Archive for Thursday, March 27, 2003

Highberger seeks growth that values city’s character

March 27, 2003


It's never hard to spot Dennis "Boog" Highberger in the crowd, even in Lawrence.

There's the lavender car. And the three-wheeled, low-hanging bicycle. And the accordionists who played polka songs as he filed to run for Lawrence City Commission. And the nickname.

Highberger's penchant for living outside the box has earned him a number of fans -- he finished second during the February primary election. But it also has made many in town nervous, especially as they contemplate essays he wrote as a college student in the late 1980s for anarchist magazines.

His critics say he's anticapitalist. Highberger says nothing's further from the truth. But he said his college days revealed an idealism that would serve Lawrence voters well.

"I was an idealistic, young guy and wanted to make the world better," said Highberger, now 43. "Now I'm an idealistic, old guy and want to make the world a better place."

He paused.

"But," he said, "I'm pragmatic."

Walking out

Highberger grew up in Garnett. At age 15, he broke his neck diving into a snowbank.

"It seemed to make sense at the time," he said. "In retrospect... ."

He was paralyzed from the neck down for two months, hospitalized at Kansas University Medical Center. His father drove from Garnett to the hospital every day to help Highberger with his therapy.

Highberger recovered the ability to walk but still moves with a substantial limp -- slowly and deliberately. He still marks it as triumph.

"I told them when I went in I was going to walk out," he said. "And I did, with a lot of good luck and hard work by other people."

Highberger came to Lawrence in 1977 as a Kansas University student. He continued his education at the university, off and on, through most of the next decade. He was student body vice president in 1984.

It was during his latter college years that Highberger wrote the essays that have re-emerged in this race. Highberger has touted his capitalist bona fides by noting that his family owns a farm implement dealership in Garnett, and that he sits on the board of the Community Mercantile grocery store.

"I'm not going to deny writing something I wrote, as long as it's accurate," he said. "If they can get any mileage out of it -- well, it hasn't seemed to do them any good so far."

'Losing our uniqueness'

Highberger graduated from KU School of Law in 1992. He started in private practice at the then-Lawrence Indian Center, then took a part-time job at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

"It sort of evolved into a real job over the years," he said.

In fact, Highberger's work is also a target of criticism. He commutes to Topeka for his 30-hour-a-week job. Critics said that would make him a less-engaged commissioner in Lawrence.

"I spend 30 hours a week in Topeka. The rest I spend here," he said. "It hasn't stopped me from being very involved in my community.

"I'll make the adjustments I need to. I have some flexibility in my schedule," he said. "Besides, anybody who's working a full-time job has the same considerations."

Highberger said he decided to run because of concerns about the city's planning issues.

"I think we're in danger of losing our uniqueness," he said. "And planning decisions are made without properly considering the impact on neighborhoods."

Highberger counters concerns that his neighborhood-friendliness will stifle economic growth by noting his support for initiatives that also have the backing of other, supposedly more "pro-business" candidates: judicious use of tax abatements; partnering with KU to spin research into business; increasing "historic tourism" opportunities in town and capitalizing on the city's arts community.

"I'm well aware we cannot stop growth in this community," he said. "I know people who want to build a wall around Lawrence, but I say it would have unacceptable consequences."

Highberger does favor closer adherence to Horizon 2020, the city-county long-range plan. He also supports adoption of a living wage ordinance. And he wants to create a task force to help city planners ensure new development in Lawrence is in keeping with the city's character.

"We know what we love about Lawrence," Highberger said. "My question is, why don't we build what we love?"

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