Remarks from Mayor O'Connor:
Good morning and welcome to everyone watching online and to all of you who have joined us in person today at this wonderful venue on Frederick’s west side. Thank you to the members of the Board of Aldermen present today, to our other invited dignitaries, and to our special guests.
Warehouse Cinemas opened its doors last July in what seemed like the middle of the pandemic. In the words of the iconic American Poets Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir…what a long, strange trip it’s been.
This theatre is in many ways an ideal analog for the State of City. We have all been through the worst…we hope…and continue to feel the effects of the global pandemic. But we are resilient, we continue to adapt and innovate, and we are emerging as strong as ever.
I want to thank Rich Daughtridge and his High-Rock Studio team for allowing us to use this beautiful, state-of-the-art space…for their immediate support and contributions to our vibrant City and west side businesses…for stepping up to help our non-profits in need over the last year…and for never giving up on the vision they had for what Warehouse Cinemas could be. I share the optimism and the perseverance you have shown for your business, for all the residents and businesses of Frederick.
It was just prior to the Governor declaring a state of emergency in March 2020 when I last held a formal State of the City address. At that time, we committed to embarking on a year of intentional action. Unaware of what that year would actually entail, I want to take you on some of the journey of action, both planned and unplanned, the last 18 months have seen…and look forward to continued opportunity and progress for our community.
Specifically related to the pandemic and almost immediately, like most other organizations, we had to evaluate how we could keep our employees safe and continue to deliver the high level of service our residents expect. For many operations, we stood up the opportunity for our employees to work remotely. The decisions we made in prior years to invest in technology, enhance network security, and shift to cloud-based office software allowed that to happen within days.
I have said often over the last 18 months, I hope we learn the right lessons from the pandemic and apply them to our work moving forward. I am pleased that subsequently, the Board of Alderman unanimously agreed to adopt new alternative work arrangement policies that we proposed, positioning the City of Frederick to be a 21st-century employer.
The technology investment also translated to other departments…ensuring constituents could engage and continue to do business with the City. Since its implementation last Spring, we have retained the opportunities for paperless submissions to allow our permitting and review process to continue at the comfort level of the applicant.
Our public meetings took on a new form as we implemented Teams as our platform. Public comment was transitioned to telephone and soon after, e-comment was debuted to ensure all had a chance to provide feedback on the work of our government. With ever-changing guidance and executive orders from the State and County Board of Health, we committed to ensuring the public received timely, accurate, and complete data through our available communication methods, including holding over 25 mayoral briefings, with sign language interpretation, and translation of critical information into Spanish.
Our new Department of Housing and Human Services began adapting service delivery to ensure the highest level of safety, including shifting food bank operations to various pick-up sites throughout the City, offering telehealth appointments so patient care did not lapse, supporting hotel placements to aid emergency housing needs, and once they were available, offering vaccination clinics for the most vulnerable in our community.
Working with economic development, we recognized that near-term business assistance was needed while the federal and state governments developed broader and deeper assistance programs. Through two grant cycles, we redeployed budgeted funds and supported many businesses struggling with rent, utilities, and payroll. While many businesses needed to piece together the many grant programs to make it through the closures we experienced, our grants were a commitment that we were… and remain… in this as a community… and we will get out of this as a community,
With the initial rounds of coronavirus relief funds, we also put resources towards assisting our most vulnerable residents with support for non-profits committed to helping students navigate the abrupt transition to remote learning and lost summer enrichment and camp opportunities. We established both utility and rental assistance programs, working with both Frederick County and the Religious Coalition to support emergency housing needs.
As businesses began reopening, we further supported them with pop-up dining, curbside pickup, and relaxed parking enforcement to allow businesses throughout the City the best opportunity to recover. We started nearly weekly visits, 4 to 5 at a time, to businesses across all sectors, sizes, and neighborhoods…to listen and understand how we could better assist and support recovery. These visits continue. The conversations have evolved. But the lessons and the stories rhyme. Frederick is resilient. Our residents and businesses are optimistic. And we persevere.
It would have been easy for us to allow the all-encompassing response to the pandemic, which touched every resident, business, City department, and operation in unique ways, to push out everything else. But it could not, and it did not. Outside the pandemic, often overshadowed or maybe forgotten, Frederick has made significant progress with more is on the horizon.
The formation of the Department of Housing and Human Services has gone from concept to reality. From the hiring of its first director to filling critical positions, H-H-S is building sustainable and collaborative partnerships, evaluating and using grant dollars in new and creative ways, and finding opportunities to fill the gaps in services now that housing, health, and human services are working with one vision.
Ramenta Cottrell joined the City mid-pandemic, through a robust public search process, hit the ground running, and has not stopped. I am excited to share that a westside health services operation is under exploration – and that is just one of the new projects being led by Ramenta and H-H-S.
The Frederick Police Department is also experiencing renewed vision with our new Police Chief, Jason Lando, who joined the City near the peak of COVID. Following a hiring process that brought forth significant community input, F-P-D, led by Chief Lando, is working hard to embody my vision…our shared vision…of community policing at its best.
A few months ago, we launched a mobile crisis response car, which brings together community partners in social work and an E-M-T to ensure we are meeting the immediate needs of our neighbors in a mental health crisis. To ensure we are serving all in our community, we now have a multi-cultural liaison unit with dedicated officers serving our diverse and often under-represented residents.
We have additional initiatives underway, including LEAD – Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, an effort with the Frederick County Health Department and Behavioral Health, State’s Attorneys Office, our own H-H-S, and Parole and Probation to help low-level offenders avoid incarceration by offering support services and accountability upfront.
