toward future expansion, Field Operations has also secured three additional properties adjacent to the Operations Center.

They won’t have to catch up to their peers by overcoming the obstacles of institutional incarceration, and a criminal record.

City Police, Justice

To better help our children avoid these pitfalls, the Salisbury Police Department this year instituted a new criminal justice diversion program which aims to reduce the number of negative law enforcement encounters between our officers and juveniles on the street.

This effort is about building trust, and showing kids that there doesn’t have to be an adversarial relationship between police officers and the community.

Building trust can’t happen without communication and understanding. One thing that sets SPD apart from other institutions is how our agency leans in rather than shying away from tough discussions, and they see the value in working toward equitable solutions rather than doubling down on entrenched ideals.

In 2020, for the first time, the city and the Salisbury Police Department brought citizens into the dynamic and difficult discussions surrounding policing in the United States with the creation of the Criminal Justice Reform Task Force.

It’s an idea which has been discussed for quite a while, but I can’t imagine a time when its existence is more needed than right now. Salisbury can set the standard for police/community relations, and the way that we can do it is by inviting open and honest discussion to ensure that our goals align with those of the citizens we serve, and that all sides are heard.

Also, I just want to say that while we’ve been inundated with news of Covid, civil unrest, and a presidential election unlike any we’ve seen, the Salisbury Police Department under the direction of Chief Barbara Duncan continues to make this city safer and safer, with Part 1 crimes down yet again this year.

I didn’t want us to allow that very important fact to get lost in the clamor. Thank you, Chief Duncan, and thank you to the women and men of the Salisbury Police Department.

These conversations, and this open dialogue — they don’t seem out of place here. Ours is a community of helpers. We’re a community of dreamers and doers. We get involved.

We have those frank discussions, and we lift each other up. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, in this community, police officers stood alongside protesters in solidarity. Peacefully. Because that’s how it should be. That’s how WE do things.

In this community, decades of dark and painful history are being discussed, and our Lynching Memorial Task Force is engaged with organizations which will help us to build a permanent memorial to those who were so cruelly and unjustly targeted for the color of their skin.

In this community, persistent and organized action forced the removal of a sign which stood on county-owned land in the heart of our Downtown. A sign which commemorated the life of a man who was a traitor to his country. A sign which was an artifact of a time long gone.

In this community, we rally around our sisters and brothers of different faiths, different nationalities, different opinions.

We celebrate our diversity, and we disavow ourselves of those institutions which would have us believe that any of us is somehow less than any other.

In this community, we affirm loudly and repeatedly that Black lives matter.

In this community, we officially celebrate PRIDE Day, and we affirm loudly and repeatedly that love is love, and all are welcome here.

Our future

This community is you, and it’s me. It’s the sum of all of our experiences, and it will be what we choose to make it. We don’t know exactly what the future holds, but I do know that Salisbury’s future remains bright.

We have made what feels like decades worth of progress in just a few years, and we owe it to everyone who has a stake in this city’s success to maintain this trajectory. And we will.

Covid will pass. In the meantime, we meet this storm as we would any other — with kindness as our watchword, and with our hearts open to one another, making sure that none are left uncared for. Together, this community — you and me — we will continue the work we have put so much of our time and hearts into, making this city the best place in the country to live, work, play, and raise a family. Safely. Equitably. Fairly. Together.

This community. You and me.

Thank you.

Contact Julia Glanz at jglanz@salisbury.md.

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