Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Longtime mayor reflects on decades of city service

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 4/15/2013

Gene Ramsey was sworn in as an Ottawa city commissioner April 20, 1994.

On Wednesday night, nearly 20 years to the day after he started, Ramsey will step down from his seat for last time — ending two decades of service and one of the longest consecutive runs on the city commission in Ottawa’s history.

Gene Ramsey was sworn in as an Ottawa city commissioner April 20, 1994.

On Wednesday night, nearly 20 years to the day after he started, Ramsey will step down from his seat for last time — ending two decades of service and one of the longest consecutive runs on the city commission in Ottawa’s history.

The 83-year-old Ramsey did not seek re-election earlier this month.

“Gene has been a good leader for the community,” Richard Nienstedt, city manager, said. “Gene loves this community, cares about the community and has always tried to do what’s best for the community.”

The City of Ottawa will play host to a reception in Ramsey’s honor from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday in the commission chambers at City Hall, 101 S. Hickory St., before the start of the regular commission meeting.

Ottawa opening

Ramsey and his wife, Anne, came to Ottawa in 1957 when Bob Wellington, former Herald publisher, recommended Ramsey be hired as production manager for the Herald. Ramsey had been working for Harris’ newspaper in Hutchinson for the previous five years.

“I had driven through Ottawa before, but I hadn’t spent any time here,” Ramsey recalled.

Ramsey accepted the position, and the couple spent five years in Ottawa before they purchased the Crawford, Neb., Tribune newspaper. After 10 years in Nebraska, where Ramsey spent two terms on the school board in Crawford, the Ramsey family returned to Ottawa and founded Ramsey Printing Co. with the purchase of The Ottawa Times and The Ottawa Times Shopper in 1973.

 “In November, we will have been back in Ottawa for 40 years,” Ramsey said.

After the Ramseys sold the Times and Shopper to the Ottawa Herald in 1992, Ramsey said he became interested in serving on the city commission.

“I didn’t feel like it would be right to serve on the commission while I owned the newspaper,” Ramsey said.

So, when the commission had an opening in April 1994, Ramsey said the opportunity and timing were right.

“Four or five people applied for the position. I was chosen,” Ramsey said.

Changing landscape

By 1995, Ramsey was marking his first term as mayor when the city moved its offices from the former City Hall building at Fourth and Walnut streets into the larger and more modern former Franklin Savings bank building on Hickory Street.

The former Franklin Savings building was the perfect size, Ramsey said, to accommodate the city’s offices and the Ottawa Library, which had been housed in the Carnegie Library building at 515 S. Main St.

“The library was hunting for space, and they didn’t have the money to remodel or build a new building, so we both moved in [to the Hickory Street] building and split the space,” Ramsey said. “It has worked out well for both. It’s a very nice building. I think it’s probably one of the nicest city halls around.”

The landscape of Ottawa has changed dramatically in the past 20 years, Ramsey said, including the recruitment of two major industries — American Eagle Outfitters and Walmart Logistics.

“Walmart [distribution center] is in the county, but the Ottawa Chamber [of Commerce] was active in recruiting the company,” Ramsey said. “Both of those businesses have been very important to the community.”

Ramsey said it would be tough to recruit large industries in the future.

“Businesses of that size want so much given to them now [as incentives] that it would be hard to recruit someone of that size, but I think Ottawa would be a good fit for some mid-sized industries,” he said. “I think Ottawa still offers a lot of opportunities for businesses looking at this area.”

Love’s Travel Stop, 203 E. 27th St., Ottawa, was one of the businesses the city was able to attract in 2011 to the south side of the community along I-35.“There are three other large lots out there that I think will be developed into retail — maybe a restaurant,” Ramsey said, adding the location is primed for development now that the city has extended sewer and electric utilities to that side of I-35.

“Love’s was looking at several locations along I-35 when they selected Ottawa,” Ramsey said.

Also during Ramsey’s tenure, the city was able to lure Neosho County Community College to town in 1995. The community college opened a new campus in 2010 on East Logan Street.

The city has undertaken a major sewer improvement project, paved city streets, expanded sidewalks and walking trails and improved parks during the past two decades. Ramsey has been part of a city government that has lobbied for several years to bring a stop light and turning lanes to the Davis Road and K-68 intersection. That project is currently under construction.

Another major improvement, Ramsey said, was upgrading the city pool at Forest Park, 310 N. Locust St.

“That pool has served the community very well — it attracts a lot of people,” Ramsey said.

