Mayor Ken Tracy named Daily Republic’s 2013 Person of the Year
If one word could sum up Ken Tracy’s time as mayor of Mitchell so far, it would probably be “decisive.”
“I don’t profess to be the smartest person in town. I very much value input from others,” Tracy said in a recent interview with The Daily Republic. “If I do have a strong suit, it’s being able to evaluate that input and make the best decision.”
During the first half of his three-year term as mayor, Tracy led as the city took on four major, multimillion-dollar projects — the construction of a second indoor ice rink at the Mitchell Activities
Center, an expansion of the Mitchell Public Library, the construction of a new city hall in southern downtown and a renovation and expansion of the Corn Palace.
Others have taken notice of Tracy’s role in getting projects moving.
“These are huge projects for the city of Mitchell,” said Mitchell City Council President Jeff Smith.
“Without Ken’s leadership, we may still be talking about them rather than seeing some action.”
In 2013, that action was highly visible. The ice rink project was completed, construction at the library began, some deteriorating buildings were demolished to make way for the future city hall, and a plan for the Corn Palace project was adopted by the City Council. For his impact on the city through those and other efforts, Tracy has been selected as The Daily Republic’s 2013 Person of the Year.
Those four major projects will positively impact the city for decades, Smith predicted.
“We always like to progress as a city,” he said. “It’s hard to do that without an effective leader.”
The second indoor ice rink, attached to the south side of the city’s existing facility, opened in early December and became the first of the four projects to be completed. It cost $2.8 million.
A $2.2 million renovation of the Mitchell Public Library began this fall. Tracy said the renovation, which includes an expansion of the east and west sides of the library, and a new circulation desk, could be finished within a year, though the project was initially expected to take a year and a half.
Architecture Inc., of Sioux Falls, was recently picked to design Mitchell’s new city hall, Tracy said.
The company has designed such buildings as the Minnehaha County Courthouse and the Sioux Falls Convention Center, both in Sioux Falls; South Dakota State University’s Student Union in Brookings; the Yankton County Courthouse in Yankton; the University of South Dakota’s Al Neuharth Media Center in Vermillion; and others.
Tracy said the city, which has about $3.2 million available for the city hall project, is now in the process of selecting a construction manager.
“When the weather does break, then we can maybe start moving forward on that,” he said.
If construction starts this spring, the new city hall could open in 2015.
The existing City Hall building, which is attached to the Corn Palace, will be renovated to house tourism exhibits as part of the renovation of the Corn Palace. That’s an idea that was discussed for many years before Tracy and the council finally acted on it.
Meyer, Scherer and Rockcastle, a Minneapolis-based design firm, is still working to finalize architectural plans for the Corn Palace project. The $7.175 million plan approved by the city this past summer calls for changes to the exterior of the Corn Palace, including new light-up domes, which will have LED lights with the ability to change color. It will also include larger murals with improved lighting and large windows that open to a walk-out balcony above the marquee, and numerous other changes.
“It’s an exciting time for the city to take on these projects,” Tracy said. “It demonstrates that we’re progressive and we’re moving forward.”
The four major projects, Tracy hopes, will have a long-lasting impact.
“Every segment of our population is going to benefit from at least one of these projects,” he said.
All are being funded, at least in part, by $13.9 million in bonds the city sold about a year ago. That accounts for more than a third of the city’s total debt, according to a one-page report on the city’s debt presented at the annual budget hearings in August.
The city’s remaining debt capacity — the amount of additional debt the city is allowed to take on — was $9.54 million at the end of 2012, but was projected to fall to $6.53 million by the end of 2013.
“I wasn’t fully expecting that we would be able to tackle all of these at once, but I’m glad that we have,” Tracy said.
A weighty factor in the decision to move forward with all four projects at roughly the same time, Tracy said, was that the city would not have to raise taxes.
“We’ve demonstrated that we’re able to take on these projects without overspending or overcommitting our resources,” he said.
Actually, after the ice arena project was approved, the city’s hotels and motels did agree to a voluntary, $1-per-night tax on occupied rooms to help fund construction of the rink and to help create a sports authority that will work to attract more events to the city. The tax, which the city started collecting in August, is imposed through a business improvement district, a self-taxation arrangement in which businesses agree to designate the tax revenue for specific projects.
Cooperation among the council, the city’s department heads and the public has been crucial in moving ahead with each of the projects, Tracy said. A relatively strong local economy, with consistent sales tax collections, low unemployment and a vibrant farm industry, has also helped.
“I think that we were maybe a little bit conservative in taking on any big projects,” Tracy said. “As we came out of the recession, I think the timing was right.”
The anticipation of finishing each of the projects has kept Tracy motivated.
“We’ve got some exciting work to be done in the near future,” he said.
Tracy’s aggressive approach to the city’s major projects and other issues has some observers enthused about the visible progress.
Jim Johnson, 76, is a retired farm equipment salesman from Emery who moved to Mitchell this past summer. Johnson has found Tracy to be very approachable.
“Since we’ve been here, we see him, we talk to him,” he said.
