2022 Lebanon State of the City Address
Good evening. Thank you for joining us. As always, it is truly my pleasure and honor to address you. After the challenging years of 2020 and 2021, it is a relief that we can all come together safely. With so many projects moving forward in various stages of development and completion, I appreciate any opportunity to pause and reflect on the status of our community. It is a moment we can come together to take stock in our achievements, evaluate outstanding challenges, and cast a vision for our shared future.
COVID-19 presented our nation, community, and ourselves with challenges we have never experienced in living memory. We all faced and endured uncertainty, loss, and tragedy. Unfortunately, many of us will carry scars due to the impact of this virus for the rest of our lives.
I will be eternally grateful for the dedication and service of our public safety officers that worked on the front lines during this pandemic. I am equally thankful for the dedicated work of our Parks and Street Department crews that continued to work together during uncertain times to ensure that the needs of the City were met. I am thankful that the City Council approved a one-time premium payment to these City employees that put their health at risk to ensure the job got done.
Due to the excellent leadership team at the City, our community was able to manage the challenges presented by COVID-19 and has emerged on firm financial footing. I would like to publicly thank my department heads and their staffs for their constant dedication to the people of Lebanon.
While I am sure it is not the most exciting thing to begin my speech with, it is important for the community to fully understand our financial status. Our City ended 2019 with a cash balance of $26.2 Million. We ended 2021, with a $32.5 Million in the bank. This was a 24% increase in our reserves. Even if you remove the $1.8 Million the City received as part of the American Rescue Plan, we still saw a 17% increase in our cash reserves. Our bond rating held at its highest rating ever of AA-.
If you are like me, you got your property tax statement in the mail last week. If you take a moment to review the City property tax rate, you will notice that the City property tax rate decreased for the second year in a row. We have now decreased our property tax rate 9.5% since 2015. I know…that was a lot of numbers. Long story short, we continue to be on our best financial footing despite the effects of a worldwide pandemic. I want to thank the members of the Lebanon City Council for their partnership and cooperation to craft our honestly balanced budgets that continue to make needed investments while also ensuring our strong financial stability.
Before writing tonight’s speech, I took some time to review my previous State of the City addresses. It was interesting to review the common themes spread across my previous five speeches. It was also rewarding to view the progression as projects went from ideas to reality. The common thread through it all, which you will continue to hear tonight, is a focus on making Lebanon the best version of itself. Ensuring that Lebanon continues to be a thriving and successful community with a high quality of life.
As Mayor, I often hear criticism from some saying that I want Lebanon to be Carmel, or Zionsville, or name some other community with a poor reputation in your mind. I assure you… that I do not. I want Lebanon to be the best version of Lebanon it can be. Every community is different. Different strengths, weaknesses, personality, and culture. We have unique characteristics here in Lebanon and I work every day to strengthen our positives and minimize our negatives.
Speaking about Lebanon’s strengths, our Parks system continues to improve. We have embarked on a refresh our of five-year master plan. I want to thank John Messenger and his team for working with the community to dream big and create an ambitious goal for our community parks. As someone that believes communities should be walkable and accessible, I have challenged John to bring some type of park facility to within half a mile of every citizen of Lebanon.
This year, our Parks system will see a significant level of investment. The City Council supported an American Rescue Plan proposal that will invest more than one million dollars into our parks. As you may have noticed, earlier this year we cleared invasive and immature trees in Abner Longley Park that allowed us to clean up and create nature trails around Conservation Pond. The clearing of the thicket will make our park more accessible and safer. Unfortunately, over the years, we have had issues with vagrancy, drug use, and other undesirable activities in this secluded area of park. A busy and accessible park is a safe park.
The plan also includes funding to construct a pier into the Conservation Pond that will allow citizens of all ages and abilities to access and enjoy the fishing opportunities. I know that there are many citizens that have fond memories of fishing and some of fence hopping at Conservation Pond. This new feature will ensure new generations will be able to enjoy the splendor and simple pleasure of the pond. The proposal also includes funding for the redesign and installation of our disc golf course.
