Blair Milo, Mayor of La Porte, Indiana, stopped by the Ideas in Motion Media studio for a video interview with Chris Mahlmann, Publisher of ValpoLife.com, PortageLife.com and LaPorteCountyLife.com. The two talked about a wide ranging variety of topics, including positive outlooks, Mayor Milo's first eight months in office, and her plans for the future of La Porte. The video will be completed and available next week, and a transcript of their interview is below:
Chris Mahlmann: We're very excited with the launch of LaPorteCountyLife to help you and every organization really in La Porte County communicate what's good that's going on. I wanted to start off with your first eight months into the run. Tell me a little bit about some of the things that you've learned, some of the groups that have maybe embraced your passion. You bring a very special energy to things. Tell me a little bit about what the first eight months have been like.
Mayor Blair Milo: Well, it's really been a treat to work with all of the people that are either part of the administration or the leadership across the community. That's what makes my job not only easier but a lot more fun - we're able to accomplish a lot of things because of the teamwork and effort that goes into all of the different aspects that we're trying to impact within the community. With not only the non profits and the religious organizations and the schools, but the department heads as well.
It's been enjoyable, from a leadership standpoint and from almost a sociological standpoint, to look at some of the different personalities that come to the table that really bring a different background. But everybody's focused on the same mission of improving the city, improving the community and quality of life and making these different initiatives happen. They've really done a fantastic job, and I couldn't be more pleased to work with this team of folks that I get to everyday. So that's a really enjoyable aspect, and you know, starting out at the beginning, you look at the number of different initiatives that you want to achieve and it almost be a little overwhelming that you see all the things that you want to have happen for the community, but you kind of break it off one day at a time.
CM: Piece-by piece...
BM: Exactly. Piece-by-piece. "Baby steps," as I think Bill Murray would say. You just take it one day at a time and one goal at a time. Now I look back eight months into it and think, "We've gotten a lot done for eight months already," and so you just want to keep the push on the entire time. I've always had the mentality that you never really want to get comfortable in a job, so that's why we'll keep the press on with all of our different initiatives. And I enjoy my job...most days *laughs*
BM: I like the challenges of it. I love working with La Portians and just trying to improve the community. It's a neat opportunity to really have, to benefit this group of people that have meant so much to me in my life. That, you know, I'm born and raised from La Porte, and they've meant so much to provide the opportunities that I've had, and so I really enjoy getting to give back a little bit and now see what we can be doing as a community.
CM: There's a certain energy- and not just physical energy, but communication energy that you've brought to things. Tell me a little bit about some of those initiatives, whether it be the Fitness Friday, where there's really development downtown, getting people involved with some of the activities of redevelopment and economic development in La Porte. Touch on some of the things that you've launched there.
BM: Sure, sure. Well, I can't emphasize enough the mentality that I have of really incorporating a team aspect. Not just the team of department heads, but a team from the community.That's where that communication piece is vital to having success across the team. Especially when you're dealing with a group as large as an entire community, then you have to try and access them in whatever medium is then going to reach them.
I've been very pleased with the social media response that we've had. I really enjoy the dialogue that we have, the discussion. It is like really having a conversation with people across the community. Some of my leadership principals have been that when you provide the large picture, the tools that everyone needs to understand what the mission is, that then that really enables folks to be able to contribute in different manners that I may not have even anticipated. So I think that's where we're seeing almost a snowball effect with the different programs that we're doing like the Fitness Friday. That when you start with a positive program and you know, provide an opportunity for people to see positive things happening within the community, that then sets off almost a tidal wave of other ideas of things they may have.
It just creates a positive energy amongst people. They like getting out in the downtown, they like being around their fellow community members. And that's where we're seeing a lot of the success because we're really trying to focus on that positive communication and energy. And that's why I think it's great to be able to work with you and everything that you're doing with LaPorteCountyLife and ValpoLife and PortageLife, because of the focus that you have across the region on trying to improve things from a positive standpoint. That, you know, there's enough negative things that exist out there.
CM: They're easy to find.
CM: You've got to just actually look in the positive, and I think they're honestly just as easy to find.
BM: Right. Exactly, exactly. When you focus on the positive, then it's often surprising the number of benefits that can come from it.
