By MARK MAYNARD and MIKE JAMES
Second of two stories on the candidates for Ashland City Commission and the issues they are facing.
Six candidates, including all four incumbents, are running in the election for the Ashland city commission.
The four candidates voters choose on Tuesday will have a full plate in the coming term, grappling with issues ranging from water line replacement to liquor sales. They also will be working with a new mayor.
Candidates are incumbents Larry Brown, Tom Cantrell, Kevin Gunderson and Marty Gute, first-time challenger Tim Duley and former commissioner Cheryl Spriggs.
In interviews the week preceding the election, The Independent asked the candidates to discuss four crucial issues and then offered them the floor to touch on other matters they believe are important in Ashland.
Today the candidates weigh in on the riverfront and alcohol sales, the payroll and others things on their mind.
Ashland transformed its sleepy riverfront boat landing into a picturesque park with modern restrooms, a jetty and a boat dock, paying for it with $11 million in mostly federal funds.
The park is phase one in what is intended to be a much larger park, taking in city land on the other side of the Ben Williamson and Simeon Willis bridges. Money for the enlargement is not yet on the horizon.
Since opening, the park has hosted Summer Motion events and an annual Youthfest music festival, but critics say it is otherwise underused, considering its pricetag and potential value to the city. One perceived shortcoming among critics is the city’s unwillingness to allow alcohol sales at some events.
A group of investors backed out of financing a blues festival at the park for that reason.
The Independent asked candidates for their thoughts on best using the park — and whether alcohol sales should be a part of the vision.
Cantrell would not be in favor of charging admission to any park event, including at the riverfront. He said the city does a good job in maintaining its 14 parks all over town.
“They are designed for all the public to use. Summer Motion is great down there (at the riverfront) and does very well. I’d like to see it (the riverfront park) utilized more.”
As for alcohol at the parks or Sunday alcohol sales, he says it should be a referendum that the citizens vote for or against and not the decision of the city commission.
“I know the city commission can vote on it, but that’s not the democratic process,” he said. “The role of alcohol (in Ashland) has been overrated. When we passed the wet ordinance (in 1980) it had very strict rules and that’s the only thing that has passed. Alcohol has been great for the city, I’m a supporter of it. We wouldn’t have a lot of things we have without it. But, to be fair, I think the ordinance has to be enforced in the intent it was made. That’s one reason it has been successful.
“If the city wants Sunday alcohol sales, I think it should go to a vote (of the citizens).”
Brown, who is not a proponent of alcohol, said he would rather have a referendum on any alcohol changes, be it having it at the riverfront or Sunday sales, and “let the community decide what they want and I’ll support whatever that is,” he said.
He said the riverfront is not fully developed that that the economy is changing for the better. “I’d like to see growth on the riverfront beyond concerts. I’d like to see retail and restaurants.
“We have so many other bigger issues than alcohol at the riverfront and alcohol.”
Duley is in favor of expanding alcohol to the riverfront and for Sunday sales.
“To have alcohol sales down there (on the riverfront), some people think it’s the end of the world and it’s not,” he said. “Look at the Huntington riverfront and what they’ve been able to do, things like ribfest that they charge to get into. That money goes directly to the city. There’s money to be made and put in our coffers. We can earmark that money to be used for nothing else but infrastructure. The same thing for downtown events.”
Duley said it would be nice to have more adult entertainment on the riverfront.
“We have to start doing something to be a leader to other communities around here,” he said. “We can have events for families and have events for adults that want to go down there, like concerts (where alcohol would be permitted and sold). We need something to get us on the map.”
He said the return of boat and jet ski racing would be a possibility.
The restrictions overall, he said, may be preventing Ashland from attracting bigger events and businesses. “We’re right here and we’re not getting the nod on a lot of things.”
Other than Summer Motion, the park is underused except by anglers who drop their lines into the Ohio River, Spriggs said.
