If you ask Huntington's new Mayor Richard Strick what makes his city a great place to be, he might tell you it's projects like the UB Block redevelopment
happening downtown with 37 market-rate lofts, art studios, and a culinary kitchen.
Or he might say it's the opportunity Huntington has to stake its claim as northeast Indiana's second-largest city.
But as a 36-year-old millennial mayor himself, Strick is a great example of the potential his city holds for a rising generation of adults who want to make a difference in the world.
Get plugged into an up-and-coming place like Huntington, and you, too, can have a seat at the table.
As a former pastor and an independent candidate in the 2019 election, Strick is accustomed to dealing with the complexities of human nature and questioning the nature of politics as a position of power versus a position of service.
Input Fort Wayne sat down with Strick to learn more about his perspective as he's settling into his new role with high hopes for the future of the “Lime City."
Mayor Strick, left, meets with residents.
IFW: Tell us about your background, and what led you to get involved with local politics.
: I've always been interested in politics and history, and when I was working as a pastor, I began to see how much public policy really impacts the daily lives of folks. When public policy is going well, it's operating in the background, much like the operating system on a computer. But when public policy is crafted poorly, it's just like when you get the "blue screen of death" on a Windows computer.
I think making those connections eventually led to me being involved with neighborhood organizing with our neighborhood association. Then, from there, it led to being recruited to run for Huntington City Council to help us really work through the funding mechanisms to invest in ourselves as a city.
After the spring primary last year, I looked at the two remaining mayoral candidates. I didn’t get the sense that their agenda was going to address the infrastructure problems and challenges that we were facing as a community to help us keep moving forward. So I took about a month and a half to weigh the decision and get some input and feedback from others. I ultimately decided to throw my hat in the ring as an independent mayoral candidate and ran a good, competitive race last November.
IFW: As a millennial under 40 in the local political arena, have you found that your age has been an obstacle in getting people to take you seriously?
Not that I've explicitly encountered from anyone. With the way I operate, I'm very big on teamwork and collaboration. I think to some extent, I can use my age to my advantage because people don't expect me to have the right answer. And so they're much more open to freely sharing opinions.
I'm a big believer that with a diversity of opinions, you're going to sharpen and come up with the best idea possible rather than folks kind of acquiescing to one person as the expert.
IFW: How has your past prepared you for success in this role?
I would often get asked on the campaign trail, “What does a pastor know about politics?” And I would jokingly respond, “Well, have you ever been in a church?”
Anytime humans are involved, you're going to have the opportunity for conflict and miscommunications. And if we all practice a little more graciousness and a little more humility, we can accommodate those challenges and address them and move forward.
IFW: You became mayor as an independent candidate in Huntington County. Tell us about your decision to run as an independent.
For me, it's always meant voting for the character of a candidate. And, you know, you look for as much overlap in terms of policy practice as possible, but I boil it down to whether or not this is a person with integrity, someone whom I can trust.
There have been times where I've supported Democratic candidates or times when I've supported Republican candidates. And of course, in the state of Indiana, you can cross the (party) line to the primary, depending on how you want to vote.
But my family goes back to the Whig Party and the founding of the Republican Party. So in terms of historical alignment, that's probably where I find myself. But we also have to know that parties change and ideologies change, too. And so there used to be progressive branches in both parties and conservative branches in both parties. And so therein lies the rub.
I think that's why a whole lot of folks are identifying less with a particular party banner now. They're finding their identity more with particular issues than with candidates that are on the ballot.
IFW: You’ve expressed some frustration with how national politicians and political parties have handled issues in recent years. In your opinion, how should they approach things differently?
: I think when we start putting power over public service, we're misunderstanding the whole point of government. And if we are committed to public service, we're going to be listening to the real needs and lives of everyone that we're representing.
And I think it's a cautionary tale for both parties. Do you really listen to what's going on in the lives of folks, and are you adapting public policies to reflect and address those problems? Because if you're a leader, you should be trying to help people resolve the problems they can't resolve on their own And you should also be drawing a clear line in the sand in terms of things they need to be responsible for in their own lives.
I think anytime a party or politician forgets that, it’s a danger to themselves and others. At worst, it's a danger; at best, it's a disappointment.
Mayor Strick serves in the community.
IFW: One big project for Huntington right now is the United Brethren (UB) Block redevelopment project in downtown Huntington. Tell us a little bit about that, and what it means for the city.
: The UB Block
is composed of three buildings on a block across from our courthouse. It’s a site that was really getting rough over the past decade. Eventually, the city acquired control of it under the previous administration, for concerns around public safety and otherwise. At the time, plans were very open-ended. There was some talk about redevelopment. With demolition looming, UB Block landed on Indiana Landmarks’ 10 Most Endangered list,
and it ended up being saved and redeveloped.
The Regional Cities Initiative
came forward with some local funding, along with investment from private parties. Anderson Partners, the developer on 37 market-rate apartments took the lead as the property owner. And then nonprofit Pathfinder Services signed a five-year lease. They are going to be operating a community arts center
for all ages and abilities as part of UB block, so they’re making sure that we're an inclusive community, in that sense.
On top of that, Huntington University will have an entrepreneurship center there, and our chamber of commerce has relocated their offices to the space, as well.
Over the course of the past two years or so, we've made somewhere around a $9.5 million investment in this redevelopment project, between public and private funds. And we're really anticipating this project being a game-changer and having a powerful ripple effect felt throughout the rest of our downtown.
IFW: What else is on your agenda?
In terms of the mayor's office and our operations, one of our primary focuses or points of emphasis is taking care of our infrastructure and making sure that our city operations are run well. We are also strategically looking ahead to upcoming financial challenges and making sure that we have the resources to meet those challenges. For example, communities statewide are dealing with changes to their stormwater and sewer operations, so we’re taking better care of our waterways and not dumping raw sewage into those.
But you know, that's not really the exciting part. People love talking about what we're seeing happening alongside all of this, as the city has made investments in its own downtown. We have private investors who are now stepping up. And so there are three or four individuals who began buying up storefronts downtown, with the intention of renovating those spaces either for their own businesses or to make space for other businesses to come in. And so, they're at a point where they've made their financial bed, so to speak. They're in a good place financially because of a lifetime of good decisions and investments. And so they're not doing this to pursue a profit point. They're doing this because they know that, ultimately, it's going to improve the community, at large.
IFW: From your perspective, what makes Huntington special, and what's next for the city?
Huntington has always been a crossroads for the region. We're the second-largest city in the region after Fort Wayne. But I think that we want to continue to grow in our own right. And so, in addition to downtown development, we have a new industrial park by which we’re going to bring 100 acres of industrial development to our community.
As we move into new sectors of the economy, we’re thinking about what it looks like to have a place where especially younger folks can come and have an opportunity to impact this place.
It's really easy as a young person to head to a larger city. While there's a lot of fun that can come with that, you're kind of a small fish in a big sea. So the potential of a community like Huntington is for young people to really plug in and be at the table as these lifelong decisions are being made, and they have an opportunity to contribute to them.
I think that's a rather unique niche that we have. Because it’s a smaller city, there's more opportunity to be at the table.