COLUMBIA — Much like the city itself, discussion at the League of Women Voters forum Thursday night revolved around Columbia's downtown.
Second Ward City Council candidates Allan Sharrock and Jason Thornhill and Sixth Ward candidates Barbara Hoppe and Rod Robison answered questions on topics including use of eminent domain and how far the city should go to provide incentives to downtown developers. The election date is April 7.
One audience member, John Clark, was interested in how the candidates stood on the use of incentives such as tax increment financing, a method that allows all or a portion of the additional tax levied on a development project to be reallocated towards financing that project. Currently, The Tiger Hotel and the Trittenbach Development at Tenth and Locust streets* have applied for tax increment financing.
Thornhill said he would like to gauge other downtown businesses on whether the use of tax increment financing is appropriate and take a look at "peer cities" who have used these incentives in order to "start off on the right foot."
His opponent, Sharrock, felt differently.
"As a school teacher, I am very concerned about these upcoming TIF (tax increment financing) projects, and I think a lot of other citizens should be, also," Sharrock said.
Sharrock said the tax revenue that would be reinvested into projects should go where it was originally intended, such as providing money for public schools.
Sixth Ward candidates opinions were similarly polarized on the matter. Hoppe said she feels the city was doing a good job of creating a "strong, vibrant" downtown and that The Tiger Hotel's history made it an important aspect of downtown. She said she would vote in favor of allowing the hotel to use tax increment financing.
Robison said that he felt there were issues and infighting between groups in the downtown area and would not go so far to use tax increment financing in many circumstances.
"I would move a little slowly with some of these tax incentives," Robison said.
Software tester John Schultz, 38, asked the candidates about the proposed use of eminent domain to purchase the property that is now home to Bengal's Bar and Grill and adjacent areas for the State Historical Society of Missouri.
"The city needs to do everything possible to acquire that land," Robison said, citing the project's potential economic impact.
"Being a longtime Columbia resident and Hickman graduate, I hate to lose anything to Jefferson City," Robison said.
Robison and Hoppe both expressed optimism that the historical society would be able to negotiate a deal with landowners and that eminent domain would not be necessary. Hoppe also detailed the city's efforts to negotiate and facilitate the deal.
Thornhill said the economic and educational impact the new historical society construction and facility would have, in addition to the potential for $40 million in federal stimulus money, made the project worthwhile.
Thornhill said he thought the land, a half-block bounded by Elm Street, Lancaster Drive and Fifth and Sixth streets was a good location for the society.
"I think eminent domain has its place," he said.
"As a city councilman, I will never use eminent domain to acquire another person's property in order to give to another entity," Sharrock said.
Schultz said he came to get the candidates' views on votes to use eminent domain, a process he said forces landowners to negotiate with the city.
"I think everyone except for Allan Sharrock dodged the question," Schultz said.
Continuing the downtown theme, Peg Miller asked the candidates what they thought of the city and Special Business District's plan to install mobile security cameras downtown.
Sharrock cited what he said was a recent study showing that, while such cameras don't deter crime, they do help capture felons.
"To me it's a budgetary issue," Sharrock said. "How much can we spend?"
Thornhill said he thought the city may not have communicated the project well enough to citizens.
"I think it's a trial-and-error thing for the city," Thornhill said. He said that, if it is proven effective, he supports anything the city can do to deter crime.
Robison said that, as a law-abiding citizen, he didn't fear the cameras.
"If I'm not doing something I shouldn't be doing, I don't mind if there's somebody filming me doing it," he said.
Hoppe tried to put the surveillance in perspective.
"You could post two policemen on the corner and that's surveillance, also," Hoppe said. "It seems like a small and reasonable experiment."