Heightened competition puts mayors on hot seat

October 2, 2010

Elected officials are struggling to know how to respond to the weak economy and constituent demands for jobs.

Linda Williamson, a Bloomington-based economic development consultant, said many politicians have little concept of the many months or even years they must invest to land a project.

Still, she sees some mayors putting forth Herculean efforts.

“They see themselves as having to double the efforts in their communities,” Williamson said.

Wayne Seybold, who won a figure skating silver medal in the 1988 Olympics, returned to his hometown of Marion, was elected mayor in 2003, and rolled up his sleeves as a string of big employers, including Thomson Consumer Electronics, pulled out of town.

Seybold said it’s hard to determine which issue is most important with constituents—jobs or tearing down vacant houses. But he figures seven of every 10 hours he spends on his job deal with jobs.

He’s been on several international trade missions with Gov. Mitch Daniels, and has traveled with Marion delegations to China, Japan and Russia. In late September, Marion was scheduled to host four groups from China.

Seybold said right now he’s juggling 27 economic development prospects ranging from a Jimmy John’s sandwich franchise to a $90 million manufacturing plant.

“We decided we needed to get to work and change the way we did economic development, or we wouldn’t be around long,” Seybold said.

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, who took office in early 2008 just as the recession was starting, also dove into economic development.

Ballard has led trade missions to Brazil, China, Germany, India and the United Kingdom. And last February, after Navistar closed an east-side plant and had to return $3.5 million in incentives, the city allocated the money to Develop Indy, an economic-development organization.

Ballard said he knew before the election that the city would need to improve contacts with fast-growing economies and that he would need to put in a lot of time on the topic.

“I knew we needed to get global in our outlook,” he said.

Ballard added that he receives a lot of support from paid economic development staff, a luxury mayors of smaller cities sometimes must go without.

Greenfield Mayor Brad DeReamer said he relishes working on economic development because he has owned businesses in a variety of fields, including real estate and restaurants.

DeReamer, who ran for office in 2007 on a platform that included improving job prospects, defines economic development to include retail and commercial development. Such projects that also generate tax dollars but usually don’t receive attention from economic development officials.

“Jobs is the most critical thing on most people’s minds right now,” he said, repeating an oft-heard comment: “‘I need a high-paying job—what are you doing?’”

Few mayors are suited for the work, he said, because most find their way into the office through political channels.•


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