Gerard looks back on first year as Champaign mayor
With Mayor Don Gerard celebrating the one-year anniversary of his swearing-in today, The News-Gazette sat down with him Wednesday in the bleachers at his son's baseball game at McKinley Field to review his first year and what's left to come as he looks to the next three.
The News-Gazette: What was your plan coming into office, and do you think you've been able to start executing?
Don Gerard: You know, I say this a lot. It's like what they taught us in Boy Scouts. Leave the campsite a little better than you found it, a little cleaner. And that's been my plan, and I think so far in the first year, we've made some really great steps.
NG: How have your expectations and goals shifted in the first year?
DG: My expectation was that it would be a lot more difficult, but we have great people in this community, and a lot of visionaries, and once you start putting them together, we get a lot done. I've just been utilizing a lot of very talented people and letting their visions be realized.
NG: Based on the goals you had coming in, did anything change along the way in the first year?
DG: I think the vision became a lot broader. I think there was a lot of things that we thought were pipe dreams that were actually closer to fruition, mostly because other people have already started along the same path. There's a lot of opportunities. A new school superintendent, a new president, another new president at the university, a new chancellor, a new police chief. It's a lot more wide open than I thought it would be.
NG: One of your biggest initiatives has been seeking a minor league baseball team and stadium. Are you pleased with where that project is right now?
DG: I am, to be honest. A lot of stuff has to happen. We always have to catch some breaks, things have to fall into place. But I am pretty amazed with how far along we've gotten with that. I'm really proud of Tony Johnston (the exploratory committee chairman); he's doing a really great job with that, and the city is really excited about it. Instead of being a pipe dream, it's become an actual consideration.
NG: What are some of your regrets from year one?
DG: You know, I don't have a whole lot. I expected the learning curve to be large. I've been really blessed, and I've had a really good run. I really don't have any regrets. Certainly, we all would do things a little bit differently, but at the end of the day, I think for the most part, it's been a pretty darn good first year.
NG: Have you found it difficult to balance your role as mayor with your full-time job as a facilities manager at the University of Illinois?
DG: No. To be honest, it's refreshing to get in and do my day job because it's much simpler and straightforward, and there's more tasks that I can accomplish. The university has done a fantastic job with the oversight committee, people in our departments and schools for which I work, and the city has done a good job. Everyone's kind of working to make sure that this succeeds.
NG: You have three years left on your term. What should residents expect from here on out?
DG: Two years from now, I'd like to see $100,000,000 in construction projects under way. I'd like to see jobs opening up at Kraft and a job-training program at Parkland (College). I'd like to see Research Park expand. I'd like to see our public schools really raise the bar. I'd like to see lights at McKinley Field.
NG: And how can you promote those initiatives as mayor?
DG: Again, a lot of this job is just working with other people and getting voices together. A lot of times, people have the same thoughts but they're just not in the same room. Sometimes it's as simple as me walking in and having a cup of coffee with somebody; and walking out, there's a whole new plan.
NG: Police-community issues were a major concern when you came in. Where do you feel the city is at now?
DG: I think we are in the best possible place we could be with Chief Anthony Cobb. He's the best man for the job, and the fact that he's from Champaign-Urbana only adds to his perspective on things. He's a man who stands for accountability, he stands for respect, and he's just top-notch. If this community can't make good relations happen with him in that leadership position, we have far bigger problems than we thought.
NG: The budget was also a major concern given the economy at the time you came in. In the past year, we've seen some marginal budget cuts as the economy improves. We've also seen city council approval of some revenue increases, like the gas tax and the storm-water fee. How do you feel about the way the budget has evolved during the year that you've been mayor?
DG: I feel great. We've been blessed. The firefighters worked with us to keep our citizens safe, keep our Class 2 insurance rating so insurance rates are low, and at the same time helped us to make the budget we had to work with. Just on down the line, I think the city staff has really been prudent stewards of taxpayer dollars. I think with us moving forward, with all the potential projects, we're just in a really good position as we come out of the recession. Champaign has money; we're not trying to dig out of debt. We have new revenue sources; we're fixing our roads; we're moving forward with our storm-water projects. And all that just rolls more money around in our economy, so to me, in my mind, it's just a win-win all around.
NG: What has surprised you the most?
DG: I've been disappointed with some of the leadership in some of the entities around Champaign that I expected more of. I think that's just something we'll have to deal with.
NG: Do you care to be specific?
DG: No. It's just that you think there's some organizations that you would expect to be doing the job that you would expect them to do, and it's disappointing to find out that there's more politics involved and it's not for the betterment of our community. It's about a political ideology. And they'll know who they are when they read this.
NG: What do you feel will be your biggest challenge moving forward?
DG: Finding enough time to do all the things I want to do and spend all the time with the public that I'd like to spend. It's been outstanding having the social networks; I think that's a great connection. But it's great to have the time to really be out, to really talk to people.
NG: What grade would you give yourself for the first year?
DG: I think a good, solid B or a B+. I think that I did a little better than average. I think I did enough extra credit to push myself up into a respectable grade. I think that's fair.