The Herald was able to talk to Wetumpka Mayor Jerry Willis about some successes and challenges of 2020 and also to look ahead to the future. See our questions and Willis’s answers below:
Q: Looking back on 2020, what are you proudest of accomplishing as mayor alongside the Wetumpka City Council?
A: As bad as the year was, we had a very successful year in the development and redevelopment of Wetumpka and moving Wetumpka forward. To single out any one thing would be difficult. We learned a lot about ourselves. We must be patient in our endeavors and the things we want to accomplish in Wetumpka.
Q: The year of 2020 was full of firsts. Looking back, what lessons did you learn that you will carry forward with you in the years to come?
A: We were just climbing out of the destruction of the tornado in 2019, and as we were overcoming that, we go into 2020 and the virus hits us. I’ve learned that we must be very careful to keep ourselves safe. There have been numerous issues to deal with and we’ve learned to operate with half, or less, of our staff but still get the necessary jobs done to service the people of Wetumpka. I don’t think we’ve operated with a full staff since the start of the pandemic.
Q: What do you hope will come from the city being featured on HGTV? What do you think about the progress so far?
A: HGTV is certainly one of the bright spots of 2020. Their choosing of us to come into our city and investing in our city is a blessing. It’s something to have 5,000-plus cities apply and to be chosen. The city has had no part in planning or choosing what’s been done, and that’s probably the best way for it to be. Most citizens view the project favorably, but there’s always a negative side. People have tried to poke holes in the project from the start, but we must remain positive. The national reception of the show will decide if the program gets a season in Wetumpka or if they’ll move somewhere else. It’s been a pleasure working with the staff and Ben and Erin. I like how it looks so far and the property owners and businesses are pleased with the results. The color scheme is exciting and adds more color to the city. I’m anxious to see the finished product once it’s all pulled together.
Q: What are your top five goals for the city in 2021?
A: The primary goal is to have a smooth year without a lot of disruptions. That would give us the ability to continue working our development and redevelopment plans for the city. I’m excited for a fresh start. Another goal is to create positivity in our community, which would allow us to become better than we have ever been. Negativity will only give you failure, which has been proven over the course of the years. We have to stay positive, move forward and keep looking up as we create our future. We hope to continue plans for the downtown redevelopment and streetscape project, wrap up the stadium project and complete the rebuilding of the senior center. We have a created a well-rounded plan because a plan that does not plan for everyone is not a plan at all. From senior citizens to our youth and everything in between – we hope to continue to improve the quality of life for every citizen in Wetumpka.
Q: In what area does the city government excel?
A: We excel when it comes to the financial management of the city, especially in our ability to provide incentives for new businesses. We wouldn’t be where we are today had we not implemented a financial management plan years ago. In late November, the city of Wetumpka was invited to a statewide meeting of area mayors and other elected officials to make a presentation on the subject of how we made our dreams come true. How did we do it? We made a plan and we worked our plan. To be singled out by your peers and recognized as a city on the move is a tremendous feat. We’re still getting messages and questions from people who attended the meeting.
Q: In what area does the city government need improvement? What's being done to improve in this area?
A: None of us are perfect and we realize that. There are people out there in our community who have multiple skills and knowledge and it would be great to have more volunteers and more community involvement. We have the Downtown Redevelopment Authority that’s a vehicle we use to help us make decisions on the redevelopment of downtown. There are opportunities for people to participate and become involved with Main Street Wetumpka, and the Chamber of Commerce takes care of the businesses we already have. We need people to work beside us to be the best that we can be. We’ve also had to adjust to new ways of doing things in the midst of the pandemic. The Wetumpka Fire Department and the Wetumpka Police Department is up to full capacity, but as the city has grown, Public Works needs more personnel to maintain services provided by the city. That’s one area where we plan to improve. As people spend money in the city, our tax base will widen, allowing growth in that area.
Q: What is something about your role as mayor or about how city government works that you would like people to know/understand? Maybe it's something that's commonly misunderstood?
A: My role as mayor is to function as a leader of the city, managing the day-to-day operations. The council manages the city’s finances and establishes the rules and regulations the city will abide by. Mayors, especially those with a personality such as the one I have, wants to see things done quickly and immediately. And much to our dismay, government does not operate that way. Projects that we start may take two years before it can move forward. There are a lot of rules, regulations and hoops to jump through to get things done. But that takes us back to that plan that I keep mentioning. We go back to that plan to see where we are and to reassess. If we could change that and see a quick turnaround on projects – that would make it a lot more fun. But the support given and the daily encouragement from the people who appreciate what’s being done to help up achieve our overall goals – it’s truly a blessing to have those people.
Q: What are some projects that we can expect to see some movement on in 2021?
A: We hope to finish the senior center, the Miracle League Field and the splash pad and the extension of the sports complex. We plan to finish the steetscape project and complete the roundabout. We know the future for Wetumpka is very bright. We have other developments looking at Wetumpka and new homes constructions are on the horizon. Those things are coming; it’s just a matter of finalizing those projects. We’re excited that the Russell Brands facility was sold. The property will be divided to allow four or five different businesses to locate there. We’re excited that as a city we’ll have the opportunity to participate in helping move these projects forward.