Progress is personal for Diane Whalen.

When the demolition permit came across her desk, she recognized the address immediately. It was undoubtedly the first address she had ever learned. It was the one-story white house where she was raised, along with four sisters and a brother. A standard three-bedroom, one-bath home on U.S. 42 when 42 was a two-lane road and three-bedroom homes were the standard.

It gave her pause, but the four-term mayor of Florence knew what to do. The mayor shrugs, smiling slightly at the memories of the cozy home. Still, it had been zoned for development for years. "Mom's been gone 25 years," and the family has moved on, she says. Fittingly, it will become the site of a pediatric practice.

Progress is the standard by which the newly re-elected mayor is measured. And by which she measures economic development for her hometown.

The reeling national economy hasn't spared the Boone County city of 28,000 located along one of the busiest stretches of I-75. "Still, dirt's being moved. Buildings are going up," the mayor says.

Whalen can point to:

"¢ ZF Steering Systems' $95.8-million expansion and resulting 374 new jobs;

"¢ Ethos Senior Living residential community;

"¢ Reconstruction of Mall Road from KY 18 almost to the I-75 ramp. New road, curbs, landscaping, lights, sidewalks and bus pulloffs;

"¢ Florence Mall's journey from bankruptcy filing to a summer 2010 occupancy rate of 95 percent and a $3.3-million re-investment by JC Penney;

"¢ New businesses, including The Vitamin Shoppe, J. Gumbo's, Chili's, Quaker Steak & Lube, Red Robin Gourmet Burgers; and

"¢ New office space, including Turfway Executive Center, McGlone Medical Office and a Bank of America Operations Center.

The credit, she says, goes to the city's professional staff, city council and the Commonwealth's eagerness to work with business.

"It's a matter of good planning," Whalen says. It's hard work on the part of the city staff "” dedicated people, she says. "It's not me, it's a team." She calls the people who work in her administration "incredible" and the councils who serve Florence "forward thinking."

Three governors

It didn't happen overnight. The Mall Road project "took three governors," she says. "It took (incumbent governor) Steve Beshear to make it happen." What started out as a project to bring the area into the 21st century, required multiple trips to Frankfort and lots of work. State investment, the mayor points out, was justified by the $35 million a year in sales tax generated in Florence and sent to Frankfort. So, officials "learned a little more with each" trip to Frankfort and finally got it. Kentucky's business-friendly climate sure helped.

The massive expansion of ZF Steering Systems, welcome in any economy, is nothing short of a banner headline. Northern Kentucky Tri-ED, the Kentucky Economic Development Cabinet, Boone County and Kenton County worked together to pull this one off. "They were looking to grow. They liked the place in Florence, and it was a joint effort," Whalen says. "It took all these people to get it."

More big news: "Ethos Senior Living opens in November, east side of town," she says. "It's a scrape and build," and she's more than glad to have it.

Solo on the ballot

Re-elected last month despite a fevered national anti-incumbency groundswell that swept from office six Northern Kentucky mayors "” from Alexandria to Walton "” she shares her secret. "It was a good year to be unopposed."

"I like to think the voters are happy with the community. The progress," she says.

Anything, everything


She charts her course based on a simple challenge: What would attract people to live here, work here and bring jobs? She loves this place, and she wants her children to stay and love it as well. She returns to ticking off those reasons. There is a free state-of-the-art skate park, a fabulous aquatic center, green space and lots of convenient retail. Restaurant choices are boundless. "Anything you want to eat, we have," she says.

The Florence Freedom, the city's minor league baseball team, is another success. It's an inexpensive family outing with a full calendar of events and special deals. She had a vision of the stadium being a place for the community to gather. It is. Little League, high school and college teams play under the lights in a professional stadium. With a nod to good business sense, she adds, the city "owns the dirt. No matter what happens, we have 35 acres right on I-75. Still have it."

Political roots


In her office, she points out the photo of her dad C.M. "Hop" Ewing in the shadow of the water tower famed for its "Florence Y'all" inscription. The photo is framed along with a lengthy story of her political roots. "Hop" died in 2006, so he had the chance to enjoy his daughter's political success. Whalen grew up during her dad's 20-year stint as mayor of Florence.

Like most offspring, "I didn't realize growing up the impact he had. What a visionary he was," she says. Her voice cracks as she describes his work that resulted in the retail hub that is Florence Mall. The city built a road through a cornfield for the mall. "Dad had a hand in the Northern Kentucky Industrial Park and bringing all those jobs to Northern Kentucky," she says. The development ranges from hospitals to healthcare systems and more.

She smiles, and her voice catches again. "Have I not taught you anything?" she remembers her dad asking, "You changed my city seal. Tore down my city building."

His best advice? "Whatever you do, just tell the truth. Be up front," she says. It has served her well during the good and bad times. In 2003, when the city's finance director, Ron Epling, was taken from the office in handcuffs for embezzling millions in taxpayer money, she called a press conference. Meeting TV and newspaper reporters head on was the only way to handle it, she remembers.

She's busy, but she thrives on the balance of work, family and public service. It's the way she was raised. It's not without its rewards. She has never lived any other way.

Whalen remembers the grand opening of the mall that defines the city she leads.

"I was like Dorothy," she recalls, "entering the palace of the Wizard of Oz." Walking through the huge doors, taking in the sight of the marble floor, the soaring two-story mall. It was progress.