VALPARAISO — Residents are doing something in November they do only once about every couple of decades lately: choose a new mayor.
David Butterfield served as mayor from 1984 to 2004 and Jon Costas has held the office for the past 16 years. Costas decided not to seek a fifth term, so voters will choose between Republican Councilman Matt Murphy, 46, and local businessman Bill Durnell, 45. For Durnell, a Democrat, it will be his first try for political office.
Murphy is completing his first term on the council and also served in the past as the city's economic development director. He's been a member of the city's Board of Public Works and Safety and the Redevelopment commission. He is president and general manager of Jifco Products, in Valparaiso. He and his wife Polly have four children.
Durnell owns Roots Organic Juice Café in downtown Valparaiso and has his own consulting business called Vale City Technology. He spent a couple of decades in the Chicago corporate whirl at GATX, starting as a CPA in the finance department and eventually ending up in the technology group leading a software development team. He and his wife Carrie have one son.
Murphy said he's been a part of the Costas team from Day One and added, "I want to keep the progress and momentum going." The city's downtown was on life support when Costas took office with a high vacancy rate, but it ended up being revitalized and named the state's community of the year, he said.
"There's a lot of work yet to do," Murphy said. "I'd like to focus on neighborhood revitalization while not taking our eyes off the downtown. I'd like to pave the old neighborhood roads that don't get the attention of the busier streets. I'd like to start a sidewalk program and create quiet zones.
"The second thing is bringing high-paying jobs to the city and use the façade grants and tax abatement to encourage them to move to Valparaiso. There are a lot of businesses in Illinois that want to move to Indiana, and they should be looking to Valparaiso. I want to get young families to move to the city.
"The third thing is public safety. We have a state of the art police station, and we need to continue to make that a priority. The fire department has one of the lowest insurance ratings in the state, and we have a fire territory that has really helped strengthen the department so it can serve the whole township."
Murphy said he wants to work on solving the opioid crisis through education and prevention because "I lost a family member to it last year, and I know many people who were affected by it." While realizing the mayor can't do it alone, Murphy said the city needs to work with the schools, the county and the state on the problem.
His final goal is to maintain the city's great quality of life by improving the parks and the city's sports fields, especially the soccer and baseball fields, possibly in partnership with the schools. He said families are driving outside the city to play sports and cited Crown Point as one example of a community with really nice sports facilities.
Durnell said his platform is focusing on making the city government more transparent, especially as it relates to its financial condition and dealings. He also wants to see the city embrace diversity and invite more people to the table to have their voices heard. He, too, favors strengthening the neighborhoods, as well as helping local businesses grow and fostering sustainable growth that improves the city's quality of life.
He said he created a "Bill of Rights" over the summer that calls for the public to see the mayor's calendar and the council's voting records. He would like to see the council meeting live streamed as well as making them available for viewing online at any time. This will require a major update of the city's website, which he said also needs to be simplified and make documents available online in advance of the meetings or public hearings.
As to the neighborhoods, he said the current process for issuing grants is badly underfunded and overly bureaucratic.
"Today you get one chance a year to apply for grants for projects, and, if you don't get it, you have to get in line again the following year. I'd like it to be available at any time, and we need to allocate a lot more to neighborhood-driven projects. The budget now is very small, $100,000 for the year. I'd like to see up to a million from the redevelopment commission budgeted."
A report card for projects funded by the redevelopment commission and the Valparaiso Economic Development Commission is needed to show which ones are successful and which aren't. He said small projects seem to be successful while larger ones, like the Garmong speculative building backed by the VEDC, are "colossally bad." He said the Garmong project has no tenants after three years while the city is subsidizing over $1 million for the financing of it.
"The traditional approach to economic development is to take the same tools every community has and go hunting for elephants. That way is risky with big bets incurring big losses," Durnell said. "We need to make better use of the tools we have."
In conclusion, Murphy said, "I'm really excited about the future of Valparaiso. We've come a long way in the last 16 years and I'm proud of what we've accomplished, and I look forward to taking Valparaiso to the next level."
Durnell said, "When I bought the café, I wanted to make the city the center of my life. I became president of my neighborhood organization, and through the relationships I developed with my neighbors and others, it got me interested in running."