David Ransburg is mayor of the City of Peoria and is chairman and CEO of LR Nelson Corporation. An Indiana native, Ransburg located to Peoria in 1972, when he purchased LR Nelson. Ransburg’s tenure as mayor began two years ago, after serving as a councilman for the City of Peoria, District 5.
Some of his current community activities include Rotary Club and the Illinois Business Roundtable. He’s also a member of the following boards of directors: The Salvation Army, American Red Cross Central Illinois Chapter, Economic Development Council, Peoria Symphony Foundation, Illinois Municipal League, and Illinois Tax Increment Association.
He and his wife, Zan, have two children.
Tell about your family, schools attended, etc.
I grew up in Indianapolis, Ind. My parents were divorced when I was 10 or 11, so I split my time between both parents. I received a bachelor of science degree in engineering sciences from Purdue University and an MBA from Harvard. I married Zan Lemcke February 29, 1964. We have two adult children, David, Jr. and Emily and a daughter-in-law, Jennifer. We recently became grandparents with the arrival of David and Jennifer’s daughter, Cecilia Emily Ransburg.
You came to Peoria in 1972 to purchase LR Nelson. Tell how the company has grown under your leadership.
Since its founding in 1911, L.R. Nelson Corporation has become a leading manufacturer of a complete line of lawn and garden watering products and products used in professional in-ground irrigation systems. Nelson has remained true to its original goal: to produce quality watering equipment that lasts. The company is approximately 15 times the size it was when I purchased it in 1972.
Company founder Lewen R. Nelson began his business with the invention of his Perfect Clinching hose mender, which allows a homeowner to permanently repair garden hose leaks and prolongs the useful life of a hose. Its success encouraged Nelson to produce and manufacture numerous other irrigation products and led to the building of his own manufacturing plant in Peoria, originally on S.W. Washington Street.
Lewen guided the company until 1951, then passed the business to his son, Russell. It was Russ’ son, Bart Nelson, a fraternity brother from Purdue, who told me the company was for sale. Bart kept the agriculture part of the business and has grown it nicely from his headquarters in Walla Walla, Wash. When I purchased L.R. Nelson in 1972, Zan and I moved our children, then 6 and 2, from Boston to Peoria.
Research and development have been priorities for the company. Most of the current products have been introduced since the 1970s. High-impact, corrosion-resistant plastics have replaced most of the brass, zinc, and cast iron of earlier products. Sophisticated automation and streamlined processes have allowed the company to grow and remain competitive. However, competition has forced us to move the manufacturing of some "commodity" products to Asia.
In August 2001, Nelson reorganized into two separate business units-one focused entirely on consumer lawn and garden products and the other devoted to its professional irrigation products. The Nelson Consumer Products line includes: garden hose nozzles; couplings and accessories; oscillating, impact, whirling, stationary, and traveling sprinklers; timers; snap connectors; and hose repair. Nelson Turf produces products for use in professional irrigation systems for residential and commercial applications. These include sprinklers, valves, controllers, and various accessories. Nelson also formed a sister company, Sunterra, LLC, which produces water fountains, water gardens, and décor to enhance the beauty and personal enjoyment of one’s home.
Today, more than 600 hard-working employees worldwide contribute their talents to produce quality watering products and provide outstanding service to customers and consumers. L.R. Nelson maintains its corporate headquarters in Peoria, operating from a 315,000-square-foot state-of-the-art manufacturing, distribution, and office facility. Nelson also has distribution facilities located in Chino, Calif.; Atlanta; Dallas; and Toronto. Additional offices include buying offices in Taichung, Taiwan, and Shanghai, PRC; and a sales office in Barcelona, Spain.
How do you manage your time between running a successful business and your mayoral responsibilities?
Perhaps the best measure of successful leadership is to develop an organization where the leader is no longer needed for day-to-day decisions. Over the years, we’ve developed a high quality, creative group of dedicated employees who seem to always find ways to succeed in a very competitive market. I spend a large percentage of my time fulfilling mayoral responsibilities. Being mayor is supposed to be a part-time job, but it really isn’t. There are countless events and commitments. We’re also involved in some extensive planning processes that take a considerable amount of time and resources. We want to turn these plans into reality.
You and your wife have been involved in public service-not only many non-profit boards, but also on the Peoria Civic Center board, the Peoria City Council, and now as mayor. What’s your philosophy for community service? What motivates you to run for public office and face life in a fishbowl?
Probably following the example of Grandfather Ransburg, I’ve always felt a high level of responsibility to my family, employees, and community. It’s part of giving something back. Zan and I have been very active in a number of volunteer activities and boards, both on the local and statewide level. It’s very rewarding to be a part of these organizations and to feel you’re helping to make a difference in people’s lives. Everyone should volunteer or contribute in some way toward the betterment of their community and neighbors.