CM: Because you get other groups. Think of the Fitness Friday. You get a fitness club, and you get The Y, and you get the hospital and you get a bunch of other people involved that say, "Hey, that's good. That's related to our mission. Let's help out."
BM: Exactly. When I had the idea initially, I had no idea that it would ever spiral into the type of event that it has. I had seen at some point, I think it was in Crystal City, Virginia where I lived for a little while, that they used to do 5k Fridays just for a couple of months in the summer. I thought, "Well, that's kind of a neat idea. Then maybe we can give this a shot and, you know, if five people show up then that's fine. And we'll go for a run on a Friday afternoon." I truly, when we started talking about it, I thought there might be you know, five, ten people that would show up. As I started talking about it with people in the community, then folks started saying, "Hey, that sounds like a neat idea." Soon enough there were so many people that I heard kind of talking about it. But then I talked to Cindy Berchem from the YMCA and G. Thor Thordarson at IU La Porte Hospital and they were really excited about it, and I thought that maybe we need to put some more structure to this program and make sure that were able to anticipate the numbers that I think that going to possibly have, and make it a program that people are going to want to come back to, because it's organized well. They have been fantastic to work with to put that program together. It's because I think of the organization that our three entities have brought to the table that make it a lot of fun for people. It is, I think, a pretty well run event. Now, it's fairly simple to put together- we had a table where people can sign up for the program, and it's a very simple signup of just putting down some contact information so that people can get in touch with you if need be, and then a t-shirt size.
BM: You're not paying any money for anything, and then we go for a run every Friday afternoon or a walk or a jog or-
CM: You guys have kept it going when it's 100 degrees or when it's raining and you know, you've really kept it going throughout the whole summer to keep the momentum going.
BM: Absolutely. And it's kind of fun on those sort of weather-challenging days to see the hearty people that still come out. And I think that even on our lowest turnout days we've had maybe you know, 35-40 people and that's when it's you know, heat index of 120 degrees or it's raining and we still just go.
CM: Most of us don't want to go in a car let alone run around downtown La Porte, you know?
BM: Yeah, it's kind of fun because then I think every Friday you have a sense or a feeling of accomplishment. On those Fridays when it's the 120 degree heat index or it's raining, then there's a definite unity amongst the group of, "Yeah, we went and did this, and we did it together, too." So that's a lot of fun.
CM: You mentioned social networks. I would say we watch a lot of people throughout the region whether they are organizations, businesses, or politicians. I would say you're a leader amongst those in terms of your use of social media in a really social sense or a communication sense. Many, I think, look at it as a broadcast network and they say, "Okay, I'm going to pump a bunch of messages down this pipe." You're probably, among all those that we look at in Northwest Indiana, the leader among really communicating with those people. 1.From your own voice; but 2. Really communicating with them- asking their input on things, looking for direction on things, and touching on not always the easiest subjects in the world, and being willing to get that feedback and communicate. Tell me a little bit about that learning process and why you think it's important to engage.
BM: Sure, sure. Well, all of it comes from my philosophy towards government and my philosophy towards my involvement and decision to run that I think that we can do things in a better manner than government has operated in the past. And not pointing my finger at any specific individual or any party or any, you know, entity. Folks have gotten kind of frustrated with how government can operate because we'd like to see it be a little more responsive. So I kind of look at it from an approach of, you know, if I'm talking to a community leader or I'm looking at what's going on in the city, what are the questions that I would have and what is it that I would like to see happen better? I try to ask myself that question everyday of, 'what is it that I would be wondering here?' 'What is it that I would like to see happen differently?' That's where we've tried to have that engagement with people through Facebook to incorporate their voice as well, because it is a collective mission that we all have.
I don't think that I have the best answer to every challenge that's out there, and that's kind of what I enjoy about the job is that not only do I recognize that, but I really want to get the ideas from other people because they may see things from a different angle then I would. I'd like to see that happen more at every level of government. We were fundamentally founded on the idea of deliberation brings about the best results. I often get frustrated with some of our political system these days because it's gotten so partisan that you can't necessarily have that fruitful deliberation, where you look at many different sides of an issue. Then by evaluating those different sides then you come up with the best solutions. That's what we try and incorporate through the use of social media, by talking to people out in the community. When people email me I email them back. And I actually email them back. I don't staff it out to somebody, although now I'm a little wary that I'm going to get flooded with emails, so I try to email people back in a timely fashion.
