At a forum Wednesday evening, Lawrence City Commission candidates discussed several issues affecting downtown Lawrence, including whether police presence should increase following a recent shooting that left three people dead.
Downtown Lawrence Inc. hosted the forum at Abe & Jake's Landing, and DLI Director Sally Zogry moderated. She asked the four candidates who attended the forum — Jennifer Ananda, Mike Anderson and incumbents Matthew Herbert and Lisa Larsen — how important a strong police presence is.
Larsen said having more foot patrols and direct contact with business owners and those on the street is one of the best ways to deter crime.
“That’s going to be my approach, that we have more of an actual physical presence on the street — not in cars — but actually walking the beat,” Larsen said.
Zogry said the downtown police presence has dwindled in recent years, and that the former police chief told DLI that was due to budget and staff restrictions.
Ananda and Anderson both generally agreed that a stronger police presence downtown is the right direction. Ananda said if the argument against increasing downtown night patrols is financial, the lives lost in the recent shooting put that argument on its head.
“We can’t put a cost on that, and we shouldn’t,” Ananda said. “But if it has to be an economic argument, we can make that economic argument at this point.”
Herbert disagreed. He said although the shooting was horrific, the city needs to legislate from a logical place instead of a place of fear or because of an outlier.
“If we as a City Commission are legislating from a worst-case scenario, I think we’re making a huge mistake,” Herbert said. “The presence of police downtown is very unlikely to have deterred the events that happened.”
Herbert said visitors to downtown in the evening will find a vibrant area, and that what is needed is police presence during the day. He said he thinks the bigger day-to-day impact on downtown is panhandling that takes place in front of businesses, which he said could deter shoppers.
Zogry said candidates Dustin Stumblingbear and Bassem Chahine were unable to attend due to other obligations. In a statement, Chahine said he was not able to attend because his father is currently hospitalized.
Zogry said there has been a loss of retail business downtown over the last 20 years in favor of restaurants. She asked the candidates about their ideas for encouraging retail businesses and whether they would support a tax incentive for retail properties.
Larsen said the city’s economic incentives policy does allow small businesses to seek incentives, and that one of the considerations is whether a project enhances downtown. She said the city’s role is ensuring downtown infrastructure and beautification projects continue.
Herbert said the city’s role is to make sure that downtown shoppers are comfortable — referring again to panhandling in front of businesses — and that downtown is seen as family destination. He said the downtown parking garages also support this and suggested the city should add signs to make visitors more aware of them.
Ananda said the lack of a diverse retail selection for everyone, including families, is an issue. She said she’d support looking into “creative solutions” of how the city could better support small businesses.
Anderson agreed with Herbert that panhandling is a problem and said it keeps tourists and families away. He also said the city needs more people working on economic development and that more information could help.
“I would love to see us do more visitation and surveys, so that we’re asking businesses how can the city help, what can we do, what are you struggling with?” Anderson said.
Other topics included downtown parking and the potential for a downtown conference center, which the candidates generally were open to discussing and moving through the regular review process.