State of the City 2023

Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird
October 10, 2023

Good morning, everyone! It’s great to be here with the members and supporters of Leadership Lincoln. Thank you so much for all you do to cultivate servant leadership in our community, and thank you for once again hosting my State of the City address, or, as I'm calling it this year, the “Eras Tour (Lincoln’s Version)”....Are you ready for it?”

So let’s go on a little adventure together this morning.

I was lucky enough to attend a Taylor Swift “Eras Tour” concert this summer with my daughter. For non-Swifties who are wondering, “who is Taylor Swift anyway?”, the Eras Tour pays homage to Swift's previous albums – a retrospective of her growth and evolution. We were among the over 70,000 fans (including Travis Kelce apparently) who packed Arrowhead Stadium that night. These days, concerts are precisely choreographed productions with glittering costumes, dozens of dancers, mesmerizing lighting and special effects – worlds different from the concerts I attended and remember “all too well” when I was closer to my daughter's age, back in 1989, which also happens to be the name of one of Taylor Swift’s albums and eras.

Now in case Lincoln’s 1989 Era draws a “blank space” in your mind, let’s take a brief tour through what life was like back then.

Lincoln’s population was 192,400. Our city encompassed 63 square miles. There was only one Mill Coffee, and it had just moved into an old brick warehouse in the yet-to-be developed Haymarket district. In 1989, Lincoln Public Schools had only four high schools. The Great Plains Trails Network was in its first year of existence, dreaming of how to expand Lincoln’s mere 27 miles of trails. Our Husker volleyball team still had six years to go before winning their first national title. Antelope Valley was flood-prone, underdeveloped, and looked like this. And Pershing Center was Lincoln’s civic auditorium, home to graduations and concerts like R.E.M. who played there on October 3rd – a week ago today – back in 1989.

Well, a lot more than concerts have changed in Lincoln since then. Let's consider how far we've come since our 1989 Era – how our city has grown and evolved. And let’s call this growth and evolution our “Transformation Era.”

During our Transformation Era, Lincoln’s population has grown by over 50 percent to more than 292,000, having added 100,000 residents since then. Our city limits have grown nearly 59 percent, now encompassing 100 square miles. Downtown has expanded west to include the West Haymarket AND east to include a vibrant, growing Telegraph District that’s home to new businesses, outdoor summer concerts, and even a dog bar! The Mill is now an anchor of the bustling Haymarket and has 4 additional Lincoln locations. LPS has doubled the number of high schools. In Antelope Valley, we’ve removed hundreds of acres from the floodplain and transformed them into Union Plaza, "gorgeous” greenspace, and blocks of new residential housing. Today, 172 miles of trails crisscross our community. And our Husker volleyball team has since brought home five national championship trophies and set the WORLD RECORD for attendance at a women’s sporting event! Pinnacle Bank Arena’s silvery dome now sparkles like a “mirrorball” on our skyline. Over 6 million people have walked through its doors so far – for graduations, sporting events, and concerts like Pink, Jay-Z, and Garth Brooks – helping transform Lincoln into a premier destination on the entertainment industry map.

So many community members and leaders have played a role throughout our Transformation Era. All of us at the City who guide Lincoln’s growth and transformation stand on the shoulders of our predecessors – from our mayor in 1989, Bill Harris, to Mayors Mike Johanns and Dale Young, to Don Wesely, to Coleen Seng, and Chris Beutler – as well as previous City Councils. I am particularly grateful for our current Lincoln City Council members. Will you please stand and be recognized for your leadership?

I also appreciate our partners on the Lancaster County Board, our Lincoln state senators, our LPS board members, our Airport Authority members, our appointed members of our city’s boards and commissions, and our dedicated, talented City and County Department Directors and teams. Please join me in thanking them for all they do to serve our community.

Transformation requires collaboration and the choreography of Lincoln leaders from ALL sectors – and we appreciate their partnership in growing Lincoln’s success. So please join me in thanking our private, public, and philanthropic partners.

From City Hall, we have pursued our city’s transformations holistically, understanding that growth and evolution are not ends in themselves, but rather the means by which we cultivate the good life in Lincoln. When I first became your mayor, my administration debuted our vision of leading Lincoln toward a more successful, secure, and shared future. This vision has served as a north star over the past four years, guiding us through some extraordinary moments in the history of our city and our world. This vision really exists as a promise; a promise that, every day, we will work to make life better for you and everyone who calls Lincoln home. And during my first term, we think we’ve developed somewhat of a REPUTATION for keeping our promises.