CM: As basic as that sounds, it's actually very unique. I think people are almost akin to not expecting to really talk to you, or not expecting to not necessarily get a very communicative answer. They're really expecting to get a little bit more of a party line answer. What I've been impressed by is not just your engagement with those folks, but your communication of, "Hey, if you've got a question about this happening, or that happening there are some great rationales behind that, and here's what they are. I'd like you to be more informed of it. Now if you have any other questions I'd like to hear those, too." And, you know, it's not a model that has been actively followed, but I think it's one that's got active engagement.
BM: Well, I think the statement cannot be made that our administration or my administration is not responsive or doesn't listen. We work very hard to make sure that we incorporate every sentiment that comes across my desk whether it's through email, through Facebook, through the phone calls that come in to my office. I think we're a little different too, in that my assistant answers the phone and tries to actually get an answer to people. She works very hard to make sure that somebody doesn't call in and she doesn’t' just say, "Oh, well, we don't deal with that. That's the county."
She'll say, even if it is a county issue, "It's the board of commissioners that make that decision. If you'd like to contact them here's the phone number, here's their assistant, and so here's how we can be helpful." That's what we do across the board in every department in this city. I want to make sure that we're having that response to the community. I think that is one area that government can operate better as a business and kind of look at the constituents being like our customers, and we need to improve customer service. So if somebody comes into the office, whatever office it may be, whether it's the water billing office, or the parks department office, that if they come in and say, you know, "I want to do x, y, or z," maybe that's not something that the office handles, we don't just give them the response of, "That's not us."
CM: That's not my job.
BM: Yeah. I think that happens a lot in government. I worked at the Federal government for a long time, so I know it happens. It's so frustrating being on the receiving end of that. That, "Okay, so if it doesn't happen here, then where do I go? Can you help me, please?" We do a lot to try and make sure that we're getting people pointed in the right direction if they're not necessarily in the right location. That kind of feedback comes through all of the different interactions that we have. Ultimately, I want to make sure that we're a more responsive entity because we can do better. Our system is built to do wonderful things for a society and the impact that you can have when you have good government- not necessarily big government, but good government- is tremendous and wide-reaching. That's I guess where you see some of my passion as a government nerd, that when you can focus your efforts in a positive manner and really respond to the challenges that are out there that you can impact so many different areas.
CM: When you're touching on some of these subjects there's a couple key issues that you've taken on. They're not always the easiest ones to deal with. They're not the ones that you can put a nice bow on and say, "Everything's perfect." One in particular that you tackled pretty aggressively is the issue with the county's youth and drug use. Many might look at that and say, "That's a landmine. I really just don't want to go there." You tackled it in such a way that you're literally bringing the kids into the solution, and talking pretty openly about the problem. There has to be some who said, "You're just crazy for tackling that. It's not really an issue for you to deal with." Tell me what you've learned in that process and why that's so important to you.
BM: Well, first of all, I think my family will tell you that we've known for years that I'm crazy.
CM: *laughs* You recognized it early and that was a good thing!
BM: Yes, yes. What is it…the first step is awareness? *laughs*
But I think that it's important that you look at those challenges. Especially as I would talk with people in the community, it's not like anybody out there doesn't know that this is going on, so nobody's being fooled that this is happening. If you continue to not address it, it doesn't get fixed. It doesn't change. So you can't expect that, "Well, if I just leave it be then it'll maybe fix itself." I think that it's been important that we address it, especially in the manner that we have in talking about the fact that I don't believe that La Porte is unique in having these challenges.
That's the important message to parlay to people in the region and people in business, too, is that we are unique in how we are addressing it. By taking those steps we are actually going to reduce the presence of illegal drugs in the community. I firmly believe that from just the short amount of time that we have been working on it; roughly a year or so now. This is a major major issue that is so pervasive into so many different areas of society that it's difficult to turn around. By the fact that I think we're having such good communication about it and different organizations are addressing it, and people within the schools and homes and neighborhoods are talking about the issue, that that has now raised an awareness. That, in and of itself, is a prevention effort.
