In a rambling and at times philosophical speech that omitted mention of federal investigations of his personal finances and the city Police Department, embattled Mount Vernon Mayor Ernie Davis vowed Wednesday night to jump-start long-stalled capital projects and get tough with criminals who have turned his city into a "shooting gallery."
Davis' State of the City speech followed a session of song and prayer that was more like a church service than a political event. He spoke to a crowd of about 100 city officials and supporters, spilling out of the City Council chambers into the hallway.
"Make no mistake: Navigating the last year took us through choppy waters. But calmer seas are on the horizon," he said. "Our mission is clear."
The Democrat pledged to breathe new life into the redevelopment of Memorial Field and the LaPorte project, part of Atlantic Development Group's proposed $120 million workforce housing and retail complex downtown. He ticked off a list of other housing and retail projects said to be in development, presenting them as proof that the city can still attract private investment.
"The naysayers and the uninitiated and self-defeatists are heard to repeat that there is very little interest in doing business in Mount Vernon," Davis said. "Nothing could be further from the truth. Multimillions of dollars will be invested in the city within the next five years."
Some of the projects Davis mentioned have languished for years. Promises of renewed development have been met with skepticism from residents and other city officials.
Shortly after taking office, Davis halted the $12.7 million Memorial Field project, suggesting a more modest renovation that he argued would cost the city's taxpayers less while preserving historic elements of the Memorial Field stadium, for many years home to the Mount Vernon High School football team. Last month, Davis put out bids for renovating the tennis courts in the city park that surrounds the stadium and for installing an air-supported dome over the courts.
The LaPorte project seeks to redevelop a site on Gramatan Avenue with the construction of a 14-story apartment building with 159 workforce housing units, a 10-story condo with 131 market-rate units and an eight-story building with 60 units for people ages 62 and up. The project has been tied up since late 2009 amid wrangling over $4 million in funding from Westchester County.
City Council members agree the stalled projects should be restarted. Some suggest there has been too much talk and too little action on that front.
"Having a vision for economic development is great, but it must be backed up with the resources needed to implement the ideas," City Councilman Richard Thomas said. "We need to make sure these projects are sustained over time because many of these projects have been on the drawing board, literally, for years, and we're still talking about them."
A good many in the crowd were supportive of the mayor's ideas about development.
"He's doing what he can to boost the city's economy," said Trevor McLean, 68, immediately after the speech. "I don't know how many of these projects will be completed, but he is certainly trying."
Charles Prichard, 42, said he felt the mayor has been unfairly criticized in the media.
"He's doing what he can to lift up this city, but people keep trying to drag him down, and that's unfortunate, because few people have done more for this city," Pritchard said.
Davis said he is beefing up the Police Department -- including resurrecting the city's major crimes unit -- to combat rising levels of street crime and gunplay.
"Increases in violent crimes impacting and committed by young people have us deeply concerned about safety," Davis said. "We must send a message -- strong and clear -- you will not turn this community into a shooting gallery. Every eye must be on the evildoers."
Thomas concurred that crime should be the city's focus.
"The real cloud that is looming over the city is public safety," Thomas said. "We had a drive-by shooting in downtown in broad daylight this week, right around the corner from the Police Department and a school. That's just ridiculous."
Last year, there were 10 homicides and more than 20 shootings in Mount Vernon. Only two arrests have been made in the homicide cases. The 10 killings surpassed the combined total of the previous two years and contributed to soured relations between Davis and Mount Vernon Police Commissioner Carl Bell.
Last month, Davis fired Bell -- a former DEA agent who was appointed in August 2010 by Davis' predecessor, Clinton Young.
A week later, Davis tapped Richard J. Burke, a former Mount Vernon police commander, to run the city's 205-member force while the search continues for a permanent top cop.
The shake-up comes at a time when the department is facing intense scrutiny. The FBI and U.S. attorney's office have said they are investigating Mount Vernon police officers who may have ties to street gang members.
Councilwoman Deborah Reynolds said she has heard from many residents who are fed up.
"They are sick and tired of it," she said. "They want the shootings and the violence to stop, period."
Davis, 74, has governed the predominantly black, 4.4-square-mile city of nearly 70,000 people for 13 years -- except for a four-year hiatus from 2007 until 2011 -- with a mix of shrewd power politics and laid-back Southern charm.
In late November, federal investigators began probing his personal finances, examining how the mayor, who earns about $200,000 a year from his salary and state pension, acquired at least 10 residential properties in four states worth more than $1 million. The investigators also are looking at whether Davis properly reported rental income from those properties to the Internal Revenue Service.
Davis insists he has done nothing wrong, has paid his fair share of taxes and has lost money on most of his real estate investments. He has blasted the federal investigation and media coverage of the probe as racially motivated.