Saying goodbye to a friend and community asset

Jason Truitt

Today, I would like to say goodbye and best of luck to a friend and former colleague who has left the Palladium-Item. He is Jason Truitt, a man of character and quality, and, though he’s not really going too far, he has left the local newspaper where he spent more than 20 years.

I worked with Jason for a number of those years and was always inspired by his single-minded, no-nonsense approach. He took his job seriously and performed his tasks at a very high level. As a leader, he was second to none.

In recent years he has been pressed into the role of head reporter and “team leader,” though the team has shrunk to fewer than fingers on your hand.

There was a time when, during a newsroom luncheon, the pizza boxes would arrive in stacks. For the past six or seven years, a lone pizza would feed every employee with, perhaps, a slice or two to take home for later.

Through the years, Jason has weathered the storm and faced the adversity of a burgeoning work load, constant community criticism and a diversity of tasks and assignments with incredible expertise.

In recent years, his reporting on the pandemic, on city and county government, on school board issues and construction projects, downtown development and a myriad of other topics has been extraordinary from my view point.

Through it all, Jason was a shining light in an ever-dimming medium. Beyond that, he was a huge community asset since I firmly believe that informing the public of the workings of their government and of things going on in their community is of utmost importance to every citizen.

Jason carried the torch as only he could, with diligence and dedication.

So goodbye my friend and congratulations on a job well done. We as a community will miss your reporting, your hard-edged approach and your dedication to accuracy, fairness and quality.

Industry and community were his labor of love

Jeff Jeffers loved to talk about his business and his community, both of which were his life.

On three occasions he took me on tours of his buildings, the fruits of his labor, and in doing so gave me a glimpse into his business acumen, his love of his community and his enormous heart.

It was obvious from the start he was proud of the work he had done, optimistic about the decisions he’d made and what was ahead.

And the commentary was priceless, enthralling to someone with little business sense, even less knowledge of Richmond’s industrial history and a burgeoning sense of community.

The tour started with a walk through his primary building, sidestepping caskets in assembly line motion, past molds, brackets, handles and all the other paraphernalia that goes into the construction process.

Amidst the smell of paint and glue, with metals grinding and caskets rolling in all states of completion, Jeff was the perfect tour guide.

His commentary was straight forward with no boast of moneys earned and spent nor his place as the city’s industrial leader. There was, however, reference with more than a hint of pride, to his donations to the city’s growth, whether in industry or nonprofit projects like the Boys & Girls Club or the city’s fireworks celebrations.

But there was no evidence that the telling was for bragging sake. It was only incidental, mixed in with the description of processes involved in acquisitions, to the building of caskets and building of a community, to adjustments he’s made to an ever-changing business climate and the happiness he derived from what he had built.

It was his kingdom and he was sovereign.

He talked nonstop, punctuating triumphs and challenges with that funny high-pitched giggle that accentuated the difficulty, unpredictability, even absurdity, of his bold ongoing march to success.

He knew every employee, greeted them by name and they all responded, happy, not surprised, to see him in their midst.

Next, we jumped into his golf cart and toured a second then third building, soaring past endless lines of hanging metal parts awaiting paint, past mounds of auto and truck parts and metal trays in various states of preparation and transport to keep other industry moving.

He was in his element and it was obvious he loved what he had quietly built. He told stories with relish of buildings he purchased, retrofitted, of previous owners, his original plans and how those plans changed. He never dwelt on the negative, never disparaged civic leaders, business competitors and associates and always demonstrated real affection for the people who worked for him past and present.

He was one of a kind and, when the tour ended, I felt privileged to get this brief but fascinating glimpse into a life of struggle and accomplishment. Now, it is hard to believe he is gone and unnerving to think of the void left in this community by his passing.

He was a tribute to our past, an age when manufacturing was king, and a constant reminder of the importance of dedication to craft and community and to the belief that all things are possible.

Though difficult to envision a future without him, Jeff Jeffers’ memory will live on through his commitment, accomplishment and example.

Ordinance prohibiting non-profits from locating downtown coming to council Monday

Monday, the Richmond Common Council (of which I am a member) will be asked to consider an ordinance that would prohibit institutional uses within the city’s downtown district, from 5th Street to 10th Street, North A to South A.