It also gets people some information about resources that may be available to them if they need to take some rehabilitation steps. It also helps our law enforcement by getting the message out to people on who you can contact if you know something. So it gets them more information that they can act on. We're seeing results from that already. There's a long way to go because it's a major social issue, and it's not necessarily because our problem is so large in comparison to any other community but because that's the nature of a parasite- a social parasite like substance abuse in a community. I'm very encouraged with the steps that are being taken.
I don't think that you can afford not to address it. Especially as I talk to people across the campaign, I was intrigued to find out that the when I talked to people about the three initiatives that I was focusing on during the campaign period -providing jobs and opportunities for a variety of different careers in the community, talking about substance abuse and its mitigation within our region, and then providing leadership to the city- that the number one issue that people really dialed in on was substance abuse issue because it affects them all in some way shape or form. Whether its their kids seeing it at school, that they see it in their neighborhoods, that they've heard about a family member, or a family has had somebody else that they know affected by it. It has been pervasive, and it's affecting our workforce as well. As I've talked to businesses they're concerned about making sure that they can provide or get people that are going to fill the positions that they have. Just as you said it's not necessarily a fun topic to talk about.
CM: It's not one that you sort of put a blue ribbon panel together and said, "We're all good now. We've got five leaders. I'm not going to pay attention to this and let's move on to the next issue." You really brought kids in. I think what was remarkable was bringing the kids in to really limit the communication on that first meeting to them. "Let's hear from you guys. What do you think?"
BM: Well, we've tried to really gear the discussion towards talking to people that are in the trenches.The kids are in the trenches right now because they're seeing it in the schools. You hear these stories and it almost breaks your heart to listen to the challenges and the concerns that they have with it. It's not even necessarily someone that has taken that step that they regret or are concerned about. You listen to the stories that they have about their friends that they're worried about what to do to help them. They see the drugs being passed in the hallways and they don't know who to talk to about it and how to get somebody some help. That's why we have to have these conversations because it we don't it's going to continue to happen. The drugs will continue to get passed in the hallway, they'll continue to wonder, "How do I help my friend?" More people will be inclined to make those decisions whereas if we can reach out, have those tough discussions, and have the less-than-pleasant topics addressed then we will see the changes that need to happen.
CM: You're eight months into your administration. Mayor Meer, your partner over right next to you is also. Tell me a little bit about the cooperation between La Porte and Michigan City, and maybe part of the overall county effort that you've seen.
BM: I've worked with Mayor Meer on a couple of different initiatives, and whenever there's an opportunity then we're sure to contact one another. He's been great to work with. We have a great relationship between the two of us, particularly in the area of economic development. We come from the same mindset of understanding that we don't necessarily have to be in competition with one another for business attraction. What benefits Michigan City is going to benefit La Porte and what's going to benefit La Porte is going to benefit Michigan City. Therefore, the county as well. So we work together often on different initiatives in that area. We both come from a mindset that we just want to help the community in a service background. I think that's been what's really lent itself to having a really great relationship between the two of us. You know, there's the history between Michigan City and La Porte of the Slicers versus the Wolves.
CM. You're still a Slicer no matter what.
BM: Absolutely! And I think that, you know, there's tradition. And that's a good rivalry to still have because it's healthy rivalry that. Mayor Meer and I had a bet before the basketball sectionals and I think I ended up taking him to dinner afterward because I lost the bet. But, you know, it's just a fun rivalry to have and I don't think there's this mentality amongst even Slicers that, "I'm a Slicer, so I don't talk to a Wolf," or "I'm a Wolf, so I don't talk to a Slicer." I don't think that exists. There's still that healthy rivalry on the football field or on the basketball court or soccer field, whatever, but overall we're all wanting to work together to see the benefits for everybody.
CM: You mentioned growing up as a Slicer. It's in your blood. Do you get an opportunity with all that you have going on to get out to a football game, to get out to a basketball game, to really experience what it's like for the guys in orange?
BM: I try to as much as I can. I enjoyed going to the basketball games when they were doing sectionals. Unfortunately, with my schedule it doesn't allow a lot of opportunity to get to all of the high school games. My brother will also tell you that I am probably the worst sports fan that there is.
