State of the City 2021

Capitol from Centennial Mall

Watch State of the City 2021

Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird
September 28, 2021

Good morning to our friends at Leadership Lincoln and to all our community members. Welcome to the 2021 State of the City address.

If you live in Lincoln, you understand just how deeply people here care about the well-being of our community. I understand because of my own experience living, working, and raising a family here, but also because I hear about it from others who call Lincoln home. And these days, down at City Hall, we hear from others A LOT!

Recently, I received a message from an accidental visitor to our community named Constance. She wrote:

Dear Mayor Gaylor Baird,

The purpose of this letter is to commend you on your caring and compassionate citizens of Lincoln.

While on our road trip from Tennessee to visit our daughter in Wyoming, our truck broke down on I80 while pulling our RV. This was the 4th of July weekend...After [finding] we would have to wait 2 to 3 weeks for our truck to be fixed, some of your citizens went above and beyond to help us.

Constance then describes the actions of owners and employees at an RV park, a towing company, and an auto repair shop, thanking by name all the people who helped her secure a place to stay and the needed repairs the very next day. She concludes:

While this was a difficult and stressful situation for us, these people, your excellent citizens of Lincoln, did your city proud with their kindness, empathy, and compassion. We will be forever grateful and reminded of all the good people in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Constance is one of many who, while travelling a road through our city, experienced the generosity of spirit that defines Lincoln. You and I know these kinds of people are everywhere in this city. We take care of each other. That folks here went out of their way on a holiday weekend to help a stranded motorist wouldn’t surprise many of us. But to Constance, the kindness they showed her felt extraordinary. And 18 months into a pandemic that has challenged us in unprecedented ways, the fact that Lincoln’s generous spirit remains as strong as ever IS extraordinary.

While Constance discovered our city by chance, more and more people recognize all our community has to offer and intentionally choose a road that leads to Lincoln. The National High School Finals Rodeo selected the Lancaster Event Center fairgrounds as its event host. World-renowned American Ballet Theater kicked off its national tour in Pioneers Park. Husker volleyball attracted this year’s top recruiting class in the nation. And refugees and immigrants, who have walked longer, bumpier roads than most of us can ever imagine, have found in Lincoln a community that welcomes them with open arms.

All of them arrived here via roads built by forward-thinking, committed leaders and community members. And the road ahead must be just as thoughtfully constructed.

To be clear, these “roads” aren’t just metaphors. Through strategic investments, public-private partnerships, and community collaborations, we continually work to build actual roads and bridges that foster the growth of our community and pave the way for a continued safe, healthy, and first-rate quality of life.

Two years ago, we launched the voter-approved Lincoln on the Move initiative, and by the end of its six-year term, $78 million dollars is projected to be spent on street repair and improvements. Eleven total projects have already been completed, eight more are currently under construction, and three are about to begin. This fundamental infrastructure work enhances public safety, creates good-paying construction jobs, and supports local economic growth.

Thanks to Lincoln on the Move, orange cones line newly-paved streets – which motorists spend less time on, thanks to another city initiative, Green Light Lincoln. We recently completed the fourth and final phase of Green Light Lincoln, which engineers smarter traffic flows through our city. Green Light Lincoln means smoother, faster commutes. It means reduced fuel consumption – you spend less at the pump. It’s a win for motorists, and a win for the environment: by using less gas, we will pump 121 thousand 700 kilograms fewer vehicle emissions into the atmosphere.

Attention to our streets is one factor driving our city’s smart growth. In other parts of the country, construction came to a grinding halt during the pandemic, but here in Lincoln, our Building and Safety Department has processed, on average, 90 million dollars worth of projects every month this year. In fact, we're on pace to exceed a record-breaking billion dollars in development in 2021.

While we prioritize buildings, streets, and infrastructure that grow opportunity in our city, our community’s culture of taking care of one another means we always consider the PEOPLE who travel these roads, and who work in, live in and use the buildings joining our skyline. Because of the focus we place on quality of life, we put a premium on public safety. Everyone in Lincoln should feel and be safe. That means investing in first responders, both in human capital and in the equipment they need to do their jobs well.