The ordinance, if passed, would allow banks and barbershops, bars, restaurants, hotels/motels, office space, specialty shops, fitness centers and funeral homes.

Those, of course, are property tax-paying businesses.

It would prohibit the location of churches, community centers, hospitals, jails, libraries, museums and others in the downtown district.

Those, of course are (in general) non-property tax-paying businesses.

Those who are already there can stay, but no new non-profits would be allowed to locate downtown.

The ordinance was brought forward by Councilman Larry Parker, who envisions the downtown district as a “retail district,” one of commerce where citizens visit to work, shop, eat, do business and be entertained.

The ordinance, if passed, in theory would help attract more businesses to the city’s central business district, which would then attract more shoppers, more development and pump new life into the old buildings downtown.

The Richmond Advisory Plan Commission (of which I am also a member) considered the ordinance last week and voted 6-0 to recommend denial to council.

The city’s plan staff recommended denial, citing goals for the downtown district which would “allow for a diverse set of different land uses, where many institutional uses are meant to work in harmony with permitted commercial and residential properties.”

The plan staff also cited the Richmond Rising Community Action Plan to include (among others):

* Promoting reuse and redevelopment of existing sites and structures throughout Richmond to encourage an efficient use of resources to foster revitalization;

* Generating a thriving economy through diversifying the city’s economic base and responding to industry needs by providing opportunities for lifelong learning and workforce development services and programs;

* Continuing to meet the changing needs of the city’s residents through public safety, and support health, education and religious institutions while promoting safe and healthy lifestyles;

* Partner and collaborate with local nonprofit organizations to help achieve their missions and provide residents needed services.

Under Parker’s proposal, non-profits could locate in the central business district but would have to first petition the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals for a variance.

I have talked to several business owners downtown, all of whom supported Parker’s proposal. They said they would like to see a clear plan for downtown Richmond development, one that would encourage more retail development and more specialty shopping and living opportunities.

The city’s Law Department has also wondered if passage of such an ordinance could open the city to “scrutiny” under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

So now the question comes to Common Council. Monday’s meeting will include a public hearing in which citizens will have their say. So please join us, if you are interested, and let us know what you think.

Waiting for the unknown

We are in strange new territory.

Our lives and our world have changed in ways that, even now, we cannot foresee, let alone understand. We are confined to our homes, and waiting, not knowing what’s next, is the worst part.

Our lives go on and we adjust. That’s what we Americans do. We make do, rising each day to face the uncertainty that awaits us outside our doors.

Still, today’s news is sad for this can be the week that shocks us and provides are biggest challenge. It will define us. Death, say the experts, awaits. So we adjust, we brace. Certainly, we squabble and blame, argue and disagree, often in a highly disagreeable fashion.

But still we wait to adjust, and go on.

Our vision of a return to normalcy, to sanity, by Easter is all but gone now. Easter, a time of rebirth, of cleansing, will apparently be neither for our world. Will the return to normalcy come in May? June, maybe July? That, for me, is the hardest part of all hard parts. Not knowing. Perhaps it’s the journalist in me.

Being in the loop, getting answers, making decision-makers answer questions. Getting at the truth of what’s next and when. Knowing.

We are left to obey the laws dictated by President Trump and his staff, of Gov. Holcomb and his staff. We are left seeking answers from Mayor Snow, Commissioners Paust, Burns and Buttters, Dr. Jetmore and Dr. Huth, Craig Kinyon of Reid Hospital and Christine Stinson of the county health department. Locally, I know I have to trust these people and trust their judgement. I applaud them for their work to keep our community safe.

Their instructions are too important to ignore.

But adjustment is never, ever easy. From a day-to-day government standpoint, city, county and school business seems trivial. We sit in front of our computer screens and conduct city and RP&L business, again striving for normalcy, a quest made maddeningly difficult for me as a new member of council.

I want to be in the know, want to be part of the solution, instant or otherwise, want to be the guy with the answers.

But that is not and will not be the case for this is strange new territory. Our lives have changed and our world will continue to change.

Forever. Now we must wait and prepare to adjust.

Council considers Milestone development, RP&L proposed increase

The Richmond Common Council meets in regular session Tuesday with a full agenda.

Among the agenda items are:

  • A report from Street Department head Tracy Bosell and requests from the Richmond Fire Department and Richmond Parks & Recreation Department to receive donations and grants;
  • A special ordinance amending the zoning map from mixed zoning of general commercial and agricultural to high intensity industrial at 3408 Chester Boulevard. The request comes from Heritage Land Company and Milestone Contractors, who plan to consolidate their Richmond operation from three sites to one and build an office, garage and asphalt mixing plant. This ordinance was heard by the Richmond Advisory Plan Commission Jan. 23 at which time commission members heard a presentation by Milestone representatives. City staff recommended denial of the ordinance but Plan Commission members voted 9-0 to recommend approval to Common Council. The ordinance came to Council at its Feb. 3 meeting at which time Milestone representatives made a presentation followed by opposition from several citizens, including Leighann Hahn, representing the city’s Environmental Sustainability Commission. Council members decided to hold the ordinance on second reading, or public hearing, for Tuesday’s meeting.
  • An ordinance granting Richmond Power & Light to seek a 9.6 percent increase in electric rates with the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission. RP&L last sought a rate increase in 2004, which was approved by the IURC at 6.5 percent and implemented over two years starting in 2005. The increase will be spread over the various categories of electric use, including residential, commercial, commercial lighting and industrial, and will be phased in over three years. If approved the increase will begin in 2021.
  • An ordinance increasing the rate for the cumulative capital development fund, which is used to pay for vehicles and equipment for the city’s police and fire departments. The tax rate for the fund is currently $0.0414 per $100 of assessed value. City officials are asking that the rate be increased to $0.05 per $100 of assessed value. The rate in the city starts at 5 cents and drops slightly each year unless it is reset by council.

Council begins at 7:30 p.m., following the Richmond Power & Light Board of Directors meeting at 7 p.m. All are welcome.

Help fueled this campaign.

Now that the election is over and the results are in, I must admit that I am thrilled, proud, humbled and anxious to move on to the work at hand.

But first I have a large group of people to thank, people who worked tirelessly to help me along the way.

This whole election thing was a journey, one that was totally new to me. And, at those times when I felt I was making the trip alone, there was always — always — someone who stepped up to offer a suggestion, encouragement, advice and very clear and strong direction.

There was Democratic Party Chairperson Beth Harrick, a true leader who became a dear friend. There was Chris Hardie, Alison Zajdel, Dakota Collins, Josh Smith and John Clodfelter, who provided their immense talents and expertise to my effort.

There was Mayor Dave Snow and council members Doug Goss, Kelley Cruse Nicholson and Jeff Locke and City Clerk Karen Chasteen, whose sage advice and direction helped me stay on course. There were my fellow candidates, Nick Dunlap, Sue Roberson and Yvonne Washington, with whom it was such a great pleasure and thrill to make this journey. I hope your involvement in this process and our government will continue.

There were the Young Democrats, Earlham Democrats, Barb Woolard, Ron Itnyre, Jim Rogers and Jane Stowe, who walked with me and encouraged me when I wondered if I was doing the right thing. We started walking in 90-degree heat and ended up bundled, and trudging, with temps in the 40s.

I am in your debt.

And then there was Bruce Wissel whose selfless and courageous endorsement carried me through to the end. Knowing that he put his faith in me meant so much. His leadership and intellect on council will be missed.

Thank you, friend.

And there was my wife, Jeanne, who calmed me down, built me up and put things in perspective so that I could keep my focus.

No one does that better.

And there were the people who donated, my family and friends, former co-workers and concerned citizens who trusted in me.

I will not let you down.

And there was Christian Sharits who told me “You are not running against Republicans. You are running against apathy.”

You, my friend, are wise beyond your years.

I sincerely wish more people had voted. I struggle with that after each election because voting has always been so important to me. That continues to be our challenge as candidates and legislators, to engage all parts of our community.

But it is what it is and we as a community of the concerned now have to do our best to represent our city and its citizens, to make wise decisions and help Richmond grow in the most progressive way.

To my opponent, Samantha Bryant, I offer my sincere congratulations. You ran a great campaign. You should be proud and I hope you will remain involved.

To all the other candidates, Republicans or otherwise, thank you for your efforts. Be proud and hold fast to your love of this city.

