Era of change shapes Lebanon, Zionsville mayoral races

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The May 2 Republican primary elections in Lebanon and Zionsville each feature a pair of candidates vying for mayor.

In Lebanon, Mayor Matt Gentry will seek his third term in office. He will be challenged by two-term Boone County Councilor Kevin Van Horn.

And in Zionsville, Jane Burgess, a former school board member, will face retired television journalist John Stehr. Burgess and Stehr are running to succeed Democrat Emily Styron, who is not seeking a second term in office.

No Democrats have filed to run for mayor in Lebanon or Zionsville, but that could change after the primary. If not, the GOP primary winner will likely take office as mayor on Jan. 1.

The next mayoral term in Lebanon will begin during one of the most critical times in the city’s history as the state’s 11,000-acre LEAP Lebanon Innovation and Research District begins to take shape.

The Indiana Economic Development Corp. chose Boone County for the large-scale research and innovation park due to its location between Indianapolis and Purdue University along Interstate 65.

The city has already annexed more than 6,600 acres of land for the district. Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Co. broke ground this week on a $3.7 billion manufacturing campus in the LEAP district that is expected to generate 700 jobs.

Construction is also underway in Lebanon on a 95-acre youth sports and hospitality district just south of the I-65 exit at State Road 39. The development will be anchored by the $25 million Hickory Junction Fieldhouse.

And the city is amid several downtown redevelopment projects that will bring more housing, restaurants and retail to Lebanon’s core.

A major task for the next mayor in Zionsville will be to rebuild relationships within the town’s government. Styron and the entirely Republican town council have battled throughout her three years in office over who has authority over personnel and spending decisions and how the council reviews the town’s finances.

A court battle resulted from the demotion of the town’s fire chief, while another controversy played out in an Indiana State Board of Accounts audit, which raised questions about an overdrawn payroll account and $200,000 that Styron’s administration spent on building renovations without council approval.

The next Zionsville mayor will also face the challenge of filling Creekside Corporate Park along West 106th Street as demand for traditional office space wanes post-pandemic.

The park gained momentum in October 2020 when IndyCar driver Bobby Rahal announced plans to build a Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team headquarters at Creekside. His son, IndyCar driver Graham Rahal, also plan to consolidate both of his automotive businesses there.

However, it has taken much longer than anticipated to fill the 91-acre site since Zionsville partnered in 2013 with the local school system to purchase land from Michigan-based Dow Chemical Co.

Zionsville, which reorganized its system of government in 2014, is one of two Indiana towns to have an elected mayor. The reorganization merged Zionsville’s government with Perry Township in southeastern Boone County and created the position of mayor.

Styron defeated former Republican Mayor Tim Haak by 88 votes in 2019.

Here is a look at the four candidates running in Lebanon and Zionsville.

One more term

Gentry never expected to serve more than two terms as Lebanon mayor when he took office as a 26-year-old in 2016. In fact, he told IBJ that year that the state should have a two-term limit that keeps mayors from serving more than eight consecutive years in office.

However, the pandemic changed Gentry’s plans, and he decided to run for a third—and he says final—term to complete what he calls unfinished business around the city.

“It almost felt like two years were lost, and this is a really critical turning point where Lebanon is right now,” Gentry said. “Instead of being done with those projects now, we’re right in the middle.”

His primary goals during a third term would be to ensure that Lebanon keeps growing “the right way” and to manage the state’s plans for the LEAP district while continuing to strengthen the city’s public safety system. He also wants to make sure the city has housing for people at every stage in life.

“How do we balance what the state wants and what the city wants?” he said about the LEAP district. “Lebanon’s blessed that [LEAP is] going to be here, but there’s going to be ripples and impacts statewide from this.”

Gentry would also look to attract businesses that could include suppliers for LEAP manufacturers and companies involved in food manufacturing, consumer products and agribusiness.

“Not every company is going to be a fit for LEAP, so we want to make sure we have other … economic development opportunities for companies that may not fit that LEAP mold directly, but are either ancillary, related or were also other target sectors,” he said.

Lebanon expects 60,000 visitors a month for events at Hickory Junction Fieldhouse after it opens early next year. The $400 million youth sports complex developed by Noblesville-based Card & Associates Athletic Facilities will be focused on basketball, football and pickleball.

Gentry said he expects the fieldhouse to complement Westfield’s Grand Park Sports Campus and to give Lebanon a seat at the table of the $19 billion youth sports industry.

“I do also think we’re doing a good job of trying to figure out what fits Lebanon right, what makes sense for us, but then also kind of pairing that with the larger ecosystem that we fit in as well,” he said.

Now 33 years old and married with two young sons, Gentry said he wants to finish his work, provide a clean slate for a new mayor in four years, then go back to the private sector.

“I think I’ve set us on the course where I want our city to be heading,” he said. “I want to leave it in a good place for the next person.”

Giving a voice

Van Horn, a 46-year Lebanon resident who has served on the Boone County Council since 2016, is running for mayor because he heard from residents who said they want more transparency from city officials.

He said he has been civically involved all his life and that volunteerism is important to him. He began thinking about running for mayor 10 years ago and decided to run in August 2021.

“All I kept hearing was, ‘We’re not being heard, Kevin. We’re not being heard,’” Van Horn said. “And I assured each and every person I spoke with that I want to hear your voice. I want your voice to be heard.”

