Politics is Local

by Donovan Wheeler
photos by Caitlin Fogle

[dropcap]P[/dropcap]olitics isn’t flying around the country with your name on the side of your jet.  It’s not standing at a podium on the free-throw line of a college basketball arena.  It’s not spouting empty platitudes about nascent things like the weather to frenzied, sign-shaking, middle-aged women wearing ill-fitting flag sweaters.  That kind of fervor, that Roman Carnival of klieg lights and teleprompters and confetti…that’s a lot of things, but politics it is not.  The real work of the politician goes down in the quiet, paneled offices in American small towns.  Real politicians deal with snow removal and filling in potholes.  They charm prospective businesses and negotiate tax abatements.  They navigate state and federal funding restrictions, looking for loopholes and clauses to keep the street lights turned on.  Real politics is poring over the minutiae of city council meetings and ironing out policy differences with resolute opponents.  Real politics is a masterwork, a symphony of cooperation, coordination, compromise, and conversation written on the easel of the “average” American’s hard work and dreams.  Greencastle’s Bill Dory has been composing his own political opus since his professional career began over three decades ago.

When he arrived in town in the early 1980’s, he headed the city’s first Main Street program.  After seven years in that position, Dory moved across the local and state political canvas, working next for the Main Street organization at the state level before returning to county work in the Economic Development office.  But late last fall, Dory assumed the mantle many believe he had been training himself for throughout his professional life.  In the year since his election to the seat behind the mayor’s desk, Dory looks upon a Greencastle which has changed tremendously since he and his wife Kathryn first crossed the city line.  And now, while the rest of the world loses themselves in the tempest of presidential theater, Dory discusses the nature of his job as he sees it, and the challenges Greencastle faces as it continues its climb out of the residual vestiges of the Great Recession.

[divider style=”solid” top=”20″ bottom=”20″]

Photo by Caitlin Fogle
Photo by Caitlin Fogle

[divider style=”solid” top=”20″ bottom=”20″]

Donovan Wheeler:  What does the word “Mayor” mean when you’re running a small, Midwestern college town, as opposed a large city?

Bill Dory:  “Most people see it as a CEO or chief executive position.  The difference is that, instead of running a company, I’m running a community.  Instead of being hired, I’m elected.  But the foundation is the same.  I have to work with a board to get things accomplished, and I’m answerable to the voters and my constituency.”

DW:  Where are you from originally?

BD:  “I’m originally from the Cleveland area.  Kath and I came to Greencastle in September of 1983.  Her parents grew up here.  In fact, we were traipsing around the North Salem cemetery over the weekend and found some of her relatives who were living here as far back as the 1820’s.”

DW:  So, do you bring an “Ohio perspective” to the job, then?

BD:  “Not really.  My career started here in Indiana.  My training and educational background goes back to Ohio and Illinois, but all my on-the-job training comes from here.  Besides, so many of the tools at our disposal, when it comes to running municipalities are national in origin.  That said, you do discover that some quirks are evident in some of those provisions as you go from state to state.”

DW:  Such as?

BD:  “Well take TIF for example, which stands for ‘Tax Increment Financing.’ It’s a funding mechanism local governments can use for community improvement and redevelopment projects.  In Tennessee, for example, you can only use that for the elimination of ‘slum and blight.’  But here we can use it for that as well as economic development or housing.  So conceptually, the tool is the same, but each state legislature puts specific restrictions on some of the tools used for community and economic development.”

DW:  Ever since I’ve moved here I’ve heard a great deal about the “IBM Days.”  You were here then, what do you think of when you look back on that time in the city’s history?

BD:  “The goals were the same, but the economy was different.  Interest rates were bouncing around from 15 to 20 percent, you had a lot of inflation.  You also had many Post-War merchants were still around: Ben Cannon, Dick Sunkel and others.  Additionally, many of those chain stores such as Murphy’s and J.C. Penney’s were still operating in small communities.  Here’s the thing you have to remember when this comes up:  Sure it was good when IBM was here.  Those jobs paid very well.  But the downside was that, even though IBM moved a lot of people in and out, they weren’t adding to their overall head count.  Consequently, one of the many things you heard back then was that there weren’t many jobs for young people.  With IBM, we only had three or four other major manufacturers in town.”

