After going through the usual positive notes on the economy, building activity, law and order, and county finances, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs turned Friday to the heart as she delivered her annual state of the county address.
For all the government service activity high points she presented, it was Orange County’s – Central Florida’s – response to last year’s massacre at Orlando’s popular gay Pulse nightclub that defined the year, and may define her tenure as mayor.
“Through our response to the greatest attack we’ve ever withstood, the greatest loss we’ve ever suffered, we learned something incredible about ourselves,” Jacobs declared. “We know that our culture of collaboration has allowed us to accomplish so much. But we discovered that it is our culture of compassion that makes Orlando such an incredible place to live.”
Jacobs delivered her speech before several hundred people crowded into the lobby of one of Orlando’s newest and most iconic attractions, the Coca-Cola Orlando Eye wheel on International Drive.
While Orlando was discovering its culture of compassion, so too was the world, Jacobs said
“The world watched as we mourned and rallied with the common goal of supporting our LGBTQ and Latinx communities and all of those affected,” she said. “The world watched us respond to the victims’ families, to those with broken heart and to those who survived with broken bodies.
“The world saw our first and second responders at their very best. The world witnessed the extraordinary outpouring of acceptance and love that came naturally, from within the very fabric of our community,” she added. “Through it all, the world gained a much fuller understanding of Orlando.”
And, she said throughout most of the rest of her speech, it is an Orlando and Orange County on the move, with the state’s biggest job growth, and new upgrades to its sports, entertainment, arts, and transportation facilities, among other highlights.
She noted the county’s unemployment rate has dropped to 4.2 percent, with more than 127,000 new jobs. She contended that Orlando’s habitually-low wage rates are rising so fast that Forbes Magazine is projecting it 2nd in the nation in wage growth. And she noted the population has increased 15 percent since the recession ended.
“Almost all economic indicators for Central Florida are strong,” Jacobs said. “Two areas in particular, housing and tourism, have shown a remarkable ability to rebound. But the story that these indicators don’t tell is the story that local governments throughout the state have lived. For instance – property tax collections – by far our largest source of revenue fell by 24.8 percent during the recession and just this year they have returned to their pre-recession levels.”
Not all is great, but Jacobs chose to point to efforts to solve some of the county’s biggest problems, than linger on the problems itself.
Greater Orlando has for years been among the worst cities in the country for pedestrian crashes and deaths. Jacobs addressed it by noting the $1 million spent on pedestrian improvements with many more projects in the works to improve pedestrian and bicycle transportation, including a deal worked out with the University of Central Florida to address issues outside of that sprawling campus in east Orange County.
Orange County has what Jacobs last year described as a heroin epidemic. She said the heroin task force she convened in 2015, led by Sheriff Jerry Demings, has been “working tirelessly” to address it.
The area was recently ranked third-worst in the country for its supply of affordable housing. Jacobs pointed to two new affordable housing projects in the works, in Apopka and East Orange County. “These projects and more – including our transformative community partnership with Wayne Densch, which expands housing for the most at-risk homeless families – will have generational impacts,” she said.
“This has been an unforgettable year for Central Florida, with tremendous highs and heartbreaking lows,” Jacobs concluded. “We have learned that only by choosing to face our future together and with confidence can we build a sustainable future for our children, grandchildren and generations to come.”