Election Q&A: Erin Easter introduces herself as West Lafayette’s next mayor
The Democrat, running unopposed, talks about why she’s running, the prep work she’s done while working with outgoing Mayor John Dennis and what she sees for West Side in the next four years.
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Election Q&A: Erin Easter introduces herself as West Lafayette’s next mayor
Erin Easter’s been out knocking on West Lafayette doors, introducing herself to voters in recent months, despite appearing uncontested on the Nov. 7 ballot and coming with an all-in endorsement by John Dennis, a Republican stepping aside after four terms in office.
“I can’t imagine not being out there,” Easter, a Democrat and the city’s development director, said. “It’s going to be new for all of us.”
Easter is a 2001 Lafayette Jefferson High School and Purdue University grad. She spent time organizing on the campaign trail during Barack Obama’s first run for president in 2008 before moving back to Greater Lafayette, working for Greater Lafayette Commerce. Easter was vice president of chamber and quality of life for GLC when Dennis hired her as deputy development director for West Lafayette in 2018, before replacing former development director Erik Carlson when he moved in 2020.
In an interview at table outside Greyhouse Coffee on along a busy Northwestern Avenue, Easter talked why she’s running, the prep work she’s done after Dennis announced last year that he wouldn’t seek a fifth term and what she sees as the prime drivers for West Side in the next four years.
Question: Let’s start with the basics: Why are you running for mayor? And why now?
Erin Easter: As I’ve stated previously, I really love my job. I think I have one of, certainly, the best jobs in the city of West Lafayette – pending one other job. I think it's a unique job within the community that you have the opportunity to see what's happening, how it's happening and what needs to happen to continue to move our community forward. I love working for the city, I love solving problems for people, I love creating the kind of communities where people want to live. And I've done that for many, many years, not only with the city, but previously with Greater Lafayette Commerce with the Quality of Life Council. That was a focus for a long time. While part of my current job involves bringing businesses and investments for the community, it's also counterbalanced with creating the kind of place where people want to live.
Question: As dominant as it was at the time – in, what, 2012? – I don’t think people talk much about that Greater Lafayette “Good to Great,” community of choice conversation anymore. Yet, it seems to have really driven both sides of the river in so many ways.
Erin Easter: It's true. Of course, I thought about it probably as much, if not more than, anybody else, since I was directly tied to it. But whether you think of it in terms of that report or not, what citizens are asking for is exactly that. I'm not the same mid- to late-20-year-old that I was when that report came out. But I still think it's probably true in terms of flight risk for our 25- to 40-(year-old) population. While we have some great amenities, we can always continue to improve this.
Question: So, what is the job for the mayor on that? What specifically and generally needs to happen when it comes to what you want to do for quality of life around here?
Erin Easter: In terms of quality of life, one, people want to feel safe. They want to feel like they can be in their neighborhoods or their houses or their cities, and feel like they can walk around at any point in the day and feel safe. That's always a quality of life hallmark. Recognizing that people want to be safe when they're walking around, but they also want to feel safe with the institutions that are there to serve them and protect them. I have to commend our police department for focusing on those things and being responsive to that and doing the kind of training and really deep character assessment.
I can only speak from my own city experience, but I think that we put a lot of work toward that. Trails are great and important. But that's not the only thing. Having recreational opportunities, whether that's being able to kayak on the Wabash River and it being a place where we can actually turn toward and recreate on. I think that is a huge opportunity for us going forward. Granted, that takes a lot of coordination upstream, but I think it's important. Arts and entertainment, finding a mass of enough things happening in one place. Downtown Lafayette is actually a great example of this. And kudos to (Lafayette economic development director) Dennis Carson for all of his work there. And (Lafayette) Mayor (Tony) Roswarski, frankly. There's a critical mass of things to do. There's lots of stuff happening, and it's really been a long-term goal and vision for the city of Lafayette. They've done an excellent job at reaching them.
Question: What needs to happen in West Lafayette for something similar?