[divider style=”solid” top=”20″ bottom=”20″]

Myers Banner[divider style=”solid” top=”20″ bottom=”20″]

myers-badge[divider style=”solid” top=”20″ bottom=”20″]

DW:  Talk to me a little bit about how the town responded to that IBM loss.

BD:  “It was amazing to see how the entire community came together.  What I most remember was that, at the time Greencastle was looking to build a new middle school.  There was a camp of people who said, ‘Now that IBM is leaving, we can’t afford this.’  And there was another group who said, ‘We’ll be fine. We’re going ahead.’  And we went ahead.  And the leadership at that time, several people actually, put on a full-court press and landed several companies.  Many of them are the ones which make up the industrial corridor on the east side of town.”

DW:  That’s a much more hopeful story than what I normally hear when people talk about those days.

BD:  “Well, that doesn’t mean it was an easy time.  The IBM departure was part of a larger recession which hit the country in the late ‘80’s.  Meanwhile, we’re trying to spur business by working to negotiate business loans from 16% down to 8% or 10%…and if we pulled that off we thought we were doing very well.  Of course, today you can get one for something like 4%.”

DW:  What about DePauw’s presence in those days?

BD:  “I know that there are people who are critical of DePauw, but they really served as a strong anchor during that time.  They were under good leadership.  The university was a stable employer, and there were always going to be those 2,400 people coming into the community every year.  The Walden Inn was built at that time, and we would set up rooms there for prospective employers.  Still more would-be employers came without our knowledge and stayed there, and one of those companies later told us that it was the hospitality they received at the Walden which made them decide to bring their business to Greencastle.”

[divider style=”solid” top=”20″ bottom=”20″]

“If we have someone who is willing to invest in our community we should welcome that.  That’s no different that welcoming another industry to the community.”

[divider style=”solid” top=”20″ bottom=”20″]

DW:  How do you feel about some of the criticism the university has taken for its decision to take command of downtown improvements along Indiana and Vine Streets?

BD:  “The name ‘DePauw’ gets thrown around in a blanket nature whenever this topic comes up.  But in some cases it’s not DePauw, as an institution, that is buying property in the neighboring community.  For the first time in a number of occasions we have DePauw alums who are investing in the community.  This wasn’t always the case.  When the Walden Inn was built, it was a partnership of the city, the university, and private investors who made that happen.  Sure it’s owned by the university now, but it’s still on the tax rolls, and has been since the day it opened.  But the fact remains that if we have someone who is willing to invest in our community we should welcome that.  That’s no different that welcoming another industry to the community.”

DW:  What about the dual opening of Taphouse 24 and Chris Weeks’ brewery Wasser?  How do you feel about such a sudden and quick expansion?

BD:  “We underwent a lot of research and determined that were was a demand for more restaurant and dining in the community, so we know the demand is there to keep both of them—and the other existing businesses in the community going.  Ultimately the success or failure of those businesses will depend on their operation.  If Chris runs the brewery well, he’ll succeed, the same goes for the management of the Taphouse, and for all the other owners and managers in the community as well.”

BD: “I would add that both city leadership and the people in the community have to embrace these businesses to make sure we maximize customer exposure.  Such as the First Fridays…those are things which can continue to expand the circle that brings people to the community.  And we have a new tourism director.  When I spoke to her I said, ‘Look, we need nuts and bolts.  We need to bring people to town to have dinner, listen to live music on the square and at DePauw, hike in the Nature Park, use Big Walnut…we need nitty-gritty tourism.  Right now we don’t need any grandiose stuff today.  Maybe tomorrow…but let’s get our ‘low-hanging fruit’ in good order.  If tourism, and business owners, and so forth effectively bring in 100 to 200 people for dinner every night, then that helps all the restaurants in the community…from Almost Home, to the Inn at DePauw, to our fast food operations…everyone benefits from that.  So that’s the kind of ‘in the trenches’ sort of stuff we need to be working on at this stage.”

