Over two weeks have passed since Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson delivered the 2023 State of the City Address. It was an intimate morning crowd of mostly business professionals and elected officials at the VFW/Apopka City Center. Because he did not announce any new initiatives, I decided not to cover it as a news event.
But then I got to thinking...
I love the entire buildup to the State of the Union Address. What will the President announce? What new initiatives will get rolled out? I also liked the last State of the (Orange) County Address and how they made it an event.
The more I thought about Mayor Nelson's remarks, the more I wanted to express another way to utilize this potentially important speech in a more helpful way to the entire community. I think he is missing an opportunity.
The rearview mirror is an important device on a vehicle. It offers the driver the occasional look at what's happening behind them and where they have been. It's a handy piece of equipment, but few would argue that the windshield is more important for moving a vehicle forward. After all, where you are going is more important than where you have been.
That same philosophy rings true for driving a municipality.
Looking back at a city's history and accomplishments is important, but looking forward to where you want a city to travel is far more vital, and a State of the City address is the perfect time to get that windshield all shined up for the exciting look ahead into its plans.
Unfortunately, Mayor Nelson spent 32 minutes and 42 seconds looking in his rearview mirror.
"Wow, Thank you all for coming out on this dreary Friday morning," he said. "What a year Apopka has had, and the future is still in front of us."
It's odd to feature the word "dreary" in the first sentence, but he referenced a look at the future of Apopka in the second sentence. Unfortunately, he did not deliver.
Yes, he covered pertinent details about 2023 and the budget the Council passed in September. Among those talking points were:
All of these issues are important, and as much as trash talk should be avoided in a State of the City speech, they all have one theme in common - they happened BEFORE Mayor Nelson gave his speech.
Nelson closed with these remarks:
"As you can see, Apopka is well-positioned to grow our world-class amenities to keep our taxes low and fees and a can-do spirit that's the very envy of Central Florida. This is our city that we can be proud of. It's a great place to raise a family or grow your business."
I would agree. Apopka is well-positioned in many ways to grow into an impressive city. But like a well-positioned piece in a chess game, you have to use that position to move that piece and take advantage, not simply brag about where it sits on the board.
There were three issues Nelson didn't cover:
It's not surprising he didn't want to talk about the fledgling Apopka City Center, given their lack of forward movement in the last year. He may also have known that the Highland Manor and Hilton Garden Inn were up for sale. It could also be attributed to Winn Dixie's troubles with the City.
No matter the reason, it was a far cry from his accolades for Taurus in the last two State of the City speeches.
"Our City Center is putting the finishing touches on our former city-owned property. Craig Govan from Taurus is here. Give him a round of applause. Taurus has just inked deals to start a brewery, food court, Starbucks, Hand & Stone, and a high-end prototype Winn Dixie... and is currently negotiating with a couple of local upscale restaurants to complete the project."
"We are excited that the Town Center is finally coming to fruition. Please stand up, Craig Govan, from Taurus... yes. It looks like Starbucks and the Brew Theory Food Hall are scheduled to start construction before the new year (2022). The retaining wall for Winn Dixie is nearly complete, and the building should begin early next year. I can't wait to see both come into town... so thank you."
Instead of accolades or silence, Nelson should have criticized Taurus for not only under-delivering on their City Center promises over the years but also for apparently leaving the City in the dark about its intentions to sell properties it had already developed. He could have explained what his administration will do to get the city center back on track in the coming year.
Nelson also should have announced a city administrator and economic development director. It would have been a great time to introduce those valued additions to the City staff, but you must take action to reap the benefit. Having talented people fill those positions could also help the city push Taurus to move forward on the city center Apopka has been hoping for.
But in this case, he should have explained why he has yet to find qualified candidates to take on those roles in a city that's the 'very envy of Central Florida.' Both of those positions could be the springboard to future successes in Apopka. But you have to be future-focused to experience future success.
A forward-looking State of the City address could be crucial for igniting innovation and addressing emerging challenges. Focusing on the future allows leaders to chart a course, inspire citizens, and adapt to evolving needs. It transforms the address from a nostalgic reflection into a strategic roadmap for progress.
But to inspire citizens, you need to have citizens present for the State of the City.
It's great to assemble business leaders and elected officials at 8 am before they start their work days in a small venue, but why not shift the focus from a backward-looking address and small crowds to a forward-looking address and big crowds?
Turn the State of the City Address into a more significant event. It can be like the State of the County but even more user-friendly.
Hold it at the Apopka Amphitheater. Have it on a weekend or evening. Bring in food trucks. Let businesses rent space. Invite commissioners and other speakers to give their remarks and visions for the future of Apopka. Bring in bands. Make it a night to remember, and then "wow" the residents with your plans for the future of Apopka and invite them to be a part of the future.
A forward-looking address can be a linchpin for visionary governance. City leaders can articulate a compelling narrative that transcends past nostalgia by looking into and talking about the future. Citizens are not just passive recipients of historical anecdotes but active participants in a shared journey toward a better tomorrow. It's a call to arms, inviting residents to contribute to the city's evolving narrative rather than merely cherishing a static legacy.
But if you get people excited, you better have big plans.
"We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win..."
--President John F. Kennedy, September 12th, 1962
At some point soon, Apopka will have to move from boasting about millage rates and general fund reserves to propelling its city into the future. And the best way to do that is to start thinking big. President Kennedy proposed putting a man on the Moon. America responded with one of the greatest mobilizations of resources and workforce in U.S. history. Seven years later, on July 20th, 1969, two American astronauts walked on the Moon. It was a stunning achievement that boosted American confidence and prestige at home and worldwide.
What might be a game-changer for Apopka? How about a 21st-century state-of-the-art city-owned library?
In addition to providing access to information, libraries also serve as important community centers. They offer a variety of programs and events, and bring people together and foster a sense of community. Libraries also provide a safe and welcoming space for people of all ages to gather, study, and work.
Another benefit of having a thriving library in your city is the economic impact it can have.
Libraries often partner with local businesses and organizations to offer programs and services that benefit the community. For example, a library might host a job fair or offer resources for small business owners. These partnerships can help to stimulate the local economy and create new opportunities for residents. Overall, having a thriving library in your city is a valuable asset that can benefit the community greatly.
The City of Winter Park built a library... and then another one even bigger and better in 2021. It is the centerpiece of a city with a flourishing downtown already and many amenities. Here is what they say about it on their website:
"As part of the extensive revitalization of a 23-acre public park, the new Library & Events Center creates a campus that is in harmony with the unique tropical ecology of the site and redefines the role of the public library in the 21st century. This new civic and cultural hub envisioned as a space for intergenerational community empowerment and edification, replaces existing library and civic center buildings.
The new campus is conceived as a micro-village of three pavilions, each of a different scale and function but with a common formal language. These pavilions include a two-story library, an events center with a rooftop terrace, and a new welcome portico that ushers users from the street and unifies the three structures."
A complex like this could become the centerpiece of Apopka. It's also the type of forward-looking move that would bring City Center-type businesses to Apopka.
Winter Park voters authorized a $30 million bond to fund the majority of what turned out to be a $41.7 million cost to build. It's a colossal price tag, but with it comes a statement that Apopka means business as it relates to the future.
Would the voters of Apopka agree to an expense like that on the heels of a public safety complex? There is only one way to find out. There are plenty of other ideas for an Apopka moonshot.
Kennedy's moonshot also came with a colossal price tag. The United States spent $25.8 billion on Project Apollo between 1960 and 1973, or approximately $257 billion when adjusted for inflation to 2020 dollars.
Was it worth it?
Kennedy's call to put a man on the moon was not just a lofty ambition but a visionary declaration that transcended the boundaries of space exploration. In the midst of the Cold War, it became a symbol of American pride and technological advantage. By committing to this audacious goal, he aimed to demonstrate the nation's scientific capabilities and showcase its resilience and determination in the face of intense geopolitical competition with the Soviet Union.
The Apollo program had far-reaching implications beyond the Moon. It triggered advancements in science, technology, and engineering, fostering innovation that would later benefit many other industries. Pursuing space exploration became a catalyst for pushing the boundaries of human achievement and inspiring future generations to dream big.
What far-reaching implications would an Apopka moonshot have?
The 2024 State of the City Address stands at a crossroads, torn between dwelling on the echoes of yesterday and charting a course for a promising future. I hope you will consider a different approach next year, Mayor Nelson.
And for the City Council, who meets for the first time since the State of the City and the last time in 2023 today, I hope you will start thinking big for this growing city you represent.
What is your vision of an Apopka moonshot in 2024?