And we will soon be launching a Nighttime Economy Task Force…bringing the Liquor Board, Code Enforcement, and others to meet regularly and problem solve collaboratively…the nuisance, noise, and alcohol issues that can affect neighborhood quality of life when eating, drinking, and entertainment intersect.
These efforts have come as communities have grappled with difficult conversations about race…and the role government institutions have played, Frederick included, in perpetuating inequality. I am proud of Frederick’s response to engage and accept that for Frederick to stay strong everyone must have a place at the table.
Collaboratively our police and the Department of Public Works launched Operation Safe Speed, which invited community input on speeding in our neighborhoods. We are addressing those submissions with targeted enforcement and engineering review…so that appropriate changes to address significant issues can be achieved. I would be remiss if I didn’t add that we each play a part in ensuring safe roads in Frederick – watch your speed and drive safely. Each of us must do our part.
And for our youngest residents, who returned to classrooms this week, a portion of Christophers Crossing, west of Opposumtown Pike, was recently added as a school zone in City code. Automated speed enforcement cameras will be installed soon.
The City continues its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Concluding year three of our D-and-I Plan, I am thrilled to announce that our first Equity Program Administrator will be starting at the end of the month. This individual will assist the City in implementing aspects of our D-and-I strategic plan and fulfilling the goals of the disparity study as we work to increase the number of opportunities for women, minority-owned, and small businesses to participate in the City’s procurement process.
Our communications team is also implementing two initiatives to ensure equity in our communications – first, a closed-captioning system that will allow us to produce all of our meetings and major productions with English and Spanish captions is in final test phase. Secondly, each of our reception areas at city facilities will soon be outfitted with tablets to help support communication between staff and residents who may speak a different first language.
And I am pleased to report that this week the first cohort of Mayor’s fellows completed their summer internships. These paid opportunities afforded three college students or recent graduates with an interest in government and public policy the chance to discover the complexities and opportunities within municipal governments and the importance of community engagement.
Frederick’s infrastructure remains one of our top priorities, especially as we continue to grow as a place that people want to live, work, and play. Major road projects were completed...including Butterfly Lane and Contender Way, along with water line improvements on 7th Street, with a new surface coming soon. And we cut the ribbon on the extension of the main runway at Frederick Municipal Airport, critical for the long-term benefit of the airport and its economic development opportunities.
Various pedestrian improvement projects, including sidewalk additions on the west side at Willowdale Drive, and ADA improvements throughout the downtown area, have been completed, with another round of improvements slated for this Fall.
Following the evaluation and recommendations of the Army Corps of Engineers on four flood study areas in the City, we have funded improvements for the North Market-Motter Avenue task. We are also pleased to have recently received support from our federal delegation for congressionally directed funding for this effort allowing us to move more quickly in addressing the effects of climate change and the greater frequency and intensity of the storms we are seeing…and for which our stormwater systems were not designed.
Supporting prior action to define habitual vacancy as blight, we passed the vacant property ordinance, and properties vacant for a year will be required to register beginning December 1.
With new openings during the pandemic in previously vacant spaces like Warehouse Cinemas, the Common Market on 7th Street, the re-tenanting of the former K-Mart on Route 40 with 4 businesses...and other retail and office openings too numerous to mention, including new retail and restaurant spaces opening right here at District 40…most of these businesses are regularly communicating with our Department of Economic Development to navigate the permitting process and access local, county, and state business development resources.
This highlights two important factors of which I am enormously proud…that the interest in The City of Frederick is strong – as noted by a 240% increase in filings to our Planning Department - and that with our partners at Frederick County Economic Development, the Maryland Department of Commerce, Downtown Frederick Partnership, Chamber of Commerce, Golden Mile Alliance, Fort Detrick Alliance, and East Frederick Rising…collaboration is not just talk. These professionals genuinely want to work with each other. It sets Frederick apart.
We saw progress in virtually every operation. Bulk trash pick-up requests continue to rise, with more than 1200 during fiscal year 2021. Our sustainability department launched the Adopt-A-Road program, partnered with Frederick County Office of Sustainability and Solar United Neighbors for a Solar Co-Op, and developed a Climate Action Plan for Government Operations, which will be presented next month for approval at a Mayor and Board of Aldermen meeting. And we are in the process of selecting the consultant for the Carroll Creek Stream Restoration design from Highland to Monocacy Blvd.
Our 73 parks in the City continue to add to our quality of life. I am pleased to announce today that we are finalizing our efforts to use grant funding through the Local Parks and Planning Infrastructure legislation passed this year in Annapolis to construct pickleball courts at Monocacy Village Park. Westside Regional Park is experiencing continued progress with the opening of Sophie and Madigan’s Playground Phase 1, the installation of bathrooms, the grading and seeding of sports fields, and the planned relocation of the National Historic Preservation Training Center from downtown to Butterfly Lane. Progress on the Parks Master Plan continues – in fact, just last week, Green Play presented the public feedback gathered on our current parks and recreation offerings and shared what you, our community, wants to see.
And the work for Frederick is not slowing down...
In the three weeks since we announced we would be holding this address, the City can boast a few other major announcements and pending initiatives – the City has signed a purchase agreement for a new police headquarters on East All Saints Street…and Frederick has been announced as the host for the 2021 USA Cycling Nationals Mountain Bike Championship which will be held in October. More exciting opportunities await.
So, in short…well, perhaps in medium…the state of the City is strong. The progress we have made...despite a pandemic that has loosened…but not let go... is a testament to the strength of our people, our businesses, and our collective will to not just survive in the face of uncertainty but to thrive. The lessons and the stories rhyme. Frederick is resilient. Our residents and businesses are optimistic. And we persevere. Thank you.