State of the City Address Mayor Richard “Rick” West Friday, February 28, 2020

Thank you, Dawn, and my thanks to all of you for honoring our city with your presence here today. Can you imagine what our ancestors who fought in the Battle of Great Bridge 245 years ago would think if they could see Alexander Hamilton telling his story in a rap song? Many of them may have actually known Mr. Hamilton, but I doubt any, including Hamilton himself, would have anticipated such a tribute. And, to be honest, if you had asked me at last year’s State of the City luncheon if I would ever attend such a musical, I would have laughed at the suggestion. 

Yet as I listened to those lyrics, I could not help but be reminded that while the way we tell the history of our country may change, the story itself remains the same.   The language we use may be different, and even hard for some of us to understand, but the principles resonate and speak to every generation with a clarity that surpasses mere words.

If you have not seen the Broadway musical “Hamilton”, the colonists have just defeated Cornwallis at Yorktown and they are celebrating in song, saying, “we will rise up,” and  “we will not throw away our shot.” When you see “Hamilton” and hear these lyrics, you cannot help but feel pride at being part of a country that holds its founding principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness so dear as to term them “inalienable rights” given by our Creator. 

We can all be inspired by the brave men and women who fought for those freedoms and gave so much to changing the world: ordinary people willing to rise up and refusing to throw away their shot. 

And like me, I trust that you are proud to live in an ever-changing, diverse country, bound together in time by enduring principles and beliefs that can be understood in any language, from the Old English of 1776 to the modern, techno-speak of 2020.

To truly understand the state of our City today, we must understand the history that has brought us to this time and place. We know that Chesapeake’s distant forefathers and mothers played a part in bringing Hamilton, Washington, Cornwallis, and the rest to that surrender at Yorktown, starting right here at the Battle of Great Bridge. 

It took energy, commitment, and vision to make that happen – just as it took those same qualities almost 190 years later when the City of Chesapeake was formed out of the merger of Norfolk County and the City of South Norfolk. Our story is one of people determined to make things better and never throw away their shot. 

I am so pleased that we are joined today by some special people, or members of families, who have been instrumental in bringing Chesapeake to where it is today.   I would like to recognize them and ask them to stand, and remain standing, but please hold your applause until I finish this distinguished list:

Dr. E. Curtis Alexander, Peggy Bagley, Margie Blevins, Judge Richard Bray, Judge Robert Carter, Ray Conner, LaBarbara Cuffee, Congressman and Mrs. J. Randy Forbes, Jimmy Frye, Barbara Hardee, Adam Harrell, William Harrell, Cecil Jenkins, Jimmy & Garnett Lane, Patty Lawrence, Lil Oman, Bob & Cindy Oman, Rosa & Hugo Owens, Jr., Rose Marie Ward, and Patty Whitehurst. These folks are just a sample of some of the citizens over the years who chose to rise up and not throw away their shot.  

When I think about today’s Chesapeake, and how we have come from a population of about 60,000 in 1963, to now being the second largest city in the Commonwealth in 2020, I realize just how much trust people have placed in this community and its leaders. It’s a daunting responsibility, and one that I and my City Council colleagues never take lightly. Trust is the foundation on which Chesapeake is built, and trust is the greatest tool we have to build for tomorrow.

You see this trust manifested in many ways around our City. You see it when parents send their children off each morning to one of our 46 outstanding schools, 100% of which are fully accredited. Parents trust that their kids will be safe, and we’re working hard together to earn that trust, through our School/City Safety Task Force, which has made great strides toward safer buildings.  

Parents trust that their kids will have appropriate places to learn, and we are equally committed to that goal.  A comprehensive study is underway right now, looking at our school facility needs for today and for the future.   

And parents trust that we will have excellent teachers, providing opportunities to learn, grow, and explore paths leading to college, the trades, the arts, the military, or wherever the student’s heart takes them.  Tens of thousands of students enter our schools every day, and not a single one of them wants to throw away their shot.   It is our job to ensure they can, indeed, rise up to their potential.