Public office is somewhat different. You’re elected by the people, and there’s the element of responsibility and accountability to the public. Politics and public service is a tough business, but I believe it’s also a noble profession. We need more people involved in the governmental and electoral process as elected or appointed officials and as voters. It bothers me that we have such a poor voter turnout, particularly in off-year municipal elections. Local government has the most direct impact on the daily lives of our citizens, yet the fewest number of people elect the people who make decisions regarding local government.
We need more candidates from all walks of life. Unfortunately, due to reasons ranging from the amount of time required, to little or no compensation, to the reluctance to campaign, few people will ever run for office. The liability of public service is that you’re often criticized or judged for your decisions by people who disagree, have their own agendas, or have inaccurate or incomplete information. Still, in a democracy, we’re governed by those we elect. We need more participation at all levels of government; it’s part of our duty as Americans.
You’ve initiated many task forces, all intended to improve the quality of life in central Illinois. Tell us about Vision 2020, the city services task force , and the Heart of Peoria plan.
One of the reasons I decided to run for public office was to share some business experience and to help move several community institutions from a reactive to a proactive mode. To develop a community-wide plan, we announced Vision 2020 in May 2002. This has four separate task forces and a steering committee to coordinate its activities. We’ve also formed the Illinois River Valley Council of Governments representing county, township, and local governments in the tri-county area. The Peoria Civic Federation is comprised of the heads of our region’s largest employers and was launched early in 2002. All of these organizations have a regional focus, with the exception of the Neighborhoods and City Services Task Force, which is chaired by Jim Despain. This task force is charged with helping us find ways to more effectively and efficiently deliver city services under the guidelines of the strategic plan adopted in principle by the city council in January 2003.
In addition, we’ve developed the Heart of Peoria Plan with the help of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ). This plan will give us some principles for creating the physical city in which we would like to live in the years ahead. The first project contemplated will be the development of the Sears Block, with a new collaborative Lakeview Museum as a key element.
We recently passed an ordinance creating a medical/technical district to provide a site on which PeoriaNext can develop an exciting new industry for our community.
Your strength is in long-range planning. Will you seek re-election to see some of these plans come to fruition?
We just finished an election and seated a new council. There are still two years left in my current term as mayor, and there’s much work to be done. It’s too early to tell whether or not I’ll seek re-election, although I’ve been encouraged to do so. I’ll make the decision on re-election at the appropriate time. If I do run, I’ll do so on what I believe is a strong record of planning and progress through some difficult times for our city. It also would be gratifying to participate in the successful implementation of the plans we’re in the process of finalizing.
What’s your opinion of the current roles of city manager and mayor? Should the council-manager form of government continue?
One of our challenges is to clarify the role of the mayor, the city council, and the city manager. As we hire a new city manager, it’s essential this issue be addressed so it’s clear what’s expected of all elements of the leadership of our city government. The Neighborhoods and City Services Task Force may also address this issue. We should ask questions about whether or not all council members should be elected by district, for example. Or whether the mayor should have additional responsibilities or powers, as opposed to our "weak mayor" form of government.
I’m not advocating one way or another, but a dialogue on our structure of government would be helpful. These efforts could result in some modification of our form of government if that’s deemed to be appropriate.
What should the City of Peoria look for in its next city manager?
We need a strong, experienced, intelligent, energetic leader who can interface well with the city council and the citizens of Peoria. Because of a high number of early retirements of senior employees, the new city manager will have an opportunity to build his or her own organization.
Peoria is a unique city, a true microcosm of all of the facets of urban life. From our older downtown to the growing suburban areas, we face many challenges. We need a city manager with the experience and energy to face these challenges. As a council, we need to hire the right person, be clear what we expect of him or her, and then let the manager have the autonomy and the flexibility to do the job.
Should the current system of bullet voting continue?
A number of people have suggested this system isn’t producing the desired result-electing minorities as at-large council members. Is it still a fair and equitable process for electing the city council? I don’t know of any other Illinois municipality, certainly not one of our size, that uses the bullet voting system. This process should be reviewed to consider re-establishing one person, one vote in at-large elections.
What would your ideal development plans be for the City of Peoria? The Riverfront? Should we be taking a more regional approach when looking at development?
I would be thrilled to see development occur using the principles contained in the Heart of Peoria Plan. This would result in more people living downtown, making downtown more pedestrian friendly, making it more 24/7, and with more interesting shops and activities for both citizens and visitors. This would certainly include further enhancements of the riverfront. While Peoria is the largest city in the region, it’s important for us to work with our neighbors to create jobs and activities in our mutual best interest.
What’s surprised you the most since taking office as mayor?