In our Reputation Era, we’ve kept that promise and, in turn, have helped grow Lincoln’s reputation on the national stage – and led our city to the top of several charts:

  • The 5th safest capital city;
  • The 7th best city for renters;
  • The 10th best city for young professionals;
  • The #1 top city in America for retirement;
  • The #1 safest city for pedestrians in the nation;
  • And, for the second year in a row, we are the 6th best-run city in America!

And, in case you missed it, we also somehow ranked among the Best Cities for Vampires. Apparently, we don’t have any “bad blood” in Lincoln!

Now, there’s no one City department that’s “King of my Heart,” but I want to share how proud I am of some of the accolades our innovative, excellent City team earned over the past year:

  • Our Lincoln-Lancaster County Health team received the 2023 Model Practice Award from the National Association of County and City Health Officials.
  • The life-saving efforts of Lincoln Fire and Rescue earned the Resuscitation Academy’s prestigious Lighthouse Designation, making us one of just 10 cities nationally to achieve this honor.
  • The National Center for Safe Routes to School presented our Transportation and Utilities team with the 2023 Leadership Award for our work to enhance youth pedestrian safety.
  • And the Government Finance Officers Association awarded our Finance team the Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting – the highest form of recognition in governmental accounting.

But awards are not our “End Game,” and Lincoln’s reputation continues to grow through the outcomes that we achieve for you with our City services and strategic investments. Today, we’ll look at how we direct these services and investments to make Lincoln safe and healthy, strong and resilient, equitable and inclusive, with a vibrant economy and quality of life.

So let’s recap some recent achievements shaping our Reputation Era and making the state of our city strong – starting with those that keep us safe and healthy.

We invest in the partnerships, training, equipment, and facilities that our public safety professionals need to keep themselves and our growing city safe.

In the Spring, we opened the doors to the Lincoln Police Department’s new Northeast Team Station. This state-of-the-art facility supports our officers and LPD’s ability to serve a fast-growing area of our community.

We expanded our partnership with the BraveBe Child Advocacy Center. LPD’s Special Victims Unit investigators all now work side-by-side with BraveBe’s skilled staff, to support the safety and well-being of some of Lincoln’s most vulnerable residents.

To ensure the most robust and effective response when our residents call 911, we are building a new Emergency Communications Center with enhanced capacity and capabilities for our dedicated dispatchers as they work to keep everyone safe.

We launched a new Alternate Response Program that enables our dispatchers to route most calls regarding unsheltered individuals to CenterPointe’s Street Outreach Team, which then works to address their basic needs and connect them with homeless outreach services.

To support LFR’s ability to provide even quicker response times and better health outcomes as our city grows, we made substantial improvements to LFR’s fleet. We procured two new fire engines, two new ladder trucks, one new brush rig, 115 pieces of lifesaving equipment, as well as a new, now fully-staffed ambulance.

Our city is fortunate to be served by first responders with big hearts – that’s especially clear when the actual hearts of our residents are in need. LFR saves the lives of residents experiencing non-traumatic cardiac arrest at a rate nearly twice the national average. In 2022, LFR brought 26 people back to life from sudden cardiac arrest.

To increase the safety and well-being of our LFR team and growing community, we recently successfully secured a $5.9 million dollar FEMA grant to hire up to 18 new firefighters and paramedics.

Our Health team is similarly committed to enhancing the health, safety, and well-being of our community, and that commitment starts from day one! Together with our Lancaster County partners, we launched Family Connects, a program that ensures all families with a newborn can receive home visits from a public health nurse who provides vital assistance with things like breast and bottle feeding, bathing, diapering, and safe sleep environments.

Our Transportation and Utilities team works really hard to keep our city safe, too. LTU recently completed school zone safety improvements at Saratoga Elementary, and next will focus on Everett Elementary. These improvements are just two examples of our Safe Streets Lincoln initiative, which will create improvements all across our community, supported by a $400,000 dollar federal grant that we were awarded this year.

Lincoln’s health and safety isn’t the only outcome we seek to achieve with infrastructure improvements like these. Through strategic infrastructure investments, we also aim to accelerate the growth, economic opportunity, and resilience of our community. Let’s look at how we are growing a strong and resilient city.

