City of Shawnee

2022 Shawnee State of the City

Mayor Distler's 2022 State of the City Speech
Posted on 02/23/2022

image of home graphic

Thank you all so much for being here for our annual State of the City. You might remember this event was virtual last year, and while I was honored to be able to still connect with all of you online from the beautiful Aztec theater, it just does not compare to being in person.

I am humbled to say this is my seventh State of the City as your Mayor. While I was reflecting on that, it helped me focus in on the message. Shawnee is our home. Whether you are like me and have lived here all your life, moved here to put down roots, do business here like my own family did, or just enjoy visiting our community, it is our home. As your Mayor, I am working with the City Council and staff to steer Shawnee in the direction YOU tell us you want it to go. And throughout it all, it becomes very clear to me that the journey is the destination. 

As Henry David Thoreau said, “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” That quote has always stood out to me as it has hung in my home office for more than three decades and I believe it helps set the tone.

Before we dive into things, I want to pause to thank the Shawnee Chamber of Commerce for hosting this event. The strong relationship between the Chamber and the City is setting the stage for amazing things in our community. As they say, “A rising tide lifts all boats” and we know that what is good for the Chamber is good for our businesses and that is good for our City. We are very thankful for all the cooperation and leadership as we guide Shawnee in the right direction. Let’s take a minute to recognize Chamber President and CEO Ann Smith-Tate and her incredible staff.

We could not navigate a path for our community without the commitment and dedication from our elected officials who choose to sacrifice their time and energy to serve Shawnee.

  • Councilmember Jill Chalfie
  • Councilmember Tony Gillette
  • Councilmember Eric Jenkins
  • Councilmember Dr. Mike Kemmling
  • Councilmember Kurt Knappen
  • Councilmember Angela Stiens 
  • Councilmember Tammy Thomas
  • Councilmember Jacklynn Walters

Achieve Shawnee was a huge undertaking for our community in 2021. If you did not attend one of the many public meetings or listening and planning sessions, Achieve Shawnee is what we called our process to develop a new Comprehensive Plan for the City. It was the first new Comprehensive Plan in more than 30 years. At its core, it is a vision for the future at a community scale. It reflects shared goals and creates a coordinated road map for the future. This road map guides the growth and development of the community for the next 10 to 20 years. 

As you might know, we take things like this seriously in Shawnee. As we went through the months-long process, our number one priority was to make sure you are steering our decisions. That means our residents, our business community, our stakeholders, our governing body, our staff… the people who call Shawnee home. What YOU want for Shawnee is what WE want for Shawnee. 

It is also important to point out that we did not work to develop this new Comprehensive Plan and then stop. This is a living, breathing plan that we will all continue to work with. We want to know what you think of it, how it works, and how we can make it better. We will continue to lean on you to guide Shawnee forward.

Our Community Development Department was the guiding force behind the new Comprehensive Plan. But that’s not all they’ve been doing! Things have been busy as ever. To name just a few...

  • Our community has seen more than $207 million dollars worth of new property in Shawnee in 2021. Staff coordinated permitting, inspections and development for all of that. Many of these services were also offered online for the first time ever, which is just another way we are always driving towards making things easier and more convenient for our community.

  • The City handled more than $200,000 in Community Development Block Grant Funds. This program helps a wide variety of people with things like street improvements, updated lighting, sidewalks, emergency rent, utility assistance and more.

  • We continued to back our businesses with several Shawnee Entrepreneurial and Economic Development, or SEED, agreements in 2021. A big example that is hard to miss is the old Shawnee State bank building at the southwest corner of Johnson Drive and Nieman Road. The beautiful stone is being restored, along with quite a few more improvements, and that is all thanks to a SEED agreement approved by your Governing Body.

  • More than 60 *new businesses opened in Shawnee last year.

  • Staff also updated zoning codes related to signs, outdoor sports fields, tree preservation and pet guidelines.

Our Community Development Department is involved in so much of what the City does day in and day out. They are often the first connection with our business community and their work is so appreciated, valued, and important as Shawnee continues its journey forward.

