Goodbye y'all: Florence mayor reflects on 24 years of leadership

Diane Ewing Whalen surprised many by not seeking a seventh term as Florence mayor.

From Florence’s holiday celebrations to its innumerable business grand openings, Whalen is always there, cutting a striking profile with her long blonde hair and conservative red and blue outfits.

Dec. 31 caps her 24 years as mayor of Kentucky’s eighth-largest city. Florence had 20,171 residents when Whalen took office in 1999. Today it has 32,346.

The new year will bring an apparent end to a political career filled with ups and downs but marked by Whalen’s even-keeled style.

The worst times included embezzlement by a city employee, bankruptcy of the minor league baseball team, the housing crash and subsequent foreclosures, and the global pandemic.

Managing through those times could not have been done, she says, “without the incredible staff here and the employees that worked through that with us to make sure the services were provided.”

The best times, Whalen says in her subtle drawl, are when “you're not fighting with your council, you're not fighting with your department heads, you're all rowing in the same direction.”

Councilman Patricia Wingo says Whalen’s ability to find a “collective vision and move all of that forward” is key to her success.

“She worked very hard to bring development into the community to work with the state like when we did (reconstruction of) Mall Road,” Wingo says. “We worked in cooperation with Fort Thomas and did the Children's Advocacy Center at St. Elizabeth Florence” by leveraging grants.

Whalen’s successor, Councilman Julie Metzger Aubuchon, says she shares the mayor’s vision for keeping Florence a great place to live while maintaining a well-run and fiscally conservative city.

“Diane loves the city of Florence and she's worked tirelessly to make sure it's a thriving community. You cannot drive more than a quarter of a mile and not find something she's impacted, whether it be a road project, sewer relining, park project … partnerships like selling the land to build the health department on our campus,” Aubuchon says.
“Her impact and her legacy are going to live on for quite some time.”

Whalen, whose father C.M. “Hop” Ewing was Florence mayor from 1961 to 1981, is content to say farewell to politics. She “never, ever, ever, ever” wanted to pursue state office. “Local politics is where you have the most impact on the people around you,” says the mother of two. She and her husband, Wally, have four grandchildren.

Here is Daly's recent interview with the outgoing mayor, edited for space.

NKY thrives: Anything make this a good time to leave office? You've had a lot of projects come to fruition in the last couple of years.

Whalen: If you wait until your projects are done, you will never quit. So many things are still on the table including the Marydale development at the corner of Donaldson and Houston Road. (Florence has annexed the 270-acre former Catholic camp and retreat center.)

NKY thrives: And you've had the Turfway Racing & Gaming renovation draw to a close.

Whalen: Turfway Park is a huge, huge renovation. One of those things that everybody knew needed to happen, it changed hands a couple of different times … and finally, the decision was made to sell to Churchill Downs. Of course, (the pandemic in) 2020 got in the way. That slowed down the redevelopment and the demolition was then started in 2020, when they started knocking it down. But it wasn't structurally sound, and they knew that it had to come down. So that's a big deal and it’s just getting done. It’s now going to again be a centerpiece of the Northern Kentucky community.

NKY thrives: How has Florence advanced the most compared to 24 years ago, when you became mayor?

Whalen: One of the things that we recognized and talked about early on was establishing an identity. Florence was a bedroom community. People would move in and move out; we wanted to become identifiable. So, we worked really hard on branding. Our parks all have the same signage. Our buildings all have the same signage, the firehouses, the Public Services Building, World of Golf. That was part of starting to create our own identity, what sets us apart, what makes us different than everybody else in Northern Kentucky, because we are. Florence is the only full-service city, meaning we have our own water and sewer department, and we maintain our own sewer lines.  We have our own city fire department, our own city police department, and our own public services department. We are self-sufficient, but still able to work within the regional network.

NKY thrives: How much did the Florence Y'all water tower have to do with that?

Whalen: Florence Y'all was an identity all its own. It's a big piece of who we are and what makes us recognizable. But then we wanted more. You know, we want to be that and more. And I think we have made a lot of that happen.

NKY thrives: What challenges remain, perhaps new challenges for the new mayor?

Whalen: The challenges are there and becoming more prominent. It's not just Florence, it's everywhere. It's Northern Kentucky, it's Greater Cincinnati. Retail has changed drastically. We were and probably still are the retail hub of Northern Kentucky. But as everybody has gotten more involved with online shopping, it’s not just Florence Mall that is having issues with tenants, it's every mall across the country.

NKY thrivesWhy is Florence Mall such a tough nut to crack? It used to be a real community centerpiece.

Whalen: That's the comment I got for years when I was running: “Don’t close our mall. Don't tear our mall down.” And I said, well No. 1 the city doesn't own it. We can't tear it down. It's not my intention to close the mall. But ultimately that comes down to a business decision on somebody else's part. (New ownership by Mason Asset Management and Namdar Realty started in June.)

NKY thrives: What will you miss most about being mayor?

Whalen: The incredible department heads and people that work here that care so much about the community, having that day-to-day interaction with them.

NKY thrives: What was your toughest moment as mayor?

Whalen: Finding out that a 15-year employee had been embezzling … We unraveled it. And (Ron Epling) went to jail in 2003 and died probably six months later. (The city got back the money, some $5 million.) So that was very much a moment of what makes somebody think they can do that to the public. Right? It's kind of a “how dare you” moment.

NKY thrives: Why aren't more women in elected positions in Northern Kentucky?

Whalen: Well, it's changed a little bit (citing recent judicial races in Kentucky). When I walked into this job 24 years ago, it was very much male dominated, being the only female in a room. But I embraced that, just in the fact that I did belong at that table. And I knew I did. And so, they couldn't make me feel like I didn't. Only once … (then slight laughter as Whalen recalls being asked, as the only woman in the room, to take notes). I threw a pencil at him and said, “Take your own damn notes.” I told him after the meeting, “You don't have to like me, but you’ve got to respect my position (as mayor).”

NKY thrives: What are your plans?

Whalen: I don't have any concrete plans. Part of the grace of it is just knowing that I can do whatever I want, or I can do nothing. Or I can take my time and see where I'm led.

NKY thrives: Any parting thoughts?

Whalen: If you're doing this for recognition, or glory, or pats on the back, you're doing it for the wrong reasons. Period. (The question leaders should ask is) what can I do to make it better?
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Read more articles by Nancy Daly.

Nancy Daly is a veteran Kentucky and Cincinnati journalist. An "Army brat" who found a home in Kentucky, she is a University of Kentucky graduate. Her hobbies include reading, photography, watching streaming TV, including "Succession" and "Andor," and playing Alphabet Game on Zoom with five siblings across the globe.