Lexington Mayor Jim Gray asked for the community’s help in solving violent crimes and issued a plea for more mentors for youth in his seventh state of the city address on Tuesday.
In his more than 30-minute speech, Gray also touted the city’s low unemployment and its robust economic recovery after the recession. He also gave updates on key capital projects, including the opening of a new fire station, the upcoming renovation of the downtown convention center, and the groundbreaking for Town Branch Commons — a more than two-mile downtown trail and parks system that has been been proposed for several years.
The two-term mayor didn’t unveil any new projects or initiatives in his address. He spoke Tuesday at a noon meeting of the Lexington Forum at the Hyatt Regency.
“I’m here to tell you that in Lexington, we are moving forward,” Gray said. “We are getting things done. We are building a great American city.”
He didn’t mention newly sworn-in President Donald Trump by name in his speech but acknowledged that the country was very much divided. Local government, however, is not, he said.
“I give you this report knowing that, as Americans, we find ourselves in turbulent times,” said Gray, a Democrat. “There are people from all points of view asking honest and legitimate questions about the direction of our country. About 5,000 of them were marching up our Main Street just three days ago.”
He said that over the past six years, the city has created more than 15,000 jobs. Its unemployment rate was 2.8 percent in November 2016, down from 7.7 percent in 2011.
The growth in Lexington’s economy and its wages has largely been driven by the health care sector, which now makes up 10 percent of the total workforce. Gray acknowledged both Dr. Michael Karpf, head of University of Kentucky’s UK HealthCare, and UK President Eli Capilouto during the speech.
He also cited some new workforce initiatives, including the hiring of the city’s first workforce development director. The city also is streamlining its revenue collection and its planning and building permits to make it easier for people and businesses to do business with the city.
“Part of being a great American city means that the American dream is alive and thriving and within reach for every man, woman, boy and girl in every neighborhood in Kentucky,” Gray said.
There were 24 homicides in Fayette County in 2016, the highest since 2001. Nearly all of those last year — the most in more than a decade — were committed with guns, and many of the victims were in their teens.
Gray said the city has added 50 police officers in the past several years. Lexington’s police strength is close to 600, the highest ever. He stopped short of saying additional police officers or other equipment will be requested in the next budget that begins July 1.
“We are examining the need for additional investment as we put together our next budget,” he said.
Instead, he asked the community to help police solve crimes and also encouraged more adults to mentor youth.
“But addressing these concerns calls for something more than a police response,” Gray said. “As a community we must respond, especially on behalf of our young people.”
The large turnout at the Martin Luther King Jr. march on Jan. 16 shows that people in Lexington are engaged, he said. But to stop crime, the police need help.
“One improvement all of us can make is simple: Speak out,” Gray said. “If you see something, say something. It can save a life. We can all tell the police, or call or text Crime Stoppers. Young people, tell an adult, like a teacher or someone in your church.”
More youth mentors also are needed, he said. The city has started its own mentoring program, pairing city employees with youth. But there are similar programs across the city.
“I encourage all of you to consider signing up to be someone’s mentor,” he said. “You don’t need to be perfect. You just have to be there for a young person. The time investment is modest. The emotional and community benefits are enormous.”
Gray said work will begin next summer on a section of Town Branch Commons. The trail will follow the path of Town Branch Creek and will connect the Town Branch and Legacy trails. The city’s first new fire station in 11 years is set to open in April, he said. The city also has acquired land for a new fire station in the rapidly growing Masterson Station area.
Gray also said the city is trying to move forward with its plans to increase internet speed, an initiative that he announced several years ago but that has been repeatedly delayed. However, he gave no firm dates or a timetable for that project in Tuesday’s speech.
“Every city in the country is trying to figure out how to build a fiber-optic network that closes the digital divide and what I call the small-business divide,” Gray said.
He also made no mention of CentrePointe, a long-delayed downtown project that includes an entire city block. Work is now being done on a three-story underground garage after years of delays, stops and restarts.
Some members of the Urban County Council said after Gray’s speech that they were pleased that he spent part of his address on youth and gun violence.
Councilwoman Jennifer Scutchfield said she hoped that the city and the Fayette County schools could work on programs together to address youth and gun violence.
“I would like to see a partnership with the schools,” Scutchfield said. “We have to address it and encourage kids to stop using guns and the best way to get to them is through the schools.”
Councilwoman Angela Evans agreed.
“I think more funds need to go to address this issue,” Evans said.
At-large Councilman Richard Moloney agreed with Gray’s assessment that the city’s economy has improved over the past five years. But Moloney said he thinks the city should be cautious in its spending. The economy could change.
“I just want us to be careful,” Moloney said. “I don’t want us to get too far ahead. I’ve been there. I don’t want us to go backward.”