COLUMBIA — Candidates for the mayoral, Third Ward and Fourth Ward seats discussed city improvement Thursday afternoon at a forum held by the Columbia Chamber of Commerce.
About 50 people listened to the candidates' perspectives on the viability of the Columbia Regional Airport, job creation and the role of economic incentives in attracting businesses. Present were Mayor Bob McDavid and challenger Sid Sullivan, incumbent Third Ward Councilman Gary Kespohl and challenger Karl Skala, and Fourth Ward Councilman Daryl Dudley and challenger Bill Weitkemper.
Fourth Ward candidate Ian Thomas did not attend because of a prior engagement at a conference in Kentucky. His opening remarks were read by forum moderator Kellie Ann Coats, the chamber's chair of MU Health Care, and emphasized the importance of education, traffic demand management and investment in the city's roads.
Columbia Regional Airport
McDavid said infrastructure was the "number one priority for the citizens of Columbia," and highlighted the airport and transit system as examples of projects worthy of investment.
"Make Columbia a fly-into area, not a flyover area," he said.
Sullivan, who ran against McDavid in 2010, said he does not support spending money on the airport until the number of passengers rises.
Currently, 100 people pass through the airport each day, Sullivan said. Until that number reaches 500, he would not increase the airport's funding. He said he would focus on roads and sewers rather than air transportation.
"We need to move carefully on the airport," he said.
The Fourth Ward candidates had opposing views on the airport's long-term benefits.
Dudley said the difficulty of traveling to Columbia — especially for SEC sports fans — was problematic. He said a superior airport could help the city's economic future.
"Columbia is a growing and viable city, and it needs to have an airport," he said.
But Weitkemper said he was skeptical of spending too many tax dollars on sustaining the structure, adding that an airport of that size had a 90 percent chance of failing.
"There has to be a price on it," he said. "$17 million is unreasonable."
McDavid said it was essential to bring a wide variety of jobs to the city, from high-skill positions at MU's nuclear reactor to production jobs requiring a GED. Sullivan said he would seek new strategies for employment through the creation of a job creation advisory committee.
The kinds of jobs that Columbia brings to the community tend to be higher-level, white-collar ones, he said. He would work as mayor to bring more lower-level and entry-level jobs. This kind of creation would also lower poverty in the city, he said.
Kespohl said the way to get people out of poverty is to train them in trade fields so that they are qualified for jobs that require technical skills.
He said he has met with various city officials and a representative from Linn State Technical College to establish a campus in Columbia.
Skala said these efforts must expand beyond post-secondary level positions to include entry-level jobs. Skala referred to a 2009 report detailing plans to promote technical education in Columbia. Concerning the homeless population, he said the city should be able to provide beds and food to those in need in exchange for community service.
Demolition request moratorium
Candidates were asked to defend their vote — or to explain how they would have voted — on a defeated City Council bill that would have placed a moratorium on issuing demolition permits to downtown property owners.
The three incumbent members of the City Council present at the forum all voted against the bill Jan. 22. At the forum, each candidate cited concerns regarding a potential lawsuit as reason for voting against the measure.
"I left medicine, a great job, because I don't like getting sued," McDavid said. "As mayor of Columbia, I still don't like getting sued."
Kespohl said he also feared a lawsuit. Letters from the attorneys involved in the Niedermeyer property transaction, he said, confirmed those suspicions.
Dudley said he voted against the moratorium "for the simple reason that (the city) did not need to get sued."
Sullivan did not say how he would have voted on the moratorium.
Skala said the Niedermeyer and the abeyance on demolition proposed by Barbara Hoppe are two separate issues. He said he would have voted for the moratorium, and doesn't agree that the moratorium would have resulted in a lawsuit.
Weitkemper said he would not support the moratorium. He said the measure would not have had any effect on the Niedermeyer building.
McDavid said the incentives that compelled IBM to move to Columbia had paid off, generating $700,000 in tax revenue for the city as well as an additional $400,000 for Boone County and the Columbia School Board, respectively.
He cited the city's 1831 acquisition of MU — a venture he said cost $25,000 per citizen at the time — as a solid investment and, in contrast, described Moberly's failed Mamtek venture as one that was "terribly done."
"We need to (use incentives) prudently," he said. "We need to do it smartly, and we need to do it to improve the economy of mid-Missouri."
But Sullivan said the the IBM incentives have not yet proven to be worth the money.
IBM does not pay property taxes to the city. And although the company promised to create 600 jobs by the end of 2012, they created closer to 250, he said.
"Columbia needs those resources," he said. "When companies get a tax benefit, residents end up supporting the industry."
Sullivan said that he would work as mayor with the council to create a way to eliminate those incentives over time if the company does not meet the expectations of job creation.
Kespohl said he does not like the idea of incentives, but that Columbia must keep up with other cities that utilize them.
Skala said he voted for the IBM incentives package when he was on the council. He said the deal was a case of a successful incentive proposal, which he would like to see more of in the future.
Dudley said it was necessary to match incentives from other cities to attract business.
"When I ran three years ago, I ran on a platform of jobs and safety," he said. "It’s still about jobs and safety, and incentives are something to use to bring jobs."
He added that the city needed to consider companies already located in Columbia. Weitkemper disagreed, arguing that the use of incentives to attract IBM was an unacceptable use of public money.
"Was it successful?" he said. "Debatable. It obviously brought in more jobs. Appropriate? No."
Missourian reporters, Elizabeth Pearl, Chris Jasper and Tony Puricelli contributed to this report.