The amount of time required and the number of claims on the mayor’s time. As I said, it’s technically a part-time job, but to do it right, it takes much more. The mayor doesn’t have a staff, except for a dedicated and overworked administrative assistant at city hall, and she actually works for the entire council. I get some assistance from staff at L.R. Nelson. I’ve had the resources to help financially in these tight budget times with contributions for planning and Washington lobbying. I also use my own funds for traveling to city-related events outside of Peoria and often use our plane to take civic leaders to other cities, such as Kansas City and Indianapolis.
What would you say are your major accomplishments so far as mayor?
There are several accomplishments we’ve done-not just myself as mayor, but as a council and as partners with others. Springdale Cemetery is a good example. The cemetery was in terrible disrepair, was an embarrassment to the area, and a travesty to those who had loved ones interred there. A succession of owners had used the property as their personal fiefdom. Working together with the Peoria Park District, Peoria County Board, state legislators, and a dedicated group of volunteers, we were able to create a governing authority for the cemetery to replace the owners and have turned the cemetery over to city ownership. We now have a cemetery that’s vastly improved and on course to a successful future.
This is the kind of partnership effort we need to emulate to solve some of the other problems facing our region. Through groups like the Council of Governments, the Heartland Partnership, and others, we’re making progress in building the bridges necessary to come together for common goals.
I also think we’ve brought a new air of civility to the city council. We still have disagreements and dissension, sometimes very intense, but we generally do it in a way that respects the opinions and positions of other council members and citizens. I think it’s a big change from the previous councils, including when I was a member of the council a few years back. Council meetings are usually shorter, debate is more focused and to the point, and there’s less acrimony among individual members. I credit the council as a whole for making this happen, and city government is better for it.
The development of some meaningful planning activities for the City of Peoria and the greater Peoria region-including Vision 2020, Heart of Peoria, and Workforce Development-are works in progress. The success of our plans will come when the plans begin to be implemented. I strongly believe we can create our own future with some good plans, a lot of hard work, and a little bit of luck.
What’s your position on the potential Illinois-American Water Company buyout?
I haven’t decided whether or not we should buy the water company. However, now that it’s been determined we have a valid option, the appraisal process will determine what the purchase price would be. If the price makes economic sense, and we can satisfactorily resolve a number of other issues, this may represent an opportunity to control water rates, as well as be a financial benefit to the community.
How would you encourage business leaders to run for a public office? How can companies make it easier for their employees to serve as public servants?
It’s disappointing that few business leaders want to run for public office. I believe the public would be better served if we had more public servants with broader experience. Unfortunately, the public fishbowl is a negative, and the demands of people’s jobs often make it impossible to find the time required for public service. It would certainly be wonderful if more companies would encourage talented employees to become public servants.
Tell us about your recent trip to Cuba.
I visited Cuba with 10 members of my World President’s Organization (WPO) forum. These are all business leaders who are heads of their respective companies. It’s interesting to see the Cuba of different eras. Old Havana represents the gateway for Spain to the Caribbean and Latin America in the 1800s. There are some beautiful old buildings, but most are in disrepair.
Luxurious mansions represent another era from the early and mid-1900s, when the tourist trade prospered. Some of these have been rehabilitated into homes, embassies, or offices. However, crumbling relics of this era, that have long since been abandoned, often surround them. The economy appears to be struggling, and the people appear poor but relatively passive.
We were there on May Day, a time for the giant rally in the Plaza of the Revolution, at which Fidel Castro spoke. In spite of his indictments of the American government, we didn’t feel any animosity from the people we met. All of the business and government people we met are clearly hoping the U.S embargo will be lifted and we’ll have normal trade relations with Cuba, as we do with several other of our former "enemies."
What’s the most pressing need for Peoria this year? In the next five years?
First of all, the city budget. We need to bring operating expenses in line with anticipated operating revenues. We also need funds for capital expenditures (police cars, computers, sidewalks, roads, drains, etc.) There are some tough decisions that must be made, but we must live within our means. We’re still suffering from the impact of September 11, 2001. State budget problems, as well as sluggish sales tax revenue, have led to less than expected city funds. I’m confident things will turn around in the near future with new business developments such as The Shoppes at Grand Prairie bringing in new revenue. Until then, the council needs to make the hard choices regarding expense reductions or additional revenues to balance our budget.
In the next five years, we need to create an environment that will result in substantial gains in the area of economic development. We need to retain and expand our existing businesses and attract new business-industrial, commercial, and retail. Our efforts with Med/Tech and revitalizing downtown will help. Economic growth is a regional effort and requires communities working together to create the climate that will result in growth. While I would prefer a business locate in the city limits of Peoria, growth in East Peoria, Pekin, Washington, or anywhere in the region is good for Peoria. We need better transportation to support economic growth. We also need to work as a community to improve our educational system. IBI