Investing in first responders yields important outcomes. With support for our police department and the community policing model at the heart of their work, Lincoln’s crime rate has decreased – including a 20.67 percent decrease in violent crime in 2021, compared to 2016 through 2020 rates, and a more than 37 percent decrease in robberies during the same time period. As part of their commitment to providing excellent service, LPD is collaborating with experts to make our response to mental health calls for service even more robust.

And because they want not only to serve and protect but also reflect our community, LPD in March signed the 30x30 Pledge to improve the representation and experiences of women in law enforcement. LPD is also working to engage a broader cross-section of our community through their new recruitment campaign “Hire calling”– H-I-R-E – an appeal to people of all backgrounds to apply to LPD, and bring their culture, skills and passion to more than just a job – use them to answer a higher calling.

While our officers build relationships in the community in order to prevent crime before it happens, when things do go wrong we have EMTs and firefighters at the ready. Our exceptional team at Lincoln Fire and Rescue stays ahead of the curve, maintaining a higher than national average out-of-hospital cardiac arrest save rate while responding to a record-breaking 26,802 events in 2020. A man named Neal was visiting Lincoln for a wedding earlier this year when he went into cardiac arrest. A bridesmaid performed CPR until LFR took over. Neal says he’s alive today because he was “in the right place at the right time” – in Lincoln.

To support life-saving outcomes like these, we continue to improve our fleet of fire trucks, engines, and ambulances. Our recently adopted city budget adds firefighters to keep pace with our growing city and invests $11 million to repair and remodel old, outmoded fire stations. Like LPD, LFR is developing new recruitment strategies to attract highly qualified and diverse applicants who will help ensure our department reflects the community we serve.

Public safety this past year also involved protecting the health of our residents in the face of a global pandemic. Our team at the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department has met this historic moment – keeping our community informed with regular updates, making tough decisions, and hosting vaccination clinics on a scale to rival any in the country.

Our public health team’s skills and commitment are only surpassed by their compassionate care for our community. Here is another message my office received, from a woman who told us about the extra lengths a nurse went to while working at a Health Department vaccination clinic:

My neighbor, a sweetheart of a guy, is unsteady on his feet and walking from the parking lot to the clinic at Pinnacle Bank Arena would have been a struggle. I was genuinely touched when I learned that on a bitterly cold winter day, the public health nurse came out to his car to give him his vaccine. He was protected in more ways than one.

Here’s another note, this one from a 12 year-old girl, thanking us for implementing the mask mandate last year, sharing that, “because of the mask mandate, I’m able to go to the bookstore and feel safe. I’m able to go to Target and feel safe.” I love how she thanks the postal service on the envelope! People of all ages are benefitting from our Health Department’s leadership through this pandemic, and from our Lincoln culture of taking care of one another.

With the gift of readily available vaccines, Lincolnites continue to answer the call to care for and protect themselves, their neighbors, co-workers, and loved ones, outpacing the rest of the state in percent vaccinated. Over 73% of Lincoln and Lancaster County residents over age 16 are now vaccinated. Thank you, Lincoln, for all you have done, and for all the sacrifices you have made, to safeguard one another. In the words of Judy, who sent me this note, “The COVID vaccination effort was truly awesome – and I rarely use that adjective!...the assembled team of professionals and volunteers have created a remarkable process for this community to come one step closer to health and wellness...a powerful statement of what can be done when we come together!”

Notes like these, which to me feel almost like love letters to Lincoln, tell us Lincoln is not just a well-functioning city, it’s a city with a soul. And what feeds the souls of the residents of our city? Easy access to things that keep our spirits up and enhance our well-being. To this end, we have continued to invest in our extensive trails network, and in livable neighborhoods with parks within walking distance for just about everyone, and in our local libraries, which inspire young and old alike to keep their minds and imaginations engaged in lifelong learning.

Our high quality of life is evidence we accomplish much when we work together, and I want to give special thanks to some people I work with: our City Council members. We work as a team to ensure there is a path forward for everyone we represent. That means continuing to build roads that lead everyone to opportunity.