Moving north to Memorial Park, our park improvements are already well under way. If you have driven down Ulen Drive at night in the last few weeks, you probably noticed the lighting upgrades that are currently under construction. The project is a complete restoration and upgrade of our lighting system. Before this project, our lights were secondhand lights given to us by Ulen. As you can imagine, they were underwhelming and at the end of their useful life. Our new lighting system will light a path all the way around the park and ensure that early morning walkers’ path is lit, and late-night troublemakers will be easily visible and discouraged from any mischief.
We are also well into the construction of Lebanon’s first all-inclusive playground. This playground is fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and will be fully accessible for children of all abilities. It will also be fenced and have different play zones that allow children with behavioral disorders, such as autism, that could be overwhelmed by a traditional playground or have elopement issues to enjoy the playground. When I say that I want Lebanon to be accessible to all. This project is a prime example of that frame of mind. This playground is also a prime example of why it is important to engage and interact with your local government. We are humble enough to say that this playground was not our idea. The idea came directly from a citizen of Lebanon. That citizen has a granddaughter in a wheelchair, and she was frustrated that her granddaughter could not access our playground equipment. She contacted me and asked me to make our community better for her granddaughter. I want to thank her for expressing her concern and challenging us to make things better for her granddaughter and all the children in our community that may not be able to use our parks. All it took was one email to start a boulder rolling down a hill. As Mayor, I strive to do the right thing for the right reason. Building a playground that all children can use sounds like the right thing to me. Never underestimate the power of public input. Because of one grandmother’s love and a willingness to share her opinion, all the children of our community will soon be able to enjoy our parks. She made things better not just for her grandchild but for all children.
Rounding out the list of park upgrades funded by the American Rescue Plan, we plan to add restroom facilities at the Sam Ralston Trailhead of the Big 4 Trail. The Big 4 Trail continues to be a success story as its usage and connectivity grows. We have started construction of the southern leg of the urban section of the trail along Meridian, Superior, and East St. This project is funded by a $2.5 Million Dollar grant from State’s Next Level Trails program and a local match. The work is scheduled to be completed this Fall. When complete, the trail will run all the way from Colfax to the Boone County fairgrounds. With the commitments from the Waterford development, we are just one small section away from connecting Zionsville, Whitestown, Lebanon, and Thorntown. The Big 4 will not only serve as a physical connection of our Boone County communities but also an economic catalyst for small businesses and our communities.
Data proves that trails increase property values, improve connectivity, healthy lifestyles, and make communities a better place to live. Accessibility to trails is a key factor looked at by younger generations when deciding where they want to live. In recent years, economic development has been turned on its head. Instead of an individual finding a job and then moving to that community, now people choose where they want to live and then find a job. Companies then choose to locate where they can find talent. Improving our parks and trails is not just an effort to make Lebanon a better place to live, it is also an economic development strategy.
Speaking of economic development, there has been a recent project that has garnered quite a lot of interest, speculation, and understandable concern. I am of course referencing a State-led initiative to develop a 5000 to 7000 acre research and technology hub just west of Lebanon City limits. I want to take a moment to do what I can to answer some frequent questions and concerns about the project. First, no one from Boone County or Lebanon sought out this development. The State of Indiana felt they needed a new tool to attract next generation technology and research companies. The State legislature passed a law that allows for the creation of Innovation Development Districts or IDDs. These IDDs are State level Tax Increment Financing districts that allow the State to capture new revenue to invest in infrastructure. When looking for what would be the best IDD location, the State looked at several factors, including proximity to Indianapolis, an international airport, a research University, easy interstate access, and availability of undeveloped land. When considering those factors, it is apparent why they have been working to acquire land near our community.