I talked earlier about how the journey is the destination. And now I’d like to highlight some of the accomplishments of our Public Works Department.
Those employees truly lay and maintain the foundation our community needs to even be on the journey in the first place! The men and women in Public Works are our anchors. Their work enables us to be nimble and steer Shawnee in the direction our community tells us they want to go. 

Starting underground, our City Council has shown major support for maintaining and upgrading our infrastructure, including when Councilmembers approved an additional $4 million worth of repairs in 2021, bringing that total to $6 million. Stormwater employees are constantly working to identify trouble areas as well as quickly fix emergency situations, all the while working to educate our community on the importance of stormwater and how it plays a role in our daily lives.

Our Street and Traffic Maintenance folks are the driving force behind keeping more than 800 lane miles of road in tip top shape. In addition to making sure your drive to and from your home is smooth, our crews are also working to develop plans and build new roads to connect our community. A few examples of this include the first phase of Monticello Road that stretches south of Shawnee Mission Parkway. Phase two of that project will be getting underway shortly as well. The goal of this reconfigured road is to make driving, biking, and walking easier and safer in an area filled with homes, businesses, and schools. We are proud to be able to lay out new paths that improve our community. There has also been a lot of work done at the intersection of 43rd and K-7 Highway, an area that is booming with the new Heartland Logistics Park development. And we continue to look for opportunities to install new sidewalks to connect our community, like on Midland between 67th Street and 68th Terrace. Your Governing Body places a high priority on our infrastructure because you’ve told us it is important to you.

And I think the one thing we can all agree on is how amazing our plow drivers are during snow season. I constantly hear how awesome our crews are compared to other surrounding cities. And they are right. Our drivers take their jobs very seriously and it is so comforting to know they are prepared and ready to work around the clock to get our streets treated and plowed so we can make it out safely during wintry weather. It’s a grueling job that generally ends up taking place overnight and in the wee hours of the morning, so let’s take a minute to give those drivers thanks with a round of applause. 

The Shawnee Fire Department has been incredibly busy making sure your safety is top priority. We’ve seen quite a few fires over the past few months and what you might not know is that in addition to fighting the fires, the team works very hard to follow up with education and information of how to help prevent similar situations in our community. The Fire Department is also going through its re-accreditation right now, showing our ongoing commitment to being world class for our residents. They are always looking for other ways to help out, like raising thousands of dollars for local charities like the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge and St. Baldrick’s Foundation that supports childhood cancer research. Our community graciously donated one of our fire trucks that was going out of service to the small western Kansas town of Lewis. It is really fun to get updates from the Lewis Fire Chief to let us know what a difference that engine is making in their town. 

We are also very proud to have launched the Safe Senior Program in 2021. It’s a free program designed to give our residents and caregivers tools to help prevent falls and fires in their homes. Our Fire folks team up with City’s Health Enhancement Coordinator for in home visits to help residents. This also ends up weaving in a lot of volunteers from several areas including Neighbors Helping Neighbors, and the Community Emergency Response Team now known as the Community Support Team. The Safe Senior Program is a shining example of what great teamwork can do. 

We were also strategic when it came to securing grant money to buy the new Community Support Team trailer. It is outfitted to help our CST volunteers with a wide variety of things including amateur radio communications. The trailer can also be used to haul supplies to help with an emergency situation or disaster. And it can provide heat, air conditioning, hand washing stations and more for our Fire and Police during long-term emergency situations.

Another huge project on the radar for our Fire Department is the renovation of Fire Stations 71 and 73. We need to adapt and flex along with the growth and changing needs of our community, and these overhauls will help put our firefighters in the best position to serve Shawnee successfully.

