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State of the City Address

WATCH Mayor Matt Tuerk's
2023 State of the City Address


Good afternoon y buenas tardes. Before we begin, I want to start by saying thank you.

Karen, thank you. I’m so proud to call you my partner and I’m so glad that you’re here today. Thank you to my kids Mel and Margot.

Thank you to the Allentown Chamber and to Liz Martin for putting together this amazing event.

Thank you to City Council. I look forward to much more collaboration.

And to all of you, I’m deeply grateful. It’s not just that you are here now, but you’ve been here for Allentown and I’m confident that you will continue to be engaged with our City, that you’ll be inspired to write our story together.

We’re about to kick off season two of this series.

In the City of Allentown, we’ve started to talk about this grand experience in the language of television. This is by no means meant to trivialize the work that we do, but we’ve found that it’s a helpful mechanism to frame the experience. It’s good to remember that every story has a beginning, middle, and end. It has characters that grow and develop, and plots that evolve over multiple seasons, with highs and lows that ultimately become a memorable story. It helps us keep things in perspective as the City grows and changes. And as we work to build our own story.

So, let’s start with a recap of season one.

Let’s set the scene. This time last year, we gathered in this room. Omicron was raging, we all had masks, and nobody was eating.

We were about to hear from a new mayor, who promised to be open and honest, always. I gave you a summary of where we stood and left you wondering what we would do over the first season.

We started to build. Our partners broke ground on new housing projects in center city and at Little Lehigh.

Construction began on the DaVinci Science center, which will bring hundreds of thousands of visitors to Allentown when it’s complete. We got started on Downtown West, partnering with City Center and DACDI to revitalize the downtown west of 9th street.

We’ve begun to completely revamp the streetscape on Hamilton, with wider sidewalks, ample lighting, new trees and benches. I kicked it off by smashing one of the benches from the old Hamilton Mall outside of Assembly88.

We celebrated some completed projects. We cut the ribbon on new apartment buildings and small businesses, from Center City to the East Side. Among our new downtown businesses are AblePay, DLP Realty, and Ideal Concepts.

We restored connections. The Jordan Creek Greenway is complete and significantly improves our trail network.

In the wards, with the dedication of Riverside Drive, we’re linking up with our neighbors. Significant work was completed on a wayfinding study that will help visitors better navigate the city. And we finally reconnected the City by opening the Tilghman Street Bridge.

We got our kids vaccinated. Each September, hundreds of kids are kept out of school because they are not current on their vaccines. This year, over 1,400 kids couldn’t start school, but our Health Bureau partnered with the Allentown School District to get that number down to 18 by December. That’s the lowest it has ever been.

That spirit of collaboration extended to addressing the nuisance crimes that lowered the quality of life for our residents.

We convened a dirt bike task force in partnership with neighboring municipalities and worked with Senator Pat Browne to pass legislation to expanded police powers to seize and destroy dirt bikes.

That led to a significant reduction in illegal dirt bike use and an increase in peace and quiet in Allentown.

In addition to all of this, we were able to accomplish a lot within the walls of City Hall.

Our financial position is strong.

The finance team, under the leadership of Jessica Baraket and Bina Patel, finished season one with the city’s best cash position ever, topping $32 million.

That position and confidence in leadership prompted rating agencies to increase our bond rating from an A minus to an A stable.

The team also worked to develop a zero-based budget that invested heavily in our employees without increasing taxes.

Our grants team secured over $10 million in funding for police technology, parks improvements, and traffic safety.

We touched on a sense of the frustration felt by city employees and completed an employee engagement survey which gave our human resources team the information needed to begin an overhaul of our workplace culture.

A lot of the first episode of season one focused on the antiquated systems that we have in place. Gerry Anthony has led the charge to get our inspectors to stop using paper and start using iPads. We’re nearing deployment and could not be more excited.

Gerry’s IT team is driving a geospatial strategy that works across departments to serve our residents. One exciting application led by Fire Chief Freddy Agosto’s team is an effort to map the location of homeless encampments that will better position our paramedics to respond to the medical needs of our unsheltered population.

Another system that needed modernization was the way that we service our City’s fleet. For years, the garage underperformed as an outsourced function. A cross-functional team managed to stand up an internal city garage in mere months and our ability to serve the needs of our emergency services is better than ever.

Perhaps our greatest work has been in communications. The communications team, led by Genesis Ortega has been phenomenal. They’ve greatly improved our residents’ awareness of all things Allentown, partly through a huge effort to engage through social media. They’ve increased social media engagement by over 30% in just one year, topping 25,000 Facebook followers.

The City’s website desperately needs a refresh, and we completed the initial design work for that site.

We broke out of our Lehigh Valley bubble in season one, building relationships with our legislators in Harrisburg and with the Biden administration in Washington. I traveled to the White House to advocate for the needs of Allentown and spoke directly with cabinet secretaries about our challenges. I also visited the Dominican Republic as part of a mission to better understand our city’s growing population.

We’ve begun to change the narrative in the first season, but it was not all great.

We did not solve the parking issue in Allentown. We were frustrated by an ongoing litter problem in the streets.

