Since 2010, Hilliard residents, police officers and firefighters have gathered at First Responders Park every Sept. 11 in solemn remembrance of a day none who were of age likely will never forget: Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorist attacks using hijacked commercial airliners took the lives of almost 3,000 people at crash sites in New York City, Washington, D.C., and in rural Pennsylvania.
Hilliard Mayor Don Schonhardt, 68, cites his hand in the construction of the park at Main and Center streets in Old Hilliard as one of the highlights of his 16 years of leadership that will end Dec. 31.
Schonhardt's fourth four-year term was intended to be his last, he said. But after voters in 2018 approved an amendment to the city charter changing the city's form of government from that of a "strong mayor" to a city manager, Schonhardt potentially could be the last person ever elected to the office in Hilliard.
"It has been an honor and a privilege to serve this community," Schonhardt said.
Schonhardt's public service began with his appointment to Hilliard City Council in 2000 to replace Roger Faulkner. He was elected to serve the remainder of the term in 2001.
Two years later, in 2003 while serving as council president, he defeated one-term Mayor Tim Ward in a mayoral race.
"We didn't like the no-growth policy the city was using," said Schonhardt, who joined the city's Republican club after moving to Hilliard in 1998.
Challenging that policy was the catalyst that led Schonhardt into public service in 2000, he said.
Increasing the city's income-tax revenue from approximately $13 million to $28 million from 2004 to 2019 and using it to build infrastructure, including such thoroughfare roads as Britton Parkway and Trueman Boulevard, and to build public parks, such as First Responders Park and Hilliard's Station Park, are among the accomplishments he considers significant, he said.
"We chose to concentrate on commercial development and attracting new jobs, which was responsible for more than doubling our income-tax receipts during my tenure as mayor, (and) I am proud to say that we did without raising the city's income-tax rate," he said. The city's income-tax rate is 2%.
But such accomplishments were only possible, Schonhardt said, because of the department directors and staff members who served alongside him.
"I could not have accomplished anything near what I was able to accomplish (if they had not) been here to help," he said. "None of (my) original directors are here (today). ... Some left for (other) opportunities and some because the good Lord needed them more up there than down here, (and) I miss them dearly.
He was alluding to the deaths of former service director Clyde "Butch" Seidle in March 2019 and economic-development director David Meeks in 2017.
In April 2009, Schonhardt said, he stood with Meeks in a hangar at New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport to pick out pieces of twisted, rusted steel beams and flagpoles that now are at First Responders Park and Hilliard's Joint Safety Services Building on Northwest Parkway, respectively. They serve as memorials to those killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"Standing in that hangar was one of the most significant moments of not only being mayor but in my life," he said. "It touched my heart. What we salvaged there and brought (to Hilliard) is to remember what happened for generations."
Directors like Meeks and Seidle were able to flourish because of the relationship among Schonhardt, his cabinet and city employees, said Doug Francis, who in 2009 came to the city as the first deputy chief of police, later served as chief and finished his Hilliard career as the first director of internet technology and communications before retiring in January 2019.
"(Schonhardt) gave you a vision but also mentored you and gave you the freedom to run your own department, something I both admired and appreciated," Francis said.
In addition to city employees, Schonhardt said, he owes his success to his wife, Michelle, and their four children.
"I could not have done it without their support," he said.
Schonhardt said city personnel are well-positioned for the future. The leadership team will include Michelle Crandall, who on Jan. 2 will begin serving as Hilliard's first city manager after spending several years as Dublin's assistant city manager.
"As I move on, I know I leave behind a solid team of professionals who will make certain the city continues to move in a positive direction," he said.
Schonhardt said he and his wife would move to Georgia next year, but Hilliard will "always be considered a home."