Dion Avello hasn’t lost his New Jersey accent, but his heart is in Derby.
He’s spent 20 years in local government there, seeing the town grow to 23,000 people and add 350 new businesses in the time he’s been mayor.
He starts most mornings, except for Sundays, having coffee and breakfast about 7 a.m. at the McDonald’s on K-15. He holds court, taking questions from residents and laughing with longtime friends. Avello has been a fixture there for four or five years. Before McDonald’s, he used to meet at a coffee shop.
“It gets your day off with a couple of laughs. It’s just socializing and listening to what people think should be done,” he said.
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People know the mayor is going to be there, he said.
“Oh yes, they do,” Avello said. “That’s why I go, to be accessible. I may be mayor, but I’m just one of them.”
Anything goes at the sessions, Avello said.
“I’m fair game. They make fun of me, and I laugh. If you can’t laugh at yourself, it’s not worth it,” he said.
Avello said his hands-on experience in local government would serve him well as the District 5 Sedgwick County commissioner.
“I’ve got the track record,” he said. “I built a city.”
This is his third run at representing the district, which covers the southeast part of the county, including Derby. He lost in 2010 to Jim Skelton, who decided earlier this year not to run again. Avello is running against Rep. Jim Howell in the Aug. 5 Republican primary. The winner will face Democrat Richard Young in November.
Avello served on the Derby City Council from 1994 until 2003, when he became mayor.
As mayor, he doesn’t get to vote except when the eight-member council needs a tie-breaker.
“I’ve been a consensus builder all my life,” he said. “I bring people together to get things done.”
He’s decided some controversial issues with his vote as mayor, including banning smoking in public buildings and franchising trash service.
Chuck Warren, a Derby City Council member since 1999 who also ran for the District 5 seat last time it was up, said Avello “is one who’ll listen an awful lot before he weighs in. As mayor, it’s important to try to pull different views together, and he works hard to do that.
“Both of those were issues where I was on the other side,” Warren said. “He weighed them out and took a position, not an easy position to take. There was a lot of opposition on both of those issues.”
‘My ideas have worked’
Avello, 74, grew up in New Jersey and lived in New Mexico before moving to Derby in 1981.
He said he has no desire to go back to either place. He met his wife, Sandra, in 1971, in Albuquerque, when she was working for entrepreneur Jack DeBoer. They got married there and then moved to Kansas. They’ve been married 43 years. Avello says it may be sappy, but spending time with his wife is his favorite hobby.
Avello owns Acme Lithographers, which prints envelopes. He said he’s running for the commission because he wants to see other parts of the county grow the way Derby has.
“My ideas have worked in Derby,” he said. “What we’ve done down there can work up here. We opened government up and made people part of it. They know they can come in and be listened to.”
Family Circle magazine named Derby one of the 10 best cities to raise a family, something Avello is proud of as mayor.
“It’s the quality of life, the cleanliness of the town,” he said. “It’s safety. It’s easy to get around. It’s a family-oriented community.”
One of the city’s biggest accomplishments, he said, was getting Hampton Inn to build in Derby about five years ago.
“It took a couple of years, but we got it,” he said.
The Derby Marketplace shopping center also has been a win for the community, he said.
“We’ve just been going gangbusters around here for the past 10 years” in housing and commercial growth, Derby City Manager Kathy Sexton said.
Avello said that by winning the trust of residents, Derby was able to build Rock River Rapids, a water park, with a half-cent sales tax and pay it off six years early. Residents also supported funding a new library.
“Because we did what we said we were going to do,” he said.
A healthy business environment
Concern about jobs is top of mind for Avello. He said his own business is struggling because the companies it serves are, too.
“Us small printers, we’re all hurting,” he said. “It’s a dying industry.”
Government doesn’t create jobs, he said. But it can create a healthy environment – including good infrastructure – for businesses to grow, Avello said.
“One of the things I think we overlook is the businesses we do have,” he said.
He would like to bring more private enterprise to the table to see how to grow the regional economy.
“Without jobs, you have no taxes,” he said. “Jobs mean taxes. Taxes mean building things.”
The county needs to work with other partners to create a strategic plan focusing on technology, business innovation, research and workforce training, he said.
Avello said he will support economic development incentives that have a solid return on investment.
Water resources also concern Avello.
He said he remembers meeting the leader of a city in Georgia that had four days of potable water left.
The scared, serious look on the leader’s face has stuck with Avello, he said.
“We better watch our water supply,” he said.
Derby gets its water from the city of Wichita. The county needs to be concerned about such infrastructure, he said, because businesses won’t come to the region without good infrastructure.
A ‘people person’
Avello studied accounting at Pace College in New York City and served in the Army and National Guard.
Mark Sloyer, one of Avello’s closest friends, called him a “great family man. He’s a Christian individual. That radiates off of him.”
Sloyer met Avello at the early days of the coffee meetings.
Avello is more of a listener than a talker, Sloyer said.
“He takes everybody’s opinion, sorts through it and listens,” he said, adding that the quote from Greek philosopher Epictetus that “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak” fits Avello well.
Avello expressed concern about discord on the commission. Arguing publicly is not something that he puts up with in Derby, he said.
He said he thinks constituents want to see a board that can get along better, both with each other and with the Wichita City Council.
“I’m a people person,” he said. “I try to work with everybody and help everybody – probably to a fault.”