The blues festival idea, alcohol sales and all, was a good idea that the commission should have supported, according to Spriggs.
“The reason people hire commissioners is to make tough decisions. Those are the ones that push us forward,” she said.
Calling it an economic issue, Spriggs said such events would stamp Ashland as a forward-thinking community. That would draw more people and their spending money to the city.
With the appropriate permitting process, event applications involving alcohol could be reviewed case by case to winnow out questionable ones.
Spriggs said she has been involved for 10 years with the annual Chilifest, Ashland’s only downtown festival where beer is permitted, and that alcohol problems have been non-existent there.
She said city police are on hand to tamp down any potential problems.
“We’re adults and adults know how to handle themselves,” she said.
Gunderson disagrees that the park is underused. “I’m there almost every day. It’s utilized more than it gets credit for,” he said.
Future development phases will bring the park to maturity. Gunderson envisions a restaurant as part of the development and said he would support incentives for that purpose, particularly since building in a floodplain entails risk. Public-private partnerships would be a good strategy for developing the park, he said.
The undeveloped property on the other side of the bridges needs cleanup and grooming, and more convenient access over rail tracks requires a walkway over them — both projects Gunderson said would cost only a fraction of the first phase.
“This is not a very expensive completion,” he said. The lion’s share of initial development cost went to expanding the park’s footprint and building the pier.
If a restaurant locates in the park he would not oppose issuing it a liquor license, but otherwise opposes alcohol use or sales there. Gunderson is concerned that opening the door to alcohol sales at one event would require the city to offer the same privilege to any group. That means if the Ku Klux Klan or the gay-hating Westboro Church wanted to book the park for an event involving alcohol, the city’s hands would be tied, he said.
Pointing to Summer Motion and the Youthfest, Gute called the riverfront park a success already, and said it serves a valuable purpose as a venue for fishing and walking. “The riverfront park is just that, a park, one of 13 in Ashland,” he said.
Gute predicted that over time it will become as much a destination park as Central Park and would like to see more festivals use it.
Potential restaurant use could include a riverboat eatery and bring the same festive atmosphere as the riverfront in Louisville, he said. That would enhance Ashland’s reputation and make it a destination city.
A restaurant with a liquor license would be fine but the rest of the park should remain alcohol-free, Gute said.
He pointed out that the commission had approved use of the park for the blues festival and that although it denied permission to sell alcohol in the park it had offered organizers the option of using private outside land for the purpose.
Ashland’s 1.5 occupational license fee, known colloquially as the payroll tax, has been on the books since 1999. The initial furor over its enactment has long since died down as taxpayers became accustomed to the weekly nip from their paychecks.
However, public officials have discussed raising the tax half a percent to close budget shortfalls. The Independent asked candidates whether they would support an increase and what should be done with an increase if it were imposed.
“I don’t think we’re going to do that. I’ve heard no sentiment on it,” Gunderson said.
The Ashland tax is below the state average of 1.8 percent among cities that have payroll taxes, and keeping it that way helps the city maintain its competitive edge, he said.
If the commission does raise the rate, the additional revenue should be used to pay for infrastructure improvements, he said. But he called that a last resort.
“I don’t see any need for a hike. I’m not saying I wouldn’t change my mind but we’re in good shape now,” he said.
If raised, the revenue should fund city services and public safety, he said. “Right now we are doing O.K. on 1.5 percent. It would have to be justified before I’d entertain it.”
“I’m not for raising taxes ever, especially right now,” said Spriggs.
Rather than raise the tax, the city should pursue economic development avenues to get more payroll- and tax-generating businesses in town.
“There is too much of a tax burden on businesses and citizens. The more money people can keep in their pockets the better off they will be,” she said.
If a hike comes before the commission she will vote against it.
If enacted, she would want it used to bolster police and fire department finances.
Cantrell said he would not support any tax increase that wasn’t absolutely necessary to keep the city afloat.