As part of my administration's Water 2.0 initiative, we convened an Advisory Council to have a "big conversation" about where to go for Lincoln's second water source. The Missouri River emerged as the answer, and we are particularly grateful to our Lincoln state senators who helped secure nearly $200 million dollars in American Rescue Plan funds to support what will be the largest public works project of our time.

We’re investing in another type of water infrastructure that ensures we continue to be number one at taking care of number 2. To provide capacity to treat wastewater, and thereby enable the next 50 years of growth and development in Lincoln, my administration prioritized a $35 million dollar expansion of our Theresa Street Wastewater Treatment Plant.

This year alone we are investing $44 million dollars in street construction, part of the historic $211 million dollar investment we have made to construct and rehab hundreds of lane miles in Lincoln since 2019. And with the opening of the South Beltway – the largest transportation project in city history – we celebrated a milestone for our community’s economic growth, regional mobility, and transportation safety.

We’re also hard at work with community partners to pave the way for the future of transportation. We unveiled Lincoln’s Electric Vehicle Readiness Plan as part of my administration’s Resilient Lincoln initiative, which is building our community’s capacity – and commitment – to limit greenhouse gas emissions and proactively address climate change. We’re leading by example from City Hall – where we have transitioned 75% of our Star Tran buses and over a quarter of our light fleet to electric or alternatively-fueled vehicles.

We’re also taking steps to strengthen the resilience of our local food system. Our new Local Food Plan positions Lincoln to increase our food security, support local farmers, and expand access to fresh and nutritious food.

These investments in a strong and resilient Lincoln demonstrate our commitment to building a strong and resilient future.

And because that future is brighter when everyone can engage meaningfully in crafting “The Story of Us,” we are focused on City services and investments that make Lincoln a more equitable and inclusive community – that help make us One Lincoln, where everyone has the opportunity to succeed and thrive.

Fundamental to our vision of building an even more equitable and inclusive city is growing the supply of high-quality, affordable housing. Here’s a snapshot of several dynamic affordable housing projects that my administration has supported:

Together with our partners at NeighborWorks, Lincoln Electric System, and Black Hills Energy, we launched the Residential Rental Rehab program earlier this year. This program has already maintained affordable rents and improved 78 units of housing, as part of a longer-term effort to improve one thousand affordable rental units.

We incentivized and supported the creation of 98 new affordable housing units through the Gatehouse Rows project, and are supporting a mix of 152 new market-rate and affordable apartments through the Antelope Square project;

And in addition, we are working with developers to create a combined total of over 500 affordable housing units through projects like Union at Antelope Valley, Foxtail Meadows, and at the site of the former Pershing Center.

And here’s something to celebrate: my administration has now incentivized the creation of over 1,800 new or rehabilitated affordable housing units since 2020, putting us well ahead of schedule to meet our ambitious goal to create 5,000 new or rehabilitated affordable housing units by 2030.

Parks are FUNdamental to growing an even more equitable and inclusive community. Our Parks and Recreation team secured a $400,000 dollar grant to build our city’s first fully inclusive playground at Mahoney Park, and worked with community stakeholders and our City Council to develop a long-term plan to build four more.

To address the disproportionate mental health and chronic disease impacts on community members belonging to racial and ethnic minority groups, our Health Team has partnered with Lincoln’s cultural centers on a Minority Health initiative. In the past year, together, we have provided mental and physical health services to over 6,000 individuals representing 51 countries and 32 languages.

An innovation particularly impactful for those who are deaf, hard-of-hearing, or English language learners is our new emergency communications technology tool called Prepared Live. This technology enables anyone who calls 911 to use their mobile phones to transmit and translate crucial information to our dispatchers via text, photos, or even livestream video.

To make local government more equitable, inclusive, and competitive for top talent, we made some history this spring when our City became the first municipality in Nebraska to provide employees with paid parental leave.

Now these efforts accelerate our progress as we pursue our fourth strategic outcome: a vibrant city economy and quality of life for all. Building a vibrant city economy and quality of life is the focus of our Lincoln Forward initiative.