Which is why, back in my inaugural state of the city address, I announced three initiatives: Lincoln Forward, One Lincoln, and Resilient Lincoln. Lincoln Forward grows economic opportunity and “the good life.” One Lincoln works to create a culture of equity, inclusion, and belonging in our city. Resilient Lincoln aims to build a climate-smart future for us all.

Our Lincoln Forward Initiative has embraced this historic moment to create strategies that turn economic struggle into economic opportunity – to help people get good jobs and help businesses succeed and grow. How?

In partnership with our dedicated colleagues on the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners and thanks to the American Rescue Plan, we are poised to deploy over $100 million dollars in equitable restoration and renewal.

We have allocated $12 million dollars for projects to help unemployed workers find high wage employment in fields that help our economy grow, fields like information technology and manufacturing. Together with our County partners, we will distribute $23 million dollars to the industry most impacted by the pandemic, travel and tourism, investing in drawing people to our attractions and business districts. Along with the County, our plan also will deploy $21 million dollars to nonprofits providing basic needs, like child care assistance.

And I’m pleased to share with you that, next week, we will formally announce our program to distribute $10 million dollars to the small businesses most impacted by the pandemic so that they, in turn, can provide jobs and build community. We’re ready to provide direct assistance to your neighborhood coffee shop, favorite book store, and other small businesses that make Lincoln unique.

These business supports, workforce development grants, and job training initiatives are clear strategies for economic recovery and renewal in response to the pandemic, and they will make our city stronger.

And while we travel the road toward economic recovery and renewal, the One Lincoln initiative will work to ensure no one is left behind. One Lincoln envisions an inclusive, equitable community where every resident feels a true sense of belonging and has the opportunity to reach their full human potential.

Advancing racial equity is central to this vision. That is why, as we have navigated the pandemic, we have worked closely with diverse community leaders to identify and mitigate racial disparities in COVID cases and vaccinations. Community partners including our Cultural Centers, Black Clergy, and the City’s Multicultural Advisory Committee, have coordinated with our Health Department to share vital public health information with community members in multiple languages, to organize neighborhood-based vaccination clinics, and to provide basic needs to those having to isolate and quarantine.

With these close community partners we are committed to making Lincoln a healthy and thriving city for every resident. The Health Department recently won three state and federal grants to promote health literacy and address minority health disparities. These funds will support continued collaboration with the Cultural Centers and other stakeholders to reduce rates of chronic illness, promote healthy children and families, and ensure a high quality of life for all.

Making sure that every resident has a place to call home is another foundational goal of our administration. To address this need, in our most recent budget, we allocated an additional $710,000 for the City's affordable housing fund.

And while many of us have socially distanced at home to keep people safe during the pandemic, some in our community are struggling to pay their rent or mortgage so they can stay in their homes. To keep our most vulnerable residents safely housed, and to make sure landlords can pay their mortgages, the City and our partners launched a program called the Tenant Assistance Project to pair those facing eviction with help from a team of volunteer attorneys. The City also has led the way in deploying federal Rent and Utilities assistance funds, and by streamlining access to these resources, we have distributed nearly 13 million dollars to date to over 3 thousand families. It’s important to acknowledge that these aren’t just numbers, they are people in our community experiencing economic stress because of the pandemic -- people like the gentleman who called to express his gratitude for the support he received from our City teammates at Lincoln Commission on Human Rights. He called them “angels on earth” and explained that people are often at low points in their lives when asking for assistance and there typically aren’t any “feel good” emotions attached. He said our teammates who helped him demonstrated how this reality can be handled, creating relief and a sense of hopefulness, knowing resolution is on the way.

While we travel the road to a more equitable and inclusive community, we take stock of our city’s gains in a nationally utilized metric: the Municipal Equality Index. This index examines how inclusive municipal laws, policies, and services are of LGBTQ+ people who live and work here. Since 2019, Lincoln’s score on a 100-point scale has increased from 53 to an impressive 92.

As our community strives to achieve greater equity, so does our team at City Hall. For the first time, our City budget now includes a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion professional who will promote diversity in recruitment, hiring, and retention, as well as provide training to all City employees on equal employment, cultural competency, and implicit bias. This investment will create a more inclusive City Hall that better reflects and meets the needs of every resident.

