HRA looks back on 30 years

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 3, 2002

In the past 30 years, the Austin Housing and Redevelopment Authority has contributed to many of the changes in the city.

Since Kermit Mahan became executive director in 1972, the HRA has worked to improve Austin by initiating and participating in the development of dozens of projects throughout the community. When Mahan leaves Aug. 16 for another job in Pasadena, Calif., he'll leave behind a city much changed by the HRA, and an organization that has grown drastically from its humble beginnings.

"Early on, we cranked up the public housing program, the neighborhood revitalization program and the downtown renewal program," Mahan remembers. "We had about $12 million in funding."

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It was a good start for the first small city in the state to administer a rehabilitation program, though $12 million may not seem like much in comparison to the nearly $400 million the HRA has invested in residential and commercial projects during the past three decades.

Those projects include Pickett Place, the Hormel Credit Union, the downtown renovations, Jones Cabinet, the expansion of Fox Electric, Whittier Place, the Oak Park Mall, the Holiday Inn convention center, the flood cleanups, the Todd Park baseball complex, the Chauncey Apartments, the Courtyard Apartments and the cleanup of the old railroad yard, Mahan lists, noting the HRA has contributed in some way to many more projects.

Those projects weren't always easy to accomplish. "The reason why Austin is a consistent winner in receiving grants is that we do our homework, we put together solid, defensible projects and we know we will be able to successfully complete a project," Mahan says. "Whatever we're going to do, we do it well. Wherever we're committed, we're committed to doing it the right way and doing it well. We have always tried to put together a first-class result. We've never compromised on any project."

That's not to say every project has gone smoothly.

"Have there been challenges? Absolutely. Usually it's over how much money should be doled out for acquisitions and relocations. But for the most part, everything went smoothly. We've had maybe five major challenges over 30 years. I think that's pretty good," Mahan says.

He credits much of the HRA's success to the community and its leaders. "The culture of the community is to try to maximize the community's assets and make it the very best that we can. The last 30 years have been fun and exciting and that's because the town is so involved. People here absolutely bend over backwards for their neighbors," he says. Also, he adds, the HRA "has always had political commitment. From the day I came to town, (the city councils and elected officials) were 100 percent politically committed to the importance of commitment. That's something they never faltered, never wavered from."

This dedication by the town and its leaders in improving the community has prevented the HRA from experiencing any severe mishaps, Mahan says. "There has not been one project that one could identify as disastrous because the projects involved were so compelling, so obviously needed. Because of the consensus of community leaders and compelling arguments, we've never had a disastrous project," he explains.

Dick Lang, president of the HRA board, has been involved with the HRA from the beginning and is pleased with what the organization has accomplished in the past 30 years. He remembers the first project Mahan worked on after becoming the HRA's executive director was the Northeast Community Development project.

"We received a grant to restore and fix older homes. The northeast was targeted because it had more older homes at that time. Kermit was instrumental in getting the grants and funding," says Lang, who was appointed treasurer of the committee for that first project. "The truth be known, throughout the years, the HRA and its board have done an excellent job in foresight. We've been very visional and with Kermit as director and his staff, we've worked hard at going after grants available and targeting areas of improvement in town."

Lang says he and Mahan continued to work together on HRA projects and is proud they have such a long history together. "I think it's quite unique that when he first came to town, the first project was in the 3rd Ward and now the last is the railroad cleanup, which is also in the 3rd Ward. Him and I are still hand in hand after all these years. I guess what comes around goes around."

Mayor Bonnie Rietz also says she is impressed with the impact the HRA has made on Austin. "The improvements … have just been very, very positive to the community. I'm very thankful for the projects he's headed up and for all the work he's done in the community."

Mahan has been grateful for the chance to do so much for Austin. "I want to thank the city for giving me the opportunity to grow and for the confidence they had in me to serve them. It's been a privilege and an honor to have the trust of the community to bring good things to them."

Amanda L. Rohde can be reached at 434-2214 or by e-mail at