The 2020 Census Redistricting Data lists Lima as 39th in population among Ohio’s 1,215 municipalities.
Its 35,579 residents has the city ranked behind:
• No. 12 Springfield (58,662)
• No. 16 Middletown (54,987)
• No. 18 Newark (49,934)
• No.21 Mansfield (47,534)
• No. 32 Findlay (40,313)
• No. 37 Marion (39,999)
David Berger doesn’t buy that. Not at all.
He’ll tell you the comparisons made with those population numbers don’t accurately reflect Lima. He sees Lima as a metro area that includes American, Bath, Perry and Shawnee townships, as well as Elida. Add together the populations of each, and it paints a more accurate picture of Lima being the home to more than 76,000 residents.
“Most people driving through our community don’t know where the city begins and the townships end,” Berger points out. “If you look at the metropolitan area of Lima, we’re a community of nearly 80,00o people. I’ve always felt that it would be to our advantage, and frankly to the advantage of the other communities as well, if there was a way to create a new city that encompassed the entire urbanized area.”
He and a group of people would work on that concept for 10 years.
“We did it quietly. There was no publicity about it,” Berger said. “Ultimately at the end of that process, we determined that there was no absolutely clear economic case that could be made to most people. It was too much of a mixed bag. And so I stopped.”
Well, sort of.
Years later Berger worked out a marriage with Perry Township. Together, Lima and Perry had the vital resources needed to attract industry: Land in Perry Township had access to rail and Interstate 75; Lima could provide water.
Thus came the proposal from Lima of non-withdrawal annexation. It would lead to the city annexing land from Perry for development of the Gateway Commons Industrial Park, with the township maintaining property tax and the city picking up income tax.
“We saw it as a win-win for the Lima area,” recalled Frank Lamar, who was a Perry Township trustee at the time. “Time has shown it’s worked out.”
‘Big picture guy’
Berger has always been detail-oriented, yet not one to get buried in the minutia. Keith Deters referred to him as a “big picture guy.”
Berger worked closely with Deters during Deters’ 12 years as plant manager of the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center from 2002 to 2014.
“Our plant was never in Lima city limits, but the mayor always supported us. He understood the benefits of the plant to the economy of Lima, from the people who lived inside the city and worked at the JSMC, to the many vendors and contractors,” Deters said.
Deters and Berger co-chaired Task Force Lima, which included a group of government officials, business leaders and union representatives. Deters said he couldn’t count the number of times he, Berger and others traveled to Washington or Columbus to promote the importance of JSMC to national security, let alone its importance to Northwest Ohio’s economy.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize how close the plant was to closing around 2005 and 2006 during the BRAC,” Deters said. “It was a very serious threat. That task force played a huge role in preventing a closure from happening. Dave was always right there. Any time you needed a hand, he was the first to jump on board and say, ‘Let’s go do it.’”
Former Lima School Superintendent Karel Oxley saw the same thing.
“Dave believed in public education and was a tremendous supporter of Lima schools,” Oxley said. “I sat on numerous economic and civic boards with him, and he was always thinking five steps ahead. He’s who you think of when you hear the words ‘I love Lima.’”
Believing in diversity
The first time Lima councilor Tony Wilkerson met Berger was at a children’s soccer game. Wilkerson’s daughter and Berger’s son were on the same team.
“We shared some ‘dad conversations’,” Wilkerson said, “and our relationship bloomed from there.”
Wilkerson, who is Black, would later co-chair one of Berger’s campaigns.
No one guides a city for three decades without bumping heads with supporters or detractors, and Berger wasn’t an exception. But come election time, people rallied around him. It was especially true in the minority community.
Wilkerson paused to ponder why that was so.
“I think it was because he did what he said he was going to do in terms of assisting the Black community,” Wilkerson said. “He wasn’t one to look for the right time to visit or interact with the Black community. He didn’t wait for the right event before he made his appearance at this church or that social event. He became immersed in the Black community because it was the right thing to do.”
The Rev. Dr. LaMont Monford has been the voice for many Blacks in Lima as pastor of Philippian Missionary Baptist Church, the city’s largest predominantly Black church. He became pastor of the church during Berger’s first term as mayor. Their relationship has been one that is “authentic and honest,” Monford said.
“David was always truthful. I never had a time where I couldn’t trust his word, even when there were disagreements. That was very important to me in our relationship,” Monford said.
He wasn’t surprised Berger won all eight elections in which he ran.
“Berger had the support of the community — not just the minority community. He surrounded himself with some of the top professionals and the best minds in our community,” Monford said. “He was the kind of person who felt comfortable walking around whatever street or boulevard it was in the city and communicating and mingling with every constituent, no matter what their ethnicity or background was.”
That was evident in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, when Berger learned some members of Lima’s Muslim community were being harassed. He quickly set up a breakfast meeting with the church leadership in the region.
“We began a process of talking about the fact that Muslims are a part of our community and our valuable neighbors,” Berger said. The breakfast became an annual event.
“Whether it’s the Black community, or it’s the interfaith communities — you know, our Jewish friends, Hindus, Buddhists, others — I mean, to me, that is what makes Lima a special place. It’s the diversity of our community,” Berger said.
His grade card
Berger looked at each election as a grade card from Lima residents. In that regard, he passed his final exam on Nov. 2 when his groomed successor — chief of staff Sharetta Smith — was elected to be the next mayor of Lima.
When she takes office Dec. 1, she not only will be the first woman mayor in Lima’s 179 years but also will be the city’s first African-American mayor. Berger calls her executive style “welcoming, visionary and thoroughly competent” — something Lima’s leadership saw in him three decades ago.
“It has been my honor to serve as Lima’s mayor and CEO for 32 years,” he wrote in a letter to The Lima News. “I thank everyone who collaborated with me to bring about positive, enduring, visible change. In 1989, Lima was in a downward spiral. It took disciplined, persistent efforts to change that trajectory, building the momentum we are now witnessing, with the strongest economy in over four decades, 2,200 job openings in a 10 mile radius, exciting downtown renewal and a decreasing crime rate.”
Berger’s self-assessment no doubt will bring arguments from some people. Monford, however, believes the legacy Berger leaves will be hard to dispute.
“When you’re in any kind of leadership for an extended period of time, it provides the opportunity for scrutiny,” the pastor said. “One thing about Berger is he raised the bar for future administrations. He took the city of Lima and advanced it in a positive way.”