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KEVIN LEININGER: New mayor predicts ’20s ‘decade of New Haven’; West Jefferson project to resume

New Haven Mayor Steve McMichael. (News-Sentinel.com file photo by Kevin Leininger
Terry McDonald
The former house at 6626 W. Jefferson Blvd. is being converted into a commercial building, and work is expected to resume next month. (Courtesy image)
Kevin Leininger

“The ’20s are going to be the decade of New Haven and east Allen County,” predicted Steve McMichael, who on Jan. 1 will just happen to become the city’s first new mayor in 20 years.

“I get to build on what Terry (McDonald) has done. We’re in a great position,” said McMichael, who in November was elected just the seventh mayor in New Haven’s history by winning 65 percent of the vote against Democrat Darren Peterson. “But it’s also good to have some fresh eyes on the ground.”

If that sounds as though McMichael and McDonald have more in common than the first two letters of their last names, it’s because they do — starting with the fact that both initially sought office as Democrats. The difference is that McDonald won his first race by defeating incumbent Republican Lynn Shaw after filing too late to challenge Shaw in the GOP primary. McMichael unsuccessfully ran for City Council as a Democrat in 2011 before being appointed to council by a Republican caucus in 2016 following the resignation of Tim Martin.

And, like McDonald, McMichael said he will continue to stress economic development and knows he will have to contend with utility maintenance and rates. But McMichael’s tactics in those and other areas are likely to differ from his predecessor’s, both men agree.

“(McMichael’s) more analytical than I am,” McDonald said. “He looks at all the options before making a decision.”

Those decisions have already begun, in fact. As I first reported earlier this month, McMichael encouraged the creation of the New Haven Economic Development Commission, which will allow the city greater flexibility to grant tax incentives in exchange for investment downtown and along Indiana 930. That flexibility is one reason McMichael predicts prosperity for the area: Land that so far has failed to develop — such as along Maplecrest Road, including the site once eyed by Walmart — could become more attractive. McMichael said he’s also confident good things will happen at the 259-acre former Casad Depot east of town and and on 175 acres near U.S. 30 and Doyle Road the Lomont family is working to develop. East Allen, in fact, has the county’s most-abundant supply of open land.

“Maybe we can even get a coffee shop,” McMichael said.

McMichael said he will make city government more transparent by creating a Facebook page, which will carry some meetings live. He’s also preparing to appoint a “community engagement” director who will encourage residents to become more civically and politically involved. He’s preparing to hire new directors of engineering and economic development, with Brian Yoh, who currently oversees economic development and planning, focusing exclusively on the latter. He also wants to add at least one police officer annually during his first term.

As for sewer and water service, which often caused McDonald headaches due to the expense of repairs and rate increases mandated by Fort Wayne City Utilities, McMichael said he wants to create a public panel to explore a variety of options, including creation of a regional utility district or local utility board. Such a board couldn’t avoid rate increases, he said, but would give the public more of a say in them. McMichael said New Haven could also explore creation of its own utility, as Huntertown has done, or the transfer of service to Aqua Indiana or some other provider, although such changes could require state approval.

Once in office, McMichael will relinquish control of his real estate business to avoid any potential conflicts of interest. He’s also been working to build relationships with counterparts in Allen County and Fort Wayne governments.

“I’ve been here (at City Hall) almost every day (preparing to take office),” he said of the county’s second-largest city, which has about 15,700 residents, 100 full-time employees and a budget of about $15 million, including utilities. “I’m encouraged, excited and ready to go.”

In limbo no more

Speaking of getting going, work is about to resume on a controversial and long-delayed commercial project at 6626 W. Jefferson Blvd.

As I first reported in June, the Allen County Building Department ordered Martin Quintana to stop work on the building, a former house he was expanding to contain about 10,000 square feet even though Quintana never obtained commercial zoning or building permits and had used some unlicensed contractors.

The Plan Commission rezoned the property to allow commercial use in August, however, and construction is now expected to resume in January, with completion in July 2020.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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