Historically Speaking: Former mayor remembers EDC beginnings

During a time of national political gridlock and ugly tones in presidential debates, former New Castle Mayor Gerald “Bud” Ayers offered a welcome respite from it all – just by reminiscing.

Ayers provided some icing on the New Castle-Henry County Economic Development Corp.’s 40th birthday cake recently by sharing a DVD featuring city leaders, volunteers and dialogue concerning the EDC’s early days. The DVD and Ayers’ memories shed important light on how this former Chrysler town got a new set of wheels to help the local economy stabilize and grow.

Even before he was elected to the first of three terms in 1979, Ayers had economic development at the top of his agenda. The automotive industry had been hit hard nationally, and the local Chrysler plant, New Castle’s economic engine for years, was sputtering badly.

“Paul Prior and I would meet down at Ameriana before I got elected,” Ayers remembered. “He had read an article where I had said I would have a full-time economic development director on city payroll and have a city economic development department.”

Ayers said Prior liked those intentions, but urged another approach.

“He said ‘government can’t do it by itself,’” Ayers said of the well-known banker, who died in 2018 at the age of 96.

“I said ‘the problem we’ve got, Paul, is it’s hard to get Republicans to sit down with Democrats and the Chamber of Commerce to sit down with labor.’”

So the two came up with a behind-the-scenes plan.

“Paul said he’d negotiate with the Republicans in county government if I would take care of labor and the Democrat party in city government,” Ayers remembered.

With help from The Courier-Times’ Walt Chambers, who wrote articles about the importance of an EDC, everyone eventually got on the same page. But it wasn’t easy.

Ayers remembers a meeting at Mac’s Steakhouse where the EDC idea was discussed with guest speaker Dave Richmond leading the way. Richmond had helped Indiana cities Columbus and Seymour set up successful economic development efforts.

The fireworks came early, however.

“Right off the bat, a labor representative and a contractor got into it and walked out of the meeting,” Ayers remembered. “A Ball State professor brought the union representative back in and Phil Borders, New Castle’s school superintendent at that time, brought the contractor back in and we got off and running.”

The DVD Ayers shared not only brought back memories, but highlighted the important journey economic development has taken here.

Prior is featured on the DVD discussing the EDC’s initial days.

“We began with a committee of about 30 people in the Chamber of Commerce for the New Castle area, working on ways to strengthen the economy,” Prior is heard saying on the recording. “We discovered that a group of amateurs could not do this, so we decided to form an independent corporation and attract a professional economic developer. We organized an economic development program which addresses first to the needs of existing business and industry, then secondly … the possibility we might locate non-resident business and industry from states surrounding Indiana and the nation at large.”

Prior’s 40-year-old words on the DVD would seem applicable today.

“It is critically important that we help every citizen to understand the importance of this voluntary organization,” Prior said then. “And it is purely voluntary. All of these people who constitute the board of directors, the executive committee, serve on a voluntary basis. We employ one professional to carry on this work. What is important about it is this activity goes on 24 hours of every day. It’s objective is to provide employment to the citizens of our community, for our city and our county.”

When current EDC President Corey Murphy shared a photo of Ayers on the organization’s website recently and talked about how he had been on the EDC’s ground floor, others were quick to praise the man who became New Castle’s first to win three successive terms as mayor.

“Bud was a big help in getting the EDC started,” said retired New Castle businessman and community leader Duane Brammer. “He had to walk a thin line with the county and labor leaders as everyone had their own agenda. I think he did a good job. It was not easy.”

One could say thanks to people like Ayers, Prior, Chambers and local attorney Scott Hayes (profiled recently in our “Distinguished Dozen” series), the candles are glowing brightly on the EDC’s birthday cake in 2020. Candles no one wants to blow out anytime soon. Candles that come with a wish – that the local spirit then be duplicated statewide and nationally today. That national political parties stop the ugly fighting and begin working together like they did in the good old days.

– Story by Darrel Radford (DRadford@TheCourierTimes.comof The Courier-Times. Read more local stories at www.TheCourierTimes.com.

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