The nine members of our School Board must rise up to be the keepers of that trust and the champions leading the charge for educational excellence. I consider all nine of them to be much more than colleagues, they are friends, and key authors in the writing of Chesapeake’s story. I would like to ask the members of the School Board and all those who work in the Chesapeake school system to stand and be recognized for the vital work they do each and every day.

The City Council and the School Board are both made up of nine distinct individuals, each with their own backgrounds, ideas, and perspectives. And while people joke that getting a group of nine people to agree is like herding cats, you would be amazed how often we come together, particularly when it’s for the greater good of our City.   Our work is built upon a desire to seek consensus when we can, to foster compromise when we must, and to always strive to preserve and enhance the high quality of life citizens have come to expect here in Chesapeake. Now that may sound like an easy task, but when opinions are strong and emotions are running high, it can be quite a challenge.  

But we somehow find a way to come together, rise up and not throw away our shot. I would now ask that members of the City Council, all of whom I am proud to serve with, to please rise as a group and be recognized for your outstanding efforts to help all our citizens take their best shot at a bright future.

People naturally choose the communities they want to call home by the quality of life they find there. Residents want a place where they can feel safe, where there is ample opportunity to work, to play, to learn, to grow, to worship, to give back, and to generally enjoy those inalienable rights. Chesapeake prides itself on being just such a community, and that, quite simply, is why people choose to come here and stay here. That is why we will continue to rise up, setting the bar ever-higher on the standards we, as a community, want for our great City.

Residents want their City and their home to be safe places, and that is a trust our public safety departments earn every day. We are blessed with a police department whose brave men and women never give up the fight for justice. 

A good example was when we recently learned that an arrest has been made in an almost 2-decade old cold case – the death of an infant known as “Baby Daniel.”  Sadly, this young boy, who would be 17 years old this year, never got a shot at life, but through the determined efforts of Detective Vernon Ryder and retired Detective Thomas Downing,  justice will finally be served. 

Policing in Chesapeake is about much more than just arresting criminals.    It is also about building trust and putting back into the community through programs like ‘Serve the City’.   Under the leadership of Pastor John Hildebrand, volunteers from the faith-based community,  police officers like Major Tracy Branch, and others who give their time to conduct home renovations for those in need, giving them a shot to rise up towards a better life.   All of this would not be possible without the backing of Police Chief Kelvin Wright, a leader who, literally, never wastes his shot.

Speaking of not throwing away a shot, under the capable leadership of Chief Ed Elliott, our Fire Department is equally dedicated to meeting the City’s evolving needs, with innovative programs like the ‘Mobile Integrated Healthcare’ system that began operation last month. Chief Elliott is also looking toward the future as work continues to replace 3 of our oldest fire stations with modern, efficient, and functional new buildings. The St. Brides, Deep Creek, and Bowers Hill areas will be better served from these new facilities.

The Sheriff’s Office makes up the third leg of our public safety triangle, ensuring that the jail is secure, that those incarcerated get fair, appropriate treatment, and that everyone who comes to a Chesapeake court has a safe, secure place to have their say and receive justice. Sheriff Jim O’Sullivan also, as I’m sure you know, contributes heavily to the quality of life for those on both ends of the age spectrum in our City. From his  ‘Children Today, Leaders Tomorrow’ program to the long-running and much anticipated ‘Senior Support Seminar’,  Sheriff O’Sullivan and his leadership team are building trust on many fronts, seven days a week. 

Let me now ask the Sheriff, the Police and Fire Chiefs, along with anyone who works in public safety, to please stand and receive our heartfelt thanks for protecting AND serving all of Chesapeake’s citizens.

