January 19, 1999
by Edmund Tsang
Mobile Mayor Mike Dow was interviewed on January 7, 1999.
Q: How is the State of the City?
A: I think the State of the City is better than it has ever been. We had a great ten years, but I think the next three to five years are going to be substantially stronger from a number of perspectives. If you look at economic development, job creation, and the investment front, we are continuing to bring jobs into our community even though we are losing paper and pulp jobs and we are having buy-outs and mergers and headquarters moving out of the city. Our net new jobs is still on a positive track. I think the new steel mill is going to almost make up for the loss of jobs in the pulp and paper industry here recently.
On downtown redevelopment and tourism, the story is brighter than ever. We are hotel-bound right now. I spent this morning talking with the feasibility study representative, building the case that we are limited right now by hotel accommodation. We now have a Sports Commission and new or renovated facilities like the baseball stadium, the football stadium renovation, fifty tennis courts in a single location, and we are right now in the planning phase to build a soccer complex with fifteen fields in the tournament level. So we can bring even more people to Mobile. But we are finding out [that] in some of the key times of the year we can't bring groups into town even several years out because our hotels are full. So getting a hotel is important to our continuing growth in tourism. And that's going to happen. We are going to get the Battle House package put together for a potential buyer who also owns HRI of New Orleans and the Royal Senesta chain, and that's a quality hotel. That would be a great addition in Mobile.
There is a project to put the Maritime Museum, cruiseship docks, and retail shopping and a boardwalk near the waterfront. That is going to brand us on the same level as Savannah, Charleston, and Baltimore when it comes to being a waterfront city. We have more and larger festivities like BayFest and First Night. We are building our library system at this point. In the next year or two you are going to see a $22 million expansion of our library system to modernize it. We are expanding the fine-arts museum at the park, making it much more functional with classroom and instructional facilities for K-12. We are expanding the Children's Theater at the Park. We are presently carrying out strategic planning for the arts, and building a performing arts center is a strategic objective. I am looking at the Saenger Theater. If the Saenger Theater has enough capital funds spent on it to do what needs to be done: to expand the stage area and to modernize and add facilities. So the arts and cultural component, and the sports and recreation component, like downtown redevelopment, are on a planned path, and that path is upward. There is no question about that.
Q: A platform in your last campaign is youth and family. What's going on there?
A: The part of our community where there is a serious lack of planning in the last two decades has been in the youth and family area. We had not had the quality of service and the number of services. We had no prevention and rehabilitation, no active care or alternative-school programs that are needed in our community to keep our youth in the system, to educate them, and to provide them with opportunities. We had let too many youths fell through the cracks. The exciting news is that several task forces in the last couple of years have focused on youth. We've been organizing our community for about a year now to get these things accomplished: We have an alternative school now, and a youth provider network that is funded by the Department of Health and Human Services. We are putting probation officers, social workers and juvenile officers in teams at each one of the police precincts. We also have a new division called community services that includes community watch and crime prevention as well as youth services.
We have a number of school-to-work programs going on. In Vigor, they are teaching kids to be networkers, and when they get certified coming out of high school, they can get a job that pays $40,000, and that's something new. At Williamson, there is a program where they tell the kids, if you take this curriculum, we will make you a policeman or para-medic or fireman out of high school. We need all of our industries involved on that level with our public schools. The City is now working with the public school system to have homework centers in designated places after school, where kids can go and there will be mentors, recreation, help with homework, and social workers, so we can interact with the kids and get to know their names and help them individually and give them safe havens after school. All these things are developing in the area of youth and family. So I think we are probably going to continue on an upward path because we are still in the business of identifying the problem areas and fixing them, since we haven't been doing that in the past ten, twenty years. We'll try to fund K-12 in May, and that's a critical component.
My interest in the economic development side of the City is two-fold: We fund K-12 properly and build a stronger education system, and the other interest is on the environmental side. We truly are capable of responding to the need to have a clearer industrial recruitment approach that is environmentally friendly and high-tech high-wage. But that falls back very strongly on strengthening K- 12, I feel. I tell the environmentalists every day, "If you are truly interested in clean industry, then help us fund K-12, because that gives the city and county governments and the Chamber of Commerce a tool and a story to tell, that we can go out to these aerospace- and computer- and telecommunication-related industries, and we can say "Hey, we have a strong education system. You need to come look at us."
Q: In an interview with us during the first year of your first term as mayor, you talked about implementing quality management in city government, and a lot of people wondered what you were talking about. Now that the City of Mobile won a quality award last year, do you feel vindicated?
A: I think the winning of that Quality Award was a symbol that we are on the beginning of the right path, but it's not the ultimate end yet. Winning that Quality Award says we have effectively appointed an executive staff that has the ability to motivate, organize, plan and executive, and that we have put certain discipline and culture in city government: of strategic planning, having measurement systems and kinds of things equal to the private sector, because the award is a private-sector award that our city applied for and won. So I am very pleased with the city employees. We gave them $1.1 million bonus this year and said, "Thank you employees for winning the award and for all the hard work that you did." From that, we have to continue to look for ways to be more customer- friendly. We are becoming very Internet friendly and very responsive. We are trying to build a capacity to respond to requests and to answer people's questions and to handle their problems. Of course, that's a life-long learning process; it never ends. We are creating a learning environment and an enjoyable environment to reach for the higher levels.
Q: Are you concerned about the slower growth of the City as indicated by the tax receipts of the last four months?
A: First of all, there has not been a decrease in city revenues compared to last year. There has been a decrease in the growth rate. So the city's revenue continues to grow, but not at as high a rate as they had in the previous year. I think a number of things are impacting us. We are impacted by money that is going to lotteries and casinos in neighboring states. More and more people I know are purchasing on the Internet, and there are no taxes paid on those purchases. I know at Christmas time that was a factor, and it has affected us in a negative way. I also think we have a lot of build up in the jurisdiction outside the city limit, if you look at the two huge Wal-Mart stores and Target, more money is being spent outside the city which has a four percent tax rate and in the county, which has a two percent tax rate. So these are factors that have caused our growth rate to dip down some. I view that as reality. I don't see it as being negative at this point, I feel our region overall will continue to grow. If you take a regional approach, if you add the City of Mobile and the jurisdiction outside the city limit together, we are not that far off track.
Q: There are a number of city-private partnerships in recent years. One that comes to mind is the Exploreum, which opened recently. What is the city's responsibility if, for the sake of discussion, it went bankrupt?
A: I guess it would be the same as any public-private partnership like hotels. We own the land that they are on. There is a huge $20 million asset sitting on that land that would be city's property. More than likely some other organizations will be formed to put it back together. Some of our hotels have changed ownership three or four times, and it has never had a negative impact on the city. I don't look at that being on the down side. If the City owns it or the private sector owns it or if we jointly own it, if it fails it fails. I don't think it's going to have a significant implication about the partnerships. It never would have happened had we not had a private-public partnership.
Q: You are in the middle of your third term. What are your plans after the third term?
A: Well, I am happy doing what I'm doing. I enjoy my job and I feel fantastic coming to work every day. It's a job that I enjoy. I know that I can have an impact, and as long as I know that I can have an impact and there is something to do that thrills me everyday, the chances are high that I will continue in that mode. I certainly want to see the Maritime Center and the cruise-ship docks and the waterfront built. That's one major project that I am not going to walk away from. And I'd really hate to walk away from this job before the education system is funded properly.