Mayor focuses on, finishes first year

Kaiti Sullivan/The Herald
Jasper Mayor Dean Vonderheide works in his office at Jasper City Hall on Thursday. Vonderheide is finishing his first full year in office and will be sworn in today for his next term.


JASPER — About a year ago, Dean Vonderheide’s name changed.

He was no longer Dean. He wasn’t Vondy, and he wasn’t Coach. The names that had become integral to his identity over the past 66 years were replaced by a new moniker that has taken over and changed his life.

When he was sworn in on Dec. 28, 2018, he became “Mayor.”

“You feel like you’ve lost your identity and you’re reestablishing it as Mayor,” Vonderheide said.

Of course, those other names are still part of who he is as a man, and some people still call him by them. But to the overwhelming majority of Jasper residents, Vonderheide is Mayor.

And he will be for at least the next four years.

His first year as mayor was an eye-opening experience for Vonderheide. After winning a Republican caucus vote following the midterm departure of former mayor Terry Seitz, he was thrown into a new world.

“I knew enough to be dangerous, not enough to be effective,” Vonderheide said. “And so I have to ask questions in order to be effective.”

He also had to recalibrate the status of projects, determine their hurdles and ultimately push toward their finalization — all while collaborating with non-city groups and learning about things like tax caps.

“Completing things is really important,” he said. “Once you start something, finish it. Focus and finish is what I always try to say. Because otherwise, your plate becomes full of so many things that are not quite done.”

Under his leadership, the city completed a variety of major projects that will impact Jasper for years to come.

A major waterline buried underneath U.S. 231 was replaced with a bigger, modern main. The Parklands of Jasper blossomed in its first year of operation. A comprehensive plan for the future was finalized and priorities were established. A mobile food vendor ordinance was established, allowing food trucks and other sellers to legally bring their products to public places in the city for the first time.

“They’re all being made very thoughtfully by the boards,” Vonderheide said of the decisions that led to these milestones. “With the best interests of the community in mind long-term, not just short-term. I think that’s the key.”

Vonderheide assembled a mayor’s youth council composed of a diverse group of Jasper High School students. He also put together an ecumenical council of local faith leaders.

Strides were made on the Jasper River Centre development, which is set to open in March. Ground broke on the construction of the Thyen-Clark Cultural Center. Vonderheide thought about these projects in depth and at length, understanding that they are “big investments for our community,” he said.

He also spoke of how the city’s assessed valuation rose by $49 million in 2019 — reducing its tax rate while pushing forward.

“That’s what our community wants to see,” he said. “They want to see growth, but not at the cost of higher taxes. So, if we can get the growth through higher value on our assets and more investments and assets in the community, I think that’s really important to us.”

Looking to the future, Vonderheide said the development of a countywide transportation system that factors in the development of the city’s growing street network and the potential construction of the Mid-States Corridor will be important.

“Within that, what kind of transportation system are we gonna provide to the elderly who no longer can drive?” Vonderheide asked. “Or to those that have no driver’s license but are employed?”

He later continued: “How do pedestrians get from A to B? How do bicyclists get from A to B? How do the cars, and how do the trucks? What is a bus route, if we have a bus? Where do we go within the county, not just within the city?”

Work on that plan will begin soon and is essential, Vonderheide said. He’s also looking ahead to the construction of a long-range financial plan that would complement and enable Jasper’s comprehensive plan.

He thanked the many people around him who have helped him during his first year on the job.

To many Jasper residents, he is Mayor.

But those who are close to him understand that he is still a man who is constantly seeking input because he knows it will make him a better leader. Vonderheide relishes conversation, and he finds immense value in interactions.

He also just loves to talk to people. When he’s traveled internationally, even if a language barrier existed between him and someone else, he’s found ways to communicate with them.

“Because I’m always wanting to find out something new,” he said. “And where they’re coming from. It’s more fun that way than it is to be limited to just what I know.

“What don’t I know? What could I learn? That’s more fun.”

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