Meriden Mayor Michael S. Rohde says he is most proud of taking on projects that other administrations have ignored over the years.
“Leave the place better than you found it,” he recalls his father telling him at an early age. “I love being in a position to influence the future of Meriden.”
It’s a motto the two-term Democratic mayor says he’s tried to live by, citing efforts to rebuild the city’s infrastructure and position it for revitalization.
Rohde told the Record-Journal editorial board that his two signature achievements in five years as mayor and 19 years on the City Council are flood control and the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life. In his first year organizing Relay, Rohde, a cancer survivor, said they exceeded their goal and raised $69,000. Last year, the event raised more than $250,000.
“I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for the American Cancer Society and the chemical concoction they gave me,” Rohde said. “We all have this universal bond. Everyone has been touched by cancer. ”
Concerning revitalization, Rohde cited six recent or upcoming ceremonies marking $300 million in projects as a sign he’s tackling the difficult problems other administrations let go. They are the former TD Bank demolition as part of redeveloping the Meriden Hub; the City Park renewal project; Phase II of the Linear Park; the Platt High School renovation; the respective demolitions of the Church & Morse hardware and Liseo buildings on South Colony Street; and uncovering Harbor Brook at the Hub site, which is set to begin Nov. 1.
Much of his work as a city councilor and mayor has involved solving the problem of chronic flooding downtown.
More than 20 years ago, Rohde read that in 1890 a city official had said if Meriden didn’t fix its flooding problems it will always be a second-tier city. As a city councilor, he called for a study and established the Flood Control Implementation Agency. After seven attempts, the city finally got funding to proceed.
The city’s plans to widen the culverts under its bridges and “daylight” Harbor Brook coincided with the state’s plan to improve railroad service from New Haven to Springfield.
“We set the stage nicely for the state to come in with some other opportunities,” he said.
Those opportunities included state and federal funding for upgrading the city’s train station and building a parking garage for commuters on Colony Street. The city was also granted “transit-oriented development” status which brings more funding for projects that attract housing and economic development to increase foot traffic in the half-mile radius around the train station. Flood control funding will help the city turn the downtown Hub into a park.
The influx of state funding — thanks in part, Rohde said, to a new governor and a Democratic state delegation — is a welcome boon to a city that has seen investor dollars disappear well before the most recent recession.
Rohde acknowledges the challenges the city faces in some areas, particularly the long vacant former hospital on Cook Avenue. That is going to require help from private developers, he said. But he’s optimistic the state economy is turning around and investors will take notice of the changes.
“These are exciting times to change the whole landscape of downtown and certainly private development is going to be part of that,” Rohde said.
When asked about the eventual price tag to city taxpayers, Rohde said that the bills for the new projects will come due after the city pays off older ones, leading to no new taxes.
In his private career, Rohde, 68, has held jobs with several nonprofit agencies . He’s worked for the Curtis Home for children, the Ronald McDonald House and currently as director of community relations for the Community Health Center.
Rohde said the two-year FBI investigation into the city’s police department was difficult but he’s ready to move on.
A federal grand jury indicted the police chief’s son former officer Evan Cossette on charges he used excessive force and lied about it in a report. Cossette was later found guilty by a jury and has filed an appeal.
Rohde called the city’s handling of the issue a “judgment call” and likened it to two juries coming up with different verdicts.
He agrees the issue of nepotism in city departments should be looked at but wants to see a policy that doesn’t impede the culture of talented family members working together. He supports a policy that doesn’t allow one family member to supervise another.
Rohde said he disagrees that the mayor’s position is primarily ceremonial. He said he’s on call seven days a week and has attended 1,500 events. He cited the current two-high school renovation project as a key decision he’s proud of.
“We had the courage to do two high schools in the worst economy,” he said. “That to me is what I’m in office for. I’ve been part of all of it. That’s getting things done.”