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Two council seats up for grabs

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Cottage Grove, 55016
Cottage Grove Minnesota 7584 80th Street South 55016

The Cottage Grove City Council could be facing some big changes come Nov. 4. With two council seats up for grabs -- and no incumbents standing in the way with both council members whose terms expire in December, Myron Bailey and Fred Luden, running for mayor -- the race is wide open for the city's five candidates.

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So here's a guide to the handful of hopefuls vying for votes this fall -- two of whom will be sworn in as Cottage Gove City Council Members on Jan. 7.

Tom Dippel

Dippel, a 26-year-old Cottage Grove native who helps manage his parents' dental lab business in South St. Paul, says he believes the No. 1 issue facing Cottage Grove is how the city deals with the continuing decrease in tax revenue in the wake of the housing market collapse.

"I think that we need to get down to a very minimum budget right now," he said. "With the things that we're facing we don't have the money, we can't afford to continue to build new parks or to do this, that and the other thing ... there are a lot of things that aren't necessities."

Necessities, he said, are public safety and public works. The key, he says, "is sustaining what we have."

The much talked about community center, Dippel said, isn't a necessity, and isn't something the city can afford to do in uncertain economic times. At last week's Bulletin-sponsored city council roundtable debate he said now isn't even the time to plan for a community center. An already tight budget won't allow the city to focus on what Dippel called "special projects," he says.

"If there's a need for a community center, or for instance a market for a community center in Cottage Grove, I think the private market would handle that much better than the city would," Dippel said. "If there was a need it would be taken care of by the private sector."

What the city should focus on is becoming more business-friendly to both existing businesses and those interested in the city, primarily, Dippel says, by being less restrictive on what business owners can do with their property and where interested developers can build.

"To get good businesses to come here, what's attractive to business: don't meddle around in their business," Dippel said.

Derrick Lehrke

Lehrke, a 29-year-old Cottage Grove native who has worked at Treasure Island Casino for eight years, says he's heard a lot of concerns while door-knocking as part of his campaign for city council.

Chief among them? "Hold the line," he said.

"What I'm campaigning on is holding the line," Lehrke said in an interview. "That in this downturn we're not raising taxes."

Lehrke admits there's "not a lot of fat on the budget." To him, that means projects like a possible community center may need to be delayed until the economy turns and the city's revenue again picks up.

"I love the idea of a community center ... it's something I would go to," Lehrke said. "But I don't know if the city can afford it right now." He said a public-private partnership that would lighten the financial burden on the city for such a building is the best way to move forward with a community center.

Another concern Lehrke has heard from Cottage Grove citizens is about the lack of retail and restaurants. As each council candidate has professed, Lehrke said the city needs to be more business-friendly if it's to build up a stronger commercial tax base.

The city, he says, has earned a status among commercial developers as "not being very business-friendly." And that, Lehrke believes, has to change.

Commercial growth needs to be done responsibly, he said -- and always with an eye kept toward the health of Cottage Grove's existing retail.

"If we bring in Wal-Mart," Lehrke said, "what happens to Target?"

The best way, though, to lure amenities that the city's residents want is "if we can bring in more light industrial, office-type jobs, people that are (in Cottage Grove) during the day," Lehrke said. "That'll bring in the restaurants. Bring in light industrial stuff, everything will follow."

Justin Olsen

Olsen has spent years working in the world of retail -- and he said he knows it's something residents would like to see a lot more of here in Cottage Grove. The 38-year-old district manager for a large shoe company, Strawberry Fest Committee president and member of the Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee believes the perceived lack of amenities -- and the number of Cottage Grove citizens heading elsewhere to shop and eat -- needs to change. And fast.

"Community leaders have the ability to create an environment to urge people to spend their hard-earned dollars in the community," Olsen said. The key to keeping those dollars in town, he says, is making sure residents have more choices in where to spend them.

A resident of Cottage Grove for more than 20 years, Olsen said he values the classic Cottage View Drive-In movie theater, but is a firm believer that now is the time to pursue large-scale commercial development for the site, despite the economic downturn.

And the city, he says, needs to be more flexible in working with developers. In Olsen's mind, city officials too often tell developers where they'd like them to locate rather than the other way around.

Discussions with developers need to be more open, he says, because "development and business tends to occur when and where it wants to."

