Council candidates address streetcar, vacant properties, convention hotel

Fourth district council candidates Katheryn Shields and Jim Glover at a candidate forum this week. Jay Hodges, a candidate in the 2nd district, is to their right.

Fourth district council candidates Katheryn Shields and Jim Glover at a candidate forum this week. Jay Hodges, a candidate in the 2nd district, is to their right.

Candidates for city council answered questions about streetcars, dealing with vacant housing, and a convention hotel at a candidate forum this week.

MainCor, the Broadway Westport Council, the Westport Regional Business League, the James B. Nutter Company, and the Midtown KC Post sponsored the forum Wednesday. Candidates who attended included: (At large candidates) 1st District, Scott Wagner; 2nd District: Jay Hodges, Teresa Loar; 3rd District: Quintin Lucas; 4th District: Jim Glover, Katheryn Shields; 5th District: Dennis Anthony, Lee Barnes; 6th District: Scott Taylor; (In district candidates) 4th District, Jolie Justus, John Fierro.

Moderator Michael Mahoney of KMBC-TV asked questions based in part on input from people before the forum.

He began by asking the candidates how they felt about an expansion of the downtown streetcar starter route. A plan to extend the streetcar system failed with voters in 2014, but some council candidates are ready to try to gain support once again. Others said they favor waiting until the two-mile downtown line is up and running to see if expansion still makes sense.

Justus said that transportation will be a priority to her if she is elected, and she said she is “very excited” about the streetcar. At the same time, she added, she thinks the new city council needs to pay attention to walking, biking and buses as important forms of transportation.

Fierro, her opponent, said while a streetcar could help with economic development,“the voters were clear they do not want to fund it with sales and property tax. We need to find other options for funding.”

“The streetcar does induce development along the route as we have seen downtown,” Glover said. “It could lead to renovation along Main Street.”Shields was among those candidates describing her position as “cautious optimism.” Barnes also advocated taking a “wait and see” attitude.

Construction of the downtown streetcar is expected to be completed this fall and the first streetcar service could begin in early 2016.

Lucas said he supports the streetcar, but he thinks the council needs to consider east-west routes as well as a Main Street line.

The candidates also responded to a question about how the city currently deals with vacant lots and how it could improve its performance. Several candidates said it is important to make sure “little old ladies” who need assistance with home upkeep are getting help. At the same time, they said, the city needs to take a firm stand against out-of-town property owners who deliberately ignore upkeep.

Lucas suggested the city could focus its efforts on landlords who own multiple properties rather than individual homeowners. Shields agreed that the focus needs to be on absentee landlords. “Working class families need assistance,” Justus said, and the city should help them get them the resources they need.

Perhaps a task force of members of various city departments could work only on abandoned buildings, Loar suggested. Hodges pointed out that the city has a tool, the land bank, but it is understaffed. He put forth the idea of approaching vacant buildings like KC NOVA approaches crime: first offer homeowners assistance in making repairs, and then prosecute them if they fail to take advantage of help.

Glover said he thought the city should focus on improving larger areas rather than addressing one lot at a time, citing the city redevelopment efforts in the Manheim neighborhood as an example of good policy.

Mahoney asked the candidates whether they agreed an effort to mount a petition drive around the proposed 800 room, $300 million dollar downtown convention hotel. The city council is considering approval of a $35 million city investment, but a citizens’ group thinks all voters should have a chance to decide the issue.

Most of the candidates said they thought the initiative petition process, which allows citizens to gather signatures and put issues to a public vote, has been overused. As one candidate, Hodges, said, the initiative petition process is “a slippery slope.” He said instead of putting the issue to a vote, residents should make their voices heard by voting council members out of office.

But Barnes said he does think the people deserve to vote on the issue.

“The reason we see the push for public votes in because people have lost confidence in city government,” Shields said. “People don’t believe city government is being honest with them.”

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