Second, currently none of the land is within Lebanon City limits. That means there are two options for the State to pursue. They can either go through the County’s planning process or request an annexation to the City and then go through the City’s planning process. At this time, I have not been told what path the State wants to go down. As a policy, my administration does not pursue any annexations that are not 100% voluntary. Meaning, if a property owner does not want to be part of the City, we will not force you in. I understand the apprehension that some landowners in the area may feel. You bought or built a home next to a corn field under the assumption that the land next to you would be a corn field forever. I am sorry that is turning out to not be the case. I understand that you feel like this is being forced upon you. I want to stress that the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, or IEDC, does not have any eminent domain authority. This means the IEDC cannot force you to sell if you do not want to sell. On the other hand, your neighbor, including the owner of the large field, has every right to sell their property for a price they agree to. The right to buy and sell property is a fundamental right in American society. I will concede that it is somewhat strange that the buyer would be the State of Indiana, but that is the situation, and they have every authority they need to buy the land. Communities have development ordinances that set the rules for development.
All planning processes and votes are open to the public. If the State chooses to pursue an option that goes through the City process, I promise that you will have the opportunity to be heard and speak your mind. This project is still incredibly early in development. I have not seen a map of the State’s plan. They have not solved every problem. They do not have an answer to every question. I will also say that this project has the potential to greatly benefit our community today and for generations to come. This will not be some run of the mill business park. This will be Indiana’s premier economic development effort. They want to bring in companies that will be integral to our nation’s future. Companies that will pay six-figure salaries and make the products all of us will be using and demanding decades from now. These companies would provide unimaginable career opportunities for people today and future generations. Instead of seeing a trend of children and grandchildren leaving our area to seek greater opportunities elsewhere, they would have a reason and desire to stay, work in these next generation careers, and raise their own families here.
Nearly two-hundred years ago when pioneers came to Boone County, they did not find neatly organized corn and soybean fields with drainage ditches laid out by the Creator. All this area was a dense forest with much of it being swampland. A pioneering spirit drove those settlers to clear those trees, drain the swamps, and carve a future for their families creating our community in the process. I believe that pioneering spirit still resides in us today. I believe that we can carve our own future for Lebanon, Boone County, our State, and our Country from this opportunity, but it will take all of us coming together and having a respectful and comprehensive discussion.
As we look toward the future, my administration also continues to focus on improving our physical infrastructure. Our focus on infrastructure goes beyond the roads. My administration has placed a high priority on sidewalks and pedestrian infrastructure. The maintenance and improvement of these pathways are critically important as we try to build a connected and healthy community. A bad sidewalk can be a barrier the keeps the elderly isolated. We have installed hundreds of ADA accessible ramps. A connected community is a strong community.
At the end of 2021, the City was awarded a $1 Million Dollar grant from the State of Indiana as part of the Community Crossings program to resurface 9 miles of roads. 2022 will be one of our most ambitious road resurfacing efforts ever with the City investing $2 Million dollars to make your drive around town smoother. On Tuesday, we received word from the State that we were successful in getting another Community Crossings grant to replace the bridge in Elmwood in 2023. Combined with a grant received in 2021 for the Witt Road bridge, we successfully completed a “2 for 1” bridge funding strategy. The Witt Road bridge construction will begin in June once school has let out for the year with projected completion in August before school starts up again.
On a related note, we also received word from the Federal Highway Administration that we received grants to fund a complete reconstruction of Witt Road in 2027 from Lafayette Avenue to Austin Dr and Grant Street from Washington Street to Indianapolis Avenue in 2026. I know that seems like a long time from now, but Federal Highway works on a five-year grant cycle, and it will be here sooner than we all realize. As you can tell, we are stretching our local dollars by winning these grants. All the credit for these grants goes to City Engineer Kevin Krulik. He is a huge asset to the City and we are lucky to have him. Thank you, Kevin.
I can’t believe I am almost 20 minutes into this speech, and I still haven’t mentioned one of the most exciting projects the City has been working on, Hickory Junction Fieldhouse. 13 years ago, a Lebanon Mayor cast a vision for the future of Lebanon. He wanted to make Lebanon a destination for families. That Mayor was John Lasley. In what was, sadly, his only State of the City address hosted at the Old Holiday Inn, Mayor Lasley cast a vision of a vibrant Lebanon.