Erin Easter: We are currently sitting in a coffee shop looking at Chauncey Hill. It is a vibrant place. There are a lot of things happening, but they are not necessarily the things that you and I might engage in on a Friday or Saturday night – like going out to dinner with our friends, going and catching a show, whatever that might be. So, as we look at the Levee area, River Road to the riverfront, there's an incredible opportunity to redevelop that area and give the land a more purposeful use. All of those developments have been great for our community. But in the natural course of development, there comes a time where the land underneath is probably more valuable than the asset on top of it. That's when you have a great opportunity to redevelop a site. In addition to that, there's housing that we need to address. And not all housing needs to be single-family, R1 (zoned) housing or student purpose-built housing. There's a whole lot of housing in between that we can address that will reach young professionals, young families or those individuals who just want to live in a more urban environment. So creating what that urban environment looks like.
Question: You spoke the other night at the (Board of Zoning Appeals) about slowing down on Airbnbs and transient guest housing in some of the requests in single-family neighborhoods. We weren’t talking much about Airbnbs in West Lafayette even a few years ago. Was that a statement on what you think needs to happen in that conversation?
Erin Easter: When we talk about Airbnbs or transient guest housing, there are three categories. But the one that really requires special exception is that R1 (single-family) zoning. And it requires special exception because it's special, right? When we talk about zoning principles that we have, most things can happen by right. And if it can't happen by right, it is a special zoning instance. We're used to that in West Lafayette, with the number of planned developments that we negotiate on an annual basis. The concern isn't so much that there's an Airbnb. I'm not inherently against it, I had a neighbor who ran an Airbnb right next door to us. And the owners were incredibly responsive. They held their short-term tenants to a really high standard. They were there at 11 o'clock, as soon as that term ended, cleaning up the house, cleaning up the yard, taking care of things. And they followed all of our rental housing rules in the city of West Lafayette. They were very strict about that. So, that was a great experience. I recognize that that's not everyone's experience. I also know that house is now occupied by three Purdue students, because there was a lack of housing. And so when we talk about Airbnbs, it's not just an inherent desire as the city of West Lafayette to pick winners or losers. We're not picking sides, except to say that we as the city need to have smart housing policy, because we have a high demand and need for houses for full-time residents. If every opportunity for a house to be a full-time residence, whether that's students or families or whoever, it takes away an option, it increases competition and it raises prices, because we have a supply-and-demand issue right now. Why wouldn't we try to protect that, since it's already a special exception process to preserve the houses that we have that we need?
Question: What’s the next step on housing, then, in West Lafayette. If you’re looking four years from now, what would be considered a success story?
Erin Easter: We have been very open to new purpose-built student housing, for a few reasons. One, I live in a near-campus neighborhood, so I feel the pressure of what that feels like. I love having students as neighbors. It's not an analysis of that, at all. It's truly just the stress on the neighborhood. And not every neighbor feels the same way that I do about it. So, we have to be open to hearing those voices and opinions.
Question: You’re open to more purpose-built student housing. Does that then become the solution to the neighborhood problems with housing? Or is that a separate issue?
Erin Easter: It's connected, right? If there are more housing options, competition increases. Granted, that's just competition in one market. We're also looking at some other structures or incentives and programs across the nation that really helped to preserve neighborhoods. Certainly the Historic Preservation Commission has done commendable work in terms of saving the housing that's in the New Chauncy Neighborhood. But it's not enough. And there may be some houses that have just been loved to death.
Question: Does that mean you’re talking about infill developments in neighborhoods, or something else?
Erin Easter: I am a fan of urban infill. I think that if you are, for whatever the reason, looking to do that in the New Chauncey Neighborhood, obviously, you have a challenge there, in that you're developing within a historic, protected neighborhood. But more than that, if we’re looking at down the hill, if we're looking at other parts of the city, there are some housing options that we haven't really exercised in the past that are under consideration with (Area Plan Commission). Like townhouses and townhouse zoning. I used to live in a beautiful brick, Italianate row house in downtown Lafayette. It was exceptional. I loved living in an urban environment. I loved being able to walk anywhere. I loved the historic, beautiful architecture of that house. Granted, I'm not going to be able to take an 1869 row house and put it here. But it is another housing option that I think that we should take into consideration, given our very limited land and the desire for a lot of people to want to be close to campus. Whether those are students, professors, faculty, staff or folks like myself who worked in the city.
Question: You’ve been going door-to-door. You probably didn’t have to, given that you’re unopposed. But do you find yourself having to introduce yourself to voters? Are you finding people say, OK, I know who you are? What’s that mix as you’re out campaigning?
