Despite 2019 starting out on a bad note with the Jan. 19 tornado that destroyed a swath Wetumpka, Wetumpka Mayor Jerry Willis believes a lot was accomplished over the last year. The Herald sat down with Willis for a Q&A session; the following are Willis’ answers to our questions:
Q: Looking back at 2019, what are you proudest of accomplishing as mayor and council?
A: 2019 did not start exactly like we would have wanted it to start, having the 19th of January when we were struck by the tornado.
As bad as that was on that particular day, 2019 turned out to be probably one of the best years the City of Wetumpka has ever had.
I think it brought our community closer together than we have ever been before. We had to come together to take care of our people, to meet the needs of our people, the ones who suffered such loss and just take care of one another that there will be better day. The sun is going to come up tomorrow.
As we progressed through those first few days and weeks, we began to see the opportunities and see the possibilities that were coming out of this for the City of Wetumpka.
We had a downtown project well under way before the tornado happened. That project is on the east side of the river. The west side sustained most of the damage. We had some damage on the east side.
We kept that project going to revitalize and make our downtown the best it can possibly be. We’re just so close of finishing up the project. People love the look of what our downtown is going to be. We needed something good to happen to us after all of the bad. So, we played off of this to make us feel better.
Our people needed to laugh — to find themselves again. We came together and did a community-wide celebration. We brought in a comedian that entertained.
It was the first time I heard our people laugh since the tornado came through in January.
The (Wetumpka City Council) came together and worked extremely hard to help come up with a plan and a way to put it back together. We’ve had a good relationship between our elected officials to help move Wetumpka forward and just not look back.
We’ve had economic development. We have a medical facility that was announced and is under construction today. That is probably a $10 million investment into our community.
That helps enhance our quality of life for Wetumpka and the River Region. We were able to put that together.
Then we built relationships between city government and (Elmore County) government. We’ve been able to partner together in different things and new ways. That, too, is something that had never really been done.
The fact, that right now we have five or six different economic development projects going on or about to break ground enhances the quality of life in our community and helps create the tax base we need to better serve our citizens.
We had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Wells Fargo and work with them to get a taxable donation to help the City of Wetumpka rebuild the police department. We wound up acquiring the facility. By Feb. 19 we hope to open the doors to that facility. It will be second to none in the River Region.
We have plans drawn to rebuild our senior center that was destroyed in the tornado. That could start in 60 days. We are in the midst of starting construction on it.
That is exciting for us. This will be the first facility that we have ever had that is being designed and built in order to meet the needs of the elderly people.
Again, it was bad on Jan. 19. Today we are seeing the opportunities and the good that we are being able to do.
All in all, we had a great year in 2019.
Q: Looking back, what lessons were learned from the Jan. 19 tornado?
A: I don’t know if you are ever fully prepared for a disaster like that.
Through the county and the state emergency offices, they constantly worked on training first responders as to what we need to do and how to respond to a disaster.
We lost our police station and we lost our communications and we lost police cars. Those things were gone. So, our first responders came together real quick and put a management team together.
We had sister cities who reached out. Mayors called me and asked what we needed. I don’t know you ever fully get prepared, but I think we handled it fairly well.
The other day when the tornado hit up in north Alabama, I tracked down that mayor down and I gave him a call because I remember the calls I got on the day that we were hit.
Mayors from Tuscaloosa, Prattville, Montgomery and other places who had been through things like this called me.
I listened to their advice because I had never been through this. I absolutely did not know what the next step would be.
I learned through this.
The main thing that I learned was to take your time. Don’t over react. That’s what I passed on to that mayor.
The tornado showed us, after going through this, that we did not have the proper records kept on everything the city owned — inventory. Never in this city had there been adequate record keeping. So, we set up a department for that.
We have gone through and inventoried everything this city has. We know a dollar value. We know everything this city owns from top to bottom.
Should something like this ever happen again, you need that. We did learn.
You have to keep good records on your cleanup in case of reimbursement — what you did, how many pieces of equipment were used, how much manpower was used.
We had no federal assistance at all.
For insurance purposes, we have to keep up with everything. We have municipal insurance. They were very, very fair with us in their assessment of what the losses were.
Q: What are three to five top goals you hope the city achieves in 2020?
A: I’m in my 12th year as mayor, and when I came in the first thing I wanted to do was make a plan. I could have identified 25 things. I look back now and we have pretty well accomplished every one of these things. Maybe not to the fullest extent we wanted to, but we are still working on these and building off of these, like facilities for the police. We put the police in 20,000 square feet to operate. We will be back in a facility that is 12,000 to 15,000 square feet which is fine.