Unfortunately, less than a year after Mayor Lasley’s State of the City the hotel closed, a victim of the Great Recession, and not long after Mayor Lasley passed from cancer just 16 months into his first term as Mayor. The building sat as a vacant and blighted eyesore for four years. At one point, an arsonist even tried to burn down the abandoned structure.
The Old Holiday Inn was acquired by the City and then demolished in 2012. Lebanon has been trying to find the right fit ever since for a decade. There have been many starts and stops, periods of momentum and stall. Various groups have proposed everything from a truck stop to ATV powersports dealership. At the end of the day, I always believed that there was a higher and better use for this site. We wanted to make sure that we found the right deal, not just the first deal. I believe we have now found its highest and best use.
The site has history of being a tourist destination as a former “Holidome.” Over the years the Old Holiday Inn hosted countless events, conferences, and families looking for a weekend of fun. This site will once again become a major tourism and recreation draw for Lebanon, Boone County, and the entire State of Indiana.
With the City’s partnership alongside Card and Associates, the Old Holiday Inn site will soon be part of a 95-acre mixed use campus anchored by a 270,000 sq ft youth sports complex with 9 basketball courts and two full size indoor football fields. The fieldhouse will be surrounded by retail, restaurant, medical, and residential development.
I am also pleased to say, that we will be able to construct this project without increasing taxes on Lebanon residents. Our City team has worked extremely hard to ensure that this project is self-supporting meaning that the developments own taxes will pay for its own infrastructure costs and construction.
Site preparation, infrastructure, and construction of the Fieldhouse will begin as soon as the finances are fully approved. That could happen as soon as next month. The fieldhouse is on target to open in 2023. The City is excited to be working with the team at Card and Associates. Card and Associates are proven operators in the youth sports market here in Indiana. As we have all seen, the youth sports market continues to grow rapidly, and additional facilities will help meet unmet demand. Central Indiana is already a youth sports hub, and the Hickory Junction Fieldhouse will only strengthen that reputation. The surrounding restaurant, retail, entertainment, and hospitality opportunities will add to Lebanon’s quality of life while also attracting a high volume of tournament, league, and event visitors. We project to see upwards of 60,000 visitors per month when the fieldhouse is open. This facility also has the potential to provide opportunities for local Lebanon non-profit athletic and youth organizations.
55 years ago, Lebanon was metaphorically put on the map by a famous Lebanon resident that knew his way around a basketball court, when Rick Mount became the first High School player featured on the cover of Sport Illustrated. Hickory Junction Fieldhouse has the same potential to put Lebanon on the map in the minds of young athletes and families from all across the United States as well as instill pride within the citizens of Lebanon for decades to come.
As you look around our City, you can see first-hand that our Planning Department is extremely busy these days. Everywhere you look shovels are in the ground. New businesses, restaurants, and importantly new residents are all coming to Lebanon. Despite the pandemic and resulting supply chain issues, the City processed 64 new housing permits and 67 in 2021. We have already had 39 permits this year. If new permits continue to be pulled at this pace, we will hit more than 100 by the end of 2022. The growth that has been expected to come to Lebanon for a more than generation is here. This growth will bring more restaurants, amenities, and opportunities.
My goal is to ensure that we grow but at a responsible and sustainable rate. You may have heard of the term “NIMBY.” It stands for “Not in my backyard.” As our community changes, I challenge everyone to reject knee-jerk Nimbyism. Come out from behind the computer screen and be part of the process. Engage with your neighbors serving on the Planning Commission and the professionals working in our Planning Department. Your concerns will not fall on deaf ears. I can’t say that you will always get what you want but we are willing to have the discussion and be upfront and honest. I understand that some residents may not want Lebanon to change. I would contend that Lebanon has always been changing; it just hasn’t been as noticeable or even for the better. A community cannot be frozen in a time. It must reflect the people that live there. Every generation impacts a community as it adapts to fit their time. Change is the only constant.