Olsen said another serious conversation the city needs to have is regarding the much chattered about community center -- something that isn't an "if" Olsen says. "It's more when."

"The conversation needs to be advanced," he said. "What does (a community center) mean? How do we go forward?"

He'd like to see a public-private partnership, and insists a community center would need to go on the ballot as a referendum.

A third priority that Olsen says he's hearing concern from residents about is the water quality issues facing the city. The discovery of chemicals formerly manufactured by 3M in the city's water system and in Langdon area wells, he says, undermines one of the cornerstones of a good community. The city's leaders need to be more assertive in cleanup discussions between government entities and 3M, he said.

"Clearly, quality water is something no community can exist without," Olsen said. "It's one of the foundations."

Jen Peterson

To the self-coined "Candidate Mom" there's a gaping hole in the fabric of Cottage Grove. And it isn't a lack of shopping, breakfast joints or trendy lunch spots.

"The community center is my big deal," said the 42-year-old Peterson, a resident of Cottage Grove since 1994 and member of the city's Human Services/Human Rights commission and Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee.

"It's of huge personal interest to me because I've raised five kids in this community, still working on kids No. 4 and 5. I really felt like there was a big void for (kids) in Cottage Grove if they weren't into the sports scene anymore or into the Scouts scene anymore."

It's not just Cottage Grove's youths that would benefit from a community center, though. Peterson said she believes the city's aging population makes the prospect of another place -- a building she proposes be a joint public-private venture -- where they can take part in group activities or volunteer their time even more attractive.

And federal grants could offset the city's share of the cost, she says.

"There's a lot of potential to have this done without being a huge expense to the city," Peterson said at last week's city council roundtable debate.

She doesn't discount the need for more retail in the city, but says the better way to beef up to the city's small commercial tax base is through the addition of living-wage jobs to the city. In tough economic times, Peterson says, "I know a lot of kids won't have the luxury of going to college." So, she says, the city should focus on luring companies that will offer residents quality jobs in Cottage Grove. Restaurants and retail will follow, Peterson said she believes, once the city has shed its bedroom community status.

Another key to growth is commuter rail, Peterson said. She's an advocate of the proposed Red Rock Commuter Rail line that would run from Hastings to downtown Minneapolis. She said the city should act aggressively to make sure the ambitious southeast metro commuter line -- that officials project would stop at a Cottage Grove station in the Langdon area -- happens sooner rather than later.

Chris Reese

Nov. 4 represents an important moment in time for Cottage Grove, Reese said, a critical juncture in the city's development from small farming community to busy, buzzing suburb.

"This year, you've got a mayor and two new (city) council slots," he said in an interview, "and you can really change the dynamic of the future of Cottage Grove."

The 36-year-old, 12-year resident of Cottage Grove and Planning Commission chair hopes that after two previous runs for a city council seat that 2008 represents his chance to be part of that dynamic of change.

A key focus of the change Reese envisions is retail growth. It's a top priority, he says, because more commercial amenities make Cottage Grove both more livable for current residents and more attractive people and businesses interested in putting down roots in the city.

And his retail vision begins with two much talked-about sites.

"It's really about building those two retail sites, Langdon and the Cottage View," Reese said. "That will help bring in the rest."

He doesn't mind the city being picky about tenants in the city's growing industrial park. But Cottage Grove officials, he says, need to be a bit less persnickety when it comes to where and when new retail locates in the city.

"Bring the retail in and it makes (Cottage Grove) that much more attractive" to businesses that would bring living-wage jobs to the city, Reese said.

Reese, a media relations official at a Minneapolis financial consulting firm, says that now -- while the economy takes a nose dive and other cities may begin looking at how to simply eek by -- is the time to begin serious planning for the city's future, retail or otherwise.

Included in that should be significant planning for a community center.

"No one has defined what it should look like," Reese said of a possible community center, a building he said should be a dual public-private venture. "Let's stop talking about it and plan for a community center ... It's a difficult time to build one, not a difficult time to talk about one."

While he admits the obvious -- that times are tight for the city and that its budget is stretched thin -- Reese says "our budget is in good shape" and that an influx of nearly $500,000 in the next two years due to expiring tax increment financing districts will help the city through a lean stretch before the city can pad its tax base with those desired developments.

Jon Avise can be reached at javise@swcbulletin.com.

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