John Stehr: Zionsville’s Next Mayor on Moving Zionsville Forward

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Oct/Nov 2023

This month, Zionsville Monthly is pleased to feature Zionsville’s next mayor John Stehr on the cover. This is Stehr’s second cover story with our publication. We featured him in our September 2017 issue after recovering from a health scare. Stehr used his experience to inspire folks to stay on top of and be advocates for their own health.

Stehr, a 28-year resident of Zionsville and retired television broadcast journalist, is running on the Republican ticket, unopposed, in the Nov. 7 general election. We sat down with Stehr, who discussed his immediate and long-term goals as mayor.

Why Politics? Why Now?

“Shortly after I retired at the end of 2019, I joined the parks board,” Stehr said. “I joke about this, but it is true: if you’re retired and you can stand in the mud while talking to some contractors at 11:00 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, they make you an officer [of the board] pretty fast. So, I became vice president shortly after joining the parks board and then became president shortly after that. I do appreciate the role that you can play in the community and moving the community forward. We’ve had a tremendous couple of years with the parks board.”

Many of the parks and recreation department’s projects that have come online during Stehr’s tenure as board president were put into motion years and even decades ago, which Stehr recognized.

John Stehr for Mayor

“Honestly, I just happen to be the guy that was there at the time, but these projects have been in motion for years and decades,” said Stehr. “I’ve been fortunate to be involved and to see these positive changes. The data is in … people like parks. So, they’re a very important and meaningful amenity to add to the community. And as president of the parks board, I’ve seen the internal workings of the town government. It’s been a little hard the last few years, and it’s been dysfunctional — there’s a lot of reasons for that. I looked at those [reasons] and thought that if we just communicated better with one another, it would make a big difference. Then a light bulb went off and I thought, well, that’s what I’ve done my whole adult life … I’ve been in the communication business. I believe that I have something to add in that regard and I think I can make a difference.”

Stehr added, “I think we all agree that Zionsville is growing, but we want that growth to be controlled and we want that growth to work for us, not overwhelm us.”

Immediate Goals for 2024

Upon being sworn in as Zionsville’s next mayor, Stehr shared some of the action items that his administration will prioritize in the coming new year.

“We’re still a close-knit community, but politically, we’re divided,” Stehr agreed. “When we talk about the first 30 days, a big part of those [goals] is to lower the temperature on the politics, build up morale and get back to doing the right things for the people of this town. I don’t think being the mayor of Zionsville is a partisan job. It’s about basic town services: trash services, plowing services, filling potholes, etc. It’s about having a vision for what the town will be like in 15 to 20 years. We’ll leave the social issues to the state legislature and to Congress. All of that shouldn’t affect us in what we [municipal government] do here.”

When asked about working on a new comprehensive plan, Stehr enthusiastically explained that the current town council and administration have allocated funds in the 2024 budget so that Stehr and the town council can undergo that process at the start of the new year.

“We [the town] haven’t done a comprehensive plan in 20 years,” Stehr stated. “As you know, Zionsville has changed a lot since then. We need to have [comprehensive] planning that takes into account zoning, transportation and fiscal planning. We also need to make sure that all voices representing Union, Perry, Eagle Townships, the business community, and the school district are heard.”

As a resident of nearly three decades, Stehr appreciates the town’s rich history and expressed the importance of looking at the past to better inform the future. Additionally, he emphasized that the voices representing all three townships need to be represented in any/all future planning on behalf of the town.

Stehr continued, “I’ve learned that people living in Union and Perry townships have a great sense of ownership of their historic rural character, and that needs to be respected and protected. We have 67 square miles and we’re the third largest municipality in land area in the state, behind Indianapolis and  Fort Wayne. Zionsville is bigger [land area-wise] than Westfield and Noblesville combined, so we have some room out there for development to occur without touching those important rural areas.”

Addressing the town’s current financial status, Stehr said, “Audits are taking place and we’ve switched from a software package that wasn’t working very well to one that is. We have to reconcile all of our accounts in order to move forward, and we are on track to do that by the end of this year.”

