New leadership means a new age for Westfield

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Westfield’s incoming mayor, Scott Willis, will be the city’s most-seasoned elected official when he takes office in January. As a first-term city councilor, he sometimes stops and realizes how crazy that sounds to him.

The Hamilton County city will have complete turnover next year at City Hall. Along with a new mayor, Westfield will have seven newcomers on the City Council and a new clerk-treasurer.

“It’s going to be exciting to see the new blood and new ideas and new energy, but it’s a little unnerving to think, ‘Gosh, I’ve got the most experience,’” Willis said. “Every day, I’m learning. Still to this day, I’m learning on City Council.”

Willis will succeed Republican Mayor Andy Cook, who announced in February that he would not seek a fifth term.

Willis defeated Republican challengers Kristen Burkman and Jake Gilbert in the primary election in May. He does not have an opponent in the general election on Nov. 7.

Willis says he’s already spending up to eight hours a day preparing to become mayor, brainstorming with City Council candidates, business leaders, homebuilders and developers. (IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

Cook became Westfield’s first mayor in 2008 when the city transitioned from operating as a town. Over his four terms, he spearheaded the development of Grand Park Sports Campus and led the city through rapid growth. Westfield is the sixth-fastest-growing city in the United States and the fastest-growing city in Indiana, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The city had just more than 21,000 residents when Cook took office. Today, Westfield’s population tops 54,000, and Willis said the city has enough housing approved to grow to 70,000.

Cook, who did not respond to a request for comment on this story from IBJ, said in February that Westfield has “a good field of younger people, and it’s time for the next generation to lead Westfield into the future.”

Among Willis’ priorities are revitalizing downtown, developing a long-term infrastructure strategy, diversifying the city’s tax base by attracting more businesses, and creating a plan for Grand Park and its neighboring areas to prosper.

Willis will also look to develop the city’s first comprehensive plan since 2008 to better guide planning and development.

“We’ll make some mistakes along the way. We’re going to get some lessons learned that we’re going to look back, hopefully in three or four years, and say, ‘Wow, that was kind of silly,’” Willis said. “But I do feel good that we’re ready to hit the ground running.”

Willis, 53, said he spends up to eight hours a day preparing to become mayor and meets with City Council candidates, business leaders, developers and homebuilders to share and brainstorm ideas.

He added that he has been “knee-deep in city decisions and activities” since June. Cook has allowed him to make decisions on anything that would affect the city next year, he said.

“At times, I feel like I’m the mayor of Westfield now,” Willis said. “The mayor has been amazing and given me a runway to get prepared for taking office.”

Time of change

Only two current councilors—Mike Johns and Scott Frei—sought reelection. Both lost in the primary election.

Victor McCarty

Jon Dartt

Republicans Jon Dartt (District 1), Victor McCarty (District 2), Joe Duepner (District 3) and Noah Herron (District 5) do not have opponents in November and will take office Jan. 1. (McCarty is currently serving the remainder of former District 3 Councilor Joe Edwards’ term following Edwards’ death in September.)

The three remaining council seats will be filled by candidates who prevail on Nov. 7.

Democrat Alexis Lowry faces Republican Patrick Tamm for the District 4 seat, while Republicans Chad Huff and Kurt Wanninger and Democrat Gary Lane are vying for two at-large seats.

In addition to a new mayor and City Council, Republican Marla Ailor is running unopposed for clerk-treasurer. She will succeed Cindy Gossard, who has served in the position since 2001.

Laura Merrifield Wilson

Laura Merrifield Wilson, a political science professor at the University of Indianapolis, said it is rare for a city to experience a complete changeover in elected officials.

“I cannot think of another time where we’ve had that, and especially in a city as large as Westfield,” Wilson said. “It feels remarkable and unusual in that way.”

However, she added, this change also presents an opportunity for a new start in Westfield, which has experienced challenges and growing pains in recent years.

“I think in this circumstance, it’s actually beneficial and advantageous both for the leadership and the constituency,” Wilson said.

Discord between the Mayor’s Office, City Council and Clerk-Treasurer’s Office led Indianapolis-based public-sector advisory firm Baker Tilly Municipal Advisors LLC to describe Westfield’s government as “dysfunctional” in a 2021 report.

Cook and Gossard, the clerk-treasurer, spent much of 2021 battling via lawsuits each filed against the other over the administration’s access to city records and how those records were handled.

Last year, the City Council voted to approve term limits for elected officials over Cook’s veto—the first veto in his four terms in office. Gov. Eric Holcomb later signed a bill that overturned Westfield’s term-limits ordinance.

And in 2022, the council rejected a proposed ordinance to move the city from third-class to second-class status. The change would have expanded the City Council from seven members to nine, providing more representation for the growing city.

The council is currently considering another ordinance to make Westfield a second-class city. However, if the ordinance passes, Westfield will not be able to move to second-class status until Jan. 1, 2028.

On Grand Park

Willis will have some major decisions to make early in his first term, chief among them the future of the 400-acre Grand Park.

In March 2022, Westfield announced it was seeking proposals from companies interested in either purchasing Grand Park or operating it through a public-private partnership. Last March, the city announced it was no longer interested in selling Grand Park but would instead look for a new operator. Willis said the city is negotiating with an unidentified company to operate the sports campus that opened in 2014 after an $85 million public investment.

“We’ve got some things that we’re going to have to work through,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy, but if we can get to a win-win in that negotiation, I think it will transform Grand Park.”