While we added 511 new housing units to Allentown and have almost 1200 in the pipeline, many of our residents still lived through a season of uncertainty. There’s a little girl named Sixela who lives across the street from City Hall. I see her all the time and she’s my buddy. She’s cute and energetic and she’s part of our city’s future. But she’s living month to month and always on the verge of being evicted.

Four people were killed in the street by cars. I can still remember the feeling of Angela Youwakim’s dad’s tears on my face as I hugged him the day after she was killed crossing the street to teach at Dieruff.

While nuisance crime diminished and violent crime overall dropped by almost five percent, we saw 83 crimes committed with a gun in season one.

Treshawn Tracy, a freshman football player at Allen was hanging out with friends on a weekend at Stevens Park. That afternoon, Treshawn was shot and killed, one of 9 people murdered in Allentown in season one. I’ll never forget speaking to the Allen football team that week, trying to convince them that we love them and we care for them.

So, let’s talk about what season two has in store.

In order to talk about the next season, we need to set the stage. What’s going on right now?

Here’s the scene at City Hall. We launched an engagement survey that consisted of 33 questions and was designed to help us understand the state of workplace culture in Allentown.

Perhaps the most important question was “what’s one thing you want senior leadership to know?”

We got over 400 responses to that question, and they said everything from “we want free parking” to “police need to be allowed to grow beards.”

But the statement that most clearly articulated the feelings of our employees was this one:

"We are proud of the work we do for this City and its residents. Listen to those that have been doing the job and making a difference despite lacking suitable support and leadership for some time. We still are unclear on the vision and priorities of senior leadership.  We are rooting for this administration. Culture can only change with leadership that is willing to do the work and be empathetic and supportive to those who have been doing this for a long time. Leading is a team sport."

It says that our employees are proud but have not felt heard.

They’re hopeful, but they’re not sold yet.

This neglect is making it hard to retain employees and even harder to hire new faces. You likely share this frustration at your business and have begun efforts to improve your workplace.

There’s something missing in workplace culture right now, but we can also see it missing in the aspects of daily life here.

We should see parents and neighbors rooting their hearts out for the kids on the field at J Birney Crum. But often it seems like there are more players on the field than there are people in the stands. We have a ton of current and alumni Canaries living in the city, but we’re not seeing them at the games.

Our neighborhood groups were once established by engaged residents all across the city. But now the attendance at those meetings has dwindled to half a dozen seats at the table. Allentown is continuing to grow, but somehow participation in community groups is declining. Maybe the best indicator of the lack of participation in civic life in Allentown came with the most recent elections. We saw voter turnout as low as 7 per cent in parts of the city.

All of this is telling us a story of a city that feels unsupported and lonely.

Beyond that, we asked our residents to weigh in and tell us what issues they find troubling, and what – in their opinion – is going well for Allentown.

We feel the ANGER when someone loses their life to gun violence in Allentown. That’s why Chief Charles Roca is leading the public safety team that invests in the equipment, training and personnel required to help cure the disease of violence.

We feel the DESPERATION when a single mom cannot find an affordable home. That’s why Vicky Kistler’s CED department is completing a rewrite of our zoning code and the development of a housing strategy that will create more opportunities to house our people.

We feel the GRIEF when a schoolteacher is killed by a car crossing the street to get to work. That’s why the department of Public Works, under Mark Shahda’s leadership, is focused on making improvements to our streets that will make them safer for all pedestrians.

We also feel the JOY of kids and families of all ages enjoying Hallo-weekend in downtown Allentown, and a Day of the Dead festival in the Arts Park. That’s why soon-to-be appointed Parks Director Mandy Tolino will focus her recreation and special events team on expanding access to the fun things for our residents across the city.

And all of this is why my administration is intently focused on making Allentown safe, clean, and healthy.

In order to do that, we’re going to have to work together. That means our City of Allentown employees feeling empowered to work with all of us engaged Allentown stakeholders.

Just a couple of weeks ago, a call came in to the county’s comms center that a worker in a trench had the walls collapse in on him. Our Allentown Technical Rescue Team leapt into action. Firefighters and paramedics were dispatched to the scene, where they found the worker buried up to his ears. The temperatures were dropping, the sun was setting, and our team was worried that even if they could dig him out, he wouldn’t live through the ordeal.

Our police department provided immediate support to the team by securing the scene. Our streets and stormwater workers brought heavy equipment to clear a path for a UGI truck and set up emergency lighting. As soon as we learned in the mayor’s office, we rushed to the scene.

Witnessing the way that the team came together to strategize and solve the problem was totally amazing. Each person understood their role in this rescue, and trusted the next person to jump in when necessary.

And you all were with us, too. All eyes were on the team, praying and rooting for the best outcome. That emotional support was a huge help as the rescue workers eventually extracted the worker from a terrible fate.

That night, everyone felt that call to action. Everyone felt the intensity of needing to solve a dangerous problem in order to save a life. Whether you were at the scene or fiercely searching the news for updates, you felt a strong need to be a part of this community as we worked to achieved something incredible.

This silent call to action comes to us during times of hardship, but it also comes when there’s something great to be a part of.