In order to build a city that works for everyone, we must acknowledge that climate change effects pose a risk to all of us, and must be addressed locally. In Lincoln, climate impacts show up as extreme weather events like flooding and drought. We must be proactive about, not reactive to, these events. This is where Resilient Lincoln comes in; through this initiative, we designed a roadmap toward a more climate-smart future for everyone who calls Lincoln home.

One of my favorite letters this past year came from a 7th grade student at Schoo Middle School, who wrote this: “In order to make my voice heard and attempt to make change happen, I decided to write you a letter...I am writing to you because I think we need to help out the community...I believe you should install some solar panels and spread them around Lincoln. And you could add some parks. Because it will make kids happy.” His letter calling for action on the environment reminds us that this work is our legacy to our children.

With the next generation in mind, and with the strong support of our City Council leaders, we adopted the Lincoln Climate Action Plan – the first of its kind in the state of Nebraska – which identifies our local climate vulnerabilities, sets bold goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and prioritizes key initiatives to build resilience for the future.

Implementation of the Plan is underway, with projects that improve energy efficiency in municipal buildings, increase the use of renewable energy, and transition our City fleet to 100% electric, renewable, or alternative fueled vehicles by 2040. In fact, yesterday, I signed an administrative policy directing all City departments involved in vehicle purchases to decarbonize their fleets to meet our 2040 goal.

Lincoln’s Climate Action Plan has inspired local government agencies to work together strategically to both reduce carbon emissions AND save money. To realize these goals, we are collaborating with Lincoln Electric System, Lincoln Public Schools, the University of Nebraska, and Lancaster County. We are committed to working together to transition our vehicle fleets and equipment to low-emission options – greening the roads through Lincoln.

Other important work includes actively developing a strategy for a second source of drinking water supply, while reinforcing our existing wellfield infrastructure, and building resilience in the Salt Creek Watershed basin to protect vulnerable neighborhoods and businesses located in the floodplain.

Our Resilient Lincoln initiative also will, with the help of federal funds, clean up pollution and transform contaminated brownfield sites in the heart of the city into community assets that will attract jobs, serve as a catalyst for economic development, and grow the vibrancy of the West and South Haymarket neighborhoods. Brownfield grants do more than clean up polluted ground – they create opportunities to build more housing, address local food insecurity, advance environmental and climate justice, provide additional park land, – which will “make kids happy!”– and improve our city’s health and well-being.

So much of our work at City Hall is about creating opportunities out of challenges – opportunities that lead to strong community-building. This last letter highlights exactly that: Jill, an early childhood education center director, writes: “I cannot imagine doing this important work in a greater city than Lincoln, which plays a key role in our success. From Health Department staff being available to us 24/7 through COVID, to the police officer who helped a mother in our program experiencing domestic the Planning Department’s work to look at the comprehensive plan through an equity lens and include early childhood in the plan, the City is a central part of the work we do each day.”

City government, when it’s working like ours, frees people from worries about many of the basics of city living so they can instead focus on pursuing opportunities that improve their lives and their families’ futures; it frees people to take care of, not only their loved ones, but complete strangers, too. And because Lincoln is like this, travelers like Constance will continue to find hospitable roads through our community. I feel incredibly proud when I read these letters. If you are feeling proud of our community, too, please take the time to spread the love. Spread the love by doing something to take care of someone who needs support. Spread the love with a kind gesture, be it big or small. Of course, right now the most impactful gesture that shows you care for others is to get vaccinated. Spread the love by expressing your gratitude to someone who is taking care of others. Write a letter, send a text, tag them on social media. Email the teacher who gave extra time to your child – and cc the principal. Post something supportive of the health care workers staffing our vaccine clinics, ICUs, and ERs.

Because what makes a journey special isn’t just arriving at your destination. Lincoln IS an incredible destination, as the progress I’ve highlighted this morning proves. Yet, as these letters demonstrate, it’s who you travel with, and who you meet along the way, that give a journey meaning.

To the kind and generous people of Lincoln, I am grateful to travel the road ahead with you.

Thank you.