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While wishing lake further along, outgoing Mayor Toomey still proud

On July 2, Jerry Toomey will hand over the gavel as the Mayor Mitchell to whomever wins the June 5 election. (Matt Gade / Republic)

One problem with growing older is remembering how things used to be way back when.

Retiring Mayor Jerry Toomey's memories walk down the vibrant Mitchell Main Street of the 1950s, stopping in at the Time Theatre to watch cowboys shoot it out at high noon in the center of town.

"I hate to see Main Street die," he said during a recent interview in his office in City Hall.

Toomey will turn 75 this summer. The Mitchell Main Street of his childhood had bustling streets. The upper stories of the brick buildings did not have plywood windows.

"All great cities have a great Main Street," Toomey said.

Other communities have done a lot to revitalize their downtowns, he said.

At mayoral conferences he has attended, he's learned about the importance of lighting projects. Mayors talk about the need to create something friendly and romantic, places for young couples to walk and explore.

Explaining to other mayors the traditions of Mitchell's Corn Palace, Toomey said, they remark, "You've already got your gimmick to attract tourists."

He hopes that mission continues.

Toomey said recently he will be happy to step down in July, the month of his 50th wedding anniversary. He told the electorate he would quit after one term and so he has. He's going to get busy on a lot of house projects that have been neglected over the past three years.

He wonders how a mayor working part time can do the job, because it's so demanding.

"It amazes me how many things go on in this office on a daily basis," Toomey said.

And he hopes incoming Mayor Bob Everson will have the same priorities as he did: restoring Main Street, fixing Lake Mitchell and replenishing city infrastructure.

The lake

"Fyra Engineering reached out to me after a couple of months in office," Toomey said.

He and others vetted them, inspected their projects, and enlisted community experts to work with Fyra and guide them. Lake Mitchell needs an engineered solution, Toomey said, whether it's Fyra's or that of another firm. Any lake solution needs to deal with phosphorus leaching up from the bottom of the lake, and address the dissolved phosphorus flowing in from the watershed.

Watershed improvements could include a retention pond to treat the water, employing wild grasses to slow down sedimentation. Efforts also should be made to keep cattle out of the creeks leading to the lake by creating wells for livestock.

"One calf produces how many thousands of pounds of phosphorus?" Toomey asked.

But improving the watershed will take more than a few years, Toomey said. It will require continuing efforts and involve the use of grant money.

Removing lake sediment is step one.

"We can't afford not to do something," he said.

In eight years, if Mitchell does nothing, lake phosphorus levels could increase by as much as 40 percent, making the lake's summer stench and coating of green slime that much worse.

Once Lake Mitchell has been cleaned, he said, we need to do more to market the lake, advertise its recreational opportunities.

The lake is a real asset, he said. The biking and hiking trails, the opportunities for boating, camping, fishing and swimming—all bring people to Mitchell.

"I love the Corn Palace, but not one family has moved to Mitchell because of the Corn Palace," Toomey said.

"There's so much more we could do with the lake."

He looks at other communities looking to invest $40 million to $80 million to create a lake.

Meanwhile, "We have a lake, and we're not taking care of it."

Is Mitchell ready to pay for an engineered solution?

Toomey hopes so.

Recent efforts have raised public awareness about the lake, he said.

"I hope they realize the monumental size of the problem."

There have been so many Band-Aid approaches attempted over the years.

"We're talking 660 acres of lake and a watershed of 351,000 acres," he said.

"People are scared of the dollars," he said.

To develop public support, the project recruited local experts to oversee and guide Fyra.

Toomey wishes now that the lake improvement efforts were farther along.

"I wish we would be starting dredging this fall," he said.

He's recently been looking to identify possible dump sites to minimize the distance needed to haul sediment pulled from the lake.

"It would have a significant impact on costs," he said.

Toomey said he understands why the council recently did not approve Fyra's full contract to complete dredging designs.

February's discovery of additional lake sediment made the project costs unknown. Fyra is now looking at capping some deep sediment deposits to hold costs down.

Toomey wonders if the city wouldn't be better off biting the bullet and dredging all the polluted sediment.

Fyra is expected to produce its latest cost estimate on June 18.

While he wishes the lake cleanup had progressed more, Toomey is proud of how far the efforts have come.

"People realize we do need to do something," Toomey said. "They're taking an interest and understanding the issues."

He would like to see the City Council take action soon.

"I don't want to see support wane," he said. "The iron is hot now."

Infrastructure

Mitchell's sewer and water pipes are 80-90-100 years old, and replacing them will require $20 million to $30 million over 20 years.

There are other infrastructure challenges. The water Mitchell purchases from B-Y Water will soon exceed allowed limits. Mitchell recently needed to invest $2 million in a force main for pumping sewage to the sanitation lagoon.

"You have to have the money to take care of it," Toomey said.

Projects will need to be prioritized going forward.

"We can't wait to break down and react," he said.

The city needed a fund to replace aging infrastructure, Toomey said, which is why it raised water rates. Raising rates isn't easy.

"It's informing the public why you need to do this," he said.

Politics

"I don't like the politics of this job," Toomey said. "There is a nasty, vicious side."

Untruths get said, and things get made up.

"I was accused of not being transparent," he said. When personnel issues arose, he legally could not speak about them.

"I was forced to swallow information and not talk about it."

Toomey takes pride in a lot of what has been accomplished over the past three years: The Corn Palace Plaza, Veterans Park, and saving hundreds of thousands of dollars by refinancing bonds for existing tax increment finance districts to take advantage of low interest rates.

The city has eight excellent department heads, including four new hires.

"We have a h--- of a good management team," he said.

His advice to incoming mayors: "To me, it's about service to the people. Be as honest and transparent as you can be."

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