summer. The way fall colors make the city look as if it’s been covered
The starkness of winter. The budding green of spring. The lushness of
with a brilliant quilt.
And, as the longest-serving mayor in South Bend history, he sees not
just the beauty of the changing seasons but the work — leaf pickups
and snow plowing — that comes with them.
Luecke, 61, has seen plenty of changes in government during his 15
years running the city.
Personally, he’s lost 40 pounds and a mustache, and gained a couple of
Now he’s preparing to pass the baton to his mayoral successor, Pete
Buttigieg, who will take office Jan. 1.
The final regular Common Council meeting of Luecke’s tenure is Monday,
though council members will hold a special meeting Dec. 19 to consider
spending money on Chase Tower renovations.
“There will be mixed emotions,” he said of Monday’s meeting, “a sense
of celebration, a career coming to an end.”
Luecke grew up in Freeport, Ill., and settled in South Bend nearly 40
years ago after graduating from Fordham University. He and his wife,
Peg, raised four children here. He became a carpenter, started a small
construction company and became construction manager for South Bend
Heritage Foundation, where his work in the city’s neighborhoods
sparked an interest in local government.
He represented South Bend’s northwest side on the Common Council for
nine years before winning a special election in 1996 to fill a vacancy
in the mayor’s office left by Joe Kernan, who had been elected
Luecke won re-election three times but decided late last year that he
wouldn’t seek another term.
He sat down with a Tribune reporter last week and answered some questions.
What will you miss about being mayor?
Luecke said he’ll miss the people: city employees he works with, and
the local businesses, nonprofits and community leaders that partner
with the city.
“I’ll miss being in the middle of things — the excitement of making
decisions to find solutions to make things work. I’ll probably miss
the business of it, too. People tell me, actually, that one of the
most-difficult transitions is going from 100 mph to a slower speed for
a period of time. ...
“One of the things I’ve enjoyed about local government is that sense
of being able to look back and see what’s been accomplished.
“That’s similar to a carpenter in some ways: At the end of the day,
you can look back, you can see you’ve built a wall, you’ve put on a
roof, you’ve installed a kitchen, you’ve put up trim. Similarly, at
the local level you can see you’ve been engaged in the development of
the Kroc Center, Eddy Street Commons coming online, new research parks
for our community, attracting businesses to town, helping new
businesses to start up.”
What do you consider to be the highs of your time as mayor?
Luecke mentioned city honors, including winning the National League of
Cities Gold Award in 2002 and 2010 for developments along West
Washington Street and in the northeast neighborhood, respectively.
This year the National Civic League named South Bend an All-American
He points to economic development successes in the Blackthorn area,
the former Scottsdale Mall site, and Eddy Street Commons as well as
the founding of Innovation Park at Notre Dame and Ignition Park in the
former Studebaker corridor.
He also notes redevelopment downtown, especially the renovation of the
Morris Performing Arts Center and the Palais Royale, the creation of
riverside trails and bicycle lanes, reinvestment in city facilities
such as a renovated police department, new fire stations and city
parks, developing the Metronet, and partnering with a startup company
to prevent sewage in the city’s stormwater system from overflowing
into the St. Joseph River.
“The city of South Bend is in good fiscal shape, and I’m very proud of
that. We’ve worked very hard to do that. Some of that is due to the
additional local income tax that was adopted here in St. Joe County to
allow us to address what would have been a disastrous loss of property
tax revenue from the (state-mandated) property tax caps. ...
“I’m proud to be able to hand over a city where there are choices so
the new administration will hopefully be able to continue some of
those initiatives we’ve got going but also consider new initiatives
because there are some resources available to do some things
What have been your lows?
Luecke said the safety of city workers has weighed heavily on him.
Three South Bend police officers died in the line of duty during his
time in office — Paul Deguch in 1997, Scott Severns in 2006 and Nick
Polizzotto in 2007. And Evan Sears, a summer intern in the Public
Works Department, was hit by a car and killed while setting out a
device to record traffic counts in 1999.