To keep pace with larger cities, like Sioux Falls or Rapid City, and even similarly sized cities, like Brookings, Huron or Watertown, Johnson said Mitchell needs to take action.
“He has looked into some things that should have been done a long time ago,” Johnson said.
Others are concerned about the city’s spending and the direction the city has taken under Tracy’s leadership.
Melvin Delzer, 81, of Mitchell, is concerned the plan to renovate and expand the Corn Palace may be overly extravagant.
“Is it really going to be worth it to have all that stuff? I don’t know,” Delzer said.
Delzer also worries the city is spending too much money while taking on too much debt.
“I’m not against progress,” he said. “Sometimes, it just seems like there needs to be limitations.”
Two people at a local café, both of whom declined to speak on the record, also criticized Tracy, saying he has pushed his own agenda while ignoring the wants of the city’s residents. Specifically, they criticized the addition of a city administrator to the city’s government, a proposal introduced by
Tracy and approved by the council last month.
Voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to add a city manager — different from a city administrator — in 2011.
“I wasn’t trying to circumvent that vote, but I did want to investigate what the differences would be,” Tracy said, referring to the difference between the two positions.
Unlike city managers, city administrators are not the chief executives of the cities they serve, and instead are accountable to the mayor; they have little, if any, authority to hire or fire city employees or prepare a city budget; and only have the authorities granted to them by a mayor or by ordinance, according to Matthew Fairholm, a political science professor at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. Fairholm met with the council at its meeting Nov. 18.
There are 20 cities in South Dakota with city administrators, according to information presented at the Oct. 7 council meeting.
Tracy has heard the public’s concerns and criticism.
“I think that they recognize we’re moving forward, and hopefully we’re addressing the needs of the citizens and doing things to improve the quality of life,” he said.
Tracy, 66, speaks confidently, with an aura of experience backed by his many years of city government experience.
It began in 2000, when Tracy applied, at the advice of a friend, and was appointed to fill a vacant seat on the City Council by then-Mayor Alice Claggett.
Tracy ran unopposed twice, first in 2002 and again in 2005, before losing his seat in his first-ever contested election in 2008. He won the seat back in another uncontested race in 2011, but was forced to give it up after he was elected mayor.
In what was believed to be the city’s first six-way race for mayor, Tracy received 1,465 votes, or 31 percent, to beat out the other candidates.
“This was not something that I planned,” Tracy said, referring to his time spent in city government.
“But, as it’s turned out, it has been a very rewarding experience for me.”
Until his mid-teens, Tracy lived with his family in a residence in a train depot in Kennebec, where his father, Ed, worked as a depot agent for the Milwaukee Railroad.
“Whenever a train came through, the house would shake and rumble,” he recalled.
After graduating from high school in Kennebec, Tracy enrolled at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion in 1965. Less than two years later, during the Vietnam War, Tracy was drafted by the U.S. Army.
During his two years in the Army, Tracy spent the majority of his time in Fort Sill, Okla., where he worked as a personnel clerk.
In the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, Tracy and others were sent to Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C., in response to rioting.
“We were stationed there to respond to different hot spots in various major cities,” he said.
For two weeks, Tracy and other soldiers were loaded onto planes, only to be called back. They were never actually sent anywhere.
After leaving the Army, Tracy returned to USD and went on to work for the South Dakota Department of Labor for 10 years, then as a revenue agent for the South Dakota Department of Revenue for 20 years. A revenue agent’s job is to examine the financial records of individuals and businesses to make sure tax obligations are met. He retired in 2002.
Tracy and his second wife, Lois, have seven children and 13 grandchildren between them.
Mitchell City Councilman Mel Olson calls Tracy’s style “quiet leadership.”
“He is a very good listener, and not just to the council, but to people out in the community,” said
Olson, a former state legislator. “He does a very good job of trying to build coalitions.”
With an agenda that is clearly laid out, and ample opportunities provided for public involvement,
Tracy has been able to gather support for his vision for Mitchell, Olson said.
“Ken understands that politics is like a romance,” Olson said. “You’ve got to sort of woo people.”
Tracy has also maintained a well-informed, productive relationship with the council, Smith said.
“We’re never going to agree on every issue. But with Ken, at least you know where he is at.”
One example of Tracy’s leadership on a divisive issue came after a texting-while-driving ban was passed in Sioux Falls, and he proposed passing a similar ban in Mitchell. In April, after the state Legislature failed to pass a statewide ban, the council, at Tracy’s urging, passed a local texting-while-driving ban with a 4-3 vote.
Tracy said he enjoys working with the city’s various officials, as well as the public, and will never shy away from productive debates.
“That’s my philosophy,” he said. “And I don’t imagine I’m going to change at this age and place in my life.”
Though he didn’t make a definitive statement, Tracy said he will likely seek another term as mayor once his current term ends in 2015, provided his health and his family’s support continue.
So far, according to Olson, it appears that Tracy has widespread public support.
“I know that the mayor is doing a good job, and that city employees are doing a good job, when my phone doesn’t ring — and my phone doesn’t ring that often,” Olson said.