Willis said the city and new Grand Park operator will need to add more winter events to the campus’s calendar. Grand Park is already busy in the spring, summer and fall, and beefing up the winter calendar would benefit city hotels and restaurants.

Steve Rupp

For instance, Willis said, a five-day pickleball tournament scheduled at the Grand Park Events Center for early January is expected to draw more than 5,000 visitors.

Westfield Chamber of Commerce Board Chair Steve Rupp said the city needs even more restaurants and amenities near Grand Park to keep visitors from traveling to neighboring communities to eat and sleep.

“It’s like you spent all this money on this wonderful facility, and all these other communities are just licking their lips, like, ‘Come on down to Noblesville when you’re done playing your games,’” Rupp said. “Noblesville is loving us, and Fishers and Kokomo and obviously Carmel and Zionsville.”

A final decision on a new operator isn’t expected to come until next year, when Willis and the new city councilors take office.

Future of growth

Commercial and residential construction growth has stalled in Westfield as some city councilors took a more cautious approach to greenlighting new development. Unlike Carmel, Fishers and Noblesville, Westfield lacks shovel-ready land for major commercial developments.

The issue came to the forefront early this year when Bastian Solutions, a Carmel-based subsidiary of Japan-based Toyota Industries Corp., announced it would move its corporate headquarters and build a huge manufacturing plant at a $130 million corporate campus in Noblesville. It was a deal some Westfield leaders said slipped through the city’s fingers.

“We’ve seen over these last few years that, when a council and mayor don’t agree, that things can come to a standstill,” McCarty said. “And with being one of the fastest-growing communities not just in the state, but in the country, there’s no time to waste. We’ve got to get to work.”

Bastian initially planned to build its headquarters and manufacturing plant in Westfield at NorthPoint II, a proposed 180-acre campus by South Bend-based Holladay Properties that was put on hold in August 2022 after the City Council tabled a vote on whether to approve the project.

Willis said one of his first objectives will be to reintroduce the plan for NorthPoint II, which would be built near State Road 38 and Hinkle Road in rural northeastern Westfield.

He pointed to Noblesville’s Innovation Mile and the Indiana Economic Development Corp.’s LEAP Lebanon Innovation and Research District as examples of what Westfield needs to work toward: having land ready with infrastructure, utilities and water in place so companies can build quickly.

“Businesses, right now, when they decide they want to move—they want it, and they want it now,” Willis said. “If it’s a three-year lead cycle just to get the project off the ground, you’re not going to get them, so you need to have the land identified.”

Welcoming more companies to Westfield would allow the community to diversify its tax base and relieve some tax pressure on homeowners, he added.

A state constitutional amendment that voters approved in 2010 caps property tax bills at 1% of assessed value for owner-occupied homes. Property taxes on commercial development, however, are generally capped at 3% of assessed value, making that land more valuable to local governments trying to provide services for residents.

Rupp said he is looking forward to next year and hopes the new City Council will be more aggressive in its approach to development.

“The growth has been choked, and we’ve lost businesses because of it,” he said. “The business community is chomping at the bit to get growth going again, because we need it.”

Building a downtown

One way Willis hopes to diversify the city’s tax base is by revitalizing downtown and bringing businesses into its core.

“If we don’t do that, Westfield will just continue to sprawl without an identity,” he said. “We need an identity. We need a downtown.”

Westfield took steps to revamp its downtown during Cook’s administration, highlighted by the six-acre, $32.5 million Grand Junction Plaza.

The park, which opened in November 2021 between Mill and Union streets, is a block from the Park Street neighborhood where the $190 million Grand Millennium Center is planned to include a library, medical facility, hotel, apartments, restaurants and event center.

The Indiana Department of Transportation and the city are attempting to alleviate traffic backups by widening State Road 32 through downtown, while Westfield Boulevard will eventually extend south to East 161st Street.

Craig Wood, a lifelong Westfield resident whose family has farmed in the community for decades, including on 150 acres of land that is now part of Grand Park, said it is bittersweet to see old buildings torn down for the city’s new downtown. But he also thinks a new downtown is necessary.

“We can’t just stay stagnant because Westfield will die if that happens,” Wood said. “People are just going to have to wrap their head around [the fact] that there are going to be some changes, and that’s just the way it is if Westfield is going to maintain it.”

Dartt, the incoming District 1 councilor, told IBJ that Westfield can look to its Hamilton County neighbors for inspiration on how to develop its downtown and commercial tax base.

“I would say Westfield is behind Noblesville, Fishers and Carmel, and it’s a great opportunity now to learn what they’ve done well and utilize those learnings and build a bigger, better downtown area,” Dartt said.•

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2 thoughts on “New leadership means a new age for Westfield

  1. It is amazing to see the entire council and mayor change but it is time. People would be blown away at how just the primarily election made in the attitudes and interests from the development community. I am hopeful that the new council really does listen to the community and those that have been working hard to make Westfield great, to expand on some good momentum that once existed. This can’t be a political joust or a fight over who is doing the most work. It has to be a group of councilors looking to make Westfield awesome from today until 100 years from now. They get bombarded by issues and special interest but coming up with a plan that outlasts their election will be key, as we have yet to have that type of mojo. This really is the opportunity of a lifetime for a City to get on track and do some special things. I would encourage anyone that wants to get involved to reach out to your new candidate, help with the Downtown Westfield Association or join the Westfield Chamber of Commerce. #bestfield

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