At downtown-centric candidate forum, City Commission candidates share thoughts on outdoor camping, increasing density and more

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Candidates running for election to the Lawrence City Commission shared their thoughts on all things downtown Lawrence at Sunflower Outdoor and Bike Shop, 804 Massachusetts St., on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023.

At a downtown-centric forum Thursday evening, the six candidates running for seats on the Lawrence City Commission shared their thoughts on increasing residential density in the area, how to enforce the city’s rule for camping in public spaces and more.

The forum was hosted by Downtown Lawrence Inc., the not-for-profit membership organization that promotes the interests of the downtown business district. All six candidates in the running for three expiring seats on the City Commission — incumbents Brad Finkeldei, Amber Sellers and Courtney Shipley, former commissioner Mike Dever, and newcomers Dustin Stumblingbear and Justine Burton — were present.

There was much that most of the group seemed to agree about, such as the overall notion of downtown Lawrence as a social and business hub and that the city needs new ways to curb vandalism and other petty crime downtown. But the question of the city’s role in managing the public right-of-way — and, specifically, the question of what should be done about camping in downtown — resulted in more of a split response.

The topic of camping on city-owned property has been top of mind for many downtown business owners lately, including some who were also in the room at last Tuesday’s City Commission meeting calling for stronger action to address homeless issues. The city has hesitated to enforce its no-camping ordinance universally, with city staff citing the need for more emergency shelter beds via initiatives like the Pallet Shelter Village project planned for 256 N. Michigan St. in the Pinkney neighborhood.

The three incumbent commissioners each took a fairly even-handed approach in their responses. Finkeldei said the city has a plan in place to fully enforce the ordinance once the Pallet Shelter Village is operational, and that the city has already been curbing camping downtown anyway, and Shipley noted that the downtown area isn’t the only part of town where there’s been overnight camping taking place. Sellers talked about the idea that public space is meant to be utilized by the public, including those who are unhoused.

But Stumblingbear said there’s a difference between “camping outside” and “living outside,” which affects the public unevenly.

“This concept that we can continue to allow people to stay in public spaces that should be for everybody and that somehow their living there is also them being able to use that public space — well, if I’m going to walk over there and they’re screaming and yelling at me, ‘Get out of my space, get out of my space,’ that’s a public space,” Stumblingbear said. “Am I not allowed to use it?”

Dever said the activity is unsafe for everyone — both the people who are camping and those who aren’t. But he added that while he can understand the challenge at hand when there aren’t places for people who are living outside to go, efforts to begin the process of transitioning people to emergency shelter and then transitional housing should be happening now.

Burton put it more simply and said that there shouldn’t be any camping happening in downtown Lawrence at all.

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Members of the downtown Lawrence business community listen to Lawrence City Commission candidates during a forum Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023.

The group had plenty of ideas when it came to increasing residential density in the area. Dever, for example, said the city should be making better use of the public land it already owns and other underutilized spaces located around downtown, and installing more mixed-use development. Stumblingbear said amenities like a downtown grocery store would likely only be viable with higher density.

Sellers said adding density should be a strategic maneuver that allows for both mixed-use and mixed-income development.

“We’re in an evolution right now,” Sellers said. “Many years ago, your downtown was a place of business. Then it evolved into a place of business and retail, retail and eateries. We’re seeing that constant evolution, we’re seeing it in neighboring communities around us — that livability, that walkability.”

Candidates also answered questions about the downtown area’s “unique mixture of industries.” Finkeldei said that’s the district’s greatest strength.

“The mixture, the variety, is what makes downtown what it is,” Finkeldei said. “Retail, entertainment, restaurants and employers.”

Thursday’s event was one of several upcoming forums featuring City Commission candidates slated for the next week or so. One of them, a Lawrence chamber of commerce forum scheduled for next Wednesday morning, is a private event. But a forum at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St., at 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 2, in partnership with the League of Women Voters of Lawrence, is open to the public. The same goes for a joint City Commission and Lawrence school board forum that starts at 1:15 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 7, at the Lied Center Pavilion, 1600 Stewart Drive. The Saturday forum is hosted by Lawrence’s NAACP branch, Black:30 and Loud Light.

The deadline to register to vote in the general election is Tuesday, Oct. 17, and advance voting by mail or in person at the Douglas County Elections Office, 711 W. 23rd St., begins the following day.


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