“Those were tragic days for our community, for our police department.
I’m extremely proud of the way the police department pulled together
as a family and supported one another and worked through those days.
“Often you can see a department torn apart by a tragedy of that
nature. Our officers continued to serve with dedication and passion
for our community.”
Job losses in the city have been difficult, too.
“What’s frustrating for me is we don’t have as much local say in that
as would have been the case 30, 40, 50 years ago. Many companies have
national or international headquarters that we don’t have the access
to, to see what kinds of things we can do to keep jobs in the
community instead of having a consolidation move those jobs to another
What advice would you offer Pete Buttigieg?
“First, have good advisers. That’s both among department heads but
also people outside city government that you can bounce ideas off,
that you can get feedback from. ...
“Sometimes it’s a little easy to get insular and to hear primarily
from the same people. They give you good advice, but I think it’s
important to reach out and get some of that additional perspective. My
wife always prided herself on giving me the Sally Citizen response to
initiatives we were working on, and I deeply appreciated her counsel
as we moved forward and her perspective on things.”
He said Buttigieg has worked hard to lay out a vision for the city,
and that’s important.
“You have to know where you’re headed to measure whether you’re making
progress. ... But don’t set it in stone, because you’ll find different
opportunities and perhaps different ways of getting to that vision as
you move along.
“And be realistic in terms of what you can accomplish. This is a big
business. We have 1,200 employees. We’ve got a $250 million total
budget. We’re a conglomerate that provides many different services. So
it’s hard to make a lot of immediate changes.”
Had you ever considered not running for re-election before last year?
“It was really prior to the last election I just really felt it was
the right time to turn over the reins. I didn’t have enthusiasm for
another election cycle. And, though there are many things I love about
the job, there were other things that were beginning to wear on me,
and I felt that it made sense to have someone fresh come in with some
new energy and new ideas to keep advancing the ball down the field.”
What were some of the things that were starting to wear on you?
“I think the partisanship we’re seeing across the country, the divided
populace. You don’t see it quite so much at the local level, at least
not in terms of Republican-Democrat, but there’s still a shrillness to
a portion of the populace. I was finding my skin wasn’t as thick as it
used to be. That was one consideration.
“Secondly, it’s a hard job. It’s a 24/7 job with many
responsibilities, many opportunities for things beyond our control to
go wrong. So, the intensity of the job was beginning to wear a little
bit as well.”
Many people locally have been critical of the city being involved
financially in private developments. How do you answer that criticism
from people who believe the city should stay out of private
“I think the city has a couple of legitimate roles to play with
“Traditionally, there’s predevelopment, which is the primary role we
play. That’s putting in streets, sewer, water, Metronet connections
that make land ready for development.
“Another predevelopment role is sometimes when you’re looking to have
a development in urban space that’s more expensive to develop than
greenfield space. ... I think there’s a legitimate role for the city
to play in creating an even playing field between urban development
and suburban development.”
City officials are considering acquiring the parking garage in Chase
Tower to help a potential buyer pay for upgrades to the 25-story
building. Luecke said that type of involvement is more rare than
predevelopment, but it’s still legitimate.
“You want to get a public benefit. The public benefit in this case is
it’s a vital building in downtown. ... In order to encourage positive
development in downtown, there is a role for the city to subsidize
What’s next for you?
“I have nothing lined up at this point. I thought I’d spend the last
couple of months working on that, but we’ve been running 100 mph
toward the finish line.
“I look forward, after my term is up, to taking a little time off and
talking to a variety of people in the community about ways that I
could continue to use my talents to support the community, whether
it’s institutions or not-for-profits or a private business.
“It’s kind of fun to think about doing something different for a while
and looking for other ways I could continue to contribute to the city
of South Bend. ... I’m retiring from my political life but will be
moving on to other employment. ...
“I have fond memories of my time in office and look forward to being
able to enjoy being Citizen Steve.”
Staff writer Kevin Allen: