As Zionsville’s next mayor, John Stehr aims to ‘lower the temperature’

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John Stehr was a familiar face throughout central Indiana for more than two decades as a news anchor at WTHR-TV Channel 13.

Former colleagues said Stehr was recognized as a staff quarterback and newsroom leader who helped reporters, producers and assignment editors cover news in a way that made WTHR the city’s top-rated station.

Now, Stehr is preparing to take his quarterbacking skills to Zionsville, where he will begin his first term as mayor on Jan. 1.

Stehr, a Republican, is running unopposed in the Nov. 7 election. He defeated primary challenger Jane Burgess in May and will succeed Democrat Emily Styron, who announced early this year that she would not seek a second term.

“This is a new job for me. It’s kind of a new world for me,” Stehr said. “So I’m relying on people who are experts in the field who have been there before to kind of guide me through the process, especially in the early days.”

Uncontested mayoral candidate John Stehr says the town needs “to be more proactive” with economic development. “Opportunities to enhance the town keep passing us by.” (IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

Stehr, who retired from TV news in 2018, said he begins every morning now with meetings with community stakeholders to learn what he will need to know on Day 1. For advice, he speaks with suburban mayors Scott Fadness of Fishers and Chris Jensen of Noblesville. He also talks to Scott Willis, who will take office at the beginning of the year as mayor in Westfield.

“I have full days. I feel like I’m already working full time just to try to be prepared to get my feet under me on Jan. 1,” Stehr said. “I think at the end of the day, I want to have good relationships with our neighboring municipalities.”

Zionsville, which reorganized its system of government in 2014 to move from a town manager appointed by the Town Council to a mayor elected by residents, is one of only two towns in Indiana to have an elected mayor.

Stehr will be the town’s third elected mayor, following Styron and Republican Tim Haak.

Fresh start

Emilly Styron

The Mayor’s Office and the all-Republican Town Council have battled since nearly the beginning of Styron’s term in January 2020 over who has authority over personnel and spending decisions and how the council reviews the town’s finances.

One of the conflicts—related to the demotion of the town’s fire chief—led to a court battle, while another played out in a state audit, which raised questions about an overdrawn payroll account and $200,000 that Styron’s administration spent on building renovations without council approval.

Styron said this January that her administration had accomplished its primary goals, especially related to economic and community development. She acknowledged that her contentious relationship with the Zionsville Town Council contributed to her decision to not seek a second term.

Jason Plunkett

Now, with a new mayor ready to go and only three of seven town councilors running for reelection, there is a chance for a new start in Zionsville.

“The most important thing is going to be, certainly, building a relationship with the administration and the council,” said Town Council President Jason Plunkett, who is seeking another term. “I think within any relationship, there has to be communication, and I think John is an excellent communicator.”

Stehr said one of his first objectives will be to “lower the temperature” in Zionsville politics and focus on communication and relationships. That’s music to the ears of business owners in Zionsville, according to Zionsville Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mike Hanlon. Businesspeople are “looking forward to” Stehr’s vision “to unite the community and to move Zionsville in the right direction,” Hanlon said.

Mike Hanlon

The transition process will begin soon, and Stehr will have a chance to meet with people who work within Town Hall. He said his past life as a journalist will help him connect with others.

“I think that all of us in municipal government have to remember that the people of the town should be at the center of everything we do every day,” he said.

Anchor to mayor

Stehr, a 29-year Zionsville resident, currently serves as president of the town’s Board of Parks and Recreation, a post he assumed following a 42-year career in television news, which included 23 years as a news anchor at WTHR.

He came to WTHR in 1995 from CBS News in New York, where he was a network correspondent and anchor for “CBS Morning News.” He also was a founding anchor of CNBC.

Before that, Stehr worked as an anchor and reporter at KUTV-TV in Salt Lake City, Utah; WISH-TV Channel 8 in Indianapolis; WOTV-TV (now WOOD-TV) in Grand Rapids, Michigan; and WJET-TV and WSEE-TV in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Anne Marie Tiernon

He was inducted into the Indiana Broadcast Pioneers Hall of Fame in 2022.

Anne Marie Tiernon, who co-anchored 6 p.m. news broadcasts with Stehr for 14 years, said Stehr was a calming influence in the WTHR newsroom, especially during significant stories and breaking news. Tiernon joined WTHR in 2004.

“I think one of John’s greatest qualities is that he’s calm under pressure,” Tiernon said. “He’s level-headed, and so that provided a lot of peace. He wasn’t erratic.”

Meteorologist Chris Wright, who also worked with Stehr for 14 years at WTHR, said Stehr was a hands-on leader who was skilled at multitasking and instrumental in helping prepare news coverage. (Wright moved to WTTV-TV Channel 4 in 2014.)

