Sharing a vision
Turnout at Thursday's Explore Superior mayoral forum proved that if you host it, they will come.
Before launching into a series of questions for the four contenders, moderator Doug Dalager addressed the packed meeting room.
"This is a great group of candidates," he said. "I don't think you can go wrong with any one of them."
Each of them highlighted the importance of being visible and active in the community.
"The first thing I would do is be out of the office," said City Councilor Brett Fennessey. "I think right now what we need is a mayor out on the street." One who will listen, take ideas and do something with it.
Plan Commissioner Kalee Hermanson said she plans to get out into the community and make changes.
"I am your voice at the city level," she said, lofting the idea of hosting town hall meetings at each of the city districts.
"I want to see transparency in government," Hermanson said. "I want everyone to hold us to what we do."
City Councilor Mike Herrick said the first thing he would do is listen. Only by listening to one another, he said, can answers be found and problems solved.
"I will take comments, suggestions you may have," said Herrick, who advocates an open door policy for the office.
"A manager is the guy who drives the dogsled, a leader is the dog out front," quoted County Board vice-chairman Jim Paine. "Leadership, to me, is leading from the front; leading by example."
Paine said that the first thing he wants to do is get to work and share his big vision for the city.
Government experience isn't necessary for the job, the four candidates agreed, although knowledge of the inner workings of city government could speed up the learning curve. They stressed the importance of having passion and building relationships.
Budget and tourism
The city is facing financial challenges in the coming years, the four agreed. But they differed on how to tackle them.
Herrick advocated priority-based budgeting, focusing on what is necessary for the city to function without running up a deficit. That's a great idea, Paine said, and one the county has been using for years. He focused on the area's relationship with state government and improving local independence, such as a ½ percent sales tax to improve roads.
Budgeting can only do so much, Fennessey said.
"We have to focus on growing," he said. "The strongest avenue we have for a strong future is simply growth."
Hermanson said the city needs to set realistic goals, cut frivolous spending and work to create more jobs in the city.
All four candidates were in favor of the Better City Superior initiative, a city dog park and partnering with Duluth to increase opportunities for both cities. Their views on tourism differed slightly.
Pushing for more tourism misses the big picture, Paine said.
"We need to be focused on our residents," he said. "We need to make it so fun here that people want to live here. When you enjoy it, others will too." That will lead them to live here, he said.
"I think Jim's missing the boat on this," Fennessey said. Any attempt to grow the city must include tourism.
"We have to bring people in here," he said, and to do that you must have things for them to come do.
Tourism isn't everything, Hermanson said, but it is part of the big picture. It's time to focus attention on the city's natural beauty and amenities that are already here, like she's done through the grassroots #WEARESUPERIOR group.
"Sometimes we just forget what we have," she said.
Tourism, Herrick said, is important in any community and the city is doing well in that regard.
"A lot of people come up to Duluth and Superior from the Twin Cities," he said, and the city has targeted the area for marketing.
Both Hermanson and Fennessey said they'd be willing to consider the sale of Nemadji Golf Course and the Barker's Island Marina to private parties, but not without an in-depth analysis.
Herrick and Paine opposed any sales.
"You can't say you need to increase the quality of life and then take away stuff that's fun," Paine said.
Both properties are self-sufficient, making money and paying their bills, Herrick said.
Capitalizing on Superior
The candidates were asked how they would strengthen neighborhoods, improve housing stock and attract residents.
Attracting new residents comes with jobs and improved infrastructure, things the city has been working on for years, Herrick said, pointing out the revitalization of Tower Avenue and the manufacturing businesses on the waterfront. The city's put empty lots up for sale and more housing is being built.
"We need to keep folks in jobs, large or small," he said.
Paine wants to focus on the worst housing, offering loans to help residents fix up properties and selling condemned properties for $1, allowing the buyers to rehab them.
"That's something that can turn a renter into a homeowner," he said.
Fennessey is living proof it can be done. His family is in the process of rehabbing an 1890s Victorian home. He'd like the city to search for more pockets to develop into housing and keep doing what it does best — being neighborly. When he moved to the Twin Cities briefly, Fennessey missed meeting his neighbors, getting to know them and how they lend each other a hand.
"That's what Superior has," he said. "We need to hang our hat on that."
