An interview with mayor Vance FunkFeb 16, 2015 11:03AM ● By Kerigan Butt
By Lane McLaughlin
Twelve days before his retirement was to take effect, I met with Vance Funk to ask him what it was like to be the mayor of the City of Newark.
How long have you been mayor?
Since April of 2004, roughly nine and a half years.
What made you want to be the mayor?
I was the real estate lawyer for the University of Delaware, which was a part-time job. I saw that the relationships between the city and the university were deteriorating rapidly. With the university being the major employer in the town and the major economic driver of the town, I thought that was a recipe for disaster. So in 2001, I started looking for a house in Newark that I could move into, because at that point in time, we lived in Covered Bridge Farms, about 500 feet outside the city limits. Initially, we found the house on Winslow Road, but my daughter loved it so much she wanted the contract transferred to them. Finally, in the summer of 2002, we found a house on Beverly Road we moved into. Then I found out that you had to live in your house a year before you could run for office. I knew the next election that I’d be eligible to run in was April 2004. So I began running for mayor.
I remember the reaction to "Funkytown" when you first started.
Well, "Funkytown" was a record that I grew up with. When I had parties or birthdays, people would send me copies of the "Funkytown" record, and that just seemed very natural. My younger brother, who was also a lawyer, actually put "Funkytown" on some of his shirts that he gave out. That’s where it came from. There wasn’t any intent to show any weird behavior. It became part of my persona because of WSTW. As soon as I won the election, the disc jockey played "Funkytown" all day long and most of the rest of the week. And that’s how it all got started with me. In fact, [disc jockey] John Wilson is back on the air, and I understand, the other day, he played "Funkytown" again.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
There are a lot of things that come to mind. I’m really proud of the fact that finally we have the university and city working together. There are all kinds of different things we are doing together that are beneficial to the residents, and it really keeps the taxes down. The fact the university police and the city police, for the first time, are talking to each other in a civil manner is amazing. It took me a long time to get there, but finally they realize the benefits of working together. I am really proud of the redevelopment that I’ve been able to accomplish by working with all the different parties, and getting them to work together to make Newark much more appealing.
There’s no question the 250th anniversary was really special. Number one, the city didn’t know they had a 250th anniversary coming up. They hadn’t known the 200th anniversary had passed. Bringing together all the different groups, the fraternities, the sororities, the historical society, the people that really care about history -- I mean, that was really an amazing accomplishment. We had six different events in four days, and every one of them was well attended and came off without a hitch. I’m sure, to this day, people are wondering how I did it.
I am an organizer. I am really hurt when people say, “Oh, he’s the event mayor, he doesn’t know how to do anything else.” Yes, I’m good at events. I knew when I got elected that The Taste of Newark would revitalize the restaurant industry in Newark. And it accomplished that. And Wine & Dine, Food and Brew, Restaurant Week -- all these are events that I developed with help from other people. That’s really been an accomplishment.
What is your favorite thing about being the mayor?
Greeting people. Fortunately, I have the personality that I can go out there and say hello to everybody and “Welcome to the city.” Every once in a while, the university shares with me the exit interviews with people that are visiting the school for the first time, and they are amazed at how many people met the mayor on Main Street. I’m pretty good at that and I like doing that.
What was the funniest and most memorable thing that happened?
Riding in the 250th anniversary parade in that colonial costume.
The second most memorable thing was cutting the ribbon to the Pomeroy Trail, because that trail was dead in the water. DelDOT said they were not going to build it. It was over with. I’ve always had a special relationship with Senator Carper. He’s been my friend for many, many years. When all of a sudden I get a call from Wilmapco and they said, “You won’t believe it, we just got notified about your rider on some Senate bill for $5.3 million to build the Pomeroy Trail." Until then, Senator Carper had not really done a whole lot for Newark since the concentration of efforts was in Wilmington.
Then I told them why we are friends: The story is, it was probably 1976 or 1977. Tom was a graduate student at the University of Delaware. He agreed to be Jim Soles' coordinator in New Castle County to help him run for the U.S. House of Representatives. I was a young lawyer at the time and I got a call to go to a civic organization meeting. They wanted to have that kid across the street arrested. He’s doing something illegal. He’s not allowed to run a campaign headquarters out of that house. We’re hiring you to go get him arrested.
So I said, “Let me see if I can go get him to move.” So I went over to talk to him.
Tom Carper said, “Quite frankly, the campaign was broke and we don’t have the money to move.”
“What if I find you another place to move?” I asked.
He responded, “Fine, I’ll move as long as it is reasonable.”
Well, I had a client on Main Street that had a third story that he wanted to rent. I called my client that night.
“I have a tenant for your third floor,” I said.
He said, “How did you find a tenant when I’ve had realtors working on it two years?”
“Well, it’s kind of an odd deal,” I answered.
“You are going to rent it to him for six months and you’ll rent it to him for $1 a month.”
"Why would I want to do that?”
“Jim Soles is running. He’s a good Democrat and you are big in the Democratic Party and he needs help.”
The next day, he had one of his employees bring me the keys. At the end of the six months it rented right away because people were used to walking up all those stairs and it was no big deal. He was able to rent it because of the deal I made.
So when Tom got elected Governor of Delaware, a friend of mine had a party, Tom walked up to me and hugged me. I was wondering why I was so special that he hugged me.
“You probably don’t remember," he said, then he reminded me of the story. That’s one of the things the city is going to miss. I have all these contacts all over, in state and out of state. And I get things done that nobody else is going to get done.
What advice do you have for the next mayor?
Try to not be like me, because you have to establish your own identity and, secondly, you’ll know that I am here to support you. I really love the city. I had the right combination of background for the time that I served. I majored in marketing at the University of Delaware before I went to law school. I have a vision, I know where I want to go. It’s not quite there, and that is why I ran for another three years. I just want to make sure it happens.
What do you plan to do next? Go on vacation?
Oh, it’s already booked. We are taking some of the family down to Disney World. It’s just by accident that we will be there during their Food and Wine Festival and Halloween Festival.
Soon, we may be seeing even more of Vance. He and his wife, Elaine, will be moving to Main Street. You can be sure he will still be getting things done.