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In their own words: Cottage Grove council, mayoral candidates answer questions

We asked Cottage Grove City Council and mayoral candidates to briefly answer two questions we think are especially important to Cottage Grove voters. Here are the questions and their responses:

Which should be a higher economic development priority for the city, attracting living-wage jobs or attracting more retail and service businesses (stores, restaurants, etc.)?

Myron Bailey: I believe you can have both. There is a misconception, that retail jobs are not good-paying jobs. This is not true. I am in the retail sector. I know what the going rate is for managers and associates. It's as good, if not higher than many industrial jobs. We currently have many businesses that want to locate in Cottage Grove, but they have run into a City Council that does not want change. I have personally met with many of these businesses and developers. The feeling by these developers is Cottage Grove is a difficult place to start a business or make a development happen due to the many types of roadblocks put before them. We should be focusing on both industrial and commercial growth to expand our tax base and improve our community. As mayor, I plan to change this feeling and perception.

Tom Dippel: First, I would like to begin with saying my views are realistic and have in mind your best financial interests.

I believe both economic issues should be pursued. If you look at any vibrant city you will find living wage jobs and retail/service businesses forming together and creating an environment of growth and sustainability for each other. We are not dealing with a complicated subject here. Our tax base needs to be expanded if we wish to sustain our current amenities and budget. We must create a good business environment through low taxes and aid the business with development while avoiding over regulation and ridiculous ordinances that hinder the success and growth of the business. I have worked at and have managed parts of my parents' family business for over eight years. I understand business growth and development through firsthand experience.

Fred Luden: Economic development is more than just attracting new companies; it's about improving the economic condition of the community and its citizens. We need to stop being a bedroom community which offers little in the way of employment opportunities, but plenty of housing. Over 10,000 people leave Cottage Grove daily to go to work. Cottage Grove needs to have the Economic Development Authority and city staff re-focus on creating quality jobs. Quality jobs are jobs that pay well enough to feed a family of four with health care benefits. The best solution for economic growth is a combination strategy. First, you focus on retaining your current businesses and encouraging them to expand. Next, work with them to attract their suppliers and look for new fast growing companies. When quality jobs are created in Cottage Grove, it will have a direct impact on home ownership, and increase our retail and commercial development.

Justin Olsen: I'm focused on our community's image amongst current and potential residents, as well as our fiscal responsibilities and properly funding public services. With respect to economic development, both types of growth are necessary and possible. They are not mutually exclusive and should exist synergistically. As an example, look at the number of those employees working "living wage jobs" in Cottage Grove who do not reside in our community. I've asked many of them why, and the resounding response has been focused on a lack of amenities they desire for themselves and their families. Many of those are related to retail and/or dining options, recreational opportunities for families and children, and entertainment choices. I also aim to work closely with corporate tenants interested in placing a campus here, with the hope being their employees will choose to relocate here also. We need to give them a compelling reason to do so.

Jen Peterson: I think that bringing in more living-wage jobs before focusing on bringing in retail or service businesses would be preferred. Having the option for our residents to be able to make a living wage right here in Cottage Grove would more quickly have an overall positive effect to the economy of the city by making sure that families are able to continue to live here and meet their basic needs, like housing, transportation (which would be lower if living where they work), food and medical care. Once more residents have a decent wage, they then would have the means to help stimulate the city's economy by being able to do additional shopping or go out to eat. Very simply, the people need to earn the money before they can spend it. Although retail and service business would bring in jobs to community, they tend to not be living-wage jobs.

Chris Reese: Both. However, we need to attract the retail first. Businesses that have wanted to come to Cottage Grove, but chose not too, have said we don't have enough amenities for their employees. If we develop the retail first, there will be much more demand from corporations that want to go into the industrial park, giving us the leverage to choose.

How do you feel about public amenities? Do you think the council made the right decision in expanding the Cottage Grove Ice Arena, and do you support a publicly funded community center?

Chris Reese: The ice arena expansion was necessary. While not everyone uses it, it is an offering that makes the city more attractive to athletic tournaments, etc. In addition, when you even have to think about shipping teenagers to another city at 5 a.m. in the morning for practice time, it becomes a safety issue. I support a community center that is funded by public and private dollars. That is why we need to work collaboratively with the school district, the folks at the senior center, the chamber of commerce and the CGAA to define what the community center should look like and then look for ways to fund it -- if it is approved via a referendum.

Jen Peterson: Public amenities such as the ice arena, River Oaks Golf Course, parks and our potential community center add to the quality of life here in Cottage Grove. Amenities attract new families to the city and help to retain our current families. I believe that it was a good choice to expand the arena. My family isn't a "hockey family" (we do soccer) so for me it isn't a personal issue, but I know for a lot of hockey families, the expansion has been a great need for awhile. I do support a publically funded community center and I would support a referendum so residents could vote on it. I also think that there are community groups, foundations, businesses, places of faith and other government entities that would help offset the costs to the city and the taxpayers. I would strongly encourage that it be an environmentally friendly building.

Justin Olsen: To me, public amenities are resources, conveniences and facilities offered to the general public for their use and/or enjoyment, with or without charge. As such, a community of our size, with our demographic mix, owes it to our citizens to provide as much as we can while being fiscally responsible. That applies to athletic or arts programs, the senior center, parks, community education, etc. The ice arena expansion makes sense to me because we have Cottage Grove families transporting kids to River Falls for ice time. I support the community center idea, but feel a public-private partnership in collaboration with the school district and CGAA is necessary to insure a cost-effective approach. The public will bear some cost, through user fees or public financing, which is why I would support a referendum on the project once the city's vision, and the associated costs to the public, are made clearer.

Fred Luden: I believe the decision on the Cottage Grove Ice Arena expansion was the right decision, but it should have been decided by the voters on a referendum. The citizens should have a voice in city expenditures like a community center. This is especially true if we will be increasing property taxes, or increasing the percentage of property taxes going to debt retirement. The City of Cottage Grove's debt retirement is at 14 percent. This means $1 out of every $7 paid to the city in taxes goes to paying our debt. Decisions made on new projects will determine our ability to control the debt burden and future tax rates. Demand for core services in Cottage Grove continues to increase and nobody wants the quality of the services to go down. At the same time nobody wants their property tax to go up. Voters need input in the decision.

Tom Dippel: I do think sports and recreation are important. I don't think the timing was right on the ice arena expansion. We are at the beginning of a major economic slow down and government doesn't seem to realize it. We cannot afford any new projects at this time. The simple math shows property taxes in decline due to property values falling and building permits coming to a near halt in comparison with previous years.

We absolutely cannot afford a community center at this time. To hear the idea of building one right now is completely, financially irresponsible. The money simply is not there and to take more from residents who are already having a tough time making ends meet is backward and unrealistic.

Myron Bailey: Public amenities are important to a good quality of life. Expansion of the ice arena had been warranted for the past 10 years. All studies showed this need. Each year we waited, moved the costs higher. What would have cost us $1 million to $2 million five years ago, now costs $6 million-plus. Waiting would have only made the price tag higher. Regarding the community center, I have been the only member of the council to tour most of the facilities in the metro looking at what works and what does not. I support a cost-shared community center with a public/private format. I have always supported a referendum to let the citizens decide if they want one or not. But, with the economy in tough shape and people hurting, now is not the time for a referendum.

However, we can begin working together to plan for one in the future.

Myron Bailey and Fred Luden are running for mayor of Cottage Grove. Tom Dippel, Derrick Lehrke, Justin Olsen, Jen Peterson and Chris Reese are running for two open City Council seats. All candidates were given the opportunity to submit their answers to these questions.