Quality of life, though, is not just about being safe. It is about trusting that the little things, which generally aren’t so “little” when you look deeper, will be readily available, day or night, week in and week out. Things like knowing you will get clean water when you turn on the tap, or that when you put your trash at the curb, it is taken away quickly. Things like being able to easily visit a park where your kids can play, or a library with so many new and innovative learning tools.  And it is knowing that, if you need help, there are caring, committed people available, with the resources and support you need to weather any storm. 

All of those things create a desirable quality of life, as does a City with a diverse and growing financial base, a stable tax rate, and a bond rating that tops the scales. Chesapeake has all of these, and more, thanks to a financial management strategy that looks constantly towards long-term stability and strategic spending.

It takes a visionary leader to bring all of these dedicated people together, and that is just who we found late last year when the City Council appointed Mr. Christopher Price as Chesapeake’s new City Manager. Mr. Price will, I suspect, admit that he’s taken on a massive task, but I can tell you that he is already earning the trust of both his staff and the community through his open, engaged, and citizen-focused leadership. The City Manager and his team are embarking on a process to help the City refine and sharpen its vision and goals for the future.  Chris assures me that he’s not looking to scrap everything from our past, but rather he wants to examine and refocus the lens through which we see ourselves, and then use that to shape tomorrow’s Chesapeake. I am confident Chris will be counted among those who have risen up, and that he will not throw away his shot. 

I would now ask that our City Manager, along with Department Heads and all City staff members to please stand and be recognized for all that you do for Chesapeake.

I constantly hear people talk about how much they love Chesapeake.  In fact, researchers from Old Dominion University, as part of an annual survey in Hampton Roads, confirmed that our City residents rated their overall quality of life as the highest in the region.  Indeed, it is that quality of life that continues to make Chesapeake so attractive for businesses.  

Just consider these numbers – in the past year, Capital Investment rose by more than $270 million, an increase of 12%. 455 new businesses joined the Chesapeake community, and they and our existing firms added almost 1,700 new jobs. The bottom line is simple:  Chesapeake is growing and thriving. We are, definitely, not throwing away our shot.

It would take me until next year’s State of the City address to tell you about every great Chesapeake business and the good work they do both professionally and in the community. But indulge me for a few moments as I highlight several firms who have risen above the crowd, starting with family-owned and operated Damuth Trane, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Located in Deep Creek’s Cavalier Industrial Park, and led by Clint and Phil Damuth, the company sets a culture of giving back, providing opportunities for their employees to be involved in a variety of outreach programs every year. This philanthropic dedication is also why Damuth Trane is consistently named one of the best places to work in Virginia. 

In South Norfolk, For Kids is well on its way to completing its brand new headquarters on Poindexter Street. They will be consolidating five area locations and 100 employees into one state of the art facility, with unique features such as an education facility for children and a research and advocacy center.   This is exciting news for the revitalization of South Norfolk.   Thank you Thaler McCormick for choosing Chesapeake.

In Great Bridge, Veteran-owned  Pale Horse Coffee took its shot last year, becoming one of Chesapeake’s only coffee roasteries. We’re honored to have owners Christopher Walton,  Donald Wingard,  Gray Livingston, and Michael Vecchione as part of the Chesapeake business community and we thank them for their combined 93 years of military service to this country. 

Western Branch will be the epicenter for some very exciting things in the very near future, thanks to the Kotarides Companies. We expect to be joining them soon in announcing some major additions along the Portsmouth Boulevard corridor, creating many new job opportunities.  This is in addition to efforts already begun at Chesapeake Square Mall and surrounding areas.   Pete Kotarides and some of his management team are here with us today, and I want to publicly thank them for their efforts in growing this important part of our City. 

Just this month, it was announced by that Chesapeake is rated one of the Best Cities in America for Women in the Tech Industry. What better company to highlight this accolade than woman and veteran-owned RFK Solutionz, Chesapeake’s 2019 Business of the Year.   Located in Western Branch,  RFK Solutionz is dedicated to educating and preparing our workforce of the future, hosting a free Cyber Academy every summer that teaches our children how to combat and protect against online threats.

As we were enjoying our lunch today,  Governor Ralph Northam was announcing an awesome new project, coming soon on the Chesapeake waterfront.  Total Fiber Recovery is investing $49 million in a new paper recycling operation that will process 300,000 tons of mixed paper each year. The project will bring 68 new jobs.  More importantly, it helps to further highlight Chesapeake’s support of the need to reuse and recycle resources. We are honored to have Doug Fuller with us today, representing Total Fiber Recovery.

Of course, no list of businesses making a difference in our City would be complete without mentioning Priority Auto Group and their dynamic CEO, Dennis Ellmer.  Dennis is a man who has never been afraid to take his best shot, and he has certainly hit the mark to benefit Chesapeake and all of Hampton Roads.   From their support of the Charity Bowl to his generosity with our Animal Services adoption programs, Priority Auto really is much more than cars and trucks.

To be honest, Chesapeake is overflowing with business leaders whose commitment to their community as a whole rises above the economic bottom line. People like Dan Banister, Charlie Hackworth, Joe and Vickie Josue, Suzy Kelly, and so many others. They are giving us, all, their best shot every day. 

It’s leaders like these, and dozens more, who helped to create the brand new Chesapeake Forum. If you attended their first event with journalist Jane Pauley, you know the caliber of interesting speakers the Forum is targeting. And next week, Dr. Mae Jemison, the first woman of color to go into space and a scientific innovator, will be here in this building to share her story. If you don’t have tickets, I’d encourage you to hurry because this is sure to be an amazing look at someone who has, literally, risen up above all earthly boundaries.

I would now ask all the business leaders I’ve just noted to please stand and accept our thanks for helping Chesapeake rise up and for never throwing away your shot.

We are excited, too, to be part of the Hampton Roads (757) region, where people are rising up, and people are taking their best shots. When my Mayor colleagues report on the state of their respective cities later this year, I’ll be there cheering them on, just as I know they are here today, in person and in spirit. And it will take that type of cooperative spirit and more to take Hampton Roads to a new level. 

Our goal is to be more competitive with thriving regions in other parts of the country, and that will take political, business, and community leaders rising up and not throwing away our shot.  Clearly, it will take all of us coming together as we raise the quality of life for all of Hampton Roads.

I think we can all agree that Chesapeake is not about to throw away its shot. You find it all over the City, from boardrooms to classrooms, from manufacturing lines to grocery checkout lines, from Indian River to Hickory to Deep Creek and everywhere in between. Chesapeake citizens are excited about the future. 

We realize our future is about opportunities, and with those opportunities there is a sense of excitement. 

We know we’ve got challenges ahead, and we know we’re going to have some tough choices to consider. Challenges and choices aren’t new things in Chesapeake.   Overcoming challenges and making good choices have helped us become the great City we are today. 

One of the things that makes Chesapeake, if not unique, at least different from many cities is not the challenges we face, but how we face them. 

There will always be voices that try to divide us. Those who find the clouds, even on a sunny day. There will always be those who trust no one…not even themselves. Although their voices may at times seem shrill, we will not let them write our story. We will not allow them to “throw away our shot.”

Chesapeake has a shot to make 2020 its greatest year ever. Clearly, that is going to take a lot of work from a lot of people.  ‘Greatest year ever,’ is indeed a lofty goal, especially when you consider how great our past 57 years have been. 

But we are poised for that greatness, and we’ve got the people, the skills, the knowledge, and the passion to achieve that goal and more.  

The exciting thing about living, working, and raising a family in our community is the fact that whether you use a tablet, an IPad, a laptop, a pen, or a chalkboard, you get to write your own story, and that story becomes part of the story we call Chesapeake.

I am confident that if we continue to trust each other, our story will continue to be a great one. Again, thank you for being here today and remember to never throw away your shot!