Updated at 2:54 p.m.
RUTLAND CITY — With half a year to go before Town Meeting Day, the local campaign season in Rutland City has already begun.
The president of Rutland’s Board of Aldermen, Mike Doenges, launched his candidacy for mayor this morning, saying that revitalizing the city requires longer-range planning. His priorities include reversing the decadeslong population decline, creating more housing and attracting new businesses.
“The City of Rutland needs a goal post, a target to shoot for, aim for, something that we can all look at and say, ‘That’s where we’re headed,’” Doenges, 42, said after formally announcing his candidacy in a local residential neighborhood.
Doenges, who grew up in the city, said his overarching goal is to help Rutland innovate and redevelop into a place where future generations will choose to build their lives.
“That idea of Rutland being a viable, welcoming, fun, enjoyable place to live, with good opportunity, is really what drives me to do this,” he said. He and his wife, Rutland City school board member Sara Atkins-Doenges, live in Rutland with their two teenage children.
Doenges, who works in sales at the technology company Cisco Inc., said he decided to enter politics in 2021 after hearing that the incumbent mayor, David Allaire, might not seek another term next year.
With the mayor’s office on his radar, Doenges ran for the Board of Aldermen last year — his first elected position — and sought the board presidency this March.
“I didn't want to go into it blind,” he said. “I really wanted to understand the inner workings of the city.”
Doenges, who said he is not registered with a political party, believes City Hall has room to advance in areas such as purposeful planning, innovation and collaboration.
Allaire, first elected Rutland mayor in 2017, has won reelection twice. He told VTDigger on Friday he had not yet made up his mind but would likely launch another mayoral bid.
“I made no secret that I’m certainly leaning toward running again,” he said at his office desk.
He said it was a little early to be talking about the next Town Meeting Day when the Nov. 8 general election was still around the corner.
Allaire acknowledged that because of health issues, he had considered retiring from politics. But, the mayor said, he is now “feeling healthy” and continues to enjoy his job.
He declined to comment on Doenges’ decision to run for mayor.
When Doenges was asked about the possibility of going head to head with Allaire for the mayor’s seat, he said Allaire’s entry into the race would not change his campaign plans.
“I wouldn’t have run if I didn’t think I could win, regardless of who is running,” he said.
The City of Rutland is only one of eight Vermont municipalities with a mayor. The others are Barre, Burlington, Montpelier, Newport, St. Albans, Vergennes and Winooski.
The main mayoral responsibilities in Rutland include overseeing municipal departments, maintaining the proper expenditure of funds and recommending actions to be taken up by the Board of Aldermen, according to the city charter.
Ideas for revitalization
Doenges believes having a master plan that spans 20-25 years is key to revitalizing Rutland.
He said the plan would make it easier to attract real estate developers, who would know there’s going to be a steady market for their building projects. And the construction of new housing in what’s currently a tight residential market would draw more workers to the city, including highly skilled professionals, which Doenges said would in turn grow the business sector.
As mayor, Doenges said, he also would emphasize accountability in government to ensure that plans are followed through.
In the 20th century, the City of Rutland recorded a population high of 19,293 during the 1970 U.S. census — the second largest municipality in Vermont, next only to Burlington.
But it has steadily seen a population decline since the ’80s even while Vermont’s overall population grew. The city went from 18,436 people in the 1980 U.S. census to 15,807 in the population count two years ago. It has slipped to being the fifth largest municipality, overtaken by Essex, South Burlington and Colchester.
Since joining the Board of Aldermen in March 2021, Doenges said he has already started implementing some of his revitalization ideas. For example, he said, the board is working on a program in which the city would offer low-interest loans to support the renovation of owner-occupied multi-unit housing being rented at market rates.
Doenges said he also strongly supports the local resettlement of refugees. Since the beginning of the year, for instance, dozens of Afghan refugees have been relocated to the Rutland area.
There are plans to bring up to 75 more refugees to Rutland County during the next 12 months, according to the federally contracted resettlement agency U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
“I think the community as a whole, over time, has become very supportive of refugees,” Doenges said. “They're adding value to our community already.”
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