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Park Rapids candidates identify business growth, infrastructure needs as priorities

Candidates participating in Thursday's forum at the Park Rapids Library were, from left, Pat Mikesh, Sam Spaeth, Ryan Leckner, Tom Petschl and Joel Vorhes. (Kevin Cederstrom/Enterprise)

Candidates for city council and mayor seats in Park Rapids participated in a League of Women Voters sponsored forum Thursday at the library. Attending the forum were Mayor Pat Mikesh and challenger Sam Spaeth. Candidates running for two seats on the city council are incumbent Ryan Leckner, Tom Petschl and Joel Vorhies. Elizabeth Stone filed to run and was invited to the forum but she did not attend.

Infrastructure needs, attracting new businesses to Park Rapids and promoting the Armory Square project were some of the most prominent topics discussed during the one hour forum.

The candidates first introduced themselves and were asked to identify top two short term and long term priorities to address the city’s challenges for the future.

Leckner, who was appointed to the city council last year, said two of his short term priorities are to keep the police department a strong unit in the city because the protection of the community is very important. Leckner also noted a short term goal of building public restrooms downtown. Long term, he would like the city to promote business growth in Park Rapids. “I think we need to come up with a plan to get more businesses to town and keep the town strong financially.”

Petschl, who serves on the parks and library boards, said he would like to encourage more people in the community to get involved on boards. Long term, he said business development and growth is important to the city.

Vorhes stated his short term goals are to market and promote Armory Square, as well as build public restrooms downtown. Long term, he would like to bring businesses to town and fill the vacant buildings, the two most visible being the old Pamida and J&B Foods buildings. Vorhes also said a long term goal is to provide affordable housing in the community.

“It’s great to have businesses, but if people don’t have a place to live that’s affordable and quality housing, it’s difficult to attract employees.”

Mikesh said short term goals include finding a way to make Armory Square work. “We all want to find a way to make it work so it doesn’t cost the city money.” Mikesh identified the success of the airport as a way to promote Park Rapids and help the long term goal of bringing more businesses to town.

Spaeth would like to see the continued support of the city employees, police department and fire department. A long term goal is to improve infrastructure, particularly sidewalks in the community.

What is your reasoning on how to balance community needs versus the tax burden placed on residents and businesses?

Petschl said as they’ve all stated a priority is to bring more businesses to town and that would be the reason for the balance. “We don’t want to tax them out of town, nor the residents,” he said.

Vorhes said the city needs to invest in infrastructure and replace water and sewer lines that are 50-60 years old but there is a limit to what the city can tax people and need to choose the projects that need to be done based on the resources available. “By expanding the tax base we can do what we need to and provide quality services,” he said.

Mikesh said the city needs to find a way to bring more businesses into town and from there it’s kind of a domino effect. First offer businesses incentives to get them here. “When we get them here that means jobs for people, that means more income, more people coming downtown to spend,” Mikesh said. “By bringing more businesses in, more opportunities and more jobs, that relieves everything.”

Spaeth pointed out the city’s needs are many because the infrastructure is in bad shape. “Let’s hold the taxes where they are now,” he stated. Spaeth pointed out the city just built a bathroom at Deane Park for $92,000. “Do we need a $92,000 bathroom in Deane Park, he said. “Why didn’t we build one up here on Main Street where they could use it?”

Leckner again noted adding businesses to town is one of his objectives and that would help relieve the tax burden on residents. “The city is really strong financially but it comes down to priorities and responsible spending,” he said. “You get pulled in every direction on the board but you can only do so much. You can’t do everything, you have to remember that. As a business owner I’ve learned you can’t do that until you can afford it. I think the same type of philosophy works with the city.”

What are your priorities for fixing the aging and absent water and sewer lines serving the city?

The candidates were given this question and all agreed the aging lines should be looked at and put on a schedule for replacement. Vorhes commented this should be done not only by age of the lines but also by function.

Mikesh said the city continues to follow its established Capital Improvement Plan to determine where the repairs are needed most.

Spaeth said the streets on the west side of town are in bad shape and the city should use the CIP and go from street to street.

“If you want to get businesses in town you have to have a decent looking town.”

Leckner stated there is a lot of work that goes into the CIP and the city tries to follow it the best they can based on project priority.

Armory Square was discussed during the forum and the candidates asked in what ways would they support further development of this project.

Petschl said first he’d like to take a look at the facility itself and the construction itself. He offered to look at construction inside and improve the facility.

Vorhes said it’s important to advertise the Armory in the area to attract smaller shows. “We’re going to be spend money on heating it and maintaining it but if it’s not being used it doesn’t do any good,” he said.

Mikesh said the way to support the Armory as a city is by promoting it. This will bring people to town and shop at local businesses. “We can make this work without being a tax burden on everyone else.”

Spaeth suggests more cooperation between the Armory and local business people to promote the facility together. Also, working with the chamber to get businesses to town and use the facility. “Maybe have some dances up there. I watch the old square dancing on TV, it’s kind of nice,” he said. “Why don’t we have some dancing up there for the older people. I like to waltz, I like to polka. We have to get some activity going.”

Leckner said the city needs to spend as much time and resources to help the Armory succeed and to keep it financially independent and keep taxpayers from having to pay the bills on it. “I didn’t think that could happen before but now we need to try our best to help them succeed.”

For the final question the candidates were asked in a minimum of one word and maximum of five describe the city’s current, most critical need.

Mikesh: Infrastructure; Spaeth: Infrastructure, hospitality; Leckner: Infrastructure, promote business growth; Petschl: Infrastructure, promotion of the city; Vorhes: Housing.

The Enterprise will continue its political coverage in Wednesday’s edition with the legislative forum featuring candidates for state offices held earlier this week, along with additional background information on each of the city council candidates.