With moxy and determination, the mayor and her team have made the struggling suburb a more desirable place to be.

When Kim Maggard moved to Whitehall in 1981, its population had tipped into what would be four decades of decline from a high of more than 25,000 in 1970. During the ’50s, it had been one of the fastest growing cities in the nation, with neat rows of mid-century ranches and the distinguishing characteristic of sporting one of the nation’s first strip shopping plazas, Town & Country on East Broad Street. Maggard was 24 with a young daughter, having moved to Columbus from Ashland, Kentucky, the year before so her husband could take a job at the Defense Supply Center Columbus, a 530-acre military logistics complex. DSCC, as it is known, during WWII was the largest military supply installation in the world, employing more than 10,000 at its peak and housing the spare parts and myriad supplies that kept the American war machine running. Today, the hulking presence off East Broad Street remains as integral to the city of Whitehall—and its $50 million annual budget funded in large part by income taxes—as it is to Kim Maggard’s life.

Maggard was accustomed to military life, having grown up in a family that came from Kentucky but moved frequently to accommodate her father’s Air Force career, which took them to Italy at one point. When they returned, the U.S. housing shortage led them to buy a trailer, squeezing parents and four children into 500 square feet on a lot in Kansas. At one point, Maggard’s father went off to Vietnam for a year.

“My mom was very resourceful. She could cook like crazy, and she was very good with handling money, and she made those paychecks stretch,” Maggard says. “And when they couldn’t, then she would go to work. I remember her working at Dairy Queen for $1 an hour. She made our clothes. She made my prom dresses. She made my younger sister’s wedding dress, and it’s gorgeous.”

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For her family, that determination and education were prized weapons against scarcity, the shadow of which stuck around like it did for many families who lived through terrible economic times the generation before.

“My dad came from a family of 11 children, and he many times talked to me about going hungry,” Maggard says. “His parents were so busy raising 11 children that sometimes, my dad would go in the summer and ride the trains and be gone for five, six days and they didn’t even realize it.”

In high school, Maggard’s father played basketball, and her mother was a cheerleader. “He told me if it wasn’t for basketball, he probably wouldn’t have graduated from high school,” she says. “He didn’t have socks to wear underneath his tennis shoes, and he would take worn-out socks people threw away and he would cut off the bottoms [leaving the rings that go around the ankle, which he would put on to give the appearance of wearing socks], so nobody would know. And he didn’t have towels when they took a shower. So he would wait ’till everybody was done and use their towels.”

Maggard’s mother told him if you date me, you have to graduate from high school. He did. Later, their four children all were expected to go to college, a prospect that did not excite their daughter Kim, who was gifted in mathematics.

“OK, first of all, I didn’t like anybody telling me what to do,” Maggard says.

Is it any wonder she went on to become the mayor of the quintessential American suburb, Whitehall?

***

Maggard did go to college and earn a bachelor’s degree, but not in accounting or library science, careers her mother encouraged her to pursue. She thought they sounded boring and instead majored in law enforcement and sociology, planning to go into criminal justice. But her life didn’t turn out that way—the man she would marry, Alex “Rusty” Maggard, didn’t like the idea of his wife in such a dangerous occupation, and she instead became a history teacher and stay-at-home mother for a time. That didn’t stick, either.

What did Maggard end up doing? She entered public service as a member of the Whitehall Board of Education after chairing a successful levy campaign (an initial levy failed), and she became a clerk and circulation manager at the Columbus Metropolitan Library, studying library science. Next, she was appointed Whitehall city auditor and found herself excelling at accounting 101 and 102, which she took concurrently at Columbus State Community College.

Her mother would have been tickled to know how right she’d been, but she didn’t get the chance to gloat, or revel in her daughter’s rise to the top of civic life in her adopted hometown. She suffered a massive heart attack and died quickly at the age of 63, when Maggard was 40. The night before, they’d had a long talk Maggard will cherish for the rest of her life.

“I remember sitting down with her and just telling her, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you for expecting that I would go to college and making sure that I got there. And I didn’t have to go into debt for it. And that my brother and my two sisters also went to college. Thank you for everything you did for us.”