BM: I enjoy basketball like any good Hoosier, but I've never been a huge football fan. I think also some of it is a little bit of a defense that I come from an IU household and I went to Purdue. They always like to give me a bad time, and they like to gang up on me, too. I was the only one who went to Purdue and so I constantly am having to fight the battle of, "Well, Purdue can't get its act together." I've learned that I just don't rise to the bait, and so I think that's maybe what drives some of my lack of involvement in some of the sporting events.
CM: What do you see as you go into the year ahead, I mean, second half of this year? Any particular initiatives that you want to see happen that you want to put a little more attention to no that you've got some of the other things under your belt?
BM: Well, we're going to continue to work towards kind of the three focus areas that I've been rolling out since the first State of the City that I gave at the end of March.
First and foremost, providing a positive climate for economic development in the city. I've been very encouraged with the responses that we're getting from our businesses of the challenges and initiatives that they have right now. We're seeing across the board that business is improving for a lot of our large industries that it's picked up, they're hiring people, they're looking to expand the number of jobs that they have. So that been very encouraging, and I think that we're right at that point that the market is starting to turn around as we've dealt with the economic recession over the past couple years. We're right at the base where it's starting to come back around. It's going to be slow still, but it's going to be a unique time period that because we're now turning back around. This is going to be an opportunity for people to get back into the market while prices are still low. We're doing a lot of work with our industrial park as well as an area that we call Newport Landing that we're looking to develop that will be a mixed use, residential, commercial and recreational. [We’re] trying to be aggressive in all of those areas because this is going to be a unique opportunity with the timing with the market and we don’t' want to miss out on it. So we've set some pretty aggressive goals for ourselves, particularly with Newport Landing.
We'd like to get a developer lined up probably by the end of this year and maybe see some construction by next year. I don't know if that's going to be too aggressive or not. I think that you set the goal and work towards it, and if we don't reach it so be it. We keep working towards it. We certainly don't want to not set the goal and you're guaranteed that it's not going to happen. We're working very hard to make sure that we can try and bring that to fruition, and the response that we've had I those areas has been very positive. So I'm encouraged to see good things happening there.
CM: There's a lot going downtown. They've put in a lot of resurgent energy in downtown, and wth all the events related to downtown, doing things, maybe with arts and entertainment.
BM: Well, it's been such a treat to get to work with Tiffany Bley, who is our downtown coordinator. And you've gotten to know Tiffany.
CM: She's very energetic, and very outgoing!
BM: She is! She does such a great job. She has really interacted very well with all of our current business owners in trying to get together different things to help improve business and get more people through their doors. We just had the Taste of La Porte last weekend or I guess, the previous weekend before that, and it was the first ever Taste of La Porte. It was a tremendous success!
We had a lot of people that came down and either started at the Taste or at the F.O.P Blues Festival at one of our parks. So there were a lot of people going back and forth between the two. And folks loved it! They liked the opportunity to sample some of the local restaurants, and I think that the restaurants then are going to then have some more folk come in their doors and eat. It was just a neat opportunity to come and be out in the community and- and experience that- that hometown feel that I think that La Porte is really known for because we have very welcoming residents there. She has done a lot of work with the downtown and it's been a blast to work with her!
CM: It's been fun to watch and she has definitely been another very energetic person like yourself. When you see those organizations you're really seeing the fruits of those efforts, and getting even more involved in the next one, and the next one, and the next one.
BM: Right. Right. The other focus areas that we have are addressing the issue and the constant challenge of what I call "sustainable infrastructure". Those are the services that you expect any municipal government to provide-- -roads, sewer, water, sidewalks, police protection, fire protection; all of those things. And how do we continue to provide not only the same level of service but trying to improve that service with increasingly less and less dollar amounts that are coming in? You know, good, bad, indifferent; it doesn't really matter how anybody feels about tax caps now. They're there.
CM: They're there. You have to deal with them.
BM: Right. So now how do you deal with the funding challenges that come from not necessarily receiving the funds that we may or may not have been traditionally getting before? Add on to that the challenges that La Porte County has had because of our property tax issues and the cash flow, and it's a pretty complex challenge that we have to address routinely. I'm fortunate to get to work with Teresa Ludlow who's our Clerk-Treasurer and who does a good job of keeping us together financially, and helping us plan for what some of the different outcomes can be so that then we can look at what initiatives we need to take and how we can responsibly plan for maintaining the infrastructure that we need.
