Until recently (January 2019), Terry Seitz served as the Mayor of Jasper, Indiana. During his tenure, Jasper initiated a number of public projects which brought together public and private money to redevelop the city and bring jobs to the community. In 2018 alone, there were three major projects completed or underway: the restoration of an old downtown movie theater into a performance and movie theater (The Astra), the creation of Parklands of Jasper, a 75-acre park on the site of a closed 9-hole golf course in the center of the community, and setting the stage for the Thyen-Clark Cultural Center, a shared space for Jasper Community Arts and the Jasper Public Library. Groundbreaking is set for early April. This work was recognized by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce by naming them Indiana Community of the Year in 2018. Terry now serves as State Outreach Director for US Senator Mike Braun (R).
In this interview, I asked Terry about building coalitions. The work he has done to bring about change in a Midwest city illustrates the power of leadership to forge new opportunities.
ML: As an elected official, success often hinges on building coalitions and bringing different people together with different perspectives and priorities. What were three skills that you needed to hone to be successful in building these coalitions?
TS: a. I was born happy and positive, so I always ask, “How might we do this?”, rather than “Why should we do this?” One commences with a lot of light; the other starts in a dark room.
b. Similarly, I surrounded myself with other positive leaders. It took me one full term and the dismissal of a few people to get it the right people in the right seats on the ol’ bus, but what a difference it made – to the City, to my time as mayor and to my well-being.
c. I welcome engagement. As a local government leader, no one was a stranger. I listened to all points of view before, during and after an issue was solved or a project was underway. Ultimately, decisions had to be made and some may disagree, but that’s why I was elected.
ML: Many leadership and execution consultants have argued that a leader should focus on one priority/project at a time, but you did not follow that advice (starting multiple projects that totaled nearly $200 million), and you have argued that focusing on one at a time would not have been good for Jasper. How did you come to that conclusion and what challenges did you face with execution as you did this?
TS: Fortunately, we had just completed a strong Comprehensive Plan the year before I was elected. Unfortunately, most of our Common Council which passed it 7-0, never read it. When we started implementing the actions called for in the plan we got a great deal of pushback due to “change”. Concurrently, we received much public support and the more we leveraged the support the more actions we completed. I am an advocate of “plan your work and work your plan”. On a side note, change really is difficult. In 2015, my re-election ended in a tie after 4,000 votes were cast. I won by one vote in a recount. It remains the highest number of votes cast in an Indiana election which ended in a tie. I never looked back.
ML: A lot of your work centered on redevelopment. As any leader knows, it is easier to start with nothing than redeveloping, relaunching or restarting an existing company, project (or in your case, city). There is a lot of memory and culture tied to the status quo. How did you go about getting people to let go of the past so they could build a new future?
TS: Jasper’s robust business community became the drivers and supporters of change. They welcomed our adoption of state economic development laws and invested in our City again through capital and employee expansion; they became partners in the turning old properties into new uses and; they joined the general public in financially supporting our endeavors. We called this P4: Public Private Philanthropic Partnerships. Once people saw growth in our private sector and the support provided to the City, they became much more supportive of the public sector projects.
ML: One of the challenges you faced was talent development and acquisition. This has become a major problem for businesses and cities. How did you address this for a town of 15,000 in southern Indiana? What advice would you give to leaders trying to address talent acquisition challenges?
TS: With employment at 98% for years, attracting talent to Jasper/Dubois County remains the constant major issue in order to sustain our existing companies. I firmly believe the private investments and public projects we have completed and underway will support growth. Quality of Place items like our joint arts and public library center, The Parklands of Jasper, the Smithville Fiber buildout in the city and creating a greater variety of housing options are laying the groundwork of being an even more attractive place to live and work. The State of Indiana is encouraging the same.
At the same time, we are not growing enough to meet even the basic levels of employment. When we do grow, it’s often from the rural counties around us and that’s not optimal. Similarly, the Indianapolis/donut counties draw from Indiana’s rural counties and that isn’t sustainable, either. I commend Accelerate Indiana Municipalities (Aim Indiana) and the Indiana University Public Policy Institute for researching other Midwest states where growth is occurring and offering alternative ideas beyond the scope of where we are today.
ML: What is your favorite leadership book and why?
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Dr. Matt Lucas is the Chancellor at Indiana Wesleyan University National & Global.