To move Lincoln forward and grow a vibrant local economy, here are just a few of the development projects that my administration is supporting with financial incentives and infrastructure:

  • the Residence Inn Hotel at 9th and R, which will make way for 122 extended-stay hotel rooms;
  • the historic Gold’s Building will become a Hampton Inn Hotel, now under construction;
  • Telesis, Inc. is continuing to expand its business through improvements to the former Meadowgold plant in the South Haymarket;
  • J.A. Woollam Company is expanding its headquarters in the historic Cotswold Building, part of $20 million dollars' worth of enhancements;
  • Clocktower Veterinarian Clinic is expanding into a redeveloped site in northeast Lincoln;
  • CenterPointe just restored the former Trabert Hall, part of their $17.6 million dollar expansion;
  • We are welcoming Google to our city and will be home to their latest data center. Our City teams helped advance this major project by “swiftly” adding critical water infrastructure.
  • And, as part of the effort to bring a Convention Center to Lincoln, our City team worked with the Legislature to develop the funding mechanism that makes a Convention Center possible. We look forward to providing targeted support for this County-led effort.

As we work to grow a vibrant economy, we focus on growing our workforce and helping our residents attain meaningful, financially secure careers. We delivered on this priority through a string of big hits in the past year:

The U.S. Secretary of Labor joined us for the grand opening of our American Job Center. From a new, expanded location downtown, we served a record number of clients this past year, connecting job-seekers to local employers in need of skilled workers.

We joined forces with our County Board and community partners to develop pathways to jobs using our American Rescue Plan funds. Over 350 people have already participated in workforce training programs that create job opportunities in high-demand fields, like welding, nursing, early childhood education, manufacturing, and I.T.

We do this work to catalyze economic development, job creation, and business growth in service to growing opportunity and a high quality of life that sets the stage for some of our “Best Days” and most memorable “Midnights.” We’re performing this work to enhance quality of life all across our community:

Under Rosa Parks Way in the South Haymarket, our Urban Development team helped satisfy the community’s hunger for a place to enjoy local food trucks and play basketball, skateboard, or do parkour under colorful lights.

In northwest Lincoln, we opened the doors to our new, co-located Air Park Community Center and Williams Branch Library to enable residents of all ages to build health, literacy, and friendships. We’re currently engaging the community to identify future library system improvements, including a possible new central library.

In a big victory for our seniors’ and veterans’ quality of life, we relocated our Aging Partners center to Victory Park, where we have already seen a 320% increase in fitness room visitors and a 215% increase in dining room visitors.

At a time when many cities faced lifeguard shortages, our Lincoln Parks and Rec team made a splash through an innovative hiring campaign that kept our public pools fully staffed and open all summer long.

And through a major public-private partnership, that included significant funding from local government, we broke ground on land provided by the City to build the Sandhills Global Youth Complex, which will turn a Field of Dreams into real-life ballfields for youth baseball and softball players from across Lincoln, our state, and the Midwest.

So, to sum up, we have “a lot going on at the moment!” Based on all we have accomplished together, we are well-positioned to shape an even more luminous future for our community.

As the Journal Star noted in a recent editorial, Lincoln may be experiencing a new "Golden Age." A Golden Age is a time of prosperity, peace, stability, opportunity, and cultural achievement. We envision it as more of an era. A new, Golden Era in which Lincoln becomes known as the Quality of Life Capital of the Country. Achieving this status is more than something from our “wildest dreams”; our vision has a plan – a plan scaffolded by 13 priority pillars. Over the next four years, my administration will pursue these 13 priority pillars in partnership with our community to make Lincoln the safest and healthiest capital city in America, to grow the great life, and to create an even more dynamic downtown. Working together, we will create a quality of life that sets the golden standard.

In our new Golden Era, Lincoln will be the safest and healthiest capital city in America. To accomplish this, here are four priority pillars that we will pursue.

Number one: To grow LPD's capacity to respond to mental health calls for service, I’m pleased to announce that we just secured a $550,000 dollar grant to accelerate the launch of our Co-Responder Program. This program will enable mental health professionals to co-respond with LPD officers to certain incidents, leading to enhanced crisis intervention, improved public safety, and better outcomes for community members experiencing mental health challenges.

Number two: Our Health team will develop a Youth Substance Use Prevention Project. This collaborative effort will support youth mental health, and reduce the risk of youth substance use, through an integrated, evidence-based prevention program.

