Mayor Jim Yarbrough laid out a vision for his final term as Galveston’s top elected leader and took questions from residents during the annual State of the City address Tuesday night at Galveston College.
The city has made a lot of progress in recent years on streets, drainage, lighting and other infrastructure projects, he said.
Projects have been completed or are in the works all over town, including the new baseball field at 53rd Street and Avenue S and a new public works building on Market Street, he said. There’s also long-sought progress on some privately owned projects, such as the former Falstaff Brewery, he said.
Broadway, a main corridor, would soon see increased city and, in turn, private investment, he said. More attractive landscaping and brick-and-mortar improvements were all part of that plan, Yarbrough said.
For too long, Galveston hadn’t made great strides on its leaders’ promises of improving infrastructure, Yarbrough said. The city had the money at times, particularly after Hurricane Ike when an influx of federal dollars came to the community for disaster recovery, but seemed to lack a vision for how to spend it, he said.
“We’ve been putting a jigsaw puzzle together and we don’t have a box top,” Yarbrough said.
The city had made huge progress in recent years on getting things such as potholes repaired or paving major corridors such as 53rd and 43rd streets — the corner pieces in the jigsaw puzzle analogy, he said. Those improvements and the work such as fixing potholes would continue, he said.
But elected leaders also have an opportunity to focus on the big picture items for Galveston, he said.
“Now it’s time to fill in that mosaic in the middle, the fun part,” he said.
In the address, it was clear the next part of that is developing the Port of Galveston.
Under new leadership — and with a master plan in the works — the port is in a position to be a bigger player in the tourism industry and to develop some of its industrial operations, Yarbough said. Rodger Rees, who previously worked for Port Canaveral, Fla., was hired late last year as port director.
“The port is the most unpolished asset we have,” Yarbrough said. “Two of our three legs — tourism and higher education — are in good shape. With Rodger Rees, the port is going to be a shining star.”
Part of the master plan will be to redirect industrial aspects of the port west of 33rd Street and onto Pelican Island, Yarbrough said. Tourism-related activities, namely the cruise terminals, would stay downtown and an improved corridor on 27th Street would help alleviate cruise traffic, he said.
Some of the surface lots in those areas near cruise terminals could be turned into vertical garages to free up space for land development in the area and add other amenities, such as retail or restaurants in the garages, Yarbrough said.
Those changes, as well as improved connectivity to Pelican Island with a new bridge, could usher in new development and growth at the port so it could rely less on parking venues, he said.
Getting there financially could take considering taxing authority for the port, which voters would have a chance to decide, he said. But Yarbrough questioned whether it would be a good idea to use the navigation district as the port’s taxing authority — an idea that has been discussed — because the tax boundaries only extend to 103rd Street, he said.
Many residents who asked questions talked about tourism traffic-related issues, as well as speeding. How could the city better mitigate those issues?
A part of that plan was hopefully diverting some of the traffic from 61st Street to other corridors that have had city-investment in recent years, Yarbrough and City Manager Brian Maxwell said.
But both acknowledged that had to be done to strike a balance between traffic flow and having more cars going through neighborhoods, they said.
A couple of residents raised concerns about new crosswalks on the seawall, particularly in front of the San Luis Resort. Residents had seen many incidents at the crosswalk that seemed dangerous, they said.
The areas where the crosswalks were installed were where the most people had been killed crossing the Seawall on the island, Maxwell said. They’d served a purpose because there haven’t been deaths in those locations since they were installed a year ago, he said.
But people hadn’t yet grown accustomed to mid-block crosswalks and, in some cases, weren’t using them properly by pushing the button to cross, he said.
A panel of city employees took questions from residents privately at the end of the address.