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Published: Monday, December 16, 2019 @ 3:00 AM
MIAMISBURG — Dick Church Jr. was a challenger in his first Miamisburg mayor’s race, narrowly upsetting the incumbent in a recount.
In his last one he faced opposition, but won with a 20 percent cushion.
In between, he went unchallenged in five elections, adding to what will end Dec. 31 as the second-longest continuous service among mayors in Ohio.
At times – notably with federal officials in Washington, D.C. — “the force of Mayor Dick Church,” as U.S. Rep. Mike Turner called it, was on display as he fought for his hometown.
“The mayor has a tremendously strong legacy – not only here, but everywhere,” said Miamisburg City Manager Keith Johnson, who has worked with Church for nearly 30 years.
“He’s just really defined what the role of a mayor is, what it should be in a small town,“ Johnson said.
The longtime Democrat’s 28-year tenure as mayor in the city of 20,000 began in 1991 just after the announced closing of a top-secret defense research and nuclear production facility that was Miamisburg’s largest employer since opening in 1949.
That led to a years-long fight with the Department of Energy that resulted in a $1.1 billion cleanup of the Mound Laboratories land, the only former such U.S. site that’s home to a business park.
The end of Church’s run became apparent a few years ago, when the 78-year-old began earnestly talking about retiring – a subject some say he had toyed with before — while spearheading the effort to plan Miamisburg’s bicentennial, a 12-month celebration that exceeded its initial $250,000 private fund-raising goal.
‘Everybody’s got a different opinion’
During the decades in between, Church has also, among other projects, worked to:
• Revitalize a decaying downtown;
• Build the new Miamisburg High School in the city;
• Expand Kettering Health Network’s footprint in town;
• Get the Austin Boulevard/Interstate 75 interchange built;
• Complete a $69 million city water and sewer system overhaul.
A number of his positions on issues were unpopular with some residents, but Church said part of his success has been in communication.
“You’ve got to be upfront,” he said. “You have to sit down and talk with them. Everybody’s got a different opinion. … But you have to sit down and talk with the public and keep them informed.”
That philosophy, Church said, was influenced by a decade as a newspaper manager, his profession before helping to taking over his family’s flower shop in 1972.
“Through these 28 years I’m a strong believer in making things transparent so that our citizens are kept abreast,” he said. “And I think that’s been our success. Because if you let people know what your end goal is, they’ll support you.”
Along the way, Church adopted a regional approach to issues.
“What goes on in Dayton, Brookville and Vandalia – any place in Montgomery County – affects, eventually, Miamisburg,” Church said. “If we don’t keep the core city strong, the problems they may encounter are going to trickle to the suburbs.
‘Mike Turner’s my friend’
Church has also become known for working with Republicans, for which he has taken some heat, while retaining party loyalty.
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“You have to work with people of the other party to get things accomplished,” Church said. “As I said many times, we’ve never had a Democratic decision or a Republican decision made around that council table. We’re making decisions that affect our citizens, and I could care less whether it’s from a Democrat or a Republican.
“Now, I’ve gotten in trouble for supporting Mike Turner,” he said. “I’ve had phone calls ‘Why are you doing this?’ Mike Turner has been good to the city of Miamisburg. He has helped us. Anything I’ve asked, Mike Turner has been there. And not only that, Mike Turner’s my friend.”
Church was elected to an at-large city council seat in 1987, two years after selling the flower shop. What the Ohio Municipal League calls the second-longest current continuous mayor’s tenure started after he beat Don Lucas – later a Montgomery County commissioner – in 1991 by a couple of dozen votes.
Lobbying for Mound cleanup
That same year, the Department of Energy under President George H.W. Bush announced plans to close the Mound plant, which at its peak had 2,500 jobs and then employed about 1,800.
From 1995 to 2006, the DOE awarded more than $1 billion in contamination clean-up efforts and in 2010 federal officials declared the site ready for full-scale redevelopment.
The funding and federal commitment followed what Church said were trips to Washington, D.C., “every six weeks” to lobby for the Mound.
Now, the property is “safe for commercial industrial use,” DOE Mound Site Manager Susan Smiley said. The Mound Business Park’s 306 acres are home to nearly 400 jobs and it is the only former federal site of its kind to house businesses, Church said.
“This project could have been lost or come apart,” Turner said. “But literally, (with) the force of Mayor Dick Church – working together regionally and fighting on a federal level – the community has accomplished this and come together.
“There are so many times when I worked with Dick Church that we were actually told no,” Turner added. “And a result of Dick’s tenacity and working together, we were able to overcome those obstacles.”
More history awaits mayor
In 1992, after the Mound-closing announcement, 80 percent of the downtown Miamisburg storefronts were vacant, Church said. Today, that figure is 13 percent, he said.
Downtown and Riverfront Park last year were the center of the city’s bicentennial festivities. Church led planning efforts for the bicentennial celebration – which featured monthly events throughout 2018 – and did “an outstanding job,” said Kimm Mote, who worked on the committee.
In recent months Miamisburg’s longest-serving mayor has been preparing for more history: Council member Michelle Collins will be sworn in Dec. 31 as the city’s first woman mayor.
He’s also seen a number of accolades associated with his work: the International Economic Development Council gave him the Leadership in Public Service Award; the Mound Development Corp. hosted a final property transfer celebration last month; and this month state Rep. Niraj Antani introduced a bill to rename Ohio 725 from Main to Seventh streets “Mayor Dick Church Jr. Way.”
Church will preside over his final council meeting Tuesday night and after leaving office will spend more time with his wife of 52 years, Judi.
“Without her support, I couldn’t have done this,” he said.
He’ll also keep busy in the community, including continuing to talk with student government groups. Among his messages:
“You can become anything you want. I really believe it,” Church said. “But you’ve got to work for it. You’ve got to get the education for it. Because no one’s going to help you.
“They’ll help you campaign. But you’ve got to prove to them that you’re going to be a leader,” he said. “And to be a leader, you’ve got to be upfront with people, and — this is the most important thing – have a love for the community. And that I have.”
BY THE NUMBERS
•$1.1 billion: Cost of Mound cleanup.
•$14,500: Current annual salary of part-time mayor’s job.
•3,610: Number of wedding ceremonies Dick Church performed as mayor.
•52: Years married to wife, Judi.
•40-50: Peak hours per week Church worked at job.
•28: Years as Miamisburg’s mayor.