This journey is over but another one has begun. I look forward to what’s ahead, bolstered by the support, guidance and love I have felt along the way.

Thanks again to all.

An endorsement from Bruce Wissel

I am delighted to receive this endorsement from a man whom I admire and respect for his years of leadership and dedicated service in our community. Here’s what Bruce recently wrote to voters in our district:

December 31 of this year will end my 24 years of service as your city councilman. I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for the opportunity of representing you during this time. It has been both an honor and a privilege.

I do feel an obligation to share with you, my feelings about who should succeed me in this position. I have endorsed Bill Engle for District 3 City Council. Bill and I do not share the same political party affiliation, but he does share my love for this city and the desire to see our community grow and offer more economic opportunities and for our citizens.

Bill is a Vietnam Veteran and has volunteered his time with many community organizations. He spent many years covering city government for the Palladium Item. This experience has given him an excellent understanding of the function of city government and the often-complex structure, rules and procedures of city governance. He is currently serving on our city’s Park Board and is the current President of the Richmond Advisory Plan Commission.

I hope that you will join me in supporting Bill Engle as your next City Councilman in the upcoming election.

Your truly,

Bruce Wissel

Volunteers needed for stair cleanup Saturday

Are you looking for a chance to volunteer and to help clear and clean a piece of Richmond history? Well, here’s your chance.

The Society for Preservation and Use of Resources (SPUR) (of which I am a board member) is partnering with local preservationist Scott Bartel to clean a set of stairs on the east side of the Whitewater Gorge near South Third and D streets in Old Richmond.

The stairs, called the Starr Hill Stars, were built around 1900 and allowed workers, many of whom were German immigrants from Richmond’s south end, access to factories, most notably the Starr Piano Company factory, in the Gorge.

The stairs have remained mostly hidden for years but now Bartel and SPUR have decided to clear the stairs, clean vegetation and allow residents another access to the Gorge.

“This is part of our history,” said SPUR board President Gunty Atkins. “At one time there were hundreds of workers who used these stairs every day. We want to open that up again and allow people a glimpse of our past.”

“This is a great community project. It’s another connector and allows us to honor and remember all those who worked in the Gorge,” Bartel said.

At one time between 800 and 1,000 people worked in the Starr Piano factory.

Work begins at 9 a.m. Saturday. Anyone interested should meet at that time at Third and D in Old Richmond. Wear work clothes and bring shovels, gloves and anything that will help remove honeysuckle.

A majority of the work will be to clear a tunnel at the top of the stairs that allowed workers to walk under the C&O Railroad tracks above. The tunnel is currently filled with debris.

Bartel is using a $250 Bill Frazier Memorial grant he received from SPUR to pay for an excavator to help with the clean-up.

If you have time, please join us Saturday!

Next big test for RNR

Someone in Richmond believes in miracles. In fact, there are several.

They are the members of the Richmond Neighborhood Restoration, a Richmond non-profit that over the last five years has quietly built a resume of rescuing aging, sometimes blighted, properties and making them not only inhabitable but refurbished local treasures.

Their plan is simple in theory but much more difficult in execution. They acquire older, often historically significant, properties and then use volunteer help, their guile, donations and connections, plus their own expertise to restore the homes to a proud, livable state.

To start, they borrowed money and relied on donations and volunteer help to do their first project. Renovation began. Local businesses contributed or offered goods and services at cost. Volunteers hauled, scrubbed, swept and sweated to get properties ready for renovation. Then craftsmen went in and replaced roofs and HVAC, remodeled kitchens, finished floors and plastered and painted walls.

Then they sold the property and used the proceeds to move on to the next project.

Their stated goal is to stimulate interest in preserving and protecting older, historic homes and neighborhoods, to promote historic preservation, create a positive image of the city, encourage community involvement and promote economic development.

And, their plan, at least early on, is working. That’s the interesting part. They have completed three renovations, are in the midst of a fourth and have taken a bold step towards No. 5.

You can go to their Website to see the first three, all of which have been sold, and, if you look really close while driving by, you can see the work progressing on the fourth at 2009 E. Main St.

Achieving their goals will take years but at this juncture, progress is clearly being made.

“This is how it’s supposed to work,” said RNR Executive Director Eric Nicholson. “We have a good track record and interest in our projects continues to build.”

