A Conversation with Mayor Rea: Part 1

Most would agree there is a lot going on in Mishawaka.

With all the development along Grape Road and Main Street, some might find it hard to believe the population in the Princess City is just 50,000.

Maureen McFadden sat down the city’s mayor for a two-part series we call “A Conversation with Mishawaka Mayor Jeff Rea.”

Jeff Rea was told by republican higher-ups before his first run for mayor that he looked too young and lacked experience. He was Community Economic Director under Mayor Bob Beutter, and never aspired to be mayor himself. Obviously things changed.

Maureen McFadden talked to Mayor Rea on a number of issues—selling a downtown lot for a dollar, accusations of taking jobs from South Bend, and annexing parts of Granger. That will all be covered in Part 2 of our series Thursday night.

First, here’s look at some of the things you may not know about the mayor.

Some would say he has boyish charm. So boyish that after a recent visit to south bend, Regis Philbin showed his picture on national TV, saying, “He looks like a 12-year-old!”

Mayor Jeff Rea, who, by the way, is 38 years old, found it funny.

“It was pretty cool, within ten minutes of being on the show I started getting emails and calls from people across the country that I knew.”

Jeff Rea was born in Mishawaka, one of three children. He has a twin sister and fond memories of growing up in the city he now leads. Many in Michiana remember his grandparents business.

“When I think of my memories a lot of it is interacting with folks at the drug store. My dad would give us odd jobs, a lot of memories of backyard barbecues or time hanging around the pool.”

When Jeff was in eighth grade, however, his backyard was moved to North Carolina.

“At the time I was not thrilled about it, going to a strange state where I didn't have any friends or family, looking back though it was the greatest thing that happened to me.”

Great, because he saw other parts of the country. He graduated from a North Carolina college with a degree in public communication and decided it was time to come home.

Within two weeks of being back Rea landed a job with the wildly popular then-mayor, Bob Beutter.

At that time, at that entry level position, Mayor Rea says he never thought he would be mayor. He was Community Economic Developer when Mayor Beutter decided not to run again.

Asked if Beutter gave him a push, Rea says “Yeah, he gave me some encouragement.”

Rea served one term and then won again in 2007 in a tight race against former city councilman Mike Hayes. He says the race zapped him physically and emotionally

“He certainly got some folks to question my integrity, to question my character, to question my morals. In fact I tell you that I lost my enthusiasm for this job for some time.”

But that's water under the bridge, literally. He’s since watched his city grow with a lighter step, with things like the Riverwalk downtown.

“I live close enough.,” says Rea. “I walk it, I bike it everyday.”

The mayor says he’s lost 71 pounds in 66 weeks. Healthier than he's ever been, he’s looking forward to future development, especially along the Riverwalk in downtown.

“Three mile pedestrian loop, you never have to cross traffic one time.”

As mayor, there are countless meetings, but also fun events. Like dancing the mambo at a Center for the Homeless fundraiser.

He didn't win, but he's training with his nephews for another event that will be part of Mishawaka’s upcoming Summerfest—a Guitar Hero competition.

But obviously being mayor is not all fun and games. Tune in Thursday night for more on the issues—how far annexation will go in Granger, accusations of taking jobs from South Bend, and what the mayor envisions for the future of the Princess City.

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