***

The Whitehall of 2019, population 19,000, is quite different from the one Mayor Kim Maggard moved to decades ago. For one, the Town & Country Big Bear is now owned by rival Kroger, after the giant supermarket sat empty for more than a decade. The city has struggled with a lack of interest from businesses in general, housing values have not kept pace with Franklin County’s, and crumbling, crime-ridden apartment complexes have marred Whitehall’s reputation.

Lois and Paul Kolada paid little heed to those things when they decided to retrofit the old Bill Swad Chevrolet dealership on South Hamilton Road for the offices of their industrial design firm, Priority Designs. They’d bought a vision from Mayor Maggard and the city’s new economic development director, Zachary Woodruff, an energetic, intense young man who easily could be mistaken for a mayor himself. Across the street from the Koladas’ potential new offices was the troubled Commons at Royal Landing apartments.

“It was our dream that one of these days, those apartments would be gone, that we could have a multifaceted development going in right there,” Maggard says. “We said to the Koladas, don’t look over there. We’re going to take care of that.”

It was 2014, and the city, through its new community improvement corporation, would not close on its $5 million purchase of the Commons at Royal Landing for another two years. The city had bought the Bill Swad property, too, hoping to attract higher-paying jobs—and more city income taxes—than an auto dealership.

“This building was in pretty bad shape, but the spaces really lend themselves well to what we do and what we wanted,” says Lois Kolada, whose company needed workshop and studio space. “And so the vision was pretty easy to grasp. I would say some of our staff was a little leery [about moving to Whitehall]. And they voiced it. But on the whole, it’s really worked out great.”

That the Koladas took the deal and were happy with their choice represented a turning point for Whitehall, which under Maggard’s leadership has aggressively courted new business and economic development projects.

“A lot of our capital investment goes back to the Koladas and their team, who got the mayor’s vision of where we were going,” Woodruff says. “We can point to all the other projects we were able to [secure] and say, we brought them [to Priority Designs] and showed them what it was going to be. And they said, ‘Well, there is something going on in Whitehall in 2014.’ ”

Despite the misgivings of some of his board members, Scott McComb saw the Whitehall vision, too. In 2017 the CEO of Heartland Bank brought its headquarters, 130 employees and $11 million in investment to a section of Whitehall Community Park off Hamilton Road. From the back windows of Heartland’s new home, a calm, stately view unfolds: mature trees on acres of well-kept lawn, prairie gardens beyond, and Big Walnut Creek runs through in the distance. The city is planning upgrades to the park that will give visitors the ability to go kayaking and canoeing.

Facing the window of McComb’s office, construction of Whitehall Community Park YMCA is under way. The project, funded by the city with the facility to be run by the Y, received a $50,000 gift from Heartland.

“My board was like, what? We’re going to go to Whitehall?’ ” McComb says. “Because you know the [reputation] of Whitehall in the last several years, maybe the last decade or two, has not been as good as it once was. But I kind of fell in love with the fact that we have a great lady in Mayor Maggard that gets things done. She and Zach [who recruited McComb to Whitehall] have really turned the city around.”

Indeed, dozens of businesses have set up shop in the city since development efforts at City Hall ramped up in earnest, including the Wasserstrom Co. bringing its headquarters and 225 employees from the Brewery District.

The city is turning its attention next to the vacant 317-unit Woodcliff Condominiums, which it bought for $9 million after having the complex declared a nuisance by Franklin County Environmental Court over the protestations of some owners.

Frank Kass saw opportunity in Whitehall when his Continental Real Estate Cos. bought the Commons at Royal Landing from the city for Norton Crossing, a $55 million development under construction at Broad and Hamilton that will involve 360 one- and two-bedroom apartments, medical offices and more—a much better view from the windows of Priority Designs.

“I grew up on the east side and have watched Whitehall over the years, and sometime during the last decade, the profile of the city as a tired, older city changed considerably,” Kass says. “And I would attribute that in part to Mayor Maggard and Zach Woodruff and a more aggressive city council.”