Erin Easter: Let's see, I have knocked on a lot of doors. I usually introduce myself as, Hi, I’m Erin Easter and I’m running for mayor of the city of West Lafayette. A lot of the time, they go, Oh, you're running uncontested, right? I recognize you. That's often the case. I am knocking in parts of the city that I am helping some of our city council members who are in contested races, and also in areas that maybe there might be less voter familiarity with me. So, I’m making sure to take the opportunity to introduce myself to those voters, but also introduce our city council members who are running for election.
Question: What’s been your pitch? What do you tell them, by way of introduction? What’s the Erin Easter story to this point, short of a memoir?
Erin Easter: Way too early for memoirs. In many ways, it’s not that exciting. I've had college jobs and a job that I did not enjoy right after I graduated college. But the big three, I mean, I'm a pretty loyal employee. I've stayed most places that I've worked for a long time. I worked for Barack Obama in 2008 in eastern Ohio. When I left there, I came to Greater Lafayette Commerce, and I started running events, organizing big downtown events, which was an experience like none other, to be honest. Then I started working on downtown development work, small business work. I eventually left Greater Lafayette Commerce as a vice president, and I came to the city of West Lafayette.
When I came to the city, I was hired as the deputy director of development, because the then current director of development, Erik Carlson, and Mayor Dennis knew that (Carlson) would be leaving the organization at some point in time. And they wanted to develop a transition plan that made sure that all of the exciting projects we were about to embark on were able to go start-to-finish with at least one person consistently there. My first month on the job with the city of West Lafayette, I started writing the request for qualifications for both City Hall and the Wellness Center for architects, engineers, construction manager as constructor and owner's representative. That was one of my first assignments.
Question: So, kind of on-the-job training. That seemed to happen again last year, when Mayor Dennis announced he wouldn’t run again and was dealing with a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s. He was clear that he planned to lean on you, among others, when needed in that coming year. Is that fair to say it, also, was on-the-job training? And how’s that gone? Do you feel better prepared?
Erin Easter: I don't think that I could be better prepared, given the circumstances. That being said, no one knows everything they need to know about the job going into it. There will be a lot of things. I think anyone who goes through their first term in a position like this would say the same, that you really establish your leadership style. You establish the expectation that people can have with you. And you further those relationships that are really critical to the success of the city. While I have a pretty broad understanding of a lot of the things that happened within local government, and the mayors and county commissioners have been very gracious in keeping me in the loop on a lot of issues that will be important to the community going forward, there's nothing like time and experience, really, when the day comes and those decisions have to be made. I think of going into it as prepared as anyone could be. My first term will be like any other mayor's first term.
Question: How do you expect your leadership style to emerge compared to that of Mayor Dennis?
Erin Easter: John and I are very similar in a few ways. First …
Question: A lot of references to “Animal House,” that sort of stuff?
Erin Easter: Unfortunately for everyone else, you will not hear that from me. I think I've only seen “Animal House” once or twice. John is certainly quite a bit more funny than I think of myself being. But there is a sense of lightheartedness that you need to bring with the work. Otherwise, it could just eat you alive. I have a lot of trust and respect for my peers as department heads. And they are experts in their fields. While we have high expectations for their performance, and for what they do for and within the city, I also trust that they're going to make decisions with the best interest of the city at heart. I also trust if there's an issue, they're going to come to me with that issue, and we're going to solve the problem together. And they'll have their expectations of what I think is an appropriate way to serve our citizens.
Question: Are you ready for that grocery-store pressure of constantly having questions about curbs, about crime, about why baselines were crooked on the Cohen Fields at Cumberland Park this week … all that kind of stuff? Have you braced yourself for that? Or is it more fair to say you’re inviting that?
Erin Easter: I think it's fair in many respects. My job with Greater Lafayette Commerce was far more public in grocery store politics than my positions with the city have been, so far. So I am used to that sense that sometimes going out to dinner with your family is not as private an experience as one might expect. And I'm certainly feeling that today. But you know, I think I’m ready.
Question: If you had to name one or two big things that you want to accomplish, whether ones that aren’t on the table yet or are on the table and need to be completed, what are you thinking?
Erin Easter: A new downtown. That is really critical to me. I want to see that happen.
