Elections

Business issues dominate District 2

Given the makeup of the City Council's District 2 in east Wichita, business issues are expected to drive this spring's election.

"That district has a lot of professional and business people," said Ken Ciboski, political science professor at Wichita State University. "You're going to find those individuals to be highly interested in what's going on in the whole community, including the economic activity and business enterprises."

Candidate Paul Savage was more succinct.

"There are a lot of movers and shakers in that district," he said.

Five men — Om Chauhan, Steve Harris, Pete Meitzner, Charlie Stevens and Savage —seek the seat that Sue Schlapp will vacate because she is limited to two terms.

The primary is March 1. The top two vote-getters will advance to the general election on April 5.

All of the candidates either own a business or are business executives. And all emphasize that city government should take a pro-business approach and protect core services.

Interviews with the candidates and their responses to The Eagle's voter guide questionnaire indicate there are some clear distinctions among the candidates about how that should look.

Each has points of emphasis.

Chauhan wants a system set up to regularly review ordinances to determine if they are still applicable. Harris says Wichita needs to improve its "curb appeal."

Meitzner wants to create an environment for existing businesses to flourish. Savage's driving message is about creating and retaining jobs. One of Stevens' top goals is to reduce the city's debt service.

Stevens generally opposes all economic incentives for businesses and calls them "corporate welfare."

The only exception he would consider is if industrial revenue bonds are used for industry and manufacturing.

"But when you use them for hotels, theaters ... you're just using tax dollars to compete with other businesses," he said.

The other four candidates support at least some use of the other economic incentive tools — tax increment financing districts(TIFs) and community improvement districts(CIDs) —but they emphasized the city must be cautious.

A TIF district steers increases in property tax revenue generated by development to pay off bonds that fund improvements such as streets and lighting.

A CID allows a business to add a charge of up to 2 percent for a specified period and use the revenue to pay for improvements.

Of TIFs, Harris said, "There are too many jobs at risk for us not to give this powerful tool a very serious view."

The city should also needs to improve its background checks on applicants, Harris said.

Meitzner said TIFs should be used only in blighted areas, as required by law.

"I don't want to put a bowling alley as a TIF when some other family has a bowling alley five miles away and never asked a dime from the city," he said.

Community improvement districts in particular "must be watched very closely," said Meitzner.

On how he would decide whether to approve either type of district, Savage said, "Here's my rule of thumb: If it doesn't help Wichita and it doesn't help to keep jobs, then I'm probably not going to vote for it."

All the candidates, including Stevens, say the amount of additional charge for a CID should be displayed on a sign posted at the business. In December, the council voted to require signs in community improvement districts but not to put the percentage on them.

"The current decision not to place full-disclosure signs is not in keeping with transparent government," Chauhan said.

Redevelopment

The city's redevelopment plans for downtown were generally supported by all the candidates except Stevens.

"A healthy downtown is a sign of a healthy city," Chauhan said. "It is not in competition with neighborhood or district commercial development, rather the two are complementary."

Meitzner noted that other cities, such as Oklahoma City and San Antonio, have boosted their economy with strong downtowns. "It's important to have a vibrant one," he said. "It connects the city."

Savage said the city should be involved in revitalizing downtown "but in a limited role."

He said the city should help in such areas as infrastructure and parking.

"However, the city's role in helping bankroll some of the downtown projects must end," Savage said.

Stevens wasn't buying into all the suggestions by Goody Clancy, a consulting firm hired by the city to develop the downtown's revitalization plan.

"I'd love to see downtown thrive," Stevens said. "But you can't force that to be the market. You're just taking away from every other part of the city.

"I would like to develop downtown. But you can't do it without asking for public money. That's a shame because you cannot compete with somebody who is getting free money."

Harris said Wichita is in economic development competition with other cities and needs "curb appeal" to help attract businesses to Wichita.

Having a vibrant downtown is part of that appeal, he said. "Redevelopment of downtown absolutely has to happen."

Harris said the city would also improve its curb appeal by moving forward with a new terminal at Mid-Continent Airport. He said he would make the project a priority.

"We need to make a good first impression on candidates that (businesses) are bringing in and out of Wichita," Harris said.

Stevens said a new terminal is a "want, not a need."

The candidates did agree that the city having quality core services, modern infrastructure and low taxes were solid ways to retain and attract businesses.

"We have a good business environment overall," Meitzner said. "But we can't be asleep at the wheel."

Savage said, "I'm not a slash and burn type of guy. We've got to be able to keep your younger workers from wanting to move to the Oklahoma Cities and Kansas Cities."

By having "lower taxes and simplified rules for business operations," Chauhan said, "the city will be more attractive to job creators."

Stevens said it isn't the city's job to create jobs.

"It's what the city does that creates jobs," he said. "If City Hall focuses on the core responsibilities and decreases burdens of all our citizens, we will unleash a job-creating machine by giving ourselves a true advantage over other cities."

Harris emphasized doing things to let the city sell itself.

"The best way for us to increase our revenue base is to grow businesses, not cut taxes," he said. "You can't run a successful business if the only focus is cutting expenses. You have to grow sales. The same applies for the city."

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