We have expanded the parks and recreation of the city. There is still room to do more. There are more things that we need. My focus early on was to get our baseball facility built.
Now, we’ve ventured off into football. We are also building a miracle field for children and a dog park and walking areas, basketball, tennis and a splash pad.
All these are things that are coming. These are things that maybe we didn’t have in our hopes and dreams 12 years ago. As we broadened, these have fallen into place.
When my time is up I want there to be a solid plan in place for the town to follow.
I don’t think we have gotten there yet and we need to get there because when the next person comes in behind me I want to know this city is financially stable. It wasn’t when I came in. We are probably more solid now that we have ever been.
We operate in this city based upon needs. We don’t necessarily get all the wants; we operate on needs — what do we need to meet the needs of the people.
There is going to be a day coming when this city can meet not only its needs but its wants. That’s going to be a happy day in this city.
I think what has helped us to get to where we are, and this is no reflection on anyone in the past, because this city has had great mayors in the past. I think the fact that we never elected back-to-back mayors. You were mayor for four years and you went home. They didn’t have time to build a plan. No continuity at all.
Downtown, when I came in, there might have been four or five cars parked downtown and empty buildings everywhere. It’s not like that today. To see that we are on the tail end of the project downtown, that’s exciting for me.
I used to hear people stand around and talk about it; they could never get it started. We were able to put a plan in place and got it approved and with the support of our city council we pushed this plan forward and find the money to do this out of grants. That’s what we’ve been able to do.
Wetumpka deserves the best and that is what we are trying to do in 2020, 2021 and 2022. We will continue to do that. Nothing makes you feel any better than to have someone come up to you that maybe has been here all their life and they say, “I really like what is happening in Wetumpka.”Then to have someone come up to you and say, “We chose to move to Wetumpka and live here because we like what is going on in Wetumpka.” That’s satisfaction. You don’t get a lot of compliments as mayor. It does make me feel good to know people are enjoying the new look and being able to have the amenities here.
Q: What is in store for Wetumpka in 2020?
A: There are other economic development projects. We are getting a lot of attention right now. When the opportunities are there, you have to keep going.
We have had times in the past of not being ready when opportunities come our way. We have prepared this city to be ready for further development and growth.
This 2020 Census is probably going to kick us up. We are around 8,000 people now in our corporate city limits. We are probably going to see those numbers go up. It will be interesting to see where we are.
We have other properties within the corporate limits of Wetumpka. We need rooftops — we really need more rooftops. We’re dealing with companies that have an interest in that.
I really think 2020 is going to be an exciting time for us as we see, not only economic development and corporate development, I think we are going to see housing develop within our corporate city limits that we really need. We need it badly.
Q: If you could change anything about Wetumpka, what would it be?
A: I don’t know if I would change any specific thing about Wetumpka. We have seen these things happen over the last 12 years. We’ve seen us become better. Our ultimate goal is to be the best we can be.
Q: What are two to three complaints constituents bring to your attention?
A: I hear all the time people say they wish we had a Chik-fil-A, a Publix and a movie theater. Those are the kinds of things I hear.
Now, I have heard the streets are so torn up downtown. We are we going to pave the streets. That’s coming — that is coming. It’s going to be done and it is going to be great when it gets here.
We will have a Publix at some point in time. We will have a Chik-fil-A at some point in time. We will have a movie theater at some point in time. Those are not things that your mayor has control over. Have we dealt with Publix and Chik-fil-A? Yes, we have and we will continue to deal with them and give them the information they need to make the financial decision that this is where they want to be.
I think you go back and look the past 12 years, we went from a roughly $8 million budget to where we are at a $14 million budget today. That’s good. That’s a good thing. We know that because of that, these other businesses are going to come.
Q: What is one satisfying aspect of being mayor of Wetumpka?
A: I want to leave it better than when I came in. I want to make a difference. It’s not about ego; I’m too old to have an ego.
It’s about these young people that are coming along — that they want to come back and live in their hometown. They want to be part of their hometown.
For years and years and years we lost so many. We didn’t get many back. Today, we are getting more and more coming back.
We want to do things that can give them the opportunity to come back as doctors and nurses and all different types of fields. That’s what we want to do because that is what keeps a community strong. The new medical facility will have 15 doctors. Some of those doctors will live in Wetumpka.
You see the school teachers that live here. We got away from that completely. You did not have any local teachers living here. They all drove up from Montgomery or somewhere else. We want them to choose to live here and be part of our community.