Question: Mayor Dennis has been talking about a new downtown since the debates over where to plant City Hall and when the State Street Project started.
Erin Easter: One of the things we're currently working on is a roadway plan that feeds off of the Area Plan Commission's downtown master plan. (Note: The downtown master plan, approved in 2020, includes thoughts of creating a grid of streets in the Levee area, between River Road and the Wabash River.)
We're confirming those roadways and understanding where they really need to go, what size our blocks are, making sure that it feels like a true downtown. After that, the Redevelopment Commission has budgeted some funds for a larger downtown plan. Then we're really starting to dig into what buildings look like. Do we have a form based code overlay that governs the design of what that downtown looks like? How tall are the buildings? What amenities do they have? What kind of housing are we building? I think it's prudent. One, I don't think that any community should solely make decisions based on potential tax revenue, but I think it's smart to know what that tax revenue is. So, as we have negotiations with developers and ask them to build roadways for us, we can repay them for those roadways, since they are building public infrastructure. Either that or so we can find funding for infrastructure. That is something, I think, will be transformational for this community and is a needed space for the citizens of West Lafayette who typically would find themselves on the other side of the river. I want to create a place where everyone feels like they can have their own Black Sparrow in West Lafayette. It also helps connect the two cities a little bit better.
I had a meeting with Mayor (James) Brainard of Carmel months ago …
Question: Wait, are you going to say we’re getting more roundabouts?
Erin Easter: Maybe. But that wasn’t where this we was going. He said something that really made me chuckle at the time and I laugh about it every time I hear him say it in my head. Which is, nobody talks about a romantic walk along the Walmart parking lot. We talk about romantic walks and moments when you're thinking about a downtown city, with attractive lighting and reasonable sidewalks and places that feel pedestrian scale. And parking lots just don't feel pedestrian scale. So, that's always in the back of my mind as I think about what the future of downtown West Lafayette could be.
Question: How long do you think it’s going to be before you start seeing a downtown like that?
Erin Easter: If I'm being really realistic about it, it's at least a 20-year project now. Could we run into some great fortune where it all happens quickly? That's possible. We've seen properties in that area up for auction. There's still a lot of interest, I think, in developing those spots, as well. The harder part will be making sure that it truly fits the vision of a downtown. And that's a hard thing, when you're kind of creating something completely different from what currently exists. Having that vision, it's really easy when it's in your head. It's hard to put that into a vision for other people to see and understand.
Question: In talking with Mayor Roswarski in Lafayette, he talked about things he never would have imagined dealing with when he was first elected mayor in 2003. And it came back to our groundwater and the (Indiana Economic Development Corp.’s) plan to pump water from Tippecanoe County and build a pipeline to the LEAP District in Boone County.
Erin Easter: A year ago, I didn’t pick that would be the first major issue I would face as a new mayor.
Question: How are you approaching that?
Erin Easter: I've been holding listening events with constituents to understand what things are important to them and to introduce myself to them. Mid-spring, we were talking a lot of about housing and the relationship with Purdue University and the city of West Lafayette. Right now, just the two I had this week, we are talking about water first and foremost, shortly followed up by Airbnbs.
So there are a couple of issues. One is the relationship that we have with the IEDC. As a city person who works with them on economic development deals, it's absolutely fair to have some concern about the structure. This sets up, instead of having a partner who's walking along with us to now having somebody who's directly competing with us. And that should be a concern for any local community.
The other concern that I have, and I would assume it is shared by many, but in Tippecanoe County we do a really good job of maintaining strong relationships. And even when we have bad news or difficult things to say to each other, we have the trust already established, because we've been working together for years. We can call and say, Hey, I want you to know this is coming, I want you to be prepared for it. We can only do that because we trust each other. Right now, we're facing probably one of the biggest challenges that this community has dealt with in quite some time. We don't feel that same sense of trust right now with the IEDC. Because we're finding out news that should be disclosed to us first coming instead from a newspaper. And we're not getting clear answers consistently. There is not the transparency that there should be. It’s lacking right now. And that’s a challenge.
I think it's a challenge, too, because the structure of state power versus local power is a bit of a David and Goliath feeling. We're the little guy.
