By LOU WILIN
Jobs growth, greater state and private investment, strong fiscal management, and a more pedestrian-friendly downtown will be part of Lydia Mihalik’s mayoral legacy.
Mihalik resigned as mayor Sunday to become director of the Ohio Development Services Agency under Gov. Mike DeWine. The agency used to be called the Ohio Department of Development.
The critics of Findlay’s first woman mayor knocked her for traveling more than her predecessors to conferences or meetings in Ohio, elsewhere in the nation, and Japan. She has been active in various associations of mayors.
But Findlay has benefited from Mihalik’s travels and connections, which perhaps more than anything else set her apart from her predecessors, some say.
“What probably stands out and is different from other mayors I’ve seen is the wider range of contacts, so to speak,” said Dave Wobser, who was service-safety director for Mayors W. Bentley Burr and Keith Romick. “She’s been involved at the state level. She’s been involved in the national level with various programs and associations, and that’s all good for the city.
“It gives us a recognition at the state level when you are looking maybe for grants. They know who Findlay is and where Findlay is,” Wobser said. “Now, we weren’t an unknown to start with. We were fairly well-known in Columbus. But she’s kind of enhanced that value.”
The city’s current safety director, Paul Schmelzer, puts it more pointedly.
“The mayor’s travel kind of gets picked on, but without her elevating this community to a state-level player and our success economically, I really don’t think we would have gotten a commitment for $15 million for flood mitigation,” he said, referring to legislation signed last month by Gov. John Kasich.
Findlay has been ranked first for business growth for four straight years among 575 small cities nationwide.
“That was quite an accomplishment, but that wasn’t something that was specifically mine or uniquely mine. That was something we did as a community,” Mihalik said. “The things that we were able to do together are the things that I am very proud of. The economic development success is one.”
Others, she said, included the pedestrian-friendly downtown renovations with curb “bump-outs” at intersections, several mid-block crosswalks and new landscaping. It was funded with a $3.3 million state grant and a $1.1 million donation from Marathon Petroleum Corp.
Partnering with Findlay-Hancock County Economic Development, city officials also saw two industrial parks built “with no exposure to the city’s capital plan,” Schmelzer said. One of the industrial parks is south of Hancock County 212, where McLane and Campbell Soup distribution centers are located.
The other industrial park is off an extension of Production Drive, west across Bright Road near Veoneer-Nissin Brake Systems, formerly Autoliv.
With all of the prosperity and growth of recent years, it is easy to forget that Mihalik and her administration inherited a city government which was financially weak in the wake of a recession. It also was in fiscal disarray.
“We were talking about cutting services. We were discussing layoffs,” Mihalik said.
They were able to navigate until the economy improved by eliminating some positions and by not replacing workers who left or retired, Schmelzer said.
In fact, the city had cut a service years earlier — leaf collection — and Mihalik used it to showcase her leadership abilities and make a potent campaign pitch in her first run for mayor.
She organized and led a group of volunteers who hauled away residents’ leaves when the city of Findlay could not afford to in the wake of the Great Recession.
Research shows that women are often held to a higher standard than men to prove they are qualified for public office, said Kelly Dittmar, assistant professor of political science and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, at Rutgers University.
The gender disparity widens when the office involved is an executive one, where there is a sole occupant who is “in charge.” People are less comfortable voting for women in executive positions than legislative ones, Dittmar said.
Mihalik overcame stereotypes to defeat three Republican opponents in the May 2011 primary, and then defeated an independent candidate and a write-in in the November 2011 general election.
She had no opponents for re-election in 2015, and leaf pickup by the city resumed.
She will be an asset to Gov. DeWine as his Development Services Agency director and resident expert on local government, said William Angel, associate professor of political science at Ohio State University.
“You want a mayor — a mayor of a successful city — in such a job because they know about getting grants. They know about what it takes to bring economic development to a city, the kinds of services they need, the kind of infrastructure that is needed, both the political infrastructure and the hard infrastructure and the technological infrastructure as well as economic infrastructure,” Angel said. “A mayor is well-situated to understand those things. It seems to me that she would be an excellent choice, especially given Findlay’s success.”
DeWine has said he will also draw on Mihalik’s local government experience. He would be wise to take cues from Mihalik on how to deal with local communities, Angel said. Angel speaks from experience as a former Allen County Democratic Party chairman who helped with national presidential campaigns.
“It was always frustrating because you’re trying to do something for a campaign and they are basically doing things inadvertently which undermine you or make you look stupid locally,” Angel said. “There is this failure to understand local culture, I think, that often exists at the state level.”
“What she will be able to do is take her understanding of the local culture and bring it to Columbus, and help them understand, ‘Well here is how you can make economic development work. Here’s the best things that work. Here’s things that don’t work,'” he said.
“She has hands-on experience,” Angel said. “I mean, she’s had to do something that Mike DeWine has not had to do for a long time. That’s to face voters directly on a day-to-day, daily basis.”
Mihalik also represents a success story and model for other women with aspirations in politics, Dittmar said.
It’s not just about women getting into a public office. Hopefully they also have a vision and support for a trajectory to go further if they want to, she said.
“If they have progressive ambition and they want to hold higher office, or in this case be an appointee or something like that, that’s another place where we obviously have to focus energies in support of women so that they can leverage their officeholding at any one level or position to then help them position themselves for other types of political leadership,” Dittmar said.
“What’s positive about this story is that you see that happening: That a woman who was successful in one area of politics could take that experience to the statewide level and then have an impact there as well,” she said. “We hope to see other women do that across different levels of office.”
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