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How Stellar Communities Grants Affect 2015 Mayoral Races

courtesy Randy Strasser For Mayor

When the state’s Stellar Communities program started four years ago, it was with an eye to injecting money into communities looking for an economic lift.

But in economics, as in politics, there are differing views on how money is best targeted for a municipality’s needs. This year, in the first election cycle since the program started, several mayors of cities with Stellar grants are leaving office.

Most of the outgoing mayors believe there’ll be a smooth transition and Stellar projects will continue as planned. But in at least one city, the program became a wedge that helped to unseat an incumbent.

Seeking Buy-In From Successors

Robert VanLandingham has been mayor of the City of Wabash for 12 years. He’s not running for re-election this year, so whoever takes his seat in 2016 inherits stewardship of the Stellar Communities grant the city won in 2014. VanLandingham says he’s not concerned that the new mayor – whoever it is – will try to change the city’s administration of the grant.

“It’s hard to win a Stellar with getting your community totally involved," VanLandingham says. "And my council and people such as that were deeply involved in this. And we had several public meetings prior to this to get even where we are today. I don’t think once these candidates have given their word that they’re going to support Stellar, I just don’t see them backing off that at all.”

The story is similar in the city of Richmond, where Mayor Sally Hutton is stepping away from the job at the end of this year. She says she sought out the candidates to replace her and offered them information on Stellar and the execution of the city’s two-year old grant, in hopes they’ll follow through on the existing plans. But even if they don’t, she says she’ll still 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’re not going to do that,’” Hutton laughs.

What To Do When It's Not Your Choice To Leave?

One person who’s being forced into the background, though, is Delphi Mayor Randy Strasser. He lost his primary election race by just ten votes in May. He says Stellar was held up as an example in that race – wrongly, he believes – of his views on the revitalization of the community differing from the mainstream. Strasser says his opponents have an almost isolationist view of state money.

“Basically, their conversation with me was the fact that if you reinvest and you bring property values up, then you have to pay more taxes. Yeah that’s true, but property values and creating long-term stability in the small businesses in the downtown area is what we’re actually after,” Strasser says.

"And it concerns me and it concerns a lot of other people here, too – even at the state level. You think about $25 million that people are investing in a community – a small community like this – they not only want to see their investment protected, they want to see some return on their investment as well.”

“It’s not a blank check.”

Stellar was made the purview of the Lieutenant Governor when the program was created on then-LG Becky Skillman’s watch in 2011. Lieutenant Governor’s office Public Relations Emily Duncan says it works the same under current lieutenant governor Sue Ellspermann, who visited Delphi again last year to announce a grant for the city’s opera house.

Duncan says there are checks and balances in the four-year grant cycle that keep most projects on track, but there is some leeway for new administrations to put their stamp on an existing project.

“It's not a blank check," she says. "But I don’t think anyone says ‘Here’s your plan, it cannot change.”

She also says site selectors don’t consider the relative political stability of a city before they choose each year’s two winners.

“In my experience, we haven’t taken a look and said ‘Oh gosh, if they’re not in office then the local community doesn’t deserve these grants,’” Duncan says.

Leaving A Legacy

In Delphi, Mayor Randy Strasser will be forced to watch someone else take hold of the grant the city won on his watch. And though he’s clearly perturbed about the way he lost this year’s campaign and the part Stellar played in it, he says the discussion is bigger than him.

“You know, this has never been about a legacy for Randy Strasser," the mayor says. "This has been about a legacy of the City of Delphi.”

It’s easier to determine that legacy in cities like Greencastle. Even though Mayor Sue Murray chose soon after her city won it’s Stellar grant that she wouldn’t seek another term, the multi-million-dollar renovation of downtown building facades is nearly complete.

In Delphi, the grant is much newer, so there’s much more work left to do. How that work gets done may take a new direction after the polls close in November.

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