Question: Do you feel as if you’re just getting platitudes from the IEDC on this issue? Or do you feel that the community’s being blown off, in some way?
Erin Easter: I think there’s a lot of information that has yet to be determined. And in the absence of that information, it’s really easy to jump to conclusions.
Question: Has it affected any conversations with potential future industries or expansions here, where the water availability has them reconsidering Greater Lafayette as a choice?
Erin Easter: Not currently.
Question: Do you expect that could happen?
Erin Easter: I don't know that that's not going to happen. What I would say is that I think it's fair that our community has had the reaction we've had to this issue, because we have been working on a lot of economic development deals throughout the county, right? It's not just me or somebody else, not just Lafayette or Tippecanoe County. But we have a good sense of what our resources are. And we're careful to make sure that when we're competing, we're competing in those boundaries.
Relatively speaking, we're kind of a small fry when it comes to the volumes of water that we're talking about here. I don't have a good estimate on how much water is probably being pulled every day in Tippecanoe County, I can't account for farm fields that might use irrigation or anything else. But, Mayor Roswarski has mentioned that peak volume in Lafayette was 17 million in the summer, when everyone’s washing their cars and filling up their pools and every paint shop is cleaning out their brushes. Then, I know with our wastewater treatment facility, we’re processing just over 8 million gallons a day in West Lafayette. So we have a sense of where we are.
So 30 million gallons of water a day may not be a lot. But if it's more than you're already using, it feels like a lot. So has it impacted us yet in competing for businesses? I don't believe so. But is it something we're concerned about? Absolutely.
Question: Do you think this fight could dominate your first term?
Erin Easter: I don't know what to expect. It is one of those rare issues that there are a lot of options, but no clear path. I think certainly as an elected official that anybody leading through a challenging situation, the answer is not going to be clear from the first step. It's a process of working with our partners, but understanding all of the options available – understanding what the impact truly means, understanding where your community falls on the issue and working to preserve and safeguard your community for the future.
Question: You talked a little bit about the listening tours and talking about the city’s relationship with Purdue. Give me your assessment of how that is going now compared to, say, four or five years ago, and where you'd like to take it. Is there a change in how you're going to do that?
Erin Easter: I think Mayor Dennis and (former Purdue President) Mitch Daniels had a relationship that would have been difficult for a lot of other people to match. They had worked with each other, they trusted each other. And they could partner with each other, which was really an important component. I have been delighted by Dr. (Mung) Chiang’s connection with the community. His early interest in getting involved in community matters. He obviously has a huge job. He has plenty going on. But I think both he and (first lady) Dr. (Kei) Hui have been sensitive to the issues of the community and also understand the alignment of the things that are good for the university are good for the city, and vice versa. So, when we look at things like housing policy, early childhood education and health care, those are all issues that we’re aligned on, because whatever happens in the city of West Lafayette, it will impact the university. However the university partners on those, those issues only makes it easier for us to address problems.
Question: Do you think there are any bumps that need to be smoothed with Purdue? The city council hasn’t been shy about questioning Purdue’s enrollment growth and what it’s done for housing and other aspects of the city. What do you think?
Erin Easter: I think open dialogue helps. And we, at least on the administration side, we've had conversations with Purdue administration on a multitude of issues. Clear expectations from the beginning really help solve a lot of problems. And if it's not that, you’ve got to lean on the trust that you have for each other that you can work through a problem.
Question: There’s no major party challenge this year for mayor on either side of the river. For you, do you think that is a sign that people are content? Or that they feel like they know where you’re going? Is it a tribute to Mayor Dennis saying, this is the person I trust? Where do you put that?
Erin Easter: Certainly for Mayor Roswarski, leadership and tenure and work kind of stand on their own, understanding the strong leadership that he's had over the past 20 years. … In my instance, I certainly think that Mayor Dennis's support means a lot to people. I've also had the opportunity to work with so many groups and leaders within the community for so many years that they understand how I work, how I collaborate, how I solve problems. And that I'm always open minded about issues and solutions.
Question: Four years from now, what would a successful term look like. What benchmarks would be a good way for voters to measure as a good four-year term as mayor?