Chris Wright

During tornado warnings, Stehr worked behind the scenes to gather information for Wright to share with the station’s audience. A “demonstrative and communicative” leader, Stehr asked co-workers to step out of their comfort zones for the good of the station and overall product, Wright said.

“You have to have people who are willing to jump in, and a lot of times people are shy about that,” he said. “But John was really good at getting involved with things and not ruffling people’s feathers because, a lot of times, you deal with a lot of egos and stuff, so [you’ve] got to be careful how you deal with people.”

Reconnecting with county

Now, Stehr said, he wants to help coax Zionsville to be more open to economic development.

In recent years, the town has lost potential economic development opportunities, such as the Little League International Central Region headquarters in 2018. In that instance, residents opposed the project because of a residential development tied to it. The organization instead chose Whitestown as the home of its new headquarters.

Stehr also said Zionsville should have acted faster to annex areas west of town that have become the $1 billion Anson development in Whitestown. The project led by the former Indianapolis-based Duke Realty Corp. transformed the area off Interstate 65’s Exit 130 from cornfields into housing developments, restaurants, shops and warehouses over the past decade. (Industrial-sector behemoth Prologis Inc., based in San Francisco, purchased Duke in 2022.)

“It’s really frustrating sometimes to see opportunities pass us by, and I think we need to be more proactive,” Stehr said. “Opportunities to enhance the town keep passing us by.”

He wants to help Zionsville establish closer relationships with its fellow Boone County communities. That will be increasingly important, he said, as the LEAP Lebanon Innovation and Research District takes shape 18 miles northwest of Zionsville.

While Lebanon will gain the most from massive projects such as Eli Lilly and Co.’s $3.7 billion manufacturing facility, Zionsville also has a chance to reap benefits. Stehr said he is looking at the LEAP District as a way to attract businesses to help increase the town’s corporate tax base.

But first the town must update its 2003 comprehensive plan, a document that will help guide development in coming years. Stehr plans to keep that in mind as he looks at opportunities presented by the LEAP District.

Since the last comprehensive plan, Zionsville’s population has grown from 11,000 to more than 30,000.

Plunkett said Zionsville has been trying to try to fit its growth within the framework of the outdated plan by modifying it every time a proposal comes through.

“I think it’s going to be really important to understand how we can appropriately guide development for the town for the next two decades,” he said.

Growth goals

Stehr’s two biggest development goals are to rebuild Zionsville’s southern entrance and to construct a community center.

While Zionsville has historically been resistant to redevelopment surrounding its quaint downtown, Stehr views the South Village area along Zionsville Road between 106th and Sycamore streets as an opportunity for redevelopment to augment downtown.

Previous proposed developments just south of downtown, such as a $40 million mixed-use project called Sycamore Flats filed in 2019 by Carmel-based J.C. Hart Development, never came to fruition following opposition from neighbors and other residents.

But Stehr said a reconstruction of South Village is necessary for Zionsville’s future.

In particular, he pointed to an empty lot in the 400 block of Zionsville Road that has been vacant since a gas station closed at the site nearly 20 years ago.

“What I see down on the South Village is a development that is going to enhance, not take away, from what we have here,” Stehr said.

His vision for South Village includes housing, businesses, restaurants, green space and an improved streetscape to alleviate traffic backups that routinely occur heading into downtown. Zionsville will begin developing a master plan for South Village next year, he said.

Shari Jenkins

Shari Jenkins, who operates three restaurants in downtown Zionsville, said she has wanted for 15 years to see South Village reconstructed.

“It is extremely important,” Jenkins said. “You think about even when you enter the Arts & Design District in Carmel—immediately you’re entering something special, and we don’t have that.”

As for a community center, Stehr said he envisions a facility on Zionsville’s west side that would include an aquatics center that could serve both the public and school system, along with a traditional YMCA-style center with basketball and volleyball courts, a walking track and weight room.

Plunkett said a community center is something that should be carefully and thoughtfully considered while keeping a close eye on how it would fit in the town financially.

Plainfield’s Richard A. Carlucci Recreation & Aquatic Center cost $25 million to build in 2004. A 105,000-square-foot community center planned in Fishers will cost an estimated $60 million.

Stehr said while he’s geared up to get to work, it might take time for his plans to come to life.

“I’m anxious to get started [as mayor],” Stehr said. “I see some things that I want to grab ahold of and move forward on, but I realize the process is the process.”•

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One thought on “As Zionsville’s next mayor, John Stehr aims to ‘lower the temperature’

  1. I supported Stehr in the primary, but I’m hoping for something a bit more ambitious from his term than merely avoiding controversy. That is a low bar. Carmel looms large, and the bike trails stop the second you enter Zionsville. Would like to see a smarter approach to the growth of Zionsville, keeping its own identity while drawing some lessons from Carmel/Fishers.

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