LIMA — Four years ago, Lima Mayor David Berger gave some thought to retiring. He decided against it, wanting to see some projects through to the end.
“I wanted to make sure that the projects we have underway got done,” Berger said. “We’re really finishing up major — in fact, historically large — projects this year. As those have been wrapping up, my wife and I have been talking about what’s next.”
With major projects such as Elm Street/Bellefontaine Avenue underpass and the massive Simmons Field water tank project nearing completion and a downtown Rhodes State campus under construction, what’s next won’t be up to the voters who’ve chosen Berger as their mayor a record eight times.
Berger, 66, announced Wednesday at his weekly press conference he won’t run for re-election in 2021. He said he consulted with his wife, Linda. With grown children near Athens, San Francisco and Los Angeles, he’s looking forward to spending more time with his children and grandchildren, he said.
His term ends Nov. 30, 2021, ending a record 32 years of leading Lima’s city government as its chief executive. As a charter city, Lima’s mayor takes on the roles an administrator might have elsewhere.
“Until COVID, we’d rebuilt our economy to its best condition in over 40 years,” said Berger, who took office in December 1989 after serving as executive director of Rehab Project, where the organization helped renovate hundreds of homes. “We have downtown renewal under way. There’s really an unmistakable sense we’ve defended a number of our industries from being destroyed, such as the refinery and the tank plant. There are lots of things I think we’ve been able to work with folks across partisan lines to get lots done.”
His work ethic
People who worked with Berger over the years lauded his dedication to the people of Lima and the city.
“Mayor Berger has always been a great support to me personally and to our entire school district,” Lima schools Superintendent Jill Ackerman said in an emailed statement. “From supporting our school levies, to visiting classrooms, speaking at our annual Academic Signing and attending athletic and other events, there has never been any doubt that he is one of our biggest cheerleaders.”
John Nixon, Lima council’s president, credited Berger for working out a water policy that allowed growth outside the city limits but still provided low-cost water to industrial sites outside the city. He also acknowledged the lasting effects of non-withdrawal annexation as a way to help businesses and subdivisions grow in townships.
“One thing no one can take away from Dave Berger as the mayor of the City of Lima: He redefined the work ethic of the mayor,” Nixon said. “Dave is hard-working man and puts in a lot of hours to get things done.”
Local chiropractor Joshua Hayes announced his bid for mayor July 1. When asked if he might run for mayor, Nixon said Wednesday, “Not at this time.”
To get on the ballot, a candidate must live in the city limits and have a nominating petition signed by at least 50 registered voters from inside the city and sent to the Allen County Board of Elections at least 90 days prior to the primary election, according to the city’s charter. The pool of candidates will be narrowed to the top two in the May primary, with the general election held in November.
Facing his critics
Berger wasn’t without his critics, though. No one guides a city for three decades without frustrating someone.
Dan Beck served as Allen County’s sheriff in the 1990s and early 2000s and ran against Berger for mayor in 2009. He pointed to declines in Lima’s population over the years and crime issues as things he wished Berger had solved.
“One a positive side, Dave Berger is good at bricks and mortar. You can look at what’s been done in Town Square and that area, and it’s much better there,” Beck said. “When it comes to quality of life, though, the housing has deteriorated so badly over the past 30 years.”
Not every project was a success. Plans for a $500 million synthetic natural gas plant to Lima called Global Energy haven’t come to fruition.
Greg Sneary, an Allen County commissioner and former American Township trustee who occasionally butted heads with Berger, wished Berger well in his retirement years.
“He’s tried to do what he thinks is the best for the city,” Sneary said. “We each have our jobs to do. It’s never been personal but the facts of the job that needs to be done.”
His lasting legacy could be what he kept in the community. In 1997, British Petroleum announced its plans to close the Lima refinery that’s so iconic on the city’s south side. Berger worked behind the scenes with a task force to help find a new owner for the refinery, first Clark USA and in 2007 Husky, its current owner. A similar task force kept the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center from being mothballed by the Obama administration.
“He was adamant about the refinery staying open and not shuttered, and it was the same thing with the tank plant,” said Peggy Ehora, Lima’s 4th ward councilor and Dominion Energy’s external affairs manager. “I know that will be part of his legacy.”
It certainly is from the refinery’s standpoint, Claudio Ingaramo, vice president of U.S. refining and manager of the Husky Lima Refinery, said in an emailed statement.
“We have always understood the refinery’s historic importance to Lima and our role as caretakers of one of the city’s oldest businesses,” Ingaramo said. “Mayor David Berger’s legacy is intertwined with the refinery. We are grateful for the gutsy leadership that helped keep the refinery open and operating and appreciate his dedication to making Lima a great place to call home.”
His drive in economic development has been admirable, Dave Stratton, president of Allen Economic Development Group, wrote in an emailed statement, saying he appreciated Berger’s “tenacity and commitment to service.”
Now those efforts can be seen downtown. The Rhodes State College Center for Health is under construction, rising up across Market Street from the city’s Municipal Building.
“We are now witnessing his efforts to bring Rhodes State to downtown Lima, which will undoubtedly spur business development in the direct area,” Stratton wrote. “The AEDG team continues to work in partnership with his team in downtown development that will be evident for years to come.”