In his 12 years as mayor, Joe Thallemer has dealt with everything from economic development and housing to the local response to a worldwide pandemic.
But when his third term ends Dec. 31 and Councilman Jeff Grose becomes mayor Jan. 1, Thallemer isn’t totally ending his service to the community. He’ll continue to serve on the U.S. 30 Coalition as Warsaw’s representative and he’s been asked to serve on the Redevelopment Commission.
Reflecting on his tenure as mayor in a recent interview, Thallemer said, “I think what I’ve tried to excel at (is) to try and anticipate concerns and problems before they became concerns and problems, by looking at and weighing all the facts. And that was just something, by nature that’s the way I am, and I think that’s really helped me along the way.”
Things didn’t get easier over the years as he sat on the plan commission, city council and then became mayor, but he said he became more astute at what maybe to anticipate.
“So I probably, being seasoned for many, many years, you try and learn from your mistakes and never make the same mistake twice. You learn from your mistakes, you learn from people who don’t agree with you and then you just try and put it all together,” Thallemer said, adding that being mayor has been “the best job I’ve ever had.”
One of the biggest things that occurred during his watch that he or anyone else hadn’t anticipated was the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic that hit the U.S. beginning in March 2020.
“Nobody really saw it coming, and then when it came, nobody quite knew what it was. And then as it evolved, everybody had their own opinions and ideas, and then all the ripple effects as it’s finally gone, if you will, with the politics of ‘Did we do the right thing or not?’ The amount of federal money that’s being spent to try to get us through the pandemic. It just creates a whole new set of challenges beyond the pandemic,” he said.
(L to R) Warsaw Mayor Joe Thallemer, Medartis CEO Christoph Brönnimann and Nextremity CEO Rod Mayer pose for a photo in March 2022 after Medartis announced its intent to acquire Nextremity Solutions Inc. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union
The pandemic was deadly. Thallemer pointed out that it lowered the average age of death in the United States by the number of deaths. “So, it was obviously something to take very seriously as we evolved and saw what it was capable of,” he said.
Dealing with the pandemic and its effects took up the last of Thallemer’s three terms as mayor. “It consumed everything we did and how we did it.”
Years before that, however, the first city project under his administration was the Husky Trail project, with the Market Street project a close second. Husky Trail was a federal road project.
“That was a really significant project up around the (Harrison Elementary) school. Husky Trail is obviously a very important collector road from the northeast part of the county, and we really needed to get some work done down there to try to keep people moving through with the retail development that was going on there, the YMCA coming in. That was a critical project at the time, and then it was followed by the Market Street project,” Thallemer said.
The Husky Trail project included sidewalks, street lights and the roundabout.
“It allows you to control the traffic in that school zone, that’s probably the most important thing. And it’s still proved to be a challenge out there because it’s so busy, but I can imagine the congestion and the problems we would have had had we not done anything out there,” he said.
It’s important to keep up with those road and safety projects, he said. “The more people you get in the community, the more important it is to take notice of those really critical city functions and keeping things safe. Police, fire, roads, the whole thing,” he said.
When Thallemer first ran for city council, his slogan was “Controlled Growth.”
“We all knew that growth was just a part of this community. It’s been a part of this community for as long as anyone can remember. Obviously, our industry - the orthopedic industry - has been (around) since the turn of the century before. It’s been obviously a driver of growth, and this community, in every Census, grows about an average of 10%. That’s a lot. That requires new sewers every 20 years, which we had to do. It requires these road projects. Improvement of the airport to try to get those companies and their folks in and out of here. It creates more traffic. It requires more police and fire safety. It’s obviously impacting the traffic out on U.S. 30,” Thallemer said.
At its peak, he said 50% of the traffic on U.S. 30 is local traffic.
“So, all of these things are growing concerns in our community. The advantages of growth have been to broaden our tax base and keep our tax rate down, which we’ve been successful at, but we also have those everyday issues of just what I mentioned - traffic safety, streets, trash, the whole works. Those things we have to keep up with,” Thallemer stated.
Looking back at his first campaign slogan, he said “Controlling Growth” may not have been the best slogan. “Managing Growth” might have been a better one.
As the city’s population continues to grow, he said it creates the ongoing need for that growth to be managed.
