Spinner leadership a 'Stellar' storyNovember 25, 2020
By CANDY NEAL
When Denny Spinner decided to run for mayor in 2011, he had three key words he wanted to implement in the city: pride, progress and professionalism.
But to tell the story of his nine years at the helm of Huntingburg, one must talk about Huntingburg’s pursuit, award and progress as a Stellar Community.
“This is one story,” Spinner said. “This is such a defining thing of what my term here was about. I can’t talk about being mayor and not talk about Stellar.”
Spinner stepped down as mayor; his last day was Tuesday. Steve Schwinghamer was sworn in as the new mayor of the city this morning. And in December, Spinner, 64, will lead the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs as its executive director.
Soon after Spinner was elected in November 2011, Huntingburg Airport Manager Travis McQueen told the mayor of some people he knew in Indianapolis that he wanted Spinner to meet, which he did later in the month. The first state official Spinner met was David Terrell, OCRA’s executive director at the time.
“All I knew about OCRA was that it was important to rural communities,” Spinner said.
Spinner did notice that the Town of Ferdinand was involved with and evolving through OCRA’s Home Town Competitiveness Program, an initiative focused on different ideas, called pillars, for community development.
“In 2011, the hottest town in our region was Ferdinand. And I watched how they were doing that,” Spinner said. “I thought, we need to take that same approach to Huntingburg, because there are so many good things about Huntingburg. How to do it: I had to learn. But I believed we could do it.”
So when he met with Terrell, he asked about that program, about OCRA’s function and about Stellar, which was a very new program he’d heard about.
“He gave me some ideas of the types of things we needed to prepare us for Stellar application,” Spinner said. “And he told me, ‘One of the things you’ll have to do to get Stellar is get re-elected, because it will take you three years to prepare to do this.’ ”
Spinner was up for the challenge. He focused on the three P’s that he campaigned on originally: pride, progress and professionalism.
“I’ve always believed that Huntingburg was a great community. But I think we were lacking a little of our own self pride,” Spinner said. “We as a community didn’t see the great assets that we had, and how good of a community we were.
“I knew there were reasons to be proud. How do we leverage that? I felt that Huntingburg’s reputation outside of Huntingburg needed elevating.”
Being from the communications field, Spinner felt he could help showcase Huntingburg’s assets to residents and to those outside of the city. “I felt that I could communicate the message very well,” he said.
In 2012, he held Reviving the Pride listening sessions, three sessions held throughout the city. “I sat and listened,” Spinner said. “It was all about, ‘What do you like? What don’t you like? What are you dreaming about?’ That was kind of the first step towards thinking about a Stellar designation, because we had to have the community input to build a document like this. We had to have complete community buy in for this to work.”
Between 2012 and 2013, the city also completed a needed update of the city’s comprehensive plan and got a grant from OCRA to complete a downtown revitalization plan.
“So between the Reviving the Pride listening sessions, the comprehensive plan and the downtown revitalization plan, those three documents created the foundation to ask for a Stellar designation,” Spinner said. “We felt like we had enough information from those three efforts to make the decision that we were ready to apply for Stellar.”
When the call went out for communities to apply for the Stellar program in 2014, Huntingburg put in a three-page application. And when they found on that February that the city was a finalist, “we were stunned,” Spinner recalled.
But then the work compiling the five-year plan of projects, a document that is hundreds of pages long, ramped up. That had to be turned in to the state in early June.
“We had public support,” said Rachel Steckler, the city’s community development director. “It was a lot of work. But to see the public support and excitement, we knew we were heading in the right direction. This was the community’s work.”
There was a group of people that comprised the Stellar Committee that constantly worked on the plan.
“We met every month,” said John Mundy, who was a member of the committee. “We worked to get the details down, to make sure the plan was complete and thorough. It was an exciting time.”
The plan, which included nine projects, was tuned in on time. And on Aug. 14, at the state fairgrounds, Huntingburg learned that it was chosen as a Stellar Community.
“It was exhilarating,” Mundy said. “The excitement just exploded. And it made the car ride back to Huntingburg great.”
Terrell, who was no longer with OCRA, approached Spinner at the fairgrounds to congratulate the city. And he acknowledged their conversation three years earlier.
“I was wrong,” Terrell told him. “Here you are. You’ve got it.”
The program is now completed, and things didn’t go completely according to plan. Instead of receiving an $11 million award from the state, the city received a little more than $5 million. As a result, some projects in the plan were not completed.
But many were. Those include the revitalization of parts of the former St. Joseph’s Hospital, the completion of sections of the Heritage Trail, moving the street department from the floodplain area and providing space for county emergency management, street work along Ninth and 14th streets, the Fourth Street water main replacement, the addition of workforce housing and multi-family housing, and the completion of the downtown Market Street Park.
“That downtown park is a jewel,” Mundy said. “You hear young people talk about leaving the city and going to other places to live. With that park, and the other projects, I’m hearing more young people talking about moving here. It seems to be keeping young adults here, which is great.”
In fact, an extension is going to be added to the park. Steckler told the Huntingburg Common Council Tuesday night about the extension, which will have shelter houses, benches and a fire pit, among other features.
Private donations helped out on the projects. Along with the city contributing $9 million, private donations totaling more than $30 million, came in. And two endowments were created to take care of the future of the new city features: the Huntingburg Stellar Endowment and the Market Street Park Endowment.. “Those endowments will sustain the projects into the future,” Steckler said.
Being a Stellar community also achieved other goals Spinner set for the city.
“Stellar gave us not only the projects we have here, but it gave us reasons to do things outside of Stellar,” he said. “It elevated the game in all areas. Everything else had to come up to that level as well.”
Improving the relationship with the Latino community was a big one, which is why there is a Latino Collaboration Table, which brings Latino and non-Latino people together to discuss working together as one community. And there is the Mayor’s Youth Council, in which a committee of high school students discusses ideas that Huntingburg can do that would benefit the young people in the community and attract them to the city to live, work and raise a family. Current Blend now exists as a co-share space that business-minded individuals and entrepreneurs can use to conduct meetings and other business.
“Those were projects that were born out of the fact that we had this Stellar thing happening,” Spinner said.
Improvements to city services are also underway. Water plan and water line improvements are happening now, and wastewater improvements are on the horizon.
“Those are some of the things that we had to have as a foundation,” Spinner said, “to have people look at Huntingburg and be willing to invest.”
Although he had ideas, Spinner was thankful to have the support of the city staff and the community these nine years.
“All those folks who worked for the city and with the city were in,” he said. “The city staff had the momentum and the energy to do these things that were needed across the board, in every department.”
While his job could be challenging at times, Spinner is glad he had the opportunity to be mayor of his hometown.
“It’s the best work that I’ve ever done, and it’s the hardest work I’ve ever done,” he said. “I am honored to have been the mayor of Huntingburg — a city like no other.”
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