A clear scorecard began to emerge on growth and development issues following the first candidate forum for Lawrence City Commission hopefuls Monday.
A trio of candidates believe the city is overbuilt and is traveling down the wrong economic development path. A pair of candidates said the city wasn’t doing enough to attract new businesses. And two others fell somewhere in the middle.
Candidates Dennis Constance, Aron Cromwell and Gwen Klingenberg all said they believed the city’s retail and residential scenes were overbuilt, and all urged the city to change its focus from attracting new industrial employers to one that emphasizes nurturing small local companies.
“Jobs don’t grow a city. People grow a city,” said Klingenberg, who said she was concerned the city was trying to attract employers who paid wages that were not sufficient to allow people to live and work in Lawrence.
But candidates James Bush and Lance Johnson both firmly stated they did not believe the city was overbuilt, and said they thought the community needed to focus on ways to be more welcoming to businesses that are considering locating in the city.
“I believe in letting the free market work,” Johnson said. “I don’t believe in the City Commission getting involved in saying that we have too much space. I think the free market does a good job of regulating that.”
Candidates Mike Amyx, the lone incumbent seeking re-election, and Price Banks fell somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Amyx said he did not think the city was overbuilt, and said the city had enough ability to control growth through controlling where new sewers are located. He did say, though, that he supports keeping the city’s living wage ordinance, which currently requires companies that recently received tax abatements to pay every employee at least $11.44 per hour.
Banks said he thought the city was temporarily overbuilt and needed better long-range planning. He said he believed tax abatements were a necessary evil that the city needed to offer to companies, but said Lawrence’s biggest selling point to potential employers is its quality of life.
“Too often we think the growth has caused Lawrence to become a special place,” Banks said. “The reason we have had the growth is because we are a special place. We can’t have a better economic development incentive than being a nice place to go and a nice place to live.”
Tom Johnson was the lone candidate who did not attend the City Hall forum, which was sponsored by the nonpartisan Voter Education Coalition. Johnson had already scheduled a trip out of the community.
The eight candidates are seeking three at-large seats on the City Commission. The election will be April 7.
Two incumbents — Sue Hack and Boog Highberger — are not seeking re-election. Incumbents Rob Chestnut and Mike Dever still have two years left on their terms.
The Voter Education Coalition will next host a City Commission and school board forum at 6:30 p.m. on March 18 at City Hall. That forum will be taped to be broadcast on Sunflower Broadband and on LJWorld.com.