Newport mayor, council candidates spar over city's growthNewport isn’t doing enough to help grow business within the city, mayoral and city council challengers charged in a recent candidate forum. In what was the sharpest volley during the forum, the city’s three incumbents seeking re-election defended steps the city of 3,700 residents has taken to build its commercial base.
Newport isn’t doing enough to help grow business within the city, mayoral and city council challengers charged in a recent candidate forum.
In what was the sharpest volley during the forum Friday in Cottage Grove, the city’s three incumbents seeking re-election defended steps the city of 3,700 residents has taken to build its commercial base.
City Council member Steven Gallagher, who is challenging incumbent Mayor Tim Geraghty, had the strongest words of the morning forum held by the Cottage Grove Area Chamber of Commerce. Gallagher dismissed Geraghty’s explanation of now-completed bridge and highway reconstruction as the reason behind slow commercial growth as just “excuses at this point.”
Geraghty and other city officials have long said the extended projects that rebuilt U.S. Highway 61 through the city and constructed a new Wakota Bridge — and the economic recession that followed on their heels — drove off development from Newport and that growth has been slow to return.
“We’ve gone through a tough, tough time with eight years of construction,” Geraghty said. The final span of the new bridge over the Mississippi River opened in 2010, roughly three years behind schedule after work had begun on Highway 61 in 2002.
Gallagher, though, said it isn’t a construction hangover holding the city back. It’s the city itself not doing enough to promote itself, clean up rundown properties or attract new businesses, he said. Gallagher touted the city’s program of registering vacant buildings and levying fines against their owners for lack of corrective action as an example of what can be done.
“I’m sick and tired of hearing, ‘You know, it’s the road project; it’s not us,’” Gallagher said. “It is us.”
The forum, held at Werner Electric Supply in Cottage Grove, invited mayoral and city council candidates from Cottage Grove and Newport, and candidates for state Senate District 54 and House Districts 54A and 54B. Among Newport candidates, mayoral hopeful Paul Hansen and council challenger Katy McElwee-Stevens did not attend.
A major impediment to growth, both Gallagher and council candidate Dan Flood said, is the city’s appearance, a sentiment echoed by a chamber member who posed a question to the Newport candidates and said the city “looks like it is getting left behind” neighboring Cottage Grove.
“Right now, you come off the main highway and see empty lots, broken down trailers [and] business trailers, said Flood, a former Newport planning commissioner and one-time congressional candidate. He proposed the city set up various economic development funds to help lure new businesses to the city and help them locate and grow in the city.
Except, the incumbents rebutted, the city is already doing that. Council member Tom Ingemann cited a façade improvement program put in place by the city last year that has assisted at least one business with a $10,000 forgivable loan that was used to help renovate a blighted and empty former gas station into a new auto repair shop.
A projected $600,000 budget surplus in 2013 will be funneled toward Newport’s Economic Development Authority to further efforts like those, incumbents said.
“This is one way the city is working to bring in new businesses and improve the appearance of the city,” Ingemann said.
Council member Bill Sumner spoke of cautious budgeting as key to continuing to improve the city and cited Newport’s improved bond rating as proof of the council’s responsible fiscal policies.
“I’m proud to say at a time when the United States bond rating declined … the city of Newport’s bond rating has increased two steps,” he said. “That can only come through prudent financial management.”