When the state-run Stellar Communities program started four years ago, the goal was to inject money into communities looking for economic growth.
But in business as well as in politics there are different views on how money can best be used for the needs of a community. This year, in the first election cycle since the program began, several mayors of cities with Stellar grants are leaving office.
Most of the outgoing mayors believe there will be a smooth transition and the Stellar projects will continue as planned. But in at least one city, the program became a wedge that helped remove an incumbent.
Search for buy-ins from successors
Robert VanLandingham has been Mayor of Wabash City for 12 years. He’s not running for re-election this year, so anyone who takes his seat in 2016 will inherit leadership of the Stellar Communities, which the city won in 2014 and managed the grant.
“It’s hard to win a stellar when you fully involve your community,” says VanLandingham. “And my advice and people like that were heavily involved in it. And we had several public meetings before to bring ourselves to where we are today. I don’t think that once these candidates have given their word that they will support Stellar, they will simply not step down. “
The situation is similar in the city of Richmond, where Mayor Sally Hutton is leaving her job later this year. She says she sought out the candidates to replace them and offered them information about Stellar and the implementation of the city’s two-year scholarship in the hopes that they will implement existing plans. But even if they don’t, she says she’ll keep an eye on the city’s progress.
“And I’ll be a voice in the background, I won’t be gone. [I’ll say] ‘What do you mean you won’t do that?’ “Laughs Hutton.
What to do if leaving isn’t your choice?
One person pushed into the background, however, is Delphi’s Mayor Randy Strasser. In May he lost his primary campaign by just ten votes. He says Stellar was cited in this race – wrongly, he believes – as an example of his non-mainstream views on community revitalization. Strasser says his opponents have an almost isolationist view of government funds.
“Basically, what you talked to me about was the fact that you have to pay more taxes when you reinvest and increase property values. Yes, that’s true, but we’re actually interested in real estate values and creating long-term stability in the small businesses in the city center, ”says Strasser.
“And it affects me and a lot of other people here – even at the state level. Think of $ 25 million that people invest in a church – a small church like this – they not only want to see their investments. “Protected, they also want to see some return on their investment.”
“It’s not a blank check.”
Stellar was named lieutenant governor in 2011 when the program was created under the supervision of then-LG Becky Skillman, proclaiming a scholarship to the city’s opera house.
Duncan says there are checks and balances in the four-year funding cycle that keep most projects on track, but there is some leeway for new administrations to put their mark on an existing project.
“It’s not a blank check,” she says. “But I don’t think anyone would say, ‘Here’s your plan, it can’t change.”
She also says site selectors don’t consider a city’s relative political stability before picking the two winners each year.
“In my experience, we didn’t look around and say, ‘Oh God, if they’re not in office, the local church doesn’t deserve these grants,'” says Duncan.
To leave a legacy
In Delphi, Mayor Randy Strasser will be forced to watch someone else pick up the scholarship the city has won under his supervision. And while he’s obviously concerned about how he lost this year’s campaign and what role Stellar played in it, he says the discussion is bigger than him.
“You know, for Randy Strasser this was never about a legacy,” says the mayor. “It was about a legacy from the city of Delphi.”
In cities like Greencastle, it’s easier to pinpoint this legacy. Although Mayor Sue Murray decided shortly after her city won the Stellar Scholarship that she would not seek another term, the multi-million dollar renovation of downtown buildings is almost complete.
In Delphi, the scholarship is much newer, so there is still a lot to be done. The way this work is done could head in a new direction once the November elections are over.