Thursday was a busy one for Covington mayoral candidates Sherry Carran and Steve Casper, both current city commissioners in their third and first terms, respectively. In addition to the regular campaign grind, the pair appeared at the monthly luncheon hosted by the Covington Business Council at the Madison Events Center and then later in the evening at the American Legion Hall in Latonia for what would be their second debate/forum in eight hours.
Former Cincinnati Enquirer writer and current Strategic Advicers partner Patrick Crowley joined Casper and Carran at a table on stage at the American Legion Hall for an informal conversation about issues facing the city.
By now, much of the cases made by each candidate for why they would be the best choice to follow Mayor Chuck Scheper, who replaced Denny Bowman upon resignation last year and is not seeking election to a full term, have become familiar. Carran has been heavily involved in local government activism and non-profit volunteer work for the last fourteen years. Casper has a forty year career in real estate and envisions a redeveloped Seventh Street as an entertainment destination a la Louisville's Fourth Street Live.
For the past two years as both have served on the city commission, their voting records are virtually identical so the race for mayor has become one about visions for the future of the city and who is best equipped to take the momentum created by Scheper and keep it going for the next four years.
"(Scheper) has one of the brightest minds in the region which is why I pushed him to consider being mayor," Casper said. "His ability to be analytic related to the budget and the services we provide, he's always done his homework and it's a model that needs to be followed."
"Mayor Scheper asked all of us to agree to a level of social conduct," Carran said. "He's required that we all have respect for one another, that we have a standard of ethics, that we take pride in what we do. He sets an example for us."
Many Covington residents have expressed a desire to see Scheper continue in his role as mayor, but since that cannot happen it is likely that voters are looking at Carran and Casper to see which is most like him, a point noticed by the candidates. "He also has this wonderfully calm demeanor," Casper said. "I've never seen him lose his cool. I'm one of the few (on city commission) that has not lost his cool at a meeting, so I try to model myself after him. I don't pretend I'm a Mayor Scheper, but I can hold my own water."
"I think we've learned how to maybe keep politics out of decision-making and act more as a business," Carran said. "The other thing he has done is he has a real warmth to him. The (development team behind The Hotel Covington) spoke of when they first met Mayor Scheper, it wasn't that he was selling them something. What made them want to invest in Covington was his warmth and passion for the city." Carran has emphaised her own passion for the city and involvement before holding elected office throughout the campaign.
Carran's slogan on campaign materials is "Building on Strengths". "I know (those strengths) intuitively," she said, "but others working with us have to know what our strengths are. The natrual environment, the rivers, we're next to Cincinnati, and the people of Covington. We're a diverse community. I consider ourselves a quirky community which I enjoy. It's sort of Bohemian in a way. Those are strengths I'd like to work on."
"Covington is a strange breed," Casper said, noting how different the northern part of the city looks compared to the southern part. "One area I want to discuss is the Downtown core. It's not excluding Latonia or South Covington, but the strength of Covington in its entirety is based on the strength of Downtown."
The two agree that storefronts need to be filled and new jobs are needed in the city, but the path each sees to get there is different. Carran thinks improved public spaces would attract the businesses, while Casper sees the need to bring in the businesses before focusing on the public realm. "We have to grow jobs to increase the revenue in order to do the other things," Casper said. "The emphasis has to be placed on the growth of business."
"We have to have a good quality of place to keep our talent and draw talent into this area,' Carran said, citing the recent study of Covington by Denver-based Progressive Urban Management Associates (PUMA) which placed heavy emphasis on an inviting public realm. "On Pike Street we've done some amazing work on buildings to restore them outside and the interior spaces but they're still struggling because the sidewalks, the roadways outside have never been improved. We can do all the improvements in the world to the physical structure but we have to improve the physical realm."
Casper discussed the recent Information Technology program held a week ago in which three Covington-based firms highlighted their successes and desires to attract more similar companies to town. "That attracted more than two-hundred people. We need to play off the successes of our own companies right now to demonstrate their success and then attract other companies in a similar vein," Casper said. "We should become an IT corridor, without question."
Carran countered that other Covington success stories have evaluated other factors before growing here, notably BioLOGIC, the Russell Street life sciences incubator. "BioLOGIC is growing and investing more," she said, "and what drew them was the welcoming feel and diversity of the city. That is something we already have and we need to market that and say, here we are, we're a hidden gem."
"We have to increase the livability and the quality of life," Carran said. "We're not going to bring large companies in this area until we do that. Larger companies are coming here to check us out and they say we don't have what the talent (they) need are looking for." She said that those needs that Covington should focus on improving and enhancing are an inviting public realm, opportunities for a healthy lifestyle, arts and culture, green space, air and water quality, great schools, and a culture of inclusion.
Casper contends that his goal of a Downtown entertainment center would boost the local economy. "I've been pushing the idea of taking Seventh Street and converting it to Fourth Street Live like in Louisville to create a gathering point which PUMA has stressed we don't have enough," he said. "When you have a quarter million people come out of the Madison Events Center and the Madison Theater, they have no place to go before or after. We're losing all those dollars. If we retain the dollars, that will help our businesses." Casper said that the Salyers family, which is part of The Hotel Covington development and owns the Madison Events Center is supportive of his idea.
Another of Casper's ideas is to create a Bellagio-style fountain in the underutilized Goebel Park in Mainstrasse Village. He speaks of a fountain that would feature colored lights that dance to music and could be used in the winter as an area for ice skating. Casper bases his forecast for the fountain's success on a visit he made to Owensboro which created a similar attraction on its riverfront. Carran opposes the idea.
"I talk about building on strengths and this idea of taking ideas from other cities and plotting them down in Mainstrasse where have historic character, I'm not comfortable with that," Carran said. "The people that have been invested in Mainstrasse have some ideas with what they want to do with that area. I'm a big believer in citizen engagement. I'm not comfortable with one individual taking an idea and plotting it down."
"It's not an individual," Casper shot back. "I met with both associations in Mainstrasse to get their feedback and the businesses were very favorable to some kind of draw. It's not just Casper's idea."
"I've also talked to people so we're going to differ on that," Carran said. "Projects of that scale need to have citizen engagement and evolve through a vetting process."
As for Carran's own big ideas as asked by Crowley, she wants the city to revisit and focus on the plans that already exist. "My idea is more simple," she said. "We have great plans on the table for Riverfront Commons and there's going to be a lot of worth involved with that." Carran also wants to revisit the Times Star Commons plans that calls for a green campus near the Downtown library and for the rehabilitation of several buildings on that block. She envisions it as being as successful as Cincinnati's newly refinished Washington Park.
Look for more from this debate on Sunday at RCN.
PHOTO: Sherry Carran and Steve Casper with Patrick Crowley at American Legion Hall in Latonia