Mayor looks back at unparalleled year


JASPER — When Mayor Dean Vonderheide looked at the city’s goals for 2020 at the beginning of the year, he didn’t anticipate a pandemic throwing a wrench into nearly every facet of citizens’ lives. But the city adapted, he said, and despite limitations, was able to accomplish the majority of what it set out to do.

Some of the most prioritized and time-consuming projects were all the road repairs the city completed. These repairs from the Impact Jasper Comprehensive Plan ranged from simple sealing or resurfacing to full-blown road rebuilds. All road projects and all but one sidewalk project were completed.

Finishing the Thyen-Clark Cultural Center by the end of the year was another high priority, Vonderheide said. The center will remain in budget and plans a soft open for January 2021.

Additionally, a multimodal transportation plan and county multi-use trail study were launched, which will qualify the city and county for grants in the future.

“Without a plan, you don’t qualify for any grants around trails, and that’s still a big part of our long-range plan,” Vonderheide said.

Vonderheide also mentioned the city government dusting off and relaunching the downtown revitalization plan as a 2020 accomplishment. He mentioned the Heidorn House, a recovery home for women on the east side of town, being set in motion. He mentioned setting up body cameras for the police department. New gear for the fire department. The Heart of Jasper launching. The Jasper River Centre opening. Too many things to think off of the top of his head.

But the year was far from perfect. Some projects were shelved due to the pandemic. Many events and activities around town were canceled. The county’s unemployment rate stayed comparatively low, but still rose, just as it likely did in every county in the country.

Nearly 5,000 people tested positive for COVID-19 in Dubois County by the end of the year. More than 45 died.

Government meetings became virtual, which worked for the most part and was certainly better than sitting back and letting the pandemic blow over, Vonderheide said, but can still be improved.

The city set out COVID-19 safety guidelines for citizens, but there’s only so much the government can do, he said. Ultimately, it’s up to individuals to assess their risk levels and do what is best for their safety.

“It’s not always a government thing, it’s people using common sense,” Vonderheide said. “It’s using science and data that’s available. We tried to inform the public as much as we could but without imposing so many restrictions that it became unenforceable.”

As the pandemic raged, the city adapted. Departments tightened their reins on operations, reduced overtime expenses and came back with a 2021 budget that is 10% lower than in 2020.

Utility employees and local business owners adapted to new work restrictions so they could continue to do their job. Online classes and performances provided exercise and entertainment opportunities for those stuck inside their homes. The parks and pool provided safe activity spaces, and the Buffalo Trace Golf Course had its best year ever.

Not all events were canceled, either. Events such as Downtown Chowdown were successful despite the circumstances.

“People that attended our downtown area for (Downtown Chowdown) had to wear a mask,” Vonderheide said. “I know there’s a lot of people that weren’t happy about it, but there were a lot of people that were.”

Now that the year is coming to a close, Vonderheide and the city boards and departments are looking at projects for 2021 and beyond.

One of the biggest longstanding priorities will be education, Vonderheide said.

“I’m trying to do everything I can to work with educational partners in the area, high schools and colleges, to provide people in Dubois County a better education,” he said.

A group called Education in Dubois County will comprise several motivated citizens that want to see an increase in education opportunities and begin soon.

Vonderheide said he wants to improve not only opportunities for those attending college but also for those pursuing certificates in skills such as welding, plumbing and electrical work, all of which are in high demand.

One of the main issues the city needs to deal with as soon as possible is traffic on U.S. 231, especially near Newton Street, Vonderheide said. Congested traffic, mostly from freight vehicles, makes it dangerous to drive near the intersection and causes a lot of wear and tear on the road itself.

“We’ve got to come up with a plan,” he said. “That’s just something we cannot just stick our heads in the sand and say we don’t need that. We do need a route to divert truck traffic around Jasper.”

Additionally, the utility office is planning to be able to process credit card payments in January 2021. In general, Vonderheide said the city is trying to make as many things online as possible, so people can stay safe at home.

This next year will be an uncertain one, Vonderheide said, but the safety and health of Dubois County residents during the pandemic will remain the number one priority.

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