All our city’s quality of life efforts like parks, trails, active downtowns, and youth sports complexes are important but they are pointless if a community is not safe. After dealing with challenging circumstances in 2020 and 2021, I have no hesitation in saying that I am extremely proud of every single one of our officers and the leadership of our Police Department. I want to thank Chief Morgan for his steady hand on the wheel during the turbulent COVID years. All our departments, but especially the Police and Fire Departments, had to face unforeseen and unexpected challenges. Over the last few years, we have been able to add additional officers as needed. The increased boots on the ground are accomplishing the goal of making those that would break the law, uncomfortable in Lebanon. Our men and women in uniform continue to work hard every day to make Lebanon safer for all of us. Our Police Department is constantly working to improve operations. Unfortunately, no City is perfect, and our community was rocked by an atypical violent crime last summer, I and thankful that the skilled officers at LPD systematically worked to identify, find, and bring the perpetrator to justice. I sleep well at night knowing that the Lebanon Police Department is watching over us.
One the most apparent and disappointing commonalities in my previous State of the City addresses relates to the Lebanon Fire Department’s relationship with Center Township Fire Department. It saddens me that after years and years of the City begging and pleading with Center Township to meet basic standards, we made negligible progress. Chief Batts and I agreed that we had to make the difficult decision to revoke our mutual aid agreement with the Center Township Fire Department.
As I have learned from Chief Batts, the fire service is all about managing risk; the risk became too great. After years of haphazard and substandard oversight, we felt we had no other option. I will say it again publicly, this is not a reflection of the Firefighters of Center Township. It is a tragic failure of leadership. Our proposed Memorandum of Understanding asked for Center Township to meet the bare minimum of modern firefighting standards. We were rebuffed. We had no other option. I still firmly and unequivocally believe that it is in the best interest of both Lebanon citizens and unincorporated Center township citizens to join our departments. Some have accused Chief Batts and me of being “power hungry” or “wanting to take Center Township’s money;” nothing could be further from the truth. I want and have always wanted the highest level of service for the lowest possible cost. A unified department is that clear and logical solution.
If the situations of our departments were reversed, I would have no hesitation negotiating with the Center Township Trustee to provide Fire protection to the City of Lebanon, but that is not the reality of our current situation. We proposed a shared fireboard that would have representation from both the City and the unincorporated township. The trustee would not even meet with me to discuss it.
Some have claimed a unified department is “big government.” This is simply ridiculous. Two separate Fire Departments with two separate Chiefs responsible to separate elected boards in a community of 17,000 people is inefficient and an unnecessary duplication of services. When one Department makes 85% of their runs within another Department’s jurisdiction, that is a massive overlap of services.
If anyone suggests that Center Township’s problems can be solved by adding more firefighters or buying new equipment, that can only be done sustainably by increasing spending which means a tax increase for citizens. That is irrefutable. Keep in mind that unincorporated Center Township is shrinking. As Lebanon continues to grow, the burden of an enlarged Center Township Fire Department will be shouldered by fewer and fewer taxpayers.
If unification solution cannot be found soon, the City and the Lebanon Fire Department will be forced to explore the option of constructing a western station to fill a gap in our response area. I do not want to build a new station when an existing station could be easily refurbished and upgraded. If a new station is built and staffed, the opportunity for the full-time firefighters at Center Township to join LFD will have been missed.
We are once again having an election for Center Township Trustee. After missing an opportunity for reform in 2018 only to see things get worse, I strongly urge everyone to consider a candidate’s openness to unification.
As your Mayor, I have always focused on putting people first. I want Lebanon to be a welcoming and vibrant community for people of all walks of life. There will always be challenges to face and problems to solve, but I am grateful for the confidence this community has placed in me to continue working on your behalf. I have always tried to look toward the future and ensure Lebanon is a place that my children will want to grow up and raise their own family. Becoming a father in 2020 has focused and strengthened my passion. I know that I will not please everyone, but at the end of the day, please know I am always working to make our community stronger and putting Lebanon first. Our Lebanon has a bright future ahead of it and I hope you are excited to be part of it. Thank you for joining us here tonight. God bless you all.