Like watching the Olympics or the World Cup, we can come together as both players on a field and fans on the sidelines and we all feel the pride of knowing what we can do, what we can accomplish when skills and support come together. It’s a celebration of humanity. Of what humans are capable of.

I’m asking you to channel that energy. I’m asking our employees to invest in themselves and their teams, so when that call to action comes, they are all ready work together.

And I’m asking you to be a part of that. Not just in hard times. Show up when our high school kids need someone to cheer them on. Or when our local girl scout troop needs help reaching their cookie goal. It’s the “little things” we need you there for, too.

Come to the table. Answer the call. Work with us to help write and be a part of the next season of Allentown.

We’re about to make this ask a little easier for you.

We’re lucky to be part of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, a project that brings mayors together from across the globe to learn how to be better leaders.

Allentown was invited to compete for a spot in their Innovation Project and was one of ten communities chosen. We’ve got a core team of 12 innovators learning how we as a City can better collaborate to better engage our stakeholders.

This team has an external focus, but there’s something else going on. They’re learning to lead their peers in innovating.

Over the course of the next season and in future seasons, we’re going to build a supportive, caring, respectful and inclusive workplace.

We’ve already started by doing some simple things, like hosting our first employee picnic, improving communications, trying to have a little fun in City Hall, and asking our employees for their feedback – including beards for our police officers!

We’ll have to do a lot more to truly empower our employees and we know it’s the right thing to do.

One step we’ll take is to work with Faces International to help transform our department heads into next level leaders, tasked with empowering their teams to take responsibility for achieving shared purpose in an uncertain environment.

We’ve also budgeted for an equity and inclusion coordinator in the mayor’s office and that person will be charged with ensuring that the City of Allentown nurtures an inclusive workplace.

I’m going to ask City Council to work closely with me in updating our personnel code. Our employee handbook is law in Allentown. I’ll need council’s help to transform the workplace.

They’ve already acted by passing a parental leave policy that gives new parents six weeks of paid leave. We can do more.

I think we need to allow a four-day work week. I’ve spoken to my department heads, and we’re confident that we can deliver a high level of service and keep City Hall open regular hours while giving our employees the flexibility to deal with modern life.

We have to start actively acknowledging the importance of our workers as both employees and human beings. Some of you are probably in the service business and recognize that you simply cannot do your job without people. Well, in Allentown, we’re in the government service business. We cannot do our job—serving the stakeholders of Allentown—without people.

Season two and beyond will elevate the importance of the stakeholders in this work.

That’s you. I need you to be part of this story.

You can do it in incredibly simple ways. Here’s one: tomorrow night at 7, the Allen boys basketball team has a home game. 18th & Turner. It’s like four bucks. If you want to stick to the East side, go see the Dieruff girls play at the same time. Dieruff boys are at Liberty if you want to support our team at an away game.

How about this? It’s not just Aquarius season, it’s girl scout cookie season. There are a couple of awesome young Allentonians selling cookies. Go to my Facebook page and you’ll be able to see a link for Scoot on the West End or Dreamer on the East Side.

Do you have a little more time? Our recycling and solid waste team is always looking for help with community clean ups. Mark Shahda is here, raise your hand Mark. You can check with him on how to get involved.

This stuff is easy. If you’ve got a little more time, let me know: there’s an opening on the parking authority and another one on the redevelopment authority. We need good collaborators to get involved in serving on these and other boards.

Where it gets more serious is when we’re pursuing authentic community engagement. That’s part of what the Bloomberg Innovation team will do, and it’s a core responsibility of Laura Ballek-Cole, our manager of civic innovation.

One of the exciting efforts that she will lead is something that we’re calling City Hall at Large. It’s a welcoming and consistent space that is designed to democratically engage our residents to solve the complex challenges that we face.

But we cannot get to a safe, clean, and healthy Allentown alone. We need your help.

I’m incredibly excited to see you all in this room. It shows that you’re ready. The Bloomberg team will definitely be in contact.

Our goal is a clean, safe, and healthy Allentown.

We want to be cleaner than we are now. We want streets with no litter, green spaces with no illegal dumping, and well-kept home fronts. We want to be safer than we are now. We want zero roadway deaths. We want to end gun violence. We want to feel at peace.

We want to be healthier than we are now. An Allentown where we all have access to the healthcare we need, where our kids can get a good education, where our residents are not paying more than 30% of their income for housing, where our neighborhoods are free of environmental hazards, and where we work closely with our neighbors to build that Allentown.

Let’s be the authors of our story. Let’s write the next season of Allentown together. If you’re ready to be involved, stand up and show up!

I want to take a moment to say a couple more things before we do questions.

First, I want to point out this guy. It’s Harry Stiles. No not that Harry Styles. This Harry is the 19th mayor of Allentown. His portrait is hanging in my office. Harry reminds me every day that I need to pace myself. I love this job and I love serving the stakeholders. When I’m at the office too late, I’ve got Harry to remind me to go home.

You see, Harry died of a stroke at age 51, just ten months into his first term as mayor. I’m only 48, and I’ve got many more years to give to this story.

I also want to take a minute to give a special thank you to the incredible team that helped get me up here today.

Thank you for listening. Gracias.