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First-time City Council candidates Nathan Kotfis, left, and Darrin Smith participated in a recent forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters during which four candidates discussed city issues ahead of the Nov. 5 election. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)

St. Paul Park City Council candidates stake out differences

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The four candidates vying for two seats on the St. Paul Park City Council discussed a variety of issues last week during a candidate forum that had incumbents Sandi Dingle and Jeff Swenson facing off against challengers Nathan Kotfis and Darrin Smith.

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The League of Women Voters-sponsored forum included questions from residents about long-term visions, infrastructure improvements, the proposed commuter rail and business growth.

Red Rock Corridor

Candidates were split on the proposed Red Rock Corridor and the future of rail transit through St. Paul Park. Dingle, a strong proponent of the commuter transit project and member of the Red Rock Corridor Commission, said it would be a positive addition to the community.

“It will be great for all the new development that is happening around the area,” she said. “Finding a funding source is all we need right now.”

Disagreeing, Kotfis said the town already has enough rail lines coming through.

“We already have two railroad tracks and to add another will be a burden,” he explained, adding that the rail line could be a possibility after infrastructure downtown is addressed.

The Red Rock commuter transit service is proposed to run on an existing rail line, not a new line.

Swenson sided with Dingle, saying he would back the project, and Smith said while he wasn’t aware of the proposed commuter rail he said it would be a “great benefit to the community.”

Attracting business

With well-established businesses on Broadway Avenue, one resident asked if the candidates support the use of public funds to attract other kinds of business.

“I don’t think using public funds is always the correct way,” Smith said. “If we decide to push for a particular store to come down here and they fail, that looks bad on the city.”

Smith said businesses should be offered a tax break, rather than “pouring money into a business and it fails. That’s on our citizen’s dime and that isn’t always favored by the citizens.

Dingle agreed but added that before St. Paul Park can attract new business, the city needs to build its demographic, saying in certain instances using public funds might be a solution.

“I definitely agree that using a tax benefit or possibly some cost sharing or a break on price so (the business) could acquire the land and give them so long to develop it,” she said. “We’ll work with them. But I do believe once our demographic builds we will be able to attract new businesses.”

While Kotfis said he agreed that offering a tax break to businesses would be beneficial, using public funds to bring in new business is “a no in my book.

“The tax break is the only key thing,” he added. “Lighten up the burden for them to survive on their own and allow them to build because essentially if they don’t have the win attitude to achieve the success they are looking for why should it be spent on the dimes of the taxpayer?”

Highlighting that the city recently used its tax increment financing dollars to improve the aging infrastructure rather than attracting new business, Swenson said he supports the function of the Economic Development Authority.

“We do have a vehicle in place it’s just we don’t have the funds right now to be able to collect and offer to bring in new businesses,” he explained.

Refinery traffic

As a community with a major business anchoring a central part of town, the truck traffic near and at the Northern Tier Energy’s St. Paul Park Refinery has been a topic of conversation for many years. There was a recent attempt to improve sightlines and the design of the intersection at Summit Avenue and St. Paul Park Road, but some still say it’s problematic.

The candidates were asked what they see as a possible remedy to the heavy truck traffic and dangerous intersection.

Dingle said she recognized that the area was poorly designed but was unsure of what an appropriate solution could be.

“We’ve been working on a number of different things and met with (the Minnesota Department of Transportation) on how to fix that intersection, I know the traffic backs up,” she said. “I know really truly the only way to fix that is to tear down the bridge and start over.”

She added changing the timing with the stop lights has helped better facilitate traffic through the intersection and said she is open to other suggestions.

Smith agreed, saying he wasn’t sure if there was a real answer to the problem other than tearing down the bridge.

“There was talk years ago that the refinery was going to have its own road out to the highway but that obviously never happened,” Smith said.

“As we all know it’s a tough bottleneck right there with regards to traffic,” Swenson agreed. “I think one of the things we really need to take a look at is not just that area but also Third Street.”

Swenson said with the amount of heavy aggregate trucks using that road, “it’s just destroying that base and we need to figure out who is going to pay for that.”

Kotfis said he agreed that the main access point to St. Paul Park is “poorly built” and suggested the city look into creating a separate entrance for the refinery.

“Let’s get it off of the traffic of our residential so let’s look long-term because they’re not going no where,” Kotfis said. “It’s a lot cheaper to create their own entrance and exits for the refinery.”

Long-term ideas

Residents asked candidates what they would like to see the city become in 20 years.

Swenson said he would like to see development occur with a mixture of different types of housing and businesses.

“I would like us to keep our small town community,” he added. “I’d like to see a transition of our management teams to make sure it’s smooth and that the services offered up not only don’t stay stagnant but also improve. And I would also like to see us keep our high bond rating and be able to bond out projects at a very low cost.”

Noting her planning skills, Dingle said she would like to see the Rivers Edge development be completed and a trail built along the Mississippi River to connect with Grey Cloud Island Regional Park.

“I think doing all that and building up our population, in 20 years I see our downtown with a cute bakery, maybe an antique store and some more commercial development out toward the Rivers Edge.

“I see more pride in the area as it develops,” Dingle added. “And more tax dollars brought into the community and improve and embellish our parks base as well.”

Keeping the small town feel for the next two decades is what Smith said he wants to see.

“Maybe utilizing Heritage Park and having more functions geared toward using the parks that we have,” he said. “Promoting what St. Paul Park already has. Also connecting with the citizens and asking them what they want is more important than what I want.”

Kotfis said he would like to see a greater influx of housing developments, hold back large industries and increase focus on building the city’s amenities.

“This will attract the families to the area and they want to be here, they want to live here,” he said, adding that building large industries would interfere with the city’s small town atmosphere.

“I would say it’s all about the individual community itself make it a place you want to live not a place where you have to travel and use other city’s around you and their amenities to enjoy family fun.”

For more information about the four candidates running for St. Paul Park City Council, go to:www.swcbulletin.com/tags/elections

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Emily Buss
Emily Buss joined the South Washington County Bulletin in February 2013. She covers local government in Cottage Grove, St. Paul Park and Newport, along with other general assignment reporting. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and mass communications from Minnesota State University, Mankato.
(651) 459-4629
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