While a student at University of Wisconsin-Stout, Derek Woellner said in a class assignment he planned to become a politician.
He never believed at the time it would really be what he pursued, but at age 25 Woellner has become the youngest mayor ever elected in his hometown of Merrill, where he graduated from high school in 2011.
A 2016 professional communications and emerging media graduate, Woellner said he used some of the marketing skills he learned as a student to help with the campaign. He used social media to get his unity platform out encouraging the community to grow together, assist startup companies, empower people and go green.
“Right now, nationally I think young people getting involved in politics is very newsworthy,” Woellner said. “I had a lot of media attention. I think it was a good headline. Being young, not being a politician. It’s very anti-establishment right now.”
Woellner defeated two-term incumbent mayor Bill Bialecki, 1,017 to 938 on April 3. He was sworn in as Merrill’s 37th mayor on April 17.
Woellner said a school referendum on the ballot also probably helped as more young parents headed to the polls.
One of Woellner’s ideas is to increase the number of disc golf holes in the city from the current 18 to 100 and make Merrill the disc golf capital of Wisconsin. One of his thoughts is to have a very difficult basket for the 100th hole, and those who make it get a key to the city that they can show off to other disc golf enthusiasts.
“We need Merrill to be marketable,” Woellner said. “It’s a growing sport, and a lot of young professionals play it. I see how popular it is becoming. If we can get ahead of the curve, we could become the disc golf capital of the nation. If people are thinking about a disc golf trip, they should think about Merrill.”
Having more disc golf also would give teens something to do in the community. “We are the city of parks; we have the room for it,” he said.
Woellner has already received interest about his idea from professional disc golf associations and disc golf publications, he said. He estimates it will cost about $50,000 to add 45 holes within the next 18 months.
Woellner, who works at Merrill Steel in Scholfield as a digital designer, said when he realized he had won the election he didn’t have an immediate emotion but is pleased he will have a chance to help build Merrill.
“I want the population trend to do a 180 and see people move to Merrill and the people in Merrill to stay in Merrill,” Woellner said. “The air is fresh, there’s trees everywhere and everyone says hi to you there. We have the quality of life in a fun, relaxed living environment.”
Part of his campaign strategy was to friend as many people as possible on Facebook from Merrill. He then started making posts on issues, encouraging discussion and generating buzz, something he read about in his studies at UW-Stout.
Woellner said he needed to study Robert’s Rule of Order to ensure he could run an efficient meeting.
The mayor’s position, a four-year term, is part time but Woellner would like to see it become full time to encourage more candidates. However, would not run again then if the position is full time. “It would be like enriching myself,” he said.
Woellner’s girlfriend, Mandy Groth, is a 2016 graduate of UW-Stout in the interior design program. “It’s awesome,” she said of Woellner winning the mayor’s position. “He did it. I am super proud of him.”
Woellner wrote his career plan in a 2014 class for Daisy Pignetti, associate professor in the UW-Stout English and philosophy department. The plan included his goal to grow more of his own food and to strengthen Merrill.
“I think it’s wonderful that Derek has become mayor, and it’s clear that his priorities regarding sustainability and self-sufficiency have been in place for a long time” Pignetti said. “I’m thrilled that he can now officially work to make change in his hometown.”
Woellner, also a member of the Lincoln County Board, ran unsuccessfully for the 35th Assembly District seat, losing in the Democratic primary in August 2016. The seat is held by Republican Mary Felzkowski of Irma.
“It was a good learning experience,” he said. “It was basically a dry run. I didn’t put much money into it. I just filed to run.”
Woellner may consider other political positions but wants to see how well he does as mayor. He would encourage other youth to run for elected positions. “It’s needed,” he said. “I think the sooner we take the reins the better. It would put us ahead of other states and regions. We need fresh ideas.”
To view a video of Woellner go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfwkBqfQnS0.