Fiala eyes another term as mayor of Kent

Lifelong city resident has seen millions of dollars in downtown redevelopment during his tenure

By Thomas Gallick | Staff Writer Published:

Jerry Fiala is ready to campaign for another term as Kent's mayor. He just hopes it all doesn't come down to a coin flip again.

In his time as mayor, Fiala has seen millions of dollars of development rise from empty lots in downtown Kent, City Council buy and sell the long-vacant downtown Kent Hotel and arguments on every topic from backyard chicken coops to large-scale student housing complexes.

Still, the most exciting and stressful time in his tenure may be the very beginning, when he and fellow candidate Rick Hawksley tied at 2,052 votes in the 2009 mayoral election and had to flip a coin to break the tie.

Fiala, who said plans to turn in petitions for May's mayoral primary next week, recalls the coin flip as a nerve-wracking time, especially for his wife, Sue.

"It was like she just stopped breathing," Fiala said "When they were going to flip the coin I said to her, 'Should I pick heads or tails?' She said, 'I'm not going there!'"

Fiala picked heads as the 1961 half-dollar rotated in the air. It was the same call former Mayor Redmond Greer made in 1961 -- the last time Kent had a tie vote for mayor. Like Greer, Fiala won.

Holding the mayor's office during Kent's rebirth seems like a fitting capper for Fiala's public service career.

He served as Ward 1 representative on Kent City Council from 1985 to 1999, years when Kent officials struggled to find a formula to restore life to the downtown area. He said he's quick to correct residents and visitors who say the redevelopment of downtown Kent happened overnight.

He said the redevelopment has been 30 years in the making, with false starts and missteps along the way. A lifelong resident of Kent, Fiala considers himself a "proud townie" who remembers the deterioration of downtown business as well as the hard work required to bring it back.

"I've seen the hustle and bustle of the downtown, I've seen the decline of the downtown and now I'm seeing all the redevelopment," he said.

Fiala's 14 years on council included multiple discussions of the city buying up land in order to entice new development, a concept known as land banking. He said many Kent residents gave their councilman flak for using tax money to buy vacant land in the West River Neighborhood and the city's downtown area.

Now two mixed-use retail and office buildings are open at the intersection of Haymaker Parkway and Water Street, through the city's partnership with Cleveland-based Fairmount Properties, and Fiala is hearing the opposite.

"Now those same people are saying, 'I'm glad you did this. Why didn't you do that a long time ago?'" he said.

Though he served on council during the formative years of what would become the downtown redevelopment project, Fiala is quick to point out that many individuals and groups deserve credit for the reinvigoration of downtown Kent. He said the city's administration, council, Kent State University, local business leaders and the city's residents all played key roles.

The Fairmount Properties project, along with the Portage Area Regional Transportation Authority's transit center, the KSU Hotel and Conference Center and developer Ron Burbick's Acorn Alley retail shops and Kent Hotel restoration project, total more than $100 million in investment.

Fiala's first full term as mayor also included what he called "the thrill of a lifetime," when President Barack Obama gave a shoutout to the mayor and his family during a campaign event at KSU last fall. Fiala said he thanked the president for federal funding that helped get some of the downtown redevelopment projects off the ground.

"I invited him to come back," he said. "I said, "After the election, I want you to come back and visit the downtown."

Before the famous coin flip, Fiala had served as mayor of Kent once before. He was appointed to a one-year term as mayor by his fellow council members after Mayor Kathleen Chandler resigned in December 1996 following her election to the Portage County Board of Commissioners.

Fiala served as mayor in 1997, but lost the next mayoral race to John Fender, who would serve in the role until Fiala's election in 2009. He retained his council seat until 1999, when he lost a Democratic primary race. He chose to run for mayor in 2009 as a political independent and is seeking re-election without a party label this year. Fiala, who has also served on Kent's community development and health boards and is a member of Kent Lions Club and the Knights of Columbus, said public service is a family tradition.

His said his father, Dr. Joseph Fiala, gave back to the community by providing medical care without focusing on whether the patient had the ability to pay, he recalled.

Although he did not follow his father's footsteps by going into medicine, instead working as a machinist and programmer, Fiala said he likes to think he gives back to the community in his own way. Although the role of Kent mayor is largely ceremonial, including a lot of ribbon cuttings, proclamations and photographs, Fiala views his job as similar to an at-large councilman, in that residents throughout the city can contact him if they are having problems.

He'll even make house calls like his father used to if a Kent resident wants to talk about a pothole on their street or any number of city issues.

"I'm out there doing a job and doing it the best I can, trying to help people," he said.

If re-elected, Fiala said he hopes to help find a solution for issues that still face the city, including the deteriorating roads and sidewalks in some of Kent's neighborhoods and the need for a new police station.

So far, no one else has taken out petitions from the Portage County Board of Elections necessary to run in May's primary mayoral election.

Contact this reporter at 330-298-1126 or tgallick@recordpub.com

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  • I'm a Hawksley man myself but Mayor Jerry's a good guy too. Whatever happens we will still need a new police station. If you still think that we don't you should go downtown and take a tour of the current facility. It's terrible.