“It would have to be an emergency situation where we were going into the red,” he said. “We’ve always had a balanced budget and done really well with it. Without the payroll tax, Ashland would not be operating right now.”
But unless it’s a “bankrupt situation,” Cantrell would not vote for an increase in the payroll tax, he said.
Brown said he would not be in favor of a payroll tax increase unless it was dire straits for the city.
“I think the city has done quite well living within their means,” he said. “The population is changing (shinking) and we need to continue to be as efficient as we can and right-size the city to its communities and businesses. If the city got in a situation where it could not move forward without increasing the payroll tax, I would be obligated to do that.”
Duley said he was not in favor of any tax increase but, if it were to happen on a commission where he was serving, the money should go directly to infrastructure.
“I’m against raising taxes,” he said. “I think our city should be efficient enough that we shouldn’t have to raise taxes. We, as middle class people, are getting hit hard on taxes.”
If an increased payroll tax would have to be enacted, Brown, Cantrell and Duley said the money should go toward the city’s aging infrastructure problems.
Candidates have other issues on their minds and The Independent offered them the floor to air additional thoughts.
Gunderson interprets the state hunting and fishing amendment to supersede city ordinances against fishing in the Central Park pond. If the amendment passes, which all sources say is a sure thing, Gunderson wants to organize a kids’ fishing tournament at the park.
He favors a property tax break on new homes to spur construction. His suggested incentive would all but eliminate city property taxes for the first 10 years.
Gute opposes Sunday liquor sales and calls the Sabbath prohibition “a matter of respect” to non-drinkers, particularly churchgoers. “Sunday is their day,” he said.
Spriggs called for creative ways to bring businesses to Ashland and said quality of life considerations are part of the solution.
Her vision of Ashland includes making downtown the epicenter of the city with cafes and niche businesses, embracing curbside recycling — without eliminating city jobs — working on air quality, cultivating community gardens and building bike routes.
Cantrell said the AK Steel cleanup at the old coke plant was a welcome sign for the city, which can deliver a million gallons of water to that 138-acre area. It has the rails and highways already in place too, making it an ideal industrial park site if that’s the direction AK Steel wants to go.
Spiraling health insurance costs for the city is an area of concern, Cantrell said. “It’s becoming harder and harder to furnish a good plan to city employees like they deserve. We want to look at that closely.”
Of course, improving and upgrading the infrastructure in Ashland is imperative, he said.
Brown said the No. 1 goal was to focus on retention of existing jobs in the city.
“We need to do a better job of staying in contact with those businesses and see if there’s anything we can do to help them. We need to cut the red tape and be more efficient in responding.”
Brown is in favor of possibly creating an Enterprise Zone in Ashland similar to what the state used to have to give businesses tax incentives. “We could work with the state on sales tax incentives. Those dollars would come back to us immediately in those new jobs with new construction and new payroll.”
He also said the city government needs to become right-sized through attrition and retirements and that the “city building itself look for duplication of services.”
Brown was proud that in the last 10 years the city has had more than $500 million in new investments and added 5,000 new jobs. The city’s unemployment rate is less than the state and nation, he said.
“When you look around at neighboring states and communities, Ashland has done quite well,” he said.
Duley said the city needs to change the direction of how they think about using out-of-town labor and instead always use local labor. “That puts money back into our economy,” he said.
He also said the city needed to focus on occupying some of the downtown buildings, including the potential for upscale apartments. He said Sunday alcohol sales might also benefit downtown for current and future businesses.
Duley, like the other candidates, said the aging infrastructure is a crucial project that needs to be solved.
His aim would be to make Ashland a more attractive venue for outside businesses.
“That would be my focus, to get people to come in here,” he said. “We need something that’s going to make us some money. We need jobs. I’m glad we’re going to do that on Melody Mountain but, again, those are minimum wage jobs. We need more higher-paying jobs if we’re going to survive.”