In 2008, then-candidate for West Lafayette mayor John Dennis' campaign promises included bringing more focus to small business owners, enhancing relations with the West Lafayette School systems, spending wisely and working with Purdue and its students.
Twelve years later, the main issues may have changed, but the city’s relationship with Purdue remains on Dennis’ mind.
Dennis said he believes annexing Purdue has significantly improved the city’s relationship with the University.
“There really wasn't a very strong relationship between Purdue and the city of West Lafayette for years,” Dennis said. “We always bragged about Purdue, we always said, 'Hey, look at our university.' But it wasn't in the city. They plowed their own streets. They cut their own grass. They dealt with their own sanitation issues.”
The annexation of Purdue has increased communication between the city and the University, and Dennis believes this has been key to making sure West Lafayette and Purdue’s priorities are in sync.
“We meet with representatives from the Purdue Research Foundation. We meet with academics, we meet with the (Purdue) president's administration,” Dennis said. “We have a very close and open form of communication. And what that does is that keeps everybody informed on the priorities of the citizens and of our student citizens.”
The annexation has also enabled greater civic engagement from members within the Purdue community, something Dennis sees as beneficial to the city.
“When we first annexed Purdue, you know, one of the old dogs said, ‘You're gonna have a bunch of students running for office.' I'm like, 'Great, bring it,' you know, because that's who we are,” he said.
In addition, Dennis noted that the annexation has increased West Lafayette’s official population count from around 47,000 to almost 90,000. With the upcoming 2020 census, Dennis hopes that this will make the city more competitive in the fight for federal dollars. Federal funding is often used in conjunction with local tax dollars to fund local infrastructure projects such as road construction.
Dennis has also included the University and its students in discussions about affordable housing.
“We met with a lot of our students and met with a lot of our residents, and we try to figure out a city that is as dense as West Lafayette. What can we do to relieve the stress on renters?” Dennis said.
Dennis’ solution to affordable housing in West Lafayette is to increase the diversity of available housing stock. The new apartment buildings on State Street are part of that solution.
“When we were doing some of the conceptual design with State Street,” Dennis said, “we realized that corridor is an area that would be perfect to provide student housing, so we encouraged it.”
Despite the high price point of the new apartment buildings, Dennis said he believes that the addition of housing options will lower overall rent within the city.
“Anything that's new is going to be pricey,” he said. “So what that does is open up the door for some of the secondary housing concepts that have already been here, whether it be within our neighborhood, whether it be some of the different apartment complexes around the community or whether it be sort of a modified Airbnb concept.”
Dennis believes that variety not only keeps housing costs low but allows the city to cater to its diverse citizenry, whether that's students, professors or people not affiliated with the University.
Unlike city council candidates Sydney Rivera and Jon Jones, Dennis does not believe that rezoning the historical preservation district will improve the housing situation.
“I get what they're talking about. You rezone, you tear them down and you build in,” Dennis said. “You basically dilute the market. The city of West Lafayette has its own unique personality and character. Granted, we are a college town, but we also are a very unique community in and of itself.”
Dennis also disagrees with at-large candidate James Blanco about making CityBus free for all citizens.
“Local government on both sides of the river in Tippecanoe County does assist with the bus company,” Dennis said. “But you know, you would actually be robbing Peter to pay Paul, if local government was to pick up the tab for all public transportation.”
The mayor believes that the city has made significant progress with regards to alternative transportation and the trail system.
“When we first got here, 12 years ago, our trail system was unsophisticated,” Dennis said. “There were a lot of trail spurs, but there wasn't any real connectivity from the north end of town to the south end of town, and east and west connecting with Lafayette. So that was one of our first big pushes.”
Dennis has also made West Lafayette a signatory of the Mayors' Climate Agreement, an agreement by 407 U.S. mayors to uphold the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. In order to implement the agreement, the city is looking at infrastructure changes ranging from wastewater to roads.
“Our biggest contributor to climate change is our wastewater treatment utility,” he said. "We have the director of our utility getting some baseline assessments, we're looking at things that we can change insofar as putting some of our parts of the plan under cover, so we can capture the gases and we use that to fuel the facility.”
Dennis said the new roundabouts will also reduce emissions by decreasing the amount of time vehicles spend idling. In addition, the mayor has been looking innovative ways to handle trash and recycling, including the possibility of a super incinerator, but many of these solutions are still in the concept stage.
Zachary Baiel, Dennis’ independent opponent in the mayoral campaign, has made government open access his cornerstone issue, something Dennis isn't as concerned about at the moment.
“It’s a law. Transparency isn’t a concept, it’s a law,” Dennis said. “The only time something is generally redacted or restricted is when it has confidentiality issues that need to be taken care of.”
Dennis said he has explored implementing a “public-access portal” in the past, but he says the risk of hacking prevents the city from implementing it.
“I get 100 hits a day on my email account alone, just people trying to hack into my account,” said Dennis. “The portal, basically, would allow for somebody to go in and basically just look at documents. It would require a great deal of setup. It wouldn't just be a matter of flipping a switch. It would require a great deal of setup and preparation. From what the people in IT security tell us that that portal itself can open you up to having some form of corruption involved.”
Instead of open access, Dennis thinks that “front door” issues are on voters’ minds.
“(Voters) want to feel safe,” he said. “They want their roads to be safe. They want speed enforcement and they want their kids to be able to walk to school.”
Ultimately, Dennis believes the mayoral position is about public service and working together, regardless of party.
“I run an operation. My business is public service,” Dennis said. “Public service is not political. It's apolitical. Everybody's entitled to service. Everybody's entitled to fair treatment. Everybody is entitled to have the ear of their leadership. Everybody needs — at some time or another — needs help.
"And that's how I roll.”