The city also has built new electric substations, a public works building and a law enforcement and municipal court center.

One of the biggest challenges, Ramsey said, to making improvements to city infrastructure was doing so with fewer dollars as state and federal budget cuts continue to take their toll on communities around the state.

“Finance has always been the biggest challenge,” Ramsey said. “We get our money through sales taxes, property taxes and we are fortunate enough to own our utilities, which is another revenue source. I have always tried to be careful about how we are spending taxpayers’ money.”

A driving force

Blake Jorgensen, current Ottawa mayor and who has served with Ramsey on the commission for eight years, said Ramsey’s institutional knowledge has been an asset to the commission as commissioners delve into finance issues.

“Gene is conservative financially, and he’s always been a driving force on that side,” Jorgensen said. “He is very aware of what the cost is for the taxpayers [on any project], and I have a lot of respect for Gene in that regard.”

Jorgensen said he thinks Ramsey will remain active in the community.

“I cannot imagine him not being involved, and he probably can’t either,” Jorgensen said. “I think he will find ways to be involved — he has a lot to offer.”

Ramsey admitted it will be difficult to step down from the commission. A former member of the Ottawa Municipal Airport Advisory Board, Ramsey has watched the airport undergo a major face lift in recent years, including a reconstructed runway, Ramsey said he might try to serve on that board again.

While many people still refer to Ramsey as “Mayor Ramsey” when they see him on the street or in a store, “Mr. U.S. 59” would be another moniker that would be appropriate, city leaders and local politicians have said.

It was during his first year on the city commission that Ramsey said his vision for a safer route from Ottawa to Lawrence drove him to move the discussion from the local arena to Topeka. Ramsey began lobbying legislators to widen U.S. 59 to four lanes, between Lawrence and Ottawa, as part of the Kansas Department of Transportation’s 10-year comprehensive transportation plan.

Ramsey’s dream became a reality Oct. 17, 2012 — 18 years after his lobbying efforts began — when KDOT officially opened the 11.1-mile stretch of U.S. 59 from the Franklin/Douglas county line to south of Lawrence. The $220-million project began in 1998 with planning and design. Construction began in 2007. The nearly eight-mile portion of the road in Franklin County was completed in 2010.

“I don’t think people realize how many hours of time Gene put into this project,” Bill Feuerborn, a former Democratic state representative from Garnett, said. “If I had a dollar for every [U.S. 59] meeting Gene attended, I would be a wealthy man.”

‘Honest and fair’

In additional to a U.S. 59 plaque that recently was presented to Ramsey, his office wall at Ramsey Printing Co., 602 N. Main St., Ottawa, has photographs of the previous commissions he has served on. A photograph on his desk shows him talking with former President Bill Clinton as they shook hands. Clinton was the speaker at a National League of Cities legislative conference in Washington, D.C. that Ramsey was attending with fellow city commissioner Richard Jackson and other city and youth in government representatives from Ottawa in the late 1990s.

“I wouldn’t have had the chance to meet Bill Clinton if Richard Jackson wouldn’t have been there,” Ramsey said. “Richard always has to be the first one to every meeting, and he got us seats on the front row.”

Jackson, chief executive officer of the East Central Kansas Economic Opportunity Corp., chuckled when he thought about that day.

“I remember getting up about 4:30 that morning to go to the meeting center [to avoid a long line at the security check],” Jackson said. “I was determined to get a front row seat, and I saved several seats. I even had to ward off a couple of people who didn’t think I should be able to save those seats.”

While he doesn’t advocate for city commission positions being partisan, Ramsey said people who want to serve on the city commission need to become politically involved by getting to know their state and national representatives and senators.

“These are the people who can influence what happens on a local level, so you have to make sure they understand where Ottawa stands on the issues,” Ramsey said.

Jackson, who served 12 years on the city commission and for about a decade with Ramsey, said he and Ramsey didn’t always see eye to eye on the issues, but there were never any hard feelings between the pair.

“Gene is an honorable man. He is always honest and fair,” Jackson said. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for him.”

Ramsey said Ottawa residents have been good to him and his wife, Anne, and children Marci Gentry, Jo Lynne Peterson and Kent Ramsey, who now runs the family printing operation.

“They’ve always supported me and my family, and I’ve always tried to support them in the decisions I have made,” Ramsey said. “I’ve always tried to do what I thought was in the best interest of the community.”

Jorgensen said he is glad the Ramseys made the decision to move back to Ottawa four decades ago.

“Gene is leaving the town in a better place than when he found it,” Jorgensen said.

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