Erin Easter: Just like the water issue that we're facing now, I think there are some things that are impossible to know in four years. Four years ago, that wasn't on our radar at all. What would be successful to me is creating a city hall that's responsive to its employees and its citizens, that is set up to deal with problems and manage the work that the citizens have entrusted to us. And that also has the flexibility to be able to respond to issues as they arise. That looks like continuing to invest in our community amenities. Over the next four years, there will be a lot of questions about how we solve all the problems that I've mentioned previously. And I think if we can start to solve people having a house to live in, and a place to work and child care that meets their need, that is a really successful first four years.
ABOUT THE NOV. 7 ELECTION
WHERE TO VOTE AHEAD OF NOV. 7: Here are the remaining voting times and sites set up between now and Monday, Nov. 6.. Voters should bring a valid ID.
8 a.m.-noon Monday, Nov. 6: Tippecanoe County Office Building, 20 N. Third St., Lafayette.
ON BALLOTS: Incumbents are noted with an asterisk. Candidate Q&As, when available, are linked to the name of the position on the ballot.
Clerk: Cindy Murray*, D.
Council District 1: Jerry Reynolds*, R.
Council District 2: Eileen Hession Weiss*, D; Mary Fisher, R.
Council District 3: Perry Brown*, D.
Council District 4: Lauren Ahlersmeyer*, D; Josiah Eller, Libertarian
Council District 5: Melissa Weast Williamson*, D.
Council District 6: Bob Downing*, D; Perry Barbee, R
Council at-large (3 seats): Kevin Klinker*, D; Nancy Nargi*, D; Steve Snyder*, D.
Mayor: Erin Easter, D.
Clerk: Sana Booker*, D.
City Judge: Lori Sabol*, D.
Council District 1: Aaron Abell, R; Laila Veidemanis, D.
Council District 2: Michelle Dennis, D.
Council District 3: Colin Lee*, D.
Council District 4: Larry Leverenz*, D.
Council District 5: Kathy Parker*, D; James Waters, R.
Council District 6: Jeff Brown*, R; Stacey Baitinger Burr, D.
Council at-large (3 seats): James Blanco*, D; Iris O’Donnell Bellisario, D; David Sanders*, D; Brian Russell, R; Patrick Flannelly, R.
West Lafayette Community School Corp.
Property tax referendum renewal question: “Shall West Lafayette Community School Corporation continue to impose increased property taxes paid to the school corporation by homeowners and businesses for eight (8) years immediately following the holding of the referendum for the purpose of retaining and attracting teachers and staff and funding academic programming and operating expenditures with the renewal of the current maximum referendum property tax rate of $0.37? The property tax increase requested in this referendum was originally approved by the voters in 2017 and if extended will increase the average property tax paid to the school corporation per year on a residence within the school corporation by 46.2% and if extended will increase the average property tax paid to the school corporation per year on a business property within the school corporation by 41.8%.”
Here's a link to a primer on the West Lafayette schools question, which would renew a property tax rate first approved in 2010 and again in 2017.
Town Council (choose five, all independent): Vickie Beavers, Marc Buhrmester*, Leah Copas, Ron Koehler*, Jen Manago*, Rocky Richards, Carla Snodgrass*, Joy Tischer
Clerk-Treasurer: Bridget Cadwallader
ELECTION DAY POLLING PLACES: Polls will be open 6 a.m-6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 7. Registered voters in Tippecanoe County may use any vote center.
West Lafayette Wellness Center, 1101 Kalberer Road
Faith West Community Center, 1920 Northwestern Ave.
West Lafayette City Hall, 222 N. Chauncey Ave.
Evangelical Covenant Church, 3600 S. Ninth St., Lafayette
Tippecanoe County Fairgrounds, 1406 Teal Road, Lafayette
Northend Community Center, 2000 Elmwood Ave., Lafayette
Christ United Methodist Church, 3610 S. 18th St., Lafayette
First Church of the Nazarene, 3801 Union St., Lafayette
Gathering Point Church, 7201 Wesleyan Drive, Dayton
CHECK YOUR VOTER REGISTRATION STATUS AND THE CANDIDATES ON YOUR SPECIFIC BALLOT: Go to the Secretary of State’s portal at www.indianavoters.com.
Thanks to Purdue Musical Organizations, celebrating 90 years of the Purdue Christmas Show, Dec. 1-3 in Elliott Hall of Music. Get tickets for one of the four performances here.
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