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Gainesville State of the City 2024 addresses gun violence, affordable housing and transportation safety

Mayor Harvey Ward delivers the State of the City on Tuesday at the Blount Center. (Gracie Kurtz/WUFT News)
Mayor Harvey Ward delivers the State of the City on Tuesday at the Blount Center. (Gracie Kurtz/WUFT News)

Gainesville Mayor Harvey Ward delivered his 2024 Gainesville State of the City Address Tuesday, highlighting key issues the city faces such as gun violence, affordable housing, transportation safety and local arts and culture.

Ward’s speech began at 10 a.m. at the Santa Fe Blount Center where he compared the city’s challenges over the past year to an unforeseen snowstorm that swept through Gainesville exactly 125 years ago.

“I ran for mayor and was sworn into office in fine metaphorical weather,” he said. “Soon after the weather changed and we found ourselves in an unprecedented storm.”

The address followed a turbulent year marked by budget cuts and job layoffs resulting from Gainesville’s separation from Gainesville Regional Utilities. Ward emphasized that the past year was shaped by the city’s efforts to balance the 2024 budget after a 55% reduction of funds from GRU. That’s $19 million.

Despite the challenges of the previous year, Ward’s address echoed a theme of progress, encapsulated by this year’s motto that Gainesville is a city “on the move.” During his speech, Ward outlined the progress of various city projects and initiatives.

Ward said he used emails sent by residents over the past year to guide his speech. One email raised concerns about the level of attention city officials give to East Gainesville.

It is a historic fact, Ward said, that commissions have neglected east Gainesville. The commission is now working to reshape the future.

The city’s commitment to East Gainesville is highlighted by the Gainesville Technology Entrepreneurship Center, a hub for 22 small businesses to learn and grow. Ward said the city is reviewing the property for future goals that could include a grocery store, office development and retail outlets. Ward also said a UF Health clinic will also open later this year with over $2 million in funding.

Ward celebrated the city both as a place to experience art and as a workplace for artists of various disciplines.

“Gainesville punches way above our weight when it comes to arts and culture,” he said. “So much so that I have taken to calling Gainesville ‘Florida’s cultural capital.’”

Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker further detailed the city’s cultural initiatives. She highlighted last year’s unanimous vote by the city commission in support of establishing a cultural arts center in east Gainesville.

She also addressed gun violence, which the city commission officially recognized as a public health crisis in 2023. She stressed the importance of neighborhood centers like the one proposed and the Clarence R. Kelly Community Center. Duncan-Walker concluded her remarks with a call to action to the community.

“We certainly hope to have all of you at the table because truly in this fight, it’s going to take us all,” she said.

To combat the rise of gun violence in Gainesville, the city created the gun violence prevention and intervention program manager as a new staff position, Ward said. This new staffer will work across departments to reduce gun violence and is expected to begin working in a few weeks. He also said the city has allocated $53 million to the support of gun violence prevention programs thus far.

Ward affirmed the city is working on promoting pedestrian and cyclist safety. In 2018, the city adopted a “Vision Zero” policy that aimed to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries. So far, the policy has seen success. Ward pointed out a 22% decrease in collisions causing serious bodily harm to cyclists and pedestrians in 2023, along with a 10% reduction in fatalities.

“If we have even one cyclist or pedestrian death, it is tragic and one too many, but it’s also important to mark progress where it is made,” Ward said.

Looking ahead, Gainesville received an $8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation earmarked for road improvements stretching over 4 miles along University Avenue, a site with a high concentration of vehicle collisions.

Ward spotlighted District 3 Commissioner Casey Willits’ role in the city’s initiative to expand affordable housing. Willits, whose district includes more apartments than any other, plans to continue placing affordable units within mixed-income developments this year. He also said more federal funding will culminate in over 200 additional units of affordable housing.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also awarded the city with $500,000 that will be put towards revitalizing the housing situation of east Gainesville.

Last year, the city put out an interactive housing map residents can use to explore current development projects and other factors influencing the housing market.

In closing, Ward looked ahead to the coming year and acknowledged that the city will continue to face challenges head-on.

“I know that the water may rise again, but we shall set sail,” he said. “No matter how the wind blows the sun will shine on the city of Gainesville.”

Natalia Holt reported this story for WUFT-TV:

Gracie is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.