MENOMONIE — While a student at UW-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 spread his platform of encouraging the community to grow together, assist start-up companies, empowering people and environmentally friendly measures.
“Right now, nationally I think young people getting involved in politics is very newsworthy,” Woellner said. “I had a lot of media attention.”
Woellner defeated two-term incumbent mayor Bill Bialecki by 1,017 votes to 938 in the April 3 election. 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 his ideas is to increase the number of disc golf holes in the city from the current 18 to 100, making Merrill the disc golf capital of Wisconsin.
“We need Merrill to be marketable,” Woellner said. “(Disc golf) is a growing sport and a lot of young professionals play it. I see how popular it is becoming.”
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 he 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.
Part of his campaign strategy was to friend as many people as possible from Merrill on Facebook. He then started making posts on issues.
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 improve Merrill.
“I’m thrilled that he can now officially work to make change in his hometown,” Pignetti said.