The highlight event of the 2019 local government campaign took place on Monday night, with each of the seven candidates hopeful that they have established in the minds of voters why they should be a city commissioner.
Prompted by questions by Steve Johnson at the Atchison Area Chamber of Commerce Candidate Forum, Abby Bartlett, J. David Farris, David Hausmann, Luke Jesnowski, Lisa Moody, Bill Murphy and Charlie Perdue discussed issues including the city’s housing stock and the future of the Commercial Street Mall, which saw the greatest divergence in policy prescriptions offered by candidates.
Johnson, the Benedictine College director of marketing and communications, chairs the Chamber’s LEAD Council and agreed to serve as forum facilitator based on his local leadership role, which complements his political neutrality as a resident of Leavenworth.
Let’s hit the Mall
While all candidates encouraged the promotion of small business growth as key to Atchison’s future economy, incumbent commissioner Hausmann and Farris, who served the city government for decades as city attorney, staked out opposing positions on the future of the Mall. Hausmann said that he agrees with studies which show that vehicle traffic can’t efficiently access several of the businesses which inhabit the mall.
As a consequence, Hausmann said, the 700 and 800 blocks of Commercial Street, west of the Mall, are thriving, while the 600, 500 and 400 blocks have some vacant business spaces. For this reason, he said, it is time to replace the Mall with a conventional block that allows vehicles to drive the length of Commercial Street through downtown.
“Commercial Street is our main artery in downtown,” Hausmann said. “The artery is clogged. Things die. Grants can be obtained; the expense can be managed. Perhaps the opening of Commercial Street could be done in stages, one block at a time. We are in an era where people don’t want to walk. They like to cruise and see what stores there are.”
Farris said that when a previous consultant firm for the city recommended the replacement of the Mall, city leaders instead funded upgrades to the infrastructure, pavement and fixtures supporting it. This significant investment would be lost if the Mall if replaced, Farris said, and the cost of sewer, road and other improvements needed to put in a traditional block of businesses would take decades to pay off. Instead of replacing it, Farris said, the city should invest more in the marketing of businesses in downtown, and in recruiting new shops to occupy vacant spaces.
“When I was city attorney, we hired a person specifically to go out and hustle for businesses on the Mall,” he said. “If we adopt a different thought pattern about this, we can fill up those buildings and put our Mall to good use.”
Run down housing,
a real issue
On the matter of housing in the city, candidates concurred that rental properties, which constitute about 40 percent of all residencies in city limits, are affected more often than not by age, delayed or nonexistent maintenance, external blight and, in some cases, structural deterioration. Murphy cautioned that landlords who have not been able to keep up all their properties may be lacking the resources to do so, as they don’t want to evict tenants who are down on their luck and can’t make rent.
“Some people think the landlords are demons,” Murphy said. “But for these folks, bringing people to court, forcing them to spend money they probably don’t have to try to keep their home doesn’t seem very Atchisonian; it doesn’t seem very neighborly. I’m not giving these people a pass, but we need to go about this in a friendly way ... I do believe most property and land owners are doing their best with what they have.”
Perdue, for his part, called attention to the state of housing available to Benedictine College students. The student body has grown significantly in recent years; the college encourages as many students as possible to live on campus in housing it owns and operates, but eligible students at times elect to live off campus for space, financial or other reasons.
“With these properties, if they’re drawing rent from them, the problems need to be corrected,” Perdue said. “I was shocked at some of the housing BC students are in. They’re not up to standards. Some of these (off campus) houses are just not up to standards. My two girls graduated (college), some of these houses, I wouldn’t have wanted them living in (them) ... So yes, the rental properties need to be cleaned up.”
Jesnowski called for strict enforcement of current housing rules and regulations.
“This is a part of every community,” he said. “The landlords need to work really hard on communicating with City Hall. We need to work together. And if that means we need to have more town hall meetings, let’s come together, let’s talk about these problems and let’s fix them. It’s an ongoing problem ... Let’s help out the citizens.”
Someone wanna build an ark?
Candidates generally concurred on the costliest factor of all for 2019: The Missouri River. U.S. Highway 59, a major artery for traffic from Northeast Kansas to reach St. Joseph and vice versa, has been closed since mid-September and could remain closed heading into the winter. With water levels as they currently are, the levees that breached throughout the area can’t be repaired, and the highway will always flood if the water level is high enough past breached levees.
“If any one of us had the ability to solve this problem, I think there’s no question they’d be No. 1 on Election Day,” Bartlett said. “It is extremely inconvenient at this point, but I’m not sure how to go about solving it at this point other than going to our higher ups ...
“If all of our concerned constituents would write letters to our legislators, I think that would be impactful. But of course, you have to take time to do that. And we need leaders who can articulate the difficulties on a factual basis, not just an emotional and convenience basis.”
Farris expressed skepticism that the city government will be able to take meaningful action on its own. He referenced how, in all likelihood, the prospect of raising the terrain level of U.S. Highway 59 across the Amelia Earhart Memorial Bridge will be a low priority for leaders in Jefferson City, who have a lot on their plate concerning transportation.
“I think Missouri is in the bottom 5 percent on roads and bridges in the United States,” he said. “If you’ve driven to St. Louis on I-70 lately, you know what I mean. A lot of what we have to say on this is going to fall on deaf ears, I’m afraid.”
Jesnowski concurred that for the most part, alimenting the flooding is beyond the exclusive resources of the City Commission. However, he emphasized, local elected leaders can devote their time to being a voice to other sectors of government, both elected and non-elected, such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to represent Atchison’s concerns to those able to enact reform. This may present previously unknown opportunities, he said.
“We didn’t create this problem,” Jesnowski said. “But we can try to help.”
Making voices heard
About two dozen constituents, in addition to candidate family members, attended the forum, held at the Atchison Public Schools USD 409 district office in the Commercial Street Mall. Chamber staff and volunteers live streamed the event on the Chamber’s Facebook page, and it can be reviewed there. Initial reports indicated that between 10 and 20 people watched the live stream at any given time, and more than 1,000 post-event views had been logged by 11 p.m. Monday.
For perspective, a little more than 5,000 Atchison County voters cast ballots in the 2018 federal midterm and state election; a little more than 6,500 voters cast a ballot for president in 2016. How many people will vote in the city commission race on Tuesday, Nov. 5, is unpredictable, but the local elections held in November of odd-numbered years are usually lower-turnout affairs; candidates have to appeal to particularly well-informed, active voters and single or double-digit margins can be decisive.
All candidates will be on the ballot for every city resident, and will be ranked based on the number of votes they each receive; the top two vote recipients will receive a four-year term of office upon the first meeting of the city commission in January 2020, while the third place candidate will receive a two-year term of office. The remaining four will not qualify for a seat.