Still, Kass says he would not have undertaken the project had it been on Main Street or in the center of Whitehall. “This is a major intersection of two state highways,” he says. “I-270 is 1 mile in either direction and there are 20,000 jobs in a 1.5-mile radius.”

***

Standing on a stage set up behind the Yearling Road Dairy Queen on a sunny Saturday morning in July, Maggard welcomed people to the Whitehall Food Truck Festival, which has grown to 35 trucks and more than 25,000 visitors in just a few years. She’s approaching a third term as Whitehall’s mayor—she’ll run unopposed this fall, after voters in 2018 approved extending the maximum terms an elected official may serve from two to three. She appreciates the vote of confidence.

Maggard feels she’s just getting started.

“I feel like sometimes two terms isn’t enough to get progress going and get people used to progress. Actually, for a new mayor coming in, your first four years is basically making sure you have people in the right positions to see your vision.

“And I will say I had a completely different vision than former mayors. Once I got my team in place, bam, my second term, we really were making all kinds of progress. So I think people want that progress to continue.”

Poverty and affordable housing are issues to tackle next, she says.

“I’ve been married over 40 years, but I always knew that if something would happen to my husband, I would be OK. Because I had an education and I had resources. And that’s huge—most people don’t have that. So we’ve got to provide the opportunities. And you got to start when people are young. You have to have people to tell you when you’re young that you’re worth something.”

What are you going to be out talking to people about this fall?
People need to understand what’s happening to our region because it affects us—we can no longer be insular. And that’s what we used to be. Before I became mayor, there was a thought that, well, we don’t care what’s going on around us ... that stuff is not going to come into Whitehall. Well, that didn’t work so well. We did not prepare ourselves for the future. [Previous Whitehall administrations thought] if a business wants to come here, they’ll come here, and I don’t have to go out and move them.

When you have that attitude, you miss out on way too much. So for my next four years, I really want to prepare our citizens for the population growth that’s going on—they’re beginning to see it. We still have some residents who are anti-apartment, and they’ll probably always be anti-apartment, anti-multifamily. But just because we’re building more apartments, it doesn’t mean we’re getting rid of single-family homes. We need to upgrade our housing in Whitehall to attract millennials and also for our empty nesters to want to stay here in Whitehall. We need to have more options. And so for the next four years, I’m going to be working on getting that message out. We need to be more welcoming of those types of housing opportunities. At the same time, we need to aggressively go after business.

The Defense Supply Center Columbus, with 8,000 employees, represents a huge portion of Whitehall’s income tax receipts, which were $27 million last year. So when the employer began letting employees work from home, it meant the city of Whitehall was on the hook to pay increasing income tax refunds. Kim Maggard has watched the numbers for 16 years:
When I first became auditor in 2003, our annual income tax refunds were approximately $250,000 to $300,000 a year. When I became mayor in 2013, they went up to $500,000. Now, we’re probably going to do between $1.4 million to $1.7 million this year. And that is because DSCC is letting their people do telework. So when they’re working at home and not in Whitehall, that means they don’t have to pay income tax to Whitehall. Now they are paying it, but then they ask for refunds. We have to give that money back to them, meaning less income tax for Whitehall. So we really have to be aggressive in getting new businesses into Whitehall in order to make up for the shortfall that the state took from us in reduced Local Government Fund dollars and for the money lost from remote workers. That takes money away from infrastructure, it takes money away from the police and fire departments. How are we going to take care of improvements? And how are we going to make sure that we fund our parks and recreation adequately? So when our residents see that all these businesses are coming in, they need to understand that we’re trying to make up for all the shortfalls that have happened.

On affordable housing:
It’s very difficult now to get a rental here or anywhere. And to tell you the truth, our rentals are too expensive for what they provide. We need to focus on more affordable housing options—quality affordable housing. That’s one reason why I’m working with MORPC. We’re definitely going to need a higher density of housing. And we cannot be afraid to rezone for apartments and multifamily. We only have a finite number of dollars to support infrastructure. We really need to change the way we think about housing.