DW:  How do decisions coming out of Indianapolis especially, and Washington, D.C. as well, affect your ability to effect change here?

BD:  “Probably the biggest one which impacts us is that we do not have full control over the amount of tax dollars that we raise.  There are several state laws that limit how much we can generate in property and income tax.  We do a pretty decent job of maximizing that—which allows us to keep up with what we need to keep up with—but it doesn’t allow us to do some things which might be helpful.”

DW:  Such as?

BD:  “For example our street and road budget.  What we have helps us with our maintenance, but if we wanted to put in a new road for traffic management reasons, or to spur new growth in the community, that can be a little more difficult to do.  It’s not impossible, but it is more challenging.  But there is also more than one tax cap we have to deal with.  There are the recent 1%, 2%, and 3% laws, and there’s also the old Otis Bowen revenue caps we have deal with as well, which limits how much a city can increase its budget from year to year.”

DW:  The 1-3% caps come from the Mitch Daniels era, but explain these Bowen caps.  Are you saying that the government couldn’t grow to meet a sudden surge in population…say if DePauw decided to double its student body or if another major manufacturer moved in?

BD:  “No, there are provisions in the law for a population spike.  A better way to explain it is this: If we bring in a new factory—and for the sake of simplicity, let’s say that factory doesn’t get a tax abatement—then the revenue generated from that factory doesn’t increase that maximum levy or tax revenue, it just lowers the tax rate for everybody.  So it’s not a bad thing.  It’s growth which helps out the taxpayer, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I can add a firefighter or a police officer.”

[divider style=”solid” top=”20″ bottom=”20″]

Photo by Caitlin Fogle
Photo by Caitlin Fogle

[divider style=”solid” top=”20″ bottom=”20″]

DW:  When you talk about growth in a town this size, some people get very excited at the prospect, and others bristle and say “No way.”  So how much do you think Greencastle can grow without running into major infrastructural, traffic, and other problems?

BD:  “We do have room for growth, and we’re going to have to grow.  Our businesses are growing…they need more employees.  We want to keep our tax base growing to maintain current services.  At the moment we have room to increase our student body without having to build a new school, so we’ve got the capacity in our school system to support increased residential development.  Closer to the big cities, you have suburban districts growing so fast that they have to build new elementary schools every year…we wouldn’t have to incur that sort of cost.  The new apartment complex leased out very quickly after it was built, and we know we’re an attractive community. I’m not saying we should add 5,000 people right away, but I do think we should continue our steady growth of 1-3% a year.  This is something we can continue.”

DW:  Do you think Greencastle should consider expanding to the south, toward I-70?

BD:  “We actually should move south, but there are some terrain issues for one thing.  But the main reason our industrial sites went east is because IBM handed over their building to us when they left, and IBM’s facility became our first industrial park.  And back then the best thing we could do was take advantage what was available.”

DW:  One of the things which comes up in casual conversation about this is the need for “high paying” jobs as opposed to “hourly” jobs.  Do you agree that we are facing a need for more of those kinds of employers?

BD:  “Part of that depends how you define ‘high paying job.’  There are a lot of what you and I might call ‘blue-collar jobs’ which pay much more than you or I make.  So the key to getting more of these jobs starts with education.  We need to get more kids coming out of high school into places such as Ivy Tech.  They don’t necessarily need a four-year degree to move to a good career, either.  They can become skilled welders, they can work in logistics, they can work in IT…and if you have two spouses each with jobs such as these—what I would call ‘skilled manufacturing jobs’—then they can live quite nicely.  And we’re seeing some of that happen here in our industries.  As the baby-boomers leave, more technology is coming into these work sectors.”

DW:  In what way do we have that now?

BD:  “Some companies, such as Crown…they have a strong engineering staff.  Those are well-paid, college-level positions.  And across the street at Ascena, you have a strong IT staff.  So we have these jobs available, but they’re sort of ‘hidden’ in the modern economy.”

