Mayoral candidates have two distinct visions for city
Cottage Grove's pair of mayoral candidates can agree on at least one thing: The 2008 election represents a distinct opportunity to reshape the city's government at what both Myron Bailey and Fred Luden say is a critical time in Cottage Grove's history.
Each says they're the right one to lead that shift.
The two sitting city council members are the lone combatants in the race to replace outgoing leader Sandy Shiely, who will step down when her term expires in January after eight years as Cottage Grove's top elected official. Bailey, a 45-year-old regional manager for a clothing retail company, and Luden, a 61-year-old retired 3M executive, agreed in separate interviews that after voters head to the polls on Nov. 4, the five-person city council will take on a significantly different look.
"It's a very unique opportunity to redirect the future of Cottage Grove to a new way of thinking," Bailey said recently.
At the top of both candidates' agendas? Economic development. But how each proposes to grow Cottage Grove's commercial-industrial sector -- and in turn help shift the tax burden now shouldered disproportionately by homeowners -- differ starkly.
In his time on the city council, Bailey has been a champion of retail development, throwing his support behind the proposed commercial development at the Cottage View Drive-In site and standing as the lone vote for altering the city's comprehensive plan to open the door to a Gold's Gym proposal in the Langdon area.
A lack of shopping and restaurants is a common complaint among Cottage Grove residents, both candidates say, and Bailey wants to add to the city's comparative dearth of retail ASAP. Cottage Grove, with the right retail center, can draw shoppers from surrounding cities, he says, as well as stem the flow of dollars leaving Cottage Grove's 36 square miles for other nearby shopping.
Bailey believes the city needs to "re-look at how we're marketing ourselves" and better listen to developers. Developers have done their homework, he says, they know where retail will and won't work in the city and that the city council should be willing to listen.
"It's funny, you go to Menards on a Saturday morning and you're getting people from Prescott, people from Hastings shopping here," he said. "On the other hand, if you go to the Woodbury Wal-Mart or Hastings Wal-Mart on a Saturday, and you talk to people or look at the (names of cities) on people's coats, a lot of them are Cottage Grove people. So on the one hand we're drawing people in, on the other hand we're forcing people to leave the city to get services they want."
But for Luden, appointed to the city council in 2007 to fill Rep. Karla Bigham's vacated seat, first it's a question not of keeping residents' discretionary dollars in town but of keeping jobs here to build on. He cites census data that paints a picture of a Cottage Grove that empties during the workday, often a deterrent to restaurants: Roughly 10,000 leave the city for jobs elsewhere five days a week, almost one-third of the city's population.
So the city's first job, he says, is not to bring in restaurants or retail but rather companies that will create "jobs that can feed a family of four, that have quality health care." Once the jobs are here, Luden believes, the amenities will follow.
"Economic development isn't chasing brand names or a fad company, or working with a developer to try to create an incentive, a field of dreams concept that says, 'If (the city) puts the infrastructure in, (retail) will come,'" Luden said.
Later, he added: "You have to redefine economic development. It's simple for me -- it's improving the economic condition of the city and the citizens."
One way Luden proposes to spur economic and job growth is to renew a push to draw a post-secondary two-year college satellite campus to Cottage Grove. A post-secondary education option is needed in Cottage Grove, he says, to offer young people in the city the opportunity to receive job-specific training and take classes that will contribute to receiving a four-year college degree.
That easily available training will help draw more jobs to the city, too, Luden believes.
But aggressively courting retail doesn't preclude the city from continuing efforts to lure more quality jobs to Cottage Grove, Bailey says.
"I want both and think we can do both," Bailey said. "The reason I focus on the commercial side is I'm familiar with it, and (Luden) is more familiar with the industrial side ... The people in Cottage Grove are constantly telling us they want certain amenities in Cottage Grove. If we can provide the opportunity to give people those amenities while reducing the tax burden on people why wouldn't you do that?"