With increased population comes an increasing need for more housing of all kinds. The city has worked to bring more housing opportunities in, including Little Crow Lofts, 801 Center and The 2525.
“I think we’ve made great progress in our affordable housing with 2525 and the Center Street senior housing and Little Crow. Those are three projects that come to mind. They’re all affordable projects,” he said. “We’ve done quite a bit of work, infrastructure development, with sewer extensions to develop single-family housing, both north and south. We created two (residential) TIF districts, one in the north and one in the south to help fund that infrastructure. That housing hasn’t taken off because we’re just getting to the point where that infrastructure improvement is now available.”
He said they’ve hit a little slowdown with housing because the pandemic changed the way that people go to work.
“I know downtown, our Buffalo Street project, we were geared toward Zimmer executives and as soon as COVID hit, that was kind of turned upside down because those folks were staying home, and some of them are still at home,” Thallemer said.
He thinks people will start returning to work in-person as the local industry indicated they wanted to bring their employees back to work.
There’s also been the inflation and its effect on the housing market. With the interest rates being up, Thallemer said it’s been tough on homebuilders, with the reliance now more on rentals and multi-family dwellings.
“The answer is, at some point the wages have to keep up with what it’s costing our builders to build these homes, and they’re doing the best they can. The city is providing all the incentives it can to try and fill that gap,” he said.
Whether it’s the building and planning department, public works, parks and recreation, airport, human resources, police or fire, Thallemer said he’s always felt that his job in his office was to look at the direction of the city, finances of the city, operations of a municipal organization and rely on his department heads to manage their departments.
“We meet monthly and have department head meetings. Obviously, the department heads are up in my office all the time with budget planning and questions on projects, so I have been very fortunate that I have had great department heads that have been able to (meet) the needs of our community,” he said. “... We’ve developed a working relationship where departments don’t feel segregated from other departments. If somebody needs something, they jump in.”
Thallemer cited the street department and Oakwood Cemetery as two departments that help each other constantly without thinking about it.
“There’s a sense of collaboration and cooperation amongst our department heads that make this city serve the needs of our community the best we can, and we’re always trying to improve. We all make mistakes. We learn from the mistakes. We don’t hide behind them. And that’s what I would consider one of my greatest assets as mayor, is my department heads and how they have responded through the pandemic and all the other ups and downs. They’ve done a marvelous job,” he stated.
The sewer expansion project was the biggest project the city undertook during Thallemer’s terms and before.
“With our growth, we hit the point where we had to do something, but that was a very significant project. $30 million project. Probably the largest public works project in the history of the city that we were able to get through and benefit our community, stimulate growth in the community and serve as a regional sewer district, which improves our ability to keep our rates down,” he said.
Depending on the city’s continued growth, the sewer treatment plant could take care of the city for another 10-15 years.
The development of the Warsaw Tech Park was a project Thallemer wanted to act on.
“I talked to others and West Hill Development had done a good job with Danek being there, later Medtronic; obviously, Ivy Tech was out there. But, we needed to get that sewer out there. We needed to expand that park, and I knew that there was the Indiana Tech Park designation that I wanted to apply for because taxes generated in that tech park would come back to the city to build and improve the park and stimulate innovation and growth, so that was probably one of the first things I did,” Thallemer recalled.
He said Community and Economic Development Director Jeremy Skinner worked very hard to get that done.
“That really opened up our ability to provide space for start-ups, space for established companies, companies that were here in the community, companies that move to be in this community, to be in the orthopedic mix, and I feel like we’ve been very successful at that. We just (had a) ribbon-cutting at Mentor Media. Banner Medical is out there. Medartis is out there. All companies that have come along and are in that tech park. ... That investment that the city has made, and our partnership with West Hill Development, has created a significant return,” he said.
The city spent about $5 million to put roads and sewer in out there. Over the last five years, Thallemer estimated the tech park has generated more than $29 million in investment.
“We’ve created jobs. We benefitted the orthopedic industry here in the community. Obviously, that’s part of broadening that tax base to keep the tax rate down. It’s attracted international companies,” he said, noting Medartis is a Swiss company and Mentor Media is based out of Singapore.
“It’s been a really, really critical asset as we now continue to grow into the next period of prosperity,” he stated.