Next month, the city of Powell will have its first new police chief in more than two decades.

Chief Gary Vest, who has been at the department's helm since he arrived in central Ohio in 1996, is set to retire May 10, leaving the position open for the first time since Powell became a city in 2000.

Amid his final few days as chief, Vest, 66, is feeling reflective.

He said he's enjoyed the long journey, which began when the native of the Dayton area first decided to come to Powell.

Vest had been stationed at Lockbourne Air Force Base (now Rickenbacker) but had spent most of his adult life near Dayton. He said he believed at the time that Columbus and its suburbs were a better opportunity for him and his family.

"I've always kind of been attracted to the central Ohio area," he said.

He said he was immediately sold on the job when he visited Powell.

"When I drove into town, I said, 'Wow, this is a nice community,' " he said. "You can kind of sense when a community is doing well."

Vest spent his first official day of work riding in the city's 1996 Memorial Day parade.

Within months of his arrival, Vest left his first major imprint on the community.

"I was new in town and I was looking at some pictures on a wall and said, 'Oh, we've got 50 years of incorporation coming up. What do we want to do?' " he said. "They said, 'Well, you can chair it.' "

That conversation is how Vest came to serve as chairman of the first Powell Festival, an event that has grown much larger than he ever imagined.

It's also a good window into his philosophy on policing, which is to connect with the community rather than serve as a separate entity, he said.

"You develop relationships," he said. "You go to the different churches and meet the preachers and invite them to events, and you meet with local civic clubs and chamber and different things – because everybody in this community wants to connect. All you're doing is asking people, 'Let's get together and talk about this.' "

Ch-ch-ch-changes

Between his appointment in 1996 and his retirement in 2019, Vest has seen his fair share of changes in the way police work is accomplished, both broadly and within Powell.

When he arrived in 1996, DNA investigation wasn't an option. The first laptop computers were put into Powell cruisers in 1997, and the first cameras arrived in 1999.

"Now, Powell police officers are solving crimes – car break-ins, even – with DNA, with latent fingerprints, with footprints, all these different things," he said. "With our network, we're talking with Dublin and the sheriff's office and Genoa Township and everyone. ... Because of these years of collaboration with these agencies, that's changed a lot."

The officers he has at his disposal have changed as well.

"Initially, when I arrived in 1996, we were probably at a place where people were coming for a job here (in order) to get a job in Columbus or to go somewhere else," he said. "Sometimes small towns suffer from the fact that the officer wants more activity and really is a little less experienced and has less training."

Now, with a department focused on collaboration, improvement and training, Vest said Powell has become a destination rather than a stop for officers.

"Today, I just don't lose officers to other jurisdictions," he said. "They come here, they stay here and we train them."

That doesn't mean all the problems have changed.

Vest said he thinks the city likely always will have the push and pull over whether residents want to be a large or small community, despite its roots.

"Some people have thought the village should have stayed a village and stayed small, while others thought we should grow," he said. "The old-timers would still look at us as a village and the new people have no concept of what the village was. We affectionately look at the Four Corners as the center of the town. What makes the Four Corners unique? It's just a reference point. But in 1996, there were no traffic lights in Powell."

What comes next?

After spending his entire adult life in public service, what comes now for Vest?

"That's a tough one," he said with a laugh.

He said his plan, at least early on, will be to "stop doing what I'm doing first" and "try to live life as a private citizen."

Vest said he doesn't have plans to join any groups or become a civic leader in any sense, but instead wants to spend time working on projects around his Liberty Township home, riding his motorcycle, sleeping in and training for the lofty goal of participating in an Ironman half-triathlon.

But he added he wants to make a difference in some way, particularly for a cause he cares about. The current strife between the city of Powell and Liberty Township might be a good place to start, he said.

"I'm probably going to be a little more cause-driven, whether it's to help out in some organization or to take on one particular challenge or problem to get it right," he said. "I'd like to see the government relationships between the city of Powell and Liberty Township improved. I don't know that I could help that problem in any other way than as an outsider."

As for the department he's done so much to shape, Vest said he thinks it's on the right track.

"If the department continues to care, as they do today, for the public and the public continues to show the support that I've experienced, I anticipate a great relationship for both," he said.

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