The recent award of a $25,000 grant from the Wayne County Foundation is another sign that their work is being recognized and gaining traction.

Chad Stegner is RNR president and David Jetmore is vice president. Other board members include Ginger Gray, Shaun Dingwerth, Gail Connerly and Jason Troutwine.

As a candidate for the District 3 seat on the Richmond Common Council, I’m thrilled that all five projects are homes in my district.

Still, it is their fifth project, the former Ester Hill house at 2237 E. Main St., that, to me, is the boldest, most important step. It is the aging, paint-peeling structure at East Main and 23rd streets that may provide the biggest test for the organization.

That home, built in 1905, has sat empty but filled with the detritus of collect and neglect for almost 20 years. It has been an eyesore since and, rightfully, earned the designation of the Palladium-Item’s Worst Blighted Property for two years running when the Palladium published its annual Fight The Blight series in the 1990s.

Here I will confess that I live a block from this home and was once part of a neighborhood group (in the ‘90s) that offered to paint the forlorn structure. One of our members even received a donation of the paint for the job.

But the homeowner said no to our offer and the property has been neglected ever since.

Now, however, RNR rescued the property from the city’s Blight Elimination list by acquiring it from the city with the help of the Wayne County Commissioners. Restoration work will begin as soon as the current project (2009 E. Main) is complete.

“We’re really excited to be doing this home,” Nicholson said. “We love the visibility and we have the opportunity to make it look really historic and beautiful. This is such an important location. It’s a gateway into the city, a billboard of the city.”

Truly, it is a gateway and the home, without intent, speaks volumes to visitors and naysayers about the condition of our city, as do many of the other sad, dilapidated homes that dot our neighborhoods. Its location and present condition are enough to make the Madonna of the Trail cry.

This then is a bigger stage and their efforts could have a dramatic impact on the neighborhood, all of East Main Street and the entire city.

So if RNR in the next two years can transform this property into a gorgeous, stately home, or one significantly better than what exists now, then RNR deserves our respect, trust and support.

And if that happens then RNR has worked another miracle and could make believers out of all of us.

Citizen effort yields new (pickleball) courts

Two years ago the tennis courts at Clear Creek Park in Richmond were a mess, an asphalt-buckled, weed-dotted eyesore.

Today, they are born anew, thanks to a citizen-led, two-year effort that raised money, coordinated private and public efforts and resulted in eight gleaming new pickleball courts.

They were opened Tuesday with much fanfare and the promise of continued use. Pickleball, for those of you who (like me) don’t know a thing about the game, combines elements of badminton, tennis and table tennis, and is played on a court similar in size to that of badminton. It started in Washington state in the 1960s and has exploded in popularity over the last 10 years.

It is a sport for all ages and all skill levels, but the point of this story is that those tennis courts, that barren piece of Clear Creek land, would not have the spit and shining achievement of new courts if it had not been for the efforts of a small but determined number of local citizens, led by Tom Dickman, Marc and Sue Miller and Pam and Greg Hilligoss.

“We just decided to do it,” Dickman said. “It was a real team effort. We decided to do something rather than wait for somebody else to do it.”

Dickman had the original idea for outdoor courts in Richmond (there are two indoor courts at the senior center) and went to park superintendent Denise Retz to inquire. Retz told him if he raised the money, the parks department would help make it happen. Dickman’s group went about the task of organizing, mobilizing, coordinating and communicating.

And now the courts are ready for use, for open play, while organizers plan pickleball demonstrations, lessons and tournaments. Fund-raising continues as the group develops a plan for maintenance of the courts.

It is a testament to citizens’ action, an example of how these things get done. These things don’t just happen. People make them happen.

The group raised $44,000 in local donations and got another $39,000 through a Patronicity grant from the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority. They also received support from the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Tourism Bureau and in-kind donations of labor from the parks department, city engineer’s office and street department and Richmond Power & Light.

In the end the project expense totaled more than $100,000.

“It was a collaboration. That’s what made it happen,” Retz said.

It is another exciting addition at Clear Creek to go with the (relatively) new Dream (Basketball) Courts and new Sensory Park, all a testament to citizen involvement. If you haven’t been to Clear Creek lately you really should make the trip.

And bring your pickleball paddle and tennies.