Justin Nickels was elected mayor of Manitowoc in 2009 at 22, one of the youngest mayors in the nation. During his first term, he made budget cuts that would decrease the city’s debt from $75 million to about $30 million by 2018. Nickels, who was re-elected in 2013, sat down with Insight Associate Editor Nikki Kallio to talk about Manitowoc’s strengths and rapidly decreasing unemployment rate.
Ever since I was 9, I wanted to be president. I love politics and I love government. My calling is to help people.
I was elected to the Manitowoc City Council at the age of 18 in 2005. I beat a 16-year incumbent in that election, served on the city council for four years and was the city council president in 2007. I graduated from Manitowoc Lutheran High School in 2005 and I got my associate degree from the University of Wisconsin-Manitowoc, attended UW-Green Bay and UW-Milwaukee, and I’m finishing up at Silver Lake College. I had to put my studies aside when I ran for mayor in 2009. I was re-elected in 2013 with 84 percent of the vote against a local businessman.
When I was elected in 2009, Manitowoc faced a 14 percent unemployment rate, one of the highest in the state. That was just devastating our economy. Today, we’re at about 7.5 percent unemployment.
The year I got elected, the first thing my city planner came to me with was the plan for Dermatology Associates, and said this is going to be the most important (project), because it could’ve gone to Green Bay, Appleton or Sheboygan. The city put a couple million dollars of TIF (tax incremental financing) funding into this project to make sure it happened and stayed here. Since then, we’ve had a plethora of businesses be very successful. Federal Mogul Corp. had a downturn in the economy with the auto market, and today they’re adding upwards of 200 jobs at their facility. Jagemann Stamping just went through a $20 million expansion, adding upwards of 100 jobs. They had a loan with the city and the city was a partner in that expansion. So we’re seeing a lot of positives on the business front.
In 2000, our overall debt was $22 million to $25 million, and in 2009 when I took office, it hit $75 million. It was out of balance. I put forward a plan to cut the debt in half by 2018, so we’ll be around $30 million by 2018, still maintaining the services we’ve had. We went through a pretty rough year in 2011. We eliminated about 75 full-time positions, but we’re better off now because of it.
I think we did a good enough job explaining it to the citizens, because that same year we had a 10 percent tax increase, which is drastic. We had to take out a short-term loan from our utilities, which we’re paying back aggressively. We went through business process improvements with snow plowing, so when we cut half the staff from the snow plowing budget, it didn’t have an effect because we just changed our routes and the way we did things.
The mayor before me was mayor for 20 years. We had the same council – one council member was on since the 1960s. When I was elected we had six new council members, so a majority of council was new. We were all fighting the first two years, but one thing we did different was we involved them in the budget process early on so we were working together. Sometimes you don’t see that in state and federal governments, but you see it locally.
The lake is our greatest asset, obviously. Manitowoc was named by Forbes magazine as the second best small city in America to raise a family. We’ve always had great education, our crime rate is low – we’ve worked on that over the years and made sure we prioritized where we had to in our public safety. We’re clean, we invest in our roads and our quality of life, our parks, our beaches. It’s a place where you can raise a family, feel safe to have your kid walk to the local park without any fear whatsoever, because it’s just the type of community we are.