Part One: Candidates for Covington Mayor Debate
This is part one of what will be two parts of coverage from Monday night's Covington mayoral debate.
They have spent the past two years voting almost entirely the same way but Covington City Commissioners Sherry Carran and Steve Casper worked Monday night to explain how they would be different in the next four years as mayor. The two appeared alongside each other at Ninth Street Baptist Church in the Eastside for their first public debate before the November 6 election. The event was moderated by local attorney and author Rick Robinson with questions from a panel consisting of Covington Business Council executive director Pat Frew and The River City News editor and publisher Michael Monks (NOTE: Monks is the author of this post).
Issues covered in the debate included Casper's proposed Bellagio-style fountains in Mainstrasse Village and Carran's support for urban forestry as a tool for economic development, attracting and retaining young families, developing a thriving business corridor along Madison Avenue and elsewhere Downtown, as well as various threats to the city's neighborhoods.
"I have a vision that will change the face of Covington," Casper said. "I see a city where Madison Avenue has storefronts that are no longer empty, filled with newly created jobs. I see a city where our neighborhoods are no longer blighted, the streets are paved, the sidewalks are smooth to walk on, homes are well cared for."
"I want to be mayor because I believe I am the best qualified person at this time to lead the city forward," Carran said. "I have a sincere passion for Covington and its people so I entered this race with that passion to do what's best for the city as a whole."
The two candidates found subtle ways to differentiate themselves with Casper offering himself up as an experienced business-oriented person with networking skills and Carran highlighting her ability to work with teams, rather than a go-it-alone strategy. Each of them hopes to replace current Mayor Chuck Scheper who took over in October 2011 after the resignation of then-Mayor Denny Bowman (Casper said that Bowman has endorsed his candidacy). Scheper has proven to be a popular and effective mayor during his one year in office and the candidates know that they have some big shoes to fill.
"It's going to be difficult filling those shoes. He has the respect and trust of the people, he's not looked at as a politician," Carran said, adding that she had worked well with Scheper previously on the Vision 2015 urban renaissance plans which include the Licking River Greenway & Trails, a housing strategy that includes the new River's Edge at Eastside Pointe development, and working towards a more pedestrian-friendly atmosphere in the city.
"My business acumen may not be quite as stellat as Mayor Scheper's, however, I've had a very successful 40-year career in real estate," Casper countered, noting that he was elected president of the Cincinnati Board of Realtors and the Ohio Association of Realtors, "which has 45,000 members, similar in size to Covington. Leadership comes naturally," he said.
What the candidates learned on recent tour of Covington neighborhoods and how to address the problems
Casper and Carran joined other city leaders on a tour of seven Covington neighborhoods over the weekend and saw first-hand some of the issues facing the residents. "What I learned is, we visited seven neighborhoods, each represented by some of the most passionate of our citizenry and that is an asset that is wonderful for Covington," Casper said. "What did we see? We saw some of the negative parts of Covington that, frankly, need to be addressed by more stringent code enforcement, by a housing strategy that takes into consideration all the elements: absentee landlords, the Housing Authority, section eight. Each has been working on their own rather than under the same umbrella."
"This is probably my fifth tour and really, things haven't changed a whole lot," Carran said. "One thing that changed is that neighborhoods are a lot stronger, very engaged and they realize they are making a significant difference. What I learned is the same, that we still have issues that exist. It seems there is not a plan to address the overall causes. What I realize and what I said recently is that some of our people are at a breaking point that if they don't start seeing some change for the positive, they are at their wit's end. Helentown has done so much in three years but they've reached a point that they can't do more themselves, they need the city to step up and take the next step."
On Monday, one particularly filthy alley in Mainstrasse Village that was part of the tour, was thoroughly cleaned by City crews.
Candidates discuss what they see as the most pressing issues facing Covington
"The first challenge is to bring the focus to accomplish the plans, the projects that we already have on the table," Carran said. "They are good plans and good projects and the effort has been diluted because we've sort of been in an emergency mode trying to patch problems this past year, trying to work on what Mayor Scheper is trying to do." Carran identified the Center City Action Plan, the Latonia small area study, the Linden Gateway small area study, and a plan for Roebling Point as already being on the table. "Focus on the projects and plans that we already have in place."
"The first (issue facing the city) is the economic budgeting," said Casper. "We've taken care of it for this year but it's not going to go away any time soon, so we must be concerned about the budget. In terms of addressing it, the goal is to bring in new business and we have established some incentives, particularly in the Downtown business core. We also have taken for the first time a step in reducing the payroll tax, albeit, it's not a huge drop but it's the first time it's gone in that direction so to me that's very symbolic." Casper also noted code enforcement as having not been successful "as of late". "So now it's being revamped so that we can address the blight."
Future plans for Latonia and South Covington
"We are in desperate need of a twelve-month community center that would supply indoor and outdoor pools, classroom recreation, basketball courts," Casper said. "There are not many places for our children to go. Latonia is the most logical (location) because it's central to the north and south of Covington." Casper described the proposal as a $5-$10 million project and said transportation would be provided to kids from elsewhere in the city. "A wonderful site would be part of the shopping center which would then act as an economic catalyst to the center which would then be a boon to Latonia in particular. That would help address problems in South Covington where kids don't have enough to do."
Carran pointed out that several other neighborhoods were also left out of the Center City Action Plan, which lays out a strategy to revitalize Downtown Covington. "Our outer neighborhoods have concerns that the CCAP only deals with the urban part of the city," she said. "(The Latonia Small Area Study) does call out a plan to revitalize that shopping center where it will be more of a hub for Latonia. And what we're doing with code enforcement, we'll begin to address the blighted properties." Carran added that she is the City's representative on the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana (OKI) regional council of governments that recently secured federal funding to reconstruct the Caroline Underpass and other important road projects in Latonia. As for South Covington, "It has the same problems as other neighborhoods: blighted property, transportation," Carran said, adding that she served on the citizens advisory committee in 2003 to ensure that the Hands Pike redevelopment will have wide sidewalks separated from the traffic to make the area more pedestrian-friendly.
On working with the new Commission next year
No more than one incumbent will return as a City Commissioner next year and whoever wins the mayor's race will see a majority on the commission that was not there this term. "I will do my best to bring the commission together and create a good working relationship," Carran said. "And it's going to be difficult. There are going to be three very different personalities, but that's what Mayor Scheper has done. He's respectful of all of us and inclusive of all of us and I hope to do the same thing."
"I look forward to working with the new commission," said Casper, adding that he has met with all of the candidates at least once, "to build a rapport so that come November 7, we can actually begin to hit the ground running. I'm comfortable in knowing them, in the dialogue that we shared in terms of a vision for Covington. Probably my greatest asset is that I'm a consensus builder."
Look for much more from this debate in part two of RCN's coverage including how each candidate aims to boost employee morale and candidate-specific questions focusing on proposals for Bellagio-like fountains, the Housing Authority, proposing the hiring of a full-time arborist during times of cuts, and more.