DW:  What do you mean?

BD:  “I was talking to some DePauw students not long ago, and I explained to them the number of jobs we had available such as those I just described, and they had never considered these as career options.  Their minds were focused on things like pre-law and pre-med and so forth.  And this is a national mindset…this is not a DePauw issue.  We don’t think about ‘high-paying jobs’ in the modern context, and we really need to start thinking about them that way and marketing them that way, too.”

[divider style=”solid” top=”20″ bottom=”20″]

Eitel's Banner[divider style=”solid” top=”20″ bottom=”20″]

DW:  You mentioned Ivy Tech specifically.  Why?

BD:  “The reason is because we have many kids who, for all sorts of reasons, aren’t good fits for the four-year school model…especially not right out of high school.  So they could put in a couple years at Ivy Tech, then work for one of our employers and show some aptitude at welding or some other technical skill.  And eventually, they’ll say, ‘I’d really like to try my hand at engineering.’  Well, many of these employers will reimburse college education as an investment. That’s how we move people up the career path.”

DW:  One of the problems I noticed with Ivy Tech when I taught night classes there was that, after the first year, most students couldn’t find available classes on the local campus and would have to commute.

BD:  “We’ve brought that up.  But they have started the ASAP (accelerated degree) program, and their nursing program is back up and running.  We were supposed to get a large technical lab when the campus was originally built, but that got cut out of the plan.  We are in line, however, in the next biennial budget to hopefully get a campus expansion.  But this is part of why we need to direct younger people there.  Right now Ivy Tech is losing students because the economy has improved, and people can get jobs.  But for these kids, this place can give them the direction they need to set them on a real career path.” 

BD:  “To attract higher paid families, another part of this is housing.  We don’t have an available number of homes on the market, especially in the $250K to $400K range to attract some of these people and welcome them into the community.”

DW:  If I wanted to start a small manufacturing operation in Greencastle with say…15 employees, how would you sell the town to me?

BD:  “Well that would get complicated because at the moment I don’t have any available buildings for you.  So, let me start with a resident.  If you could work anywhere, and you were wanting to live in a small town, how would I sell that?  I would point out that we have high-speed internet.  You can get one gigabyte service here if you need it or your company needs it.  We’ve got a university campus which offers a ton of amenities which you and your family can enjoy…often for free.  We’ve got a nature park that rivals most state parks, and we’ve got waterfront properties outside of the city.  Our school systems are great, my wife teaches in the local school system.  And if you send your children to our smaller school district, they’re going to get more attention and have the opportunity to participate in activities which they wouldn’t have in a larger, suburban district.  We don’t have rush hour here…we have ‘rush minute.’  By the same token, if you want to see a Colts game it’s an easy trip in and out.  And you have to travel for your business, we’re 35 minutes from the airport.”

[divider style=”solid” top=”20″ bottom=”20″]

Photo by Caitlin Fogle
Photo by Caitlin Fogle

[divider style=”solid” top=”20″ bottom=”20″]

DW:  And for that small manufacturer?

BD:  “Well, if they were willing to build we would find the land for them.”

DW:  “So do business typically build, or do cities build structures to attract businesses?”

BD:  “Cities do sometimes build.  We have in the past fronted money for a shell building.  We did that a number of years ago and the building is now occupied by Dixie-Chopper, which is now Jacobsen.  And the reasons cities do that is because with most inquires, businesses are looking for an existing structure they can move into.  And that’s because the time-table for projects has become compressed.  If they can’t find what they need, they will build.  It’s true there are some companies who decide to build from the get-go because they know what they need, but those are not common.”

DW:  Let’s talk about the YMCA.  Since it was a major theme in your election campaign last year, how has it progressed?

BD:  “The RFQ’s (Requests for Quotation, or bidding requests to put it simply) went out to potential architects in early August.  We have narrowed the field to two finalists and recently toured projects that each firm completed.   A recommendation will soon be forthcoming to the Greencastle Redevelopment Commission.”

