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Dennis Hancock's Open Door Mayorship Closes in April

Longtime mayor of Fenton calls it a career after 12 years at the helm of the city.

The first thing Dennis Hancock did 12 years ago when he first won election as the mayor of Fenton was to establish an open door policy for his office - literally.

Today, the unhinged door still leans against a wall at the entrance to Hancock's office.

Hancock decided last spring that his sixth term in the city's top job would be his last. He made the surprise announcement last spring as he was welcoming newly elected members of the Fenton Board of Aldermen to their first meeting.

Although six terms as mayor puts him second in tenure to long-time mayor Garrett Hitzert, who served seven terms as the city's chief, Hancock's first run for the job ended in defeat.

It was in 1999 that Hancock ran for mayor and lost, seeking the post as the result of an impromptu conversation over coffee with a friend in the construction business where the topic was complaints about various things in Fenton. The friend suggested Hancock try for the job, and he did, but, after being defeated, learned that political campaigning is hard work.

"You have to work to campaign," Hancock said in a recent interview. "You have to get out there and meet the people you want to represent, and I didn't do enough of it."

Two years later, he paid attention to his mistakes and campaigned door-to-door, winning the race for the mayor's office in 2001 on his second try. It's the only elected position he's ever held.

Hancock, who is a facilities manager for the real estate services company Jones, Lang  LaSalle, grew up in St. Charles County, attending St. Dominic High School in O'Fallon. He lived in Atlanta for five years and spent another five in Iowa and came back to St. Charles County in 1994 to live in Lake Saint Louis. It was during this time he met his wife, Christine, who hailed from South County.They  moved to Fenton in 1997.

Four years later Hancock became Fenton's mayor and off came the door to his office, a symbolic move, but one he said was a symbol of his commitment to open the doors of communication between mayor's office and the residents of the city.

"One promise I made was to communicate as openly and as honestly as I can," Hancock said. "I wanted to be available to the residents."

During Hancock's tenure in Fenton there have been highs and lows in the city's fortunes.

Even though the massive Gravois Bluffs shopping development was already in the works when he took office, Hancock helped managed some the project's details including negotiating the Summit Road extension at the development's western edge, a project that was to have cost $6.5 million.

"After months of renegotiating, mediation and lawsuits, we said we couldn't build it," Hancock said.

Hancock said the Gravois Bluffs project has made a big difference in Fenton.

"It has reshaped the landscape literally and figuratively," he said.

There always was some concern about the use of tax increment financing (TIF) in the Gravois Bluffs development since some of the tax revenue generated by the retail operations in are used by the developer to help pay for construction of the project and thereby funnelling it away from cities, school districts and other tax-supported agencies that rely on those taxes to operate. The idea is the TIF funding eventually is paid off and those entities will receive their share of tax revenue again. In the meantime, if a project is successful, the hope is that other new business is attracted to the area.

There are critics if TIF financing for such projects, but Hancock is not one of them.

"I'm not philosophically opposed (to TIF projects)," he said. "It's just a tool in the toolbox."

Other highlights during Hancock's 12-year run as the city's mayor include Fenton securing itself as a place for small and mid-size manufacturers, as well as being a home for many companies in the health care sector, including facilities operated by Mercy Health Care, St. Anthony's Medical Center and St. Luke's Health Care, in addition to a variety of doctor's offices and other health care services, many of which developed as a result of the construction of SSM St. Clare Health Center, 1015 Bowles Ave., on the grounds of the former Lakewood Golf Course. While St. Clare is not located within the Fenton city limits, Hancock says the presence of the facility "across the street" from the city was expected to attract other businesses that would be located in the city.

As a thriving city for business and business development, Hancock said Fenton has been able to provide benefits for residents. There is no property or personal property tax, no business license fees, free snow removal, free trash pickup and a vibrant parks system.

"We have more park land per capita than any city in Missouri, and they're all free," Hancock said.

It was during Hancock's tenure as mayor that the two sprawling Chrysler plants shut down, a development that left a $1 million hole in the tax revenue generated for the city. But the big loss didn't turn out to be catastrophic as Hancock and the city feared and they were prepared for it.

There was no elaborate, detailed plan, Hancock said, adding that he and city leaders talked about the worst-case scenario should the twin auto assembly plants close.

"It wasn't a grand scheme or anything," Hancock said. "We just got more efficient."

Hancock said Chrysler had asked the city to invest in Chrysler by issuing several million dollars in bonds to refurbish the plants to make them "good for the foreseeable future," The South assembly plant manufactured Chrysler Town and Country and Dodge Caravans while the north plant churned out Dodge Ram trucks.

After Chrysler poured millions into fixing up the plants, it ended up shuttering them both anyway; the South plant in 2010 and the North plant in 2009.

"The foreseeable future turned out to be four and five years," Hancock said.

In the wake of it all, city services remained steady, with only a few minor resident benefits dropped from the budget. There still are no property and personal property taxes collected by the city, trash pickup is still free, although free bulky trash pickup was ended. The city survived, and even thrived as the St. Clare Medical Center opened its doors during the same time period.

Hancock is proud of the way Fenton weathered the potential crisis brought on by the closure, and subsequent razing of the Chrysler plants, and that the city was able to maintain the lion's share of city services to residents.

"Those are the things that make Fenton unique," he said. "Do they affect a person's quality of life? No. Not in a big way. But they are great amenities to have in your community."

As the date of the city election draws near, Hancock is preparing to return to a life where his evening and weekends are more free from the phone calls from residents that all public officials receive.

Two people have filed for the opportunity to succeed Hancock in the mayor's office. Ward 1 Alderman Paul Seemayer and former alderman Michael D. Polizzi.

Hancock says he often is asked by constituents who they should vote for to fill the city's top job. He says he will make a recommendation before the Apr. 2 election.

Hancock also says he will be involved in the future of Fenton in some way, although he didn't specify what he may actually do.

He also didn't say whether, before he leaves office, whether he would return his office door to its hinges that he removed 12 years ago.

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