Richard Church has been Mayor of Miamisburg, Ohio (population 20,181) for 27 years. And for most of that time, he has been fighting the federal government to clean up the Mound Laboratory, a former, atomic energy facility on 305 acres of prime real estate in the center of his hometown. The Mound Laboratory was the first Atomic Energy Commission site built after World War II. It supported the country’s nuclear weapons, space and energy programs over a 55-year period from 1948 to 2003.
But this story starts back on December 16, 1991. Mayor-elect Church had won a November election and was set to take office on January 1. He was at a conference in Las Vegas when he received a telephone call from Miamisburg’s City Manager John Weithofer: “Dick, are you sitting down? I’ve got some really bad news.” The City Manager had just learned of the Department of Energy’s decision to shut down the Mound Laboratory and take with it 1,800 jobs.
The community’s first reaction was to fight to keep the facility open. Mayor Church and City Manager Weithofer flew to Washington to meet with Department of Energy officials. “I cannot remember the guy’s name, but we met with the assistant secretary of DOE for environmental projects,” according to Mayor Church. “His remarks to me were, ‘We don’t care what the mayor or the city manager of Miami thinks.’ He said, Miami, Ohio. And that really honked me off because he didn’t even know our full name.” At the end of the meeting Mayor Church responded, “We’re going to fight you. We’re going to fight you with everything we have.”
With a national election and a change of power in Washington, the Miamisburg team was successful in getting the newly-installed Clinton Administration to review the decision to close the facility. But two years later in 1994, the decision was reaffirmed and “The Mound” was again scheduled to be shuttered. So a new strategy emerged: press the federal government for the complete remediation of this seriously contaminated site to be given to the city for commercial reuse.
For the next 15 years, Mayor Church visited Washington every six weeks to lobby for the clean-up. “And I have to tell you that over all of those years there were bumps in the road…We got along and everything was going our way. And then all of a sudden, they would make a decision that would just upset the apple cart. And we started over.” One DOE assistant secretary was reported to say “Whatever you do, keep that damned Mayor out of my office.”
A key component of Miamisburg’s success has been a “strength in numbers” approach. Not only did Mayor Church and Ohio’s political leadership rally together against the Department of Energy. But the City of Miamisburg also partnered with an organization called the Energy Communities Alliance. “At that time the DOE was starting to downsize all sites. So we got together as a community of communities,” according to Mayor Church.
On October 4, 2010 and after $1.1 billion of clean-up costs, the site – completely cleaned and remediated – was fully turned over to the City of Miamisburg. “The city took on the big government and we won,” said Mayor Church. “But the losers in this whole thing were the dedicated employees who worked there…They were out of a job.”
Today, the former Mound Laboratory site is home to an industrial business park with 16 companies employing 355 people.
Earlier this month, Mayor Church received the Leadership in Public Service Award from the International Economic Development Council. The award recognizes an elected official, who for more than ten years, has been a strong public advocate for economic development.
After 28 years in office, Mayor Church will retire in 2019. “I’m going to be close to 79 when I leave office. It’s time for a new generation to step forward.”