The Ottawa City Commission candidates dealt with economic and housing questions as well as challenges ahead for the city in the coming years during Wednesday’s candidate forum at City Hall, 101 S. Hickory St., Ottawa.
The forum, organized by the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce, provided a venue for candidates to respond to questions as well as make opening and closing statements. Early voting starts Tuesday with the general election set for Nov. 7.
There are five candidates on the ballot and one write-in candidate — current commissioner Eric Crowley — vying for four open city commissioner seats. Crowley was not invited to participate in the forum because he was not on the official ballot, a Chamber official said. The top two receive four-year terms and the next two will serve two-year terms.
Here are the candidates:
Weigand is no stranger to politics. He was a county commissioner and served 10 years as the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce president and chief executive officer.
He said Ottawa is ready for growth not only in population but also in jobs.
“The city and county have made a great investment — millions of dollars investment — in Proximity Park,” Weigand said. “It illustrates they are interested in recruiting people, jobs and good employers. We need to create a community that children want to graduate from school here. If they go onto college, they come back here, reside and raise their family. The city commission has a huge role in supporting [the workforce development plan]. Creating the kind of city commission and kind of community that is transparent, progressive and works together.”
He said economic development and housing are two key areas that need to be addressed.
“It is extremely important that city and county commissioners understand economic development,” Weigand said. “They have to be welcoming, progressive, have people ready to answer questions to satisfy the developer that this is the place they want to invest their money.”
Weigand said he will bring excitement, energy and wisdom to the commission.
“I can be a big influence and make a difference.” he said.
Staneslow feels he is a representative of the average resident in Ottawa. He graduated from Ottawa High School, works at American Eagle and spends his free time volunteering for various organizations.
“Being able to serve as commissioner is important to me for several reasons, including helping people in different ways other than just volunteering,” he said. “I can bring something to the chambers that is needed. I love being a resource for people. I love being connected. I am in-tune with the average voter. I feel I connect with everyone a little bit. I love being involved.”
He said one big opportunity he would like to address is improving Ottawa’s inward image. He said the city has made improvements to infrastructure such as sewer and curbs in the past and would like to continue to give those items priority.
Staneslow said a challenge is getting younger people to stay in Ottawa with all the opportunities the surrounding bigger cities offer. He said one way is to improve wages for city employees, especially starting wages to match the bigger cities.
He said it is always good to have a different voice on commissions.
Jorgensen is an experienced city commissioner. He was first elected in 2005 and was reelected twice and served three terms as mayor. He did not seek reelection in 2015, but came back to the commission in 2016 to fill a vacated seat.
“I first ran for this office to make this community a place my kids would want to come back to,” he said. “Jobs and quality of life are very important to me. I am a conservative. I try to keep taxes as low as possible. I am aware that any positive change must happen from within our community. I have always considered and was told Ottawa is on the edge of growth. Three years ago, we were not ready for that growth. We had infrastructure that needed to be improved. We have built new sewers and new electrical sub-stations. We have an industrial park that is ripe for development as well. I am excited for the future of Ottawa.”
Jorgensen said Proximity Park is a big opportunity for Ottawa and the county to grow.
“We are on the edge of a considerable amount of job opportunities,” he said. “The challenge in where are we going to put these [new people] and jobs. We have the issue of where these folks are going to live. We have to take steps to cure that.”
He said housing is a complicated issue.
“The city does not need to be in the house-developing business,” Jorgensen said. “We have to look at incentives [for developers].”
Skidmore, an Ottawa native, served the past four-plus years on the city commission. He said the main reason he is running for reelection is to tie up some unfinished business.
“The big one is Proximity Park,” he said. “We committed a lot of taxpayer money to join with the county to buy that property out there for the purpose of developing a new industrial park. We have not seen any returns yet. I understand those things take awhile. I would like to try and make something happen out there. I would like to promote more recreation. We have the Goppert Teen Park that has been started. I would like to see that come to fruition as well. We have a good opportunity to promote our trails.”
Skidmore said economic development will be a key objective for the commission. He said bringing jobs with a starting wage of $15 an hour is paramount in expanding the tax base.
“The growth out there will hopefully spread our tax base,” he said. “We have to provide services for our community that they expect, need and want, but at the same time keep our costs at a minimum. Keeping our taxes as low as we can [is a priority].”
Skidmore said he can use his banking and past experience as city commissioner to keep the ball moving forward.
“I feel like we are on the cusp of great things here,” he said. “I want to be a part of that. There is a lot of decisions to be made going forward.”
Graves spent the past two years on the commission after being selected to fill an open seat. She said she learned a lot as a commissioner.
“After two years, I feel like I am just getting my feet underneath me,” she said. “I have been through budget season a couple of times. You figure out how things work.”
She said she wants to continue the work on developing Proximity Park. She said the a big challenge facing the commission is how to handle the growth associated with the new business park.
“It needs to be a steady growth,” she said. “We have to understand we have to support the growth that happens. We can monitor and direct the growth. Once the industries go in that park, we have to provide the workforce. That is the biggest issues.”