Number three: Our Urban Development team will advance our work to functionally end chronic homelessness in Lincoln. I’m pleased to announce the City of Lincoln’s first Permanent Supportive Housing will be located across from the County-City Building at the southwest corner of 8th and J Streets. In the next year, we anticipate beginning construction and selecting an operator for this transformative project, which will combine 24 individual apartments with wrap-around services to help unsheltered individuals get off the street and back on their feet.

And number four: To improve the health and well-being of our older residents, we will seek to become an official AARP Age-Friendly Community. To earn this designation, we will work to improve livability for seniors, and in turn, make Lincoln more livable for residents of all ages.

In our new Golden Era, we will grow the great life in Lincoln. To achieve strong, smart growth that creates economic opportunity for all, here are six more priority pillars that we will pursue:

Number one: For the next two fiscal years, we will invest over $98 million dollars in street infrastructure, that will construct or rehabilitate over 80 lane miles.

Number two: Through our Water 2.0 initiative, we will map the route to the Missouri River, purchase pipes and property, and expand our current water system capacity as we lay the groundwork – literally – for our second water source.

Number three: We will deploy our $23.6 million dollar federal grant to construct our new Multi-modal Transit Center that will connect people more efficiently to their jobs and classrooms, enhance the bus driver and rider experience, and advance several goals of our Climate Action Plan. Design of this Multi-modal Transit Center is currently underway.

Number four: I’m pleased to announce today that we will construct a new biogas facility to capture, treat, and turn methane gas emitted by our landfill into a renewable energy source that can be used for vehicle fuel. This project will generate new revenue for our community, making it a win for both the environment and our rate payers.

Number five: My administration will continue to support the growth of Lincoln’s housing stock at every price point, with a targeted focus on creating or rehabilitating 2,000 affordable housing units over the next four years.

And for number six, I’m pleased to announce this morning another way that the City is growing jobs and economic opportunity. We will reallocate a portion of our American Rescue Plan funds to credential over 40 community members with Commercial Driver’s Licenses so they can fill high-paying jobs in a high-demand field.

In our new Golden Era, Lincoln will create an even more dynamic Downtown. To do so, here are three priority pillars that we will pursue:

Number one: The City will lead a Downtown Corridors Cultivation Project – a series of streetscape enhancements to improve the attractiveness, safety, and overall vibrancy of downtown’s three principal corridors. We’ll make “O” Street “polish up real nice” for downtown residents, business owners, employees, and visitors.

Number two: We will begin the build out of our Downtown Music District to capitalize on Lincoln’s live local music scene. Over the past year, we and our Music District partners, including the Downtown Lincoln Association, secured nearly $5 million dollars to develop key features of the Music District, including a multi-use band practice space, specialty lighting and music experiences, and infrastructure improvements that will create an exciting District that amps up tourism and good times.

And number three: We will build Lincoln’s destination downtown park. Great cities have great parks. And for Lincoln, South Haymarket Park will be an iconic park with a dog run, interactive water feature, inclusive playground, and a state-of-the-art, in-ground skatepark to host competitions, demonstrations, and jams. Today, I am pleased to announce the next phase of our fundraising efforts: the South Haymarket Park Capital Campaign, led by a newly formed steering committee and by our beloved Lincoln Parks Foundation who will raise $10 million dollars to make this amazing park a reality!

My administration will pursue these priority pillars in partnership with our community to create Lincoln’s new golden era. We likewise will remain dedicated to delivering the fundamental city services that make Lincoln a great place to live, work, and play. We will continue to bring to life our vision of leading Lincoln toward a more successful, secure, and shared future. That’s our promise to you. And before we go today, would you promise me something, too?

Would you please promise to consider how YOU will add YOUR luster to our new golden era?

By virtue of your membership in this community and your presence at the dawn of our new golden era, you can “make the whole place shimmer” with your unique gifts, talents, creativity, and commitment.

You can add YOUR luster by “speaking now” on issues that matter to you – in public chambers, surveys, and community forums. If you are old enough, you can add your luster by voting on City issues at the ballot box. You can add your luster by serving on a City board or commission, by shopping local, or by protecting our environment. You can add your luster by contributing to build South Haymarket Park, or by working for another community cause about which you care deeply.

And we all must add our luster. The community members from Lincoln’s previous eras set the stage for the successes that we currently enjoy. They defined and shaped their eras. As we celebrate the strong state of our city today, let’s set the stage for the successes we want to enjoy tomorrow. We have a golden opportunity to define and shape our era – a new golden era!

Thank you!