Candidate views on key 2008 issues
-- Community center: The need or lack of need for a community center is an issue tossed around in Cottage Grove for years. The community survey conducted late last year showed support from residents for such a facility -- but less enthusiasm for paying for it.
Bailey: Believes in the need for a community center and says he would bring it forward through a referendum. But he believes the issue may need to wait until the ailing economy turns around and the city has more freedom in its budget. Supports a shared public-private partnership to finance and run a portion of a future community center.
Luden: Says there "is absolutely a need for it," and believes a public-private partnership in a community center is "the best solution." If such a partnership requires significant tax support from Cottage Grove the proposal needs to be brought before voters in a referendum, he says. On whether a community center could become a reality in the near future, Luden said the city is required to prioritize and "make some tough decisions."
-- Business friendliness: Is Cottage Grove business-friendly enough? Both mayoral candidates and some city council candidates have expressed their doubts and said the city needs to work better with existing and prospective businesses.
Bailey: "We tend to not make it very easy for people who want to come and build here," Bailey says. "We've put up barricades." That will get around to developers, he said, and they may shy away from building in the city down the road. Officials also need to "be much more proactive in going out there ... and touting, shouting, the benefits of Cottage Grove."
Luden: "Cottage Grove would not rank high on the list of business-friendly cities," Luden said. The city needs to simplify its dealings with businesses already here if it's to lure more, he said, and chief among needed changes is Cottage Grove's special assessment policy for infrastructure improvement. After originally voting in favor of the roundabouts last year, Luden later cast a dissenting vote after assessment totals for some businesses deemed to benefit from the project jumped sharply from original estimates. A better assessment policy, he believes, would lead to less litigation and a better relationship with businesses in the city.
-- City budget: As new housing starts have slowed from a gush to a trickle, a once steady flow of city revenue has disappeared -- and a national economy in the tank doesn't help matters. Cottage Grove's proposed 2009 budget features little growth, and 2010 and '11 figure to be as tight or worse, city officials have said. Will taxes need to be raised?
Bailey: Said he will focus on keeping property taxes low or reducing the rate by pushing hard to lure new retail to Cottage Grove to give the city's small tax base a commercial boost. Says he believes there isn't much to be cut from what he called a "bare minimum budget" and that the city will need to be careful with its spending. Said his experience as a regional retail manager gives him the knowledge to balance the city's budget.
Luden: "The next four years are going to be tough," Luden said. He believes he has "a great background in financial management (and) a solid background in economic development." Luden says the city needs to ask how it can spend less and believes strong performance measurements need to be installed on the city's operations and services. The goal should be to develop more efficient processes that use less time, money and material. "We have to prioritize," Luden says. "We have to take some things we'd like to do now and not do them unless it results in an immediate cost reduction to the city." The way to expand Cottage Grove's tax base, he says, is by bringing quality jobs to the city.
-- Water quality issues: Water quality issues have been on the minds of many since 3M-manufactured chemicals were detected in Langdon well water and at much lower levels in the city's municipal water.
Bailey: Said he has heard a lot of concern from Langdon residents and said he believes the city and government entities involved in the chemical cleanup process need to do a better job communicating with residents. "We need to be a little more proactive as a council, and leadership as mayor, to not allow things to fall between the cracks," Bailey said. Also said he supported the comprehensive plan amendment that would have sped up the development of Langdon in part to get its residents off contaminated well water and onto the municipal water system.
Luden: Until the first of the year, when he retired from his position at 3M, Luden did not attend meetings between the city and government agencies on any 3M issue, and recused himself from council discussion on the matter. As mayor, "I will be very aggressive in making certain things are done in the correct fashion," he said, but added that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Department of Health are the government entities responsible for the cleanup and drinking water standards, not the city. Luden said if there is enough of a groundswell from citizens in demanding treatment of the city water system or home water filters, "it could be done. But it would probably end up being a city expenditure."