SALEM — The future, by its very nature, is unknown, and Salem's chief executive is asking the community to do one thing when looking ahead: Imagine.
"Imagine Salem" is a community visioning program to map out what Salemites want their fair city to look like in 2026 when they celebrate Salem's 400th anniversary. And the planning starts now. Mayor Kim Driscoll announced the new program Thursday night during her annual State of the City address.
Driscoll, who spoke heavily on the growth of the city in her now 11 years as mayor, noted that "in nine years, Salem will celebrate a special occasion, our quadricentennial."
Celebrating 400 years of history, she said, would be "the easy part — the party, the fireworks, whatever craziness we come up with a decade from now."
Planning it is the tougher task.
"What kind of city do we want Salem to be by then? What legacy will we pass on to the next generation of Salem workers, entrepreneurs, parents and leaders?" Driscoll said. "We'll answer these questions together."
That announcement came late in her address, however. To open, Driscoll discussed the state of the city in 2006, after she was first elected to the corner office.
"City crews had worked tirelessly to prepare Old Town Hall for the festivities," she said. "I was a new mayor in an old building that had great historic bones, but was in need of attention."
Actually, she said, the entire city was in need of attention.
"We faced a bruising fiscal crisis," Driscoll said. "Weeks before being sworn in to office, the city had depleted virtually all of our reserve accounts to pay past due bills and for the first time in memory, we had to borrow money to be sure that we could pay teachers, police officers, firefighters and other city employees.
"In short, we were broke," she continued, "and I’m not just referring to the balance in our financial accounts. We had poor budget practices, for sure. But, more than that was broken.
"Governing at the local level too often consisted of settling scores and 'gotch-ya' games," she said, "with regular sparring between branches of government. It felt like we would take two steps forward as a city and then one step back."
But since then, things have turned around dramatically, according to Driscoll. The once-empty stabilization account is flush with cash, city leaders have drawn in more than $100 million in state and federal funding to ease up on local taxation, and departments have increased in size — notably police and fire, which have grown by 15 and 20 percent, respectively.
Now, everything around the city is growing, according to Driscoll.
"Eleven years ago there was only a fraction of the restaurants and small businesses that make our downtown so vibrant today," she said. "No multi-modal MBTA station or new garage, no ferry or cruise port. A state college, instead of a state university. No J. Michael Ruane court complex. No Footprint power. No activity on the brownfields along the North River. No Blaney Street wharf and marina. No comprehensive marketing of our city and little to no management, guidance or coordination of October’s Haunted Happenings events."
So now, with nine years to go before Salem's 400th birthday, the time has come to plan, the mayor said.
"We don’t know exactly what the future holds, and many matters may be outside our control," Driscoll said. "But ‘Imagine Salem’ will help us shape the important aspects of our community that are within our control and help us set a collective course forward — with a deadline to achieve what we value."
Milo chosen to lead council in 2017
Prior to Driscoll's remarks, the City Council briefly reorganized for the new year and chose a new president. That distinction now goes to Councilor-at-large Elaine Milo.
"We on the council may not always agree on the issues," Milo said. "But there's one thing I'm very sure of, and that's that we're all looking to make Salem a better place for everyone."
The leadership on the council's five subcommittees was also hammered out that evening.
Ward 6 Councilor Beth Gerard will lead the council's Administration and Finance committee; freshman councilor Steve Dibble, in Ward 7, is in charge of the Community and Economic Development committee; at-large councilor Jerry Ryan will run the Ordinances, Licenses and Legal Affairs committee; Arthur Sargent, also serving at-large, will chair the Government Services committee; and Ward 2 Councilor Heather Famico will lead the Public Health, Safety and Environment committee.
Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523, DLuca@salemnews.com or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.