DW: Are you looking in the city, or are you considering land in the county?

BD:  “We have several sites that we’re looking at, and part of the architectural services is a request that they help us analyze those locations.  The city will build the facility, and we’ll use our redevelopment commission to do that.  So that places some limitations on where we can put it.  So it does have to be within the city limits, but we also want to make sure that the county has a whole participates in terms of memberships and usage.”

DW:  Again…after all, we do live in a college town…DePauw comes up a little in this conversation.  Given the limited number of passes DePauw is willing to issue to the general public for use of the Lilly Center, do you feel that makes the “Y” a legitimate option?

BD:  “Certainly.  In fact, we’re partnering with the Wabash Valley YMCA, and they actually have a partnership with Rose Hulman because, what they’ve found, is that many Rose professors don’t want to be working out with their students.  The joke about it I heard was a little story told to me regarding a professor getting out of the shower and facing a student who wanted to talk to him about his test grade.  So, we don’t know if the same interest among DePauw faculty will develop here, but we’re definitely going to explore it.  But the more important point is that for all the people in the Putnam County community, the ‘Y’ is going to be tailored and geared to families which will make it very different from all the other workout options right now.”

[divider style=”solid” top=”20″ bottom=”20″]

“We do have room for growth, and we’re going to have to grow…closer to the big cities, you have suburban districts growing so fast that they have to build new elementary schools every year…we wouldn’t have to incur that sort of cost.”

[divider style=”solid” top=”20″ bottom=”20″]

DW:  Regarding the future of the Greencastle cityscape, do you envision a future where we go out and get more Starbucks-level, high-profile chains, or do you see a future built around more organic, locally-owned businesses?

BD:  “I see it as a combination of both.  Starbucks is a nationally recognized chain which demonstrates success, and makes the square attractive to both local entrepreneurs and perhaps another regional chain.  Because if you can say, ‘Starbucks is on my downtown square,’ that immediately sends a positive message to people.”

DW:  Looking to the future, where do you see city leadership concentrating their next efforts and improvement and development?

BD:  “The south side of the city needs some attention as does the area north and west of downtown.  Incrementally, over time we’ll be able to make some improvements but again because of our budget, the limitation on grant resources, and things of that nature…we may only be able to improve at a rate of a street per year…and it could even be a street every other year.”

Facing healthy criticism of his tax plan in a television interview, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson redirected the conversation by dismissing those details as “getting too far into the weeds.”  But at the local level, politics means living in those weeds.  Deciding which street to pave, where to allocate a federal grant, or when to build a YMCA.  For all the talk of electing a criminal or handing power over to a tyrant, anyone who follows politics on the most rudimentary level knows that the elected official who most affects our lives is the one who lives next door.  It’s unglamorous, vastly less-photographed, rarely quoted, and devoid of punditry.  But it’s the desk where work gets done and the quality of daily life improves.  Look to Washington and worry if you want, but look down the street at your City Hall as well.  There you’ll see it.  Democracy is safe.

[divider style=”solid” top=”20″ bottom=”20″]

Cover Photo by Caitlin Fogle
Cover Photo by Caitlin Fogle

[divider style=”solid” top=”20″ bottom=”20″]

[author title=”About Donovan Wheeler” image=”https://scontent-ord1-1.xx.fbcdn.net/v/t1.0-9/59609_1438411275421_1465498_n.jpg?oh=b8ee5711cc2fc43b3c9ff3e096bcb12a&oe=58997AA7″]Wheeler proudly teaches AP Literature and AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He is the senior editor for the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes for ISU’s STATE Magazine. He still believes in the power of government to serve the people…despite everything that’s happened…despite everything.[/author]

Donovan Wheeler
Author: Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches English to a horde of bright and lovably obnoxious high school seniors in a small college town. He has written in the past for Indiana on Tap and STATE Magazine, and is an occasional contributor to NUVO, Indy's alternate news website. Since picking up the guitar three years, he can now play a dozens songs while singing them quite badly.

Join Our Newsletter