The new BNSF intermodal facility might provide Ottawa with its “Wolf Creek moment,” Mike Skidmore said.

The vice present and branch manager of Goppert State Service Bank told about 100 people who gathered for a city commission candidate forum Tuesday night that Ottawa would have to be prepared for growth if it should receive an influx of new residents because of the intermodal facility near Edgerton and Gardner.

“The intermodal is just about a 20-minute drive away,” Skidmore said.

Skidmore said the facility could attract new residents because of the short commute to Ottawa, as well as provide some local residents with good jobs.

“It could bring in some of those higher paying jobs we need,” Skidmore said.

Incumbents Linda Reed and Jeff Richards, as well as challengers Helen Hood and Skidmore, shared their thoughts about issues shaping Ottawa during the forum in the Franklin County Board of Commissioners’ chambers at the Franklin County Office Annex, 1428 S. Main St., Ottawa. Five candidates are vying for three commission seats in the April 2 general election. A fifth candidate, Raquel “Rocky” Fleer, did not participate in the forum.

Reed agreed with Skidmore that Ottawa would have to be prepared to handle the potential growth by maintaining the quality of life that Ottawa residents find appealing — without having to raise taxes or cut services.

Reed and fellow incumbent Richards talked about work the city has done to shore up its stormwater system through the recent establishment of a storm water utility, improvements to city streets, the additions of miles of sidewalks and upgrades in the city parks, as well as other infrastructure upgrades.

“One of the things we found appealing about Ottawa was that it had a full-service hospital. I’m raising boys — I need an emergency room,” Richards, an Overland Park police detective, said to laughter from the audience. He and his wife, both U.S. Air Force veterans, have three sons and one daughter.

Reed, lab director at Ransom Memorial Hospital, 1301 S. Main St., Ottawa, cited CNNMoney magazine’s naming Ottawa as one of the best cities in which to retire in America as a feather in the community’s cap. She said the city’s parks, schools and health care systems are a few of the reasons why people like to live in Ottawa.

Hood, a lifelong resident of Franklin County, said Ottawa had a small-town appeal but also had many amenities that people find attractive. She agreed with Richards and Reed that improving the city’s infrastructure and streets should be top priorities.

Skidmore said he thought investment in infrastructure was good, but he also wanted to see the city put more emphasis on economic development.

He said Ottawa is on the rail line that runs directly from Los Angeles to Chicago, as well as the four-lane and super-two highways that make the community accessible from numerous points.

“Most communities would love to have our highways and rail,” he said.

The candidates were given two minutes at the beginning and end of the forum for remarks. In addition, candidates fielded questions from The Herald, KOFO Radio and audience members, which were asked through moderator Ryan Henningsen.

The Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce’s Legislative Action Committee, Franklin County Farm Bureau Association, Ottawa American Legion Post No. 60 and AT&T sponsored the forum.

All four candidates said recent runway improvements at Ottawa Municipal Airport, as well as a land acquisition near the airport that would allow for future expansion, was a wise investment, because the airport was another vital asset to help spur economic development.

Reed and Richards pointed out the airport is used in many ways that people don’t realize, such as NCAA Division I coaches flying to Ottawa to look at a star basketball player or planes delivering pints of blood to the airport for the hospital.

Richards said the airport, the K-68/I-35 interchange and the Love’s Travel Stop area off I-35, all offer prime locations for growth that could bring more retail sales to the community.

The commissioner said he would rather have dollars generated from people doing business in Ottawa and paying a retail sales tax than through more taxes on property owners, He said he was not in favor of raising the property tax mill levy. Richards said people cannot ask their bosses for more money because bills are coming due. Residents have to make cuts in their budgets and watch their spending, Richards said, and the city also must be fiscally responsible.

Skidmore said he could see similarities between his fiduciary responsibilities with the bank and with being a city commissioner. He said making sound financial decisions was important in banking and in ensuring taxpayers’ dollars were spent wisely.

When asked if the candidates thought the City of Ottawa should continue to help fund the Ottawa Main Street Association, Hood said the $27,000 the Ottawa Main Street Association receives annually from the city has been money well spent. She said volunteers have put in hundreds of hours beautifying downtown and completing other projects.   

“I would not want to see that funding cut,” Hood, who has served on committees with the Main Street Association and Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce, said.

Richards and Skidmore said they would like to see a gradual phasing out of city funds to a point that the group could stand on its own, and Reed said she would like to see the Chamber, Main Street Association and the county’s tourism and economic development arms work together.

The Main Street Association’s revolving loan fund has been used by several Ottawa businesses to make improvements, Richards pointed out.

When asked about the Ottawa Municipal Auditorium, all the candidates said they would like to see the facility used more frequently and generate more income so it could be self-supporting.

Hood, Skidmore and Reed said they would need to do more research on how the funding of the county’s 911 system should be divided up between the City of Ottawa and Franklin County.

Richards said because Ottawa residents pay taxes to the county and to the city, and the cost of the 911 service is split evenly between the two entities, Ottawa residents pay about 75 percent of the service’s cost because they are paying taxes twice for the service. He said about half of the 911 calls are generated in Ottawa, and the community has about half the county’s population.

 “I’m sure we can come up with a solution that is fair and equitable to everyone,” Richards said of negotiations that are currently taking place between the city and county on this issue.

The candidates thanked the sponsors and residents for coming to the forum.

Reed, who is finishing her fifth year on the commission, said being a commissioner requires a tremendous learning curve, and she would be honored to use the knowledge she has gained in the past five years to continue to serve the community.

“You could look at me as a return on your investment,” she said, smiling.

Skidmore emphasized his experience in banking and how that would help him as a city commissioner. He said he had been thinking about running for city commission for some time and would be honored to serve the community where he grew up.

Hood said she had a passion for Ottawa and it is where she and her husband chose to have a business and raise their family. She said she too would be honored to serve the community.

Richards, who is finishing up his second year on the commission, said he would like to continue to serve Ottawa residents. He said a move afoot in Topeka to turn city and school board elections into partisan elections is a bad idea.

“Making improvements to infrastructure and fixing city streets is not a party issue — it’s a community issue,” Richards said.