Regarding the town’s bond rating, Stehr shared, “I think a lack of internal controls has created problems for the town, and we need to do an audit of our internal controls to make sure that we’re all on the same page budget-wise. When we talk about the bond rating, the fundamentals are still sound. We still have the median income; we still have a very low debt load and our assessed value is very high. So, if we can get our internal controls set and create stability in our finance department, I think our bond rating will come up naturally.”

Additionally, Stehr will focus on Zionsville’s role as one of six communities in Boone County. He plans to rejoin the Boone Economic Development Corporation and engage the other five communities with an emphasis on building relationships with Whitestown, specifically.

“I think we need to build a bridge with Whitestown,” Stehr suggested. “They’re experiencing some changes in their leadership and will have a new town manager next year, so in those [changes], there will be some opportunities to build relationships. I have already been in contact with the mayor of Lebanon and we will be more engaged with Thorntown, Jamestown and Advance. What’s good for one of us is good for all of us in the county, and I think Zionsville needs to be more involved and have a bigger voice in what happens in Boone County.”

Reworking the “Gateway Project” and Building Momentum in Creekside Corporate Park

“It’s not the ‘Gateway Project’ to me,” Stehr stated. “A gate is something you go through to get to somewhere else. I think this has to be a viable part of town. So, to me, this is the South Village and there has to be master planning from the intersection of Sycamore and Zionsville Road all the way down to 106th Street. It’s not just a traffic realignment — it’s a major change for Zionsville, and whatever we do in the South Village has to and will enhance the brick Main Street that is the heart and soul of Zionsville. What we do needs to support that and not detract from it.”

When asked about the future of Creekside Corporate Park, Stehr said, “We need to be more open to the type of development that is happening today. So, we’re taking a more realistic look at it, and I do think that the Graham Rahal Performance building that’s under construction will be a major driver [for attracting additional entities]. It will play a big role in opening up that area. Ultimately, Creekside will be filled and it will be a great corporate park.”

John Stehr for Mayor

Stehr concluded the interview by thanking his supporters and even his opponents.

“I do appreciate the support that we’ve gotten so far and appreciate those who voted for me,” Stehr expressed. “I also appreciate those who didn’t vote for me because they were involved in the process. I think democracy in our town is only better when people get involved. I appreciate the people of Zionsville and have always told my kids as they were growing up here that it’s not the cheapest place to live and there’s a certain amount of effort that’s required to live here. But it is a special place, and our openness to others is something that makes us — as a community — special too.”

Kate Swanson on Her Immediate Priorities as Deputy Mayor

What are your 30/60/90 goals as deputy mayor upon taking office?

Our top priorities will be:

Working on a new comprehensive plan for Zionsville, as it has been 20 years since it was written and Zionsville has changed tremendously in 20 years. A comprehensive plan can take up to 18 months to 2 years to complete. It requires much public input and the community working together to create a plan. We hope to expedite the process and start that project on day one.

There is much opportunity for economic development on the south side of our village. John and I look forward to working with landowners and businesses to create a welcoming, vibrant entrance to town as well as a thriving area that will not only add to our village but will amplify our existing village business district.

Another priority is working with private partners to make a community center happen in Zionsville.

I look forward to working with John to improve the morale of town staff. They are public servants, and we want them to feel valued.

How will you engage with the community and address constituent concerns or issues?

A big part of the Stehr administration will be transparency and accessibility. I think John proved that during the campaign when he spent countless hours talking with citizens about their ideas and visions for Zionsville. We hope to have regular times for John to continue to have these conversations with citizens. Stay posted on how we make that happen.

Communication will also be a key component of the Stehr administration. We want citizens to be informed and involved in our town.

Will you have an active role in the budgeting process and oversight?

We are grateful to Mayor Styron, Andy Pickell and Councilman Josh Garrett for including us in the budgeting process this year. It was invaluable to watch and learn the process.

Another aspect of our town government that I am excited to help lead is using technology to create efficiencies.