Our Shawnee Police Department is also poised to respond to the changing needs of our community. Officers are constantly training and placing a greater emphasis on what will serve our residents best, including making a commitment to have every single police officer go through the One Mind Campaign, which is mental health training. Another layer of this is the new virtual reality training that officers go through frequently. It puts the officers in realistic conditions and gives them different scenarios to deal with so they can practice their skills. Our Police Department is also going through the re-accreditation process. They are dedicated to lifting up our community which is evident through their support of breast cancer awareness in October, Special Olympics, and also the annual Secret Santa. It speaks to the support our officers have that a local, anonymous donor gives the Department thousands of dollars every year to hand out to people to help build relationships in Shawnee. The Police Department is also working to hire more officers after the City Council expressed their support and direction to continue making safety the utmost priority. 

The Municipal Court works hand in hand with our Police Department. The teamwork there is key to keeping our community on a safe path. Throughout the past year, we’ve seen some of the changes of 2020 become permanent options including Zoom court. It’s a change that makes things more convenient and allows staff to clear more cases. We also have a new prosecutor and are forming an in-house legal team so our residents can know we are always equipped with the knowledge we need to make important decisions.

One thing I think we can all agree on is that Shawnee knows how to host an event. From the new Moonlight Market to our tried and true events like Tour de Shawnee, the Scarecrow Festival and Christkindlmarkt… we know how to have fun. Our events are really the heart of our hometown. They bring all of us together and *that is when that hometown feel we all know and love is on full display.  But all of that fun takes a LOT of planning that most people don’t know about. But these folks do…

As you just saw, the awesome thing about our events is they are pulled together by employees across all of our departments, but for our Parks and Recreation Department, this is their bread and butter. Their coordination and commitment to providing memorable experiences for our community is unmatched. One of the highlights of 2021 was opening Wilder Bluff Park at 55th and Belmont. If you have not visited our newest park, you will definitely want to get out there. From the splash pad to the unique treetop canopy play area to the shelter and winding trails, it’s a great place to spend time.

Shawnee Town 1929 celebrated some big milestones this year including winning the Kansas Museum Association’s Technology Award for its 360° Virtual Tour. This has really been a great tool to open up Shawnee Town 1929 to an entirely new and bigger audience. From the ever popular chickens to the History on Tap series, ukulele lessons, Jammin’ on the Green and hosting thousands of students, we are all so proud of this gem in Shawnee. It was when my third grade class at Nieman Elementary visited Old Shawnee Town that sparked my own passion for Shawnee’s history so I am very excited to see the ways we bring that history to our future generations.

All of our Parks and Rec employees are working hard towards achieving accreditation for the Department. We should know the outcome of that in the next couple months and are looking forward to seeing all the hard work pay off so our community can know we are always striving to be the best of the best for them.

And I would like to take just a moment here to recognize Parks and Recreation Department Director Neil Holman. Neil will be retiring next month after serving Shawnee for 30 years. It’s pretty incredible when you think about it. Neil’s list of accomplishments and accolades is long, to say the least. A few include…

  • Neil developed the department’s first parks and recreation master plan.

  • He’s the second parks and rec director in our city’s history.

  • He navigated growing 90 acres of parkland to more than 1,000 acres.

  • Neil expanded or developed 15 parks.

  • He’s directed more than 10,000 riders in the Tour de Shawnee.

  • Neil awarded over 1,000 Shawnee Great Grillers BBQ ribbons and trophies.

I want to personally thank Neil for all you’ve done for Shawnee. I have always appreciated your effort in recognizing our history and community in unique and heartfelt ways. We are known for our awesome parks, trails, and community events and you have had a hand in every single one of those for three decades. You’ve also positioned us for success as we move forward without you. So even though you are retiring from the city, you are leaving a legacy that will impact us for decades to come. Thank you.

Speaking of leadership, you may have noticed our City Council has a new look! We welcomed three new Councilmembers as they took the oath of office in December. With the Council’s guidance, our City Manager’s office has been busy mapping out plans to keep our community moving in the direction our residents have told us they want to go. That involves a number of things including preparing an executive budget approved by our City Council, recruiting and retaining the best employees to serve Shawnee, and forming several new task forces and boards.