Hermanson agreed that strengthening neighborhoods was critical. She pointed to the return of Billings Park Days, launch of South End Days and continued East End Days event. Such celebrations help neighbors meet each other and improves safety, she said.
Hermanson was also interested in offering worn-down houses to residents for rehabilitation.
"If we continue to keep taking them down, we're losing our history," she said. "It's bringing our history forward with us as we come."
How can a mayor make government more efficient while being responsive to its citizens?
More efficient doesn't necessarily mean budget cuts, Paine said, pointing to areas where staff increases have made county departments more efficient. Place-building can attract attention to the area, he said, creating buzz around areas that are growing like the north end of Tower Avenue.
Fennessey advocated pulling in families and business owners who have already been successful in Superior to see what they did, and what else they can do to encourage city growth.
Hermanson said efficiency comes by partnering with departments, sitting down with department heads to make sure funds are being used efficiently.
"It's important we get input from you as citizens," Herrick said, noting that in the 2016 budget the city had department heads go through a process to cut 1 percent from the budget.
The city has had successes — a new hotel and brewery are in the works, the Lurye Furniture building is being revitalized and both the Target and Kmart buildings should soon be filled.
"The development team is doing its job," Herrick said.
To increase retail, Hermanson said, Superior needs to shine a spotlight on what it's got. That's what #WEARESUPERIOR has done, she said, and the businesses they've showcased online have seen an increase in foot traffic.
"Two years ago I made a plan to buy everything I need in Superior," Hermanson said, and she has. In doing so, she's discovered an array of small, local businesses.
With the upcoming revitalization of Belknap Street, Herrick said, Superior will have a great track to pull people in on. It's important to get the word out that people want to shop Superior, he said, and welcome those shoppers with open arms.
"Good retail is fun retail," Paine agreed. Residents and visitors alike should know that priceless and unique things can be found here in Superior.
Fennessey, too, highlighted recent successes.
"If you'd told me two years ago we'd have a donut shop, candy store and game store on Tower Avenue, I wouldn't have believed you," he said.
The community needs to support these local businesses, as well as the companies planning to move into the former Target and Kmart buildings.
City managers and Wisconsin Point
All four candidates were opposed to the city manager form of government.
"People no longer get a voice in who's running the city," Hermanson said.
"For a city our size we need a mayor who's out in the community," Fennessey said.
A mayor has a lot more influence than a city manager, Herrick said, especially when they go down to Madison.
"I do oppose a city manager for the same reason I oppose shrinking the size of the county board," Paine said. "I'm opposed to less democracy."
Mayors, he said, are responsible to citizens.
In the second hour of the forum, the candidates tackled audience questions ranging from ensuring public safety and whether those who hold public office should be held accountable for their social media feeds to who they looked up to as role models and how to tackle the opiod crisis.
Plans for Wisconsin Point were discussed.
"I love Wisconsin Point as it is, it's a beautiful place you can go with your family," Hermanson said, but with parking spaces so spread out it is hard to thwart crime. Even if that means fewer parking areas, she said, "I don't want to see a lot of development."
Paine said it's a wild, beautiful place and it should stay that way. He didn't have a strong opinion on whether to consolidate parking or leave it as is. A committee is already working on that issue and he's looking forward to hearing the recommendations.
Herrick encouraged city residents to attend a public meeting on the Wisconsin Point plan, which takes place at 5 p.m. Wednesday in the Government Center.
Wisconsin Point is the definition of a hidden gem, said Fennessey, who grew up swimming there. He agrees with the committee's recommendation to narrow down the number of parking spots because of crime on the point. He's also in favor of a boardwalk so long as the area is kept as natural as possible.
Superior residents John and Ruth Ludwig said they felt the forum offered a good look at each of the candidates, their positions and their visions.
"I believe that we have four good candidates, yes," said Ruth Ludwig, 7th District city councilor.
Camron Vollbrecht, a driver with the Superior Fire Department, said he found the positive, polite forum "refreshing" after the recent presidential election.
Superior, Ludwig said, is at a crucial point.
"I think it's an exciting time right now, because we do have potential for the light rail, and for better city superior and our two main streets are developed or going to be developed," Ludwig said. "I think we could have the perfect storm, really, to draw tourism, to draw businesses, to make our downtown area vibrant, the place to be even for our residents. The next 10 years, people won't even recognize Superior."