Van Horn supports the LEAP project and said it will greatly benefit Lebanon. But he also said the city has not been transparent with residents about the project over the past year.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that this is going to bring wonderful commerce for several generations to come,” Van Horn said.

He said the three most important issues in Lebanon are public safety, schools and LEAP-related economic and population growth—which will include more commerce, restaurants and parks, he said.

He expects the city will need to build another elementary school and middle school.

“This growth is going to do wonders for Lebanon, Indiana, Boone County, the state of Indiana, this country,” Van Horn said. “It’s a wonderful project.”

Given the anticipated increase in housing, Van Horn said he would work with homebuilders to decrease the cost of houses built in Lebanon. He said he would also look to make sure housing is available for people in various stages of life.

One key, he said, is reducing the red tape developers face in permitting.

“We can keep the cost of this housing lowered to benefit those thousands of families that are going to be coming into this community in the next five to seven years,” he said.

Focused on finances

Burgess, who served on the Zionsville Community Schools board from 2008 to 2020, said she is running for Zionsville mayor because she wants to restore transparency and trust in the town’s finances.

In her first month as mayor, Burgess said, she would hold meetings with the Indiana State Board of Accounts and S&P Global Ratings, which downgraded the town’s rating from AA+ to AA. The AA rating still means the agency believes the risk is very low that the town would default on its bonds.

Burgess said she would also look to conduct an independent audit of the town’s finances and internal controls within her first 90 days.

“I need to seek input and counsel on the best ways to restore our financial systems and our bond rating, which will be very, very important for our town going forward,” she said.

Burgess, who worked as an elementary school teacher in Zionsville before she became a consultant with the organization Help One Student To Succeed, said she would also look to improve trust, collaboration and cooperation between the Mayor’s Office and the Town Council.

“It’s all about relationships, and it will be important to restore those relationships,” she said.

Burgess, a 21-year Zionsville resident, added that she would focus on public safety, infrastructure and reducing traffic congestion. Zionsville’s population increased from about 14,000 in 2010 to nearly 31,000 in 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Burgess said she would work with the Zionsville Chamber of Commerce, the Boone County Economic Development Corp. and the Indiana Economic Development Corp. to help develop Creekside Corporate Park. She would also form an economic development council to address business issues throughout the town.

“I think all of those entities can work together to really help us develop our Creekside Park, because I think it’s such a vibrant area, and people want to live here,” Burgess said.

She would also look to add housing diversity and would be open to high-density housing that would fit Zionsville, something officials have been reluctant to consider in the past.

“I think we need to have a great master plan in how we do this,” Burgess said. “But I do think it’s important that we have a little bit more diversity in housing to offer more housing opportunities.”

Burgess would examine how Zionsville can take advantage of the LEAP district, which will be built about 18 miles northwest of the town. She would also partner with local universities to provide internships and opportunities for future employees who might want to live in Zionsville.

“I think Zionsville will be a prime location with great schools and great location [close] to Lebanon where we can attract businesses that want to support the LEAP project,” she said.

Improving communication

Stehr, a 28-year Zionsville resident, currently serves as president of the town’s Board of Parks and Recreation. It’s a post he assumed following a 42-year career in television news, including 23 years as a news anchor at WTHR-TV Channel 13.

Stehr said working on the parks board provided him with a taste of being part of town governance.

He said his years as a reporter showed him that good local governments are the ones that articulate a vision that they are open and transparent about.

“From that perch, I kind of see what’s happening in our town government right now, and it’s really dysfunctional,” Stehr said. “If you don’t talk, you can’t trust, and if you can’t trust, you can’t work together very well.”

Stehr said town government needs an independent audit, to provide a clear picture of its financial situation.

According to Stehr, important issues in Zionsville include the town’s finances, infrastructure, growth and public safety. He would look to build amenities, such as a community center, and rebuild the southern entrance to the town’s downtown village.

“I think people are also worried about growth and how to control growth,” he said. “I don’t think people are opposed to it, but they want it to be done right.”

Stehr said the town needs to look at Creekside Corporate Park’s restrictive standards and be more open to other types of buildings and businesses at the park.

Creekside is an example of Zionsville “getting out of our lane and trying to be a developer,” Stehr said. The town’s focus, he added, should be on spending money efficiently and providing basic services, such as picking up trash, plowing streets and providing public safety.

“The problem that we’re having with Creekside is that the world has changed since COVID hit,” he said. “Companies don’t need office space like they used to. People can work from home, and they might only be in the office a day or two during the week, so they’re flexible in their work.”

Stehr said he would look to add housing diversity to Zionsville, including town houses and duplexes. He said the town is expensive for young families, retail workers, police officers and firefighters.

“I recognize that people don’t want to see a lot of apartments here. I get that,” he said. “On the other hand, there has to be some diversity in the housing because, right now, our average home price is very high.”

Stehr added that now is the time for Zionsville to prepare for opportunities that come from the LEAP district. He said Zionsville will have chances to support businesses that would help the town’s corporate tax rate.

That also means Zionsville will need to be more engaged with Boone County and not be an island, he said.

“Zionsville needs to be more integrated with Lebanon, with Whitestown, with all of our Boone County partners,” he said. “We don’t want to get 10 years down the road and say, ‘I wish we would’ve thought of that.’ We need to prepare for that now.”•

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