We continue to connect with our community in person, online, through social media, and through the mail. We constantly strive to meet people where they are and where they prefer to be and we are always evaluating how we can do it better. A recent example of our commitment to communication is when our residents asked for better streaming options with our Council meetings. And as of last week, we upgraded our live streams so you can listen to the meetings and see a live video of your elected leaders as they are making decisions that impact you and your family.

In 2021, we were so proud to launch the Hometown Hero Project that honors local veterans with streetlight banners on Nieman Road between Shawnee Mission Parkway and 55th Street. That was so popular that we are expanding it this year to a bigger area of downtown. The City was also named a Purple Heart City in 2021, showing our dedication and commitment to our veterans.

Shawnee’s robust volunteer program continues to thrive. Volunteer coordinator Elizabeth Griffith helped the city earn several awards this year including the 2021 Innovative Program Award from the National Association of Volunteer Programs for our Neighbors Helping Neighbors program. This is one that is near and dear to my heart as my own father helped our neighbors in Shawnee Village when I was a child and still does for his current neighbors. If you follow our social media, you’ll see example after example of our residents lending a helping hand to neighbors in need. More than 200 volunteers worked a total of nearly 63 hundred  hours in 2021. It’s truly astounding and we could not be more proud of our volunteers. 

I also want to recognize that our community suffered a big loss last year when Donna Sawyer passed away. Donna was an avid volunteer and made such a difference in our community for so long. She gave so much of herself to our community especially with Old Shawnee Days, the Annual Father Daughter Dance, the Irish Club, and many other events. She made such an impact that there is now a memorial for her in Listowel Park to show just how much she meant to all of Shawnee and the legacy she left. I hope you take time in this beautiful garden and feel thankful for the blessings in Shawnee and in your own life. We are all so busy doing life we often forget to take time to pause in thanks and gratefulness.

Hundreds of you brought your friends and families out to Christkindlmarkt this year where I was honored to present the Mayor’s Christmas Tree Fund checks to Shawnee Community Services and the Shawnee Storm Special Olympic team. All of you helped raise nearly 20,000 dollars this year… which is just incredible. I was also excited to work with both Servaes Brewery and Wandering Vine on special Mayor’s Christmas Tree Fund partnerships. I am looking forward to that again later this year and working with more local businesses who also want to give back.

If you keep an eye on the screen here, you’ll see many of our awards and accomplishments from 2021. Some of the highlights include our Information Technology Department winning FIRST PLACE in the Digital Cities survey. Part of our recognition details completing the City's first ever strategic plan called "Imagine Shawnee", debuting the "Fast Facts" in our Maps and Open Data page, adding online business license renewals, and our Police Department's drone program. 

Our Finance Department racked up several recognitions as well including earning the Distinguished Budget Presentation Award for the 16th year in a row. Shawnee was once again named a Healthiest Employer for a variety of reasons including the robust employee wellness program.
Niche put Shawnee in the Top 10 in Kansas on a number of lists including best suburb for young professionals, best suburb to raise a family and best suburb to live.

Again, these are just a few of the accolades. We would be here all day if I listed them all. No other city proudly holds all of these accreditations and awards. And we had several employees earn some pretty big personal accomplishments this year in their career developments. But in all seriousness, it is nice to see Shawnee recognized for all the things we already know about our home.

With that, I want to thank all of you. Really thank all of you. From our residents, to the Council, to staff, to our business owners and workers, to the Chamber and everyone in between. Shawnee is our home. You’ll see you all received a key and it is all of you who make it what it is. I hope you take that key and when you look at it, it reminds you of our home and how you have the power to unlock so much potential in our community.

If I can offer a few words as we navigate the rest of 2022 and beyond. Please keep in mind that while we may have many rowers, we are all on one ship. A ship that I believe we all want to sail, not sink. So let’s make Shawnee unique and the true heart of the heartland and known as the kindest place on earth by being kind to one another. We can agree to disagree on things, but let us be kind about our differences. The choice to be kind will never steer you in the wrong direction. It sounds simple, but infusing positivity can only lift our community up. 

Thank you all for your time today and remember, the journey is the destination.