We've had an opportunity this past year that we're retiring a pretty large bond that was a park bond before and so we're going to be able to do a few capital projects, because we'll be able to do another bond issue. But that's unique to this year, so I'm looking to do paving roads and improving our sidewalks with some of the bond proceeds that'll come from that. But how do you continue to do those things when you don't have a bond issue? So we're looking at different models that other communities have used to see how they are able to set up for a plan that maybe you're not putting a large amount of cash into a specific fund at any given year. But if you can start to plan, you put a little bit away every year, then you can have a planned fund to address things like, like paving roads and improving sidewalks so that then you're not having to scramble for money to try and do just a project. With any of those different areas with roads and with sidewalks, they are not cheap. They are expensive undertakings. You have to put at least a little bit away so that then you're constantly able to work towards them.
The third focus area that I have it to provide and promote positive healthy lifestyle choices. And that's where Fitness Friday comes into play, trying to encourage folks to make some of those choices individually. Certainly not from a government standpoint saying that you have to do this, but to encourage folks to take that initiative on their own to improve your quality of life that'll then lengthen your life as well. That's where some of our substance abuse initiatives fall under as well. I see that as a healthy life choice decision in addition to those things. And so, we’re doing a lot of work with the counter drug task force that I've assembled, as we talked before. We are working now on trying to get a specific media market type of message that we want to kind of brand what we've talked about. Then it's easy for folks to relate to the message that we're sending out and know where it's coming from. We're talking a little bit about that and what we want that brand to be and looking to roll that outas soon as we can.
We're also working with the Indiana Youth Institute and the Indiana Mentoring Program to help connect people in the community with the different mentoring organizations that we've had, that as I mentioned earlier there have been a number of people across the community that step up and want to get involved in the issues that we're addressing and they want to help. It's a heck of a problem for me to have, and I want to-
CM: All those people that want to help and you've really just got to orchestrate.
BM: Exactly, exactly. As far as problems to have, I'll take that one. So we're working on connecting them with mentoring programs because I think that's a great way to get involved and really yield some very positive results for kids. Not only necessarily a prevention aspect that it may encourage them to make different choices, but probably in a rehabilitation sense as well, so they're probably seeing some of these things. By having someone involved in a youth's life that just cares and shows that they care, that may provide some of our youth with an opportunity to talk about some of the things they're seeing going on and to maybe get them some help in dealing with those issues.
If some of those youth, if they're seeing things that…maybe they're seeing parents abusing and being able to get somebody involved that can help them with that situation so that then you can kind of break that cycle. That's another area that we're doing a lot of work to try and connect up with those folks. Then when somebody says, "I really believe in the issue that you're addressing and the challenge that we're facing. How can I help?" We need you to mentor, and in any capacity that you have, whether it's half an hour a week or and hour a week or whatever you can offer up that that would make a tremendous difference. It may seem like, you know, "It's just one child and so how am I really impacting things?" But like we talked at the beginning of this, when you take it one piece at a time, then the impact just grows exponentially. It's going to just be one child at a time.
CM: That child is your spokesman to get to the next one, and the next one, and the next one, and that's where you see the positive multiply.
BM: Exactly. You never know what kind of tools you've then given that child by then being able to address the challenges that life is going to inevitably bring their way. It can maybe not even be a substance abuse issue, but they can better deal with bullying, or you know the-the different things that happen…gossip.
How do you deal especially in this increasingly technical and complex world where we're in this age of information where it's easy to isolate ourselves from one another? You don't necessarily have that human connection, that having a face-to-face conversation, anymore. A lot of it's done over the email or over Facebook or things like that. Not that those aren't useful tools, but it then becomes easier to isolate yourself from that regular human interaction.
CM: Well, we appreciate your positive perspective. We definitely appreciate your engagement and reach out and to come in here today, and we look forward to being able to help you tell all of those stories as we go forward.
BM: Absolutely! Well, thank you so much and thank you for all of your work that you're doing across the region. It's fantastic to have a positive news outlet for people to be able to look to.