Mr. Mayor

Monroe Mayor John Howard speaks to the crowd at the 2018 Hurricane Blowout.

What a year?!

When the clock strikes midnight to ring in 2021, I am quite sure we will all be awake just to make sure 2020 is in our rear window.

2020 will always be remembered as contentious and scary — divisive politics, COVID-19, educational challenges not previously faced, and social/behavioral shutdowns that allowed us to get a grasp on how to battle a global pandemic. Terms and phrases that will define the year are: “mask,” “social distancing,” “flatten the curve,” “digital learning” and “vaccine.”

As we have experienced an unprecedented year of change, please allow me to point out some of the bright spots and positives of the year that was:

• INFRASTRUCTURE IMPROVEMENTS:  One of the “not sexy” obligations of the city includes sewer. We have rebuilt sewer over the past few years to the tune of several million dollars through Community Development Block Grants. You have noticed the state of South Madison Avenue and navigated the headaches of road cuts, potholes and washouts. While a necessary evil of improvement leads to destruction, everything will be back to “normal” when the road is repaved in late first quarter or early second quarter.

Our Loganville Water Line is in process and will begin pumping a million gallons of water each day in the late first quarter.

Our gas line to northern Morgan County is just completed and will increase utility revenues, which adds 5% annually to the budget of our general fund.

Alongside both gas and water lines, we are adding conduit for future fiber expansion, which will allow the city another future revenue stream.

• TRAFFIC CALMING: One of the biggest infrastructure headaches of the year was the installation/construction process of our traffic calming devices on East Church Street. As time has gone by, construction has ended and people have gotten used to the change, we have seen a reduction in traffic and a reduction in speed. We have also done the speed tables on Davis Street — much easier, much less congestion, much less community angst — and the reduction in speed has been significant. More projects to come in 2021.

• PARKS: One of the most important obligations of the city is recreation. While we do not get into programming of sports (left to the county parks and rec), it is incumbent upon us to provide recreational outlets and passive parks for our citizens. I hope you noticed the total renovation of Pilot Park. Childers has been updated with improvements in the dog park, addition of slides, and the addition/repair of creek basin (former “lake”). Finally, the first phase of our Mathews Park renovation is complete.

• COMMUNITY BUILDING TRANSITION: During one of our City Council sessions over the summer, we made the decision to turn the Community Center on East Church Street from a position of financial loss and lack of use to a moneymaker for the city and everyday love for the building.

• WALTON PLAZA: The city purchased Walton Plaza and has been diligently working and building our new police department and municipal court. That will free space for the Downtown Development Authority to expand our downtown choices (restaurant, retail, or boutique hotel).

• UTILITY BOND: At our November meeting, we signed a $50 million utility bond that will go to our delivering fiber to every home in Monroe. In the planning and engineering phase, construction should begin in second quarter. We will also be installing our first water tower since 1962 and adding several other technology and infrastructure advancements that will allow us to be more competitive and adaptable for the future.

• EVENTS: Known far and wide for our downtown events, we adapted to safely resume our concerts, farmers market, Fall Fest and Christmas parade. We, of course, had to drop several of our successful events throughout most of the year, but we are looking forward to an extremely packed schedule for 2021.

• THROUGHOUT THE YEAR, our sales tax revenues were up significantly. You stayed home and supported your neighbors, you kept it local, you did Candlelight Shopping and Small Business Saturdays. While businesses across the nation have shuttered and laid off employees, we have flourished. We have flourished because of you, your sweet spirit, your belief in Monroe, and your love of your neighbor.

The year was capped off by the largest land donation to the city in our 199-year history.

As we celebrate our bicentennial, please look for:

• PARK DEVELOPMENT: We will continue park redevelopment at Mathews Park, begin work on our Downtown Green, planning and increased offerings at Hammond, and planning and engineering of our most recent, largest park.

• CONCERTS: Again this year, we will have our summer concert series at the Downtown Green. As we keep in mind health and community concerns, of course, everything is subject to change.  Nobody does it better than Sadie Krawczyk and Leigh Ann Walker, and we are so lucky to have them working their magic.

• MONROE PAVILION: In conversations as recently as last week, we have been told construction will be underway in the next several weeks. The plan is to open the first phase by the end of the year. Of course, Publix is the anchor, ULTA Beauty, Ross, Marshalls, and Five Below should all be in the first phase. We have been assured more announcements are forthcoming in the next three to six months.

One Monroe

As it is our challenge to always leave this world a better place for future generations, this letter will focus on three who are constantly thinking of ways we can better our community.

• Reliant Homes: In the final week of 2020, the city of Monroe received a gift of 123.70 acres, including 4,000 feet of river frontage, from Darrell McWaters and Reliant Homes. Darrell believes in the momentum of our city, and he shares our vision of park expansion. That gift gives our fair city the momentum to build our future while enhancing recreational opportunities and green space for our generations.

• Piedmont Walton: When Clearview Regional Hospital was purchased a little more than three years ago, CEO Larry Elbert and his team took the challenge of turning a failing hospital into a viable health care option. A few short years later, Piedmont Walton was listed as one of the top 10 hospitals in the state. All of a sudden, people have started choosing to receive quality care in our town, and we owe the doctors and staff a huge debt of gratitude.

• Joe Gargasz - Joe might be the most community-minded person I know. From dedicating his time to the Monroe-Walton Center for the Arts to his actual job at the Museum at Emory University to floating down the Alcovy River on his kayak, Joe is always looking for ways to better Monroe. We are so lucky to have a community full of people who are so willing to share their time and talents to create a better Monroe and a better world.

Please note: As the success of Monroe is dependent on many organizations, entities, and people, I would be remiss were I to not mention our first responders and educators. From public safety to day-to-day teachers and staff, the have shown up and shown out for you—in the face of a pandemic. They are dedicating their lives to serving you and educating your children. Crime is down again this year, response rate from fire is down again, and our schools are performing at a higher level than ever.

We have walked a very fine line this year. We believe in freedom and liberty. We believe in personal responsibility. While many shut down, our concern was increased drug use, increased suicides, bankrupt businesses, mental health issues, and domestic violence that are associated with shutting down an entire economy. As soon as allowed by the state, we chose to open as much as possible — as safely as possible, and we appreciate your cooperation.

I am wishing you the happiest, healthiest, and most prosperous New Year, and may it be as “back to normal” as possible. With each passing day, you make me more and more proud to serve as your mayor.

Happy New Year!

John Howard, a Monroe businessman, became the city’s mayor in January 2018. Email: jhoward@monroega.gov.

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