WASHINGTON CITY – Building and retaining the city’s economic base was among the items discussed by Washington City Council candidates during a candidate forum Tuesday night.
Four of the six candidates – Troy Belliston, Jean Arbuckle, Bill Hudson and Jeff Turek – were present at the forum and addressed questions submitted by the Washington City Chamber of Commerce and attendees. Candidates Kolene Granger and Brad Allen were unable to attend due to prior obligations.
Bolstering the city’s economic growth was a recurring theme during the forum. Attendees submitted questions asking how candidates would work to attract new business and also how they might prevent preexisting ones from relocating
“It’s important that we have the resources and things in place that make them want to be here … the incentives, that they’re ready to be there,” Hudson, a former council member, said. “… We have to make sure that they feel welcome.”
Belliston, who has a background in development and construction, said the city needs to work closely with landowners and developers to create the conditions that businesses look for.
“You’ve got to create the conditions that businesses look at and say, ‘I want to be there,’” he said.
People who come to Washington City to shop come from across the region and not just the county’s urban area, Bellistion said. It’s something which potential businesses tend to discount and could be pushed more, he said.
Two-term incumbent Jeff Turek said the city has created special incentives for incoming businesses and special commercial development zones in some areas where property taxes are deferred for a time. The city can also get creative with its impact fees, he said.
However, both Turek and Arbuckle, who also previously served on the City Council from 2002-2010, said a challenge for the city’s commercial growth is that much of the commercial property within city limits that could be developed is in the hands of one property owner – SITLA, or the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.
As SITLA is a state-funded entity, Turek said, they have little motivation to rush the sale of land for future commercial development despite the city’s continual prodding. However, he believes that once business starts to develop more around areas like the Washington Parkway, it will cause a chain reaction of commercial development.
“I believe once it starts, it’ll mushroom,” Turek said. “I watch as new development comes in and one store locates in there, and it’s not long before … those projects fill up.”
On attracting and retaining businesses, the candidates discussed the possible return of an economic development director position which the city currently doesn’t have.
“I think we should have somebody at the city level that on a day-to-day basis is dealing with businesses and saying these are the pros to relocating or maintaining your location in Washington City,” Belliston said.
There’s also a misconception business owners have that St. George has lower power costs, Belliston said. Business owners need to be informed that isn’t necessarily the case, he said.
“We do need an economic developer who can go out and seek out businesses and show the great quality community we have,” Arbuckle said. “… And as a community hopefully support our local businesses.”
The city did have an economic development director at one point, Hudson said, but he wasn’t a good fit for the position and didn’t create a welcoming and supportive relationship with business owners.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be an economic development director, Hudson said, but someone who can help create a friendly and supportive atmosphere for businesses and the citizens overall is something the city desperately needs.
The city does support the businesses, Turek said, and mentioned how Washington City’s mayor often visits and spotlights small businesses in the city on his “Mayor’s Minutes” program featured on the city’s YouTube channel.
City finances and bonding
Another question put before the candidates concerned how they would fix perceived overspending by city government.
“We can’t overspend,” Turek said. “We have to balance the budget every year. We can’t spend more than we take in.”
If the city hadn’t bonded for these items and waited until it had accumulated the money via impact fees, it could have taken years to finish them, Turek said.
“Our city is actually in very good financial health,” Arbuckle said, adding that the city has only bonded for a quarter of the amount allowed by state law.
Belliston said bonding isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and that he would consider what would bring the most value and benefit to the residents of the city, like the police station.
“We need to be responsible,” Belliston said, “but bonding isn’t necessarily a horrible thing.”
“I do believe bonding is a problem,” Hudson said. “We’re taking out bonds on the idea that we’re going to have growth forever; that impact fees are going to pay for these things. What happens when growth slows down or stops? The city is still bonded for that.”
Hudson also said the city must be mindful of the cost of maintaining its projects after they are built, pointing to the Washington City Community Center as an example. The city may only have $6 million left in debt on the facility, but it also costs $1 million per year to maintain.
Other items addressed by the candidates included future water needs and a proposed exit ramp off Interstate 15 at Main Street.
“Water is life,” Bellston said, “… without it, there’s no growth.”
Belliston and Turek said conservation is important, but they also said continual development of water resources is needed. Husdon agreed, and pointed out the city has its own water wells – an advantage not many cities have.
Arbuckle was also in favor of conservation efforts, but said the city may have to shut the door on continued growth at some point when a limit is reached.
“We can’t overdevelop,” Arbuckle said.
The candidates were generally in favor of the Lake Powell Pipeline, provided it is a viable option.
The Utah Department of Transportation and Washington City are looking at a way to help alleviate the congestion at the Green Springs/Exit 10 interchange with Interstate 15. One option being looked at is an exit ramp at Main Street, a mile north of the interchange.
While the candidates acknowledged something about traffic needs to be done, they also pointed out that the the Main Street location is still under study and examination by UDOT and that there are other potential locations like 300 East.
Something needs to be done to fix the traffic, they said, yet also pointed out that an incoming underpass in St. George connecting Red Hills Parkway to Mall Drive will likely help in lessening some of the congestion at Green Springs.
Hudson said he is opposed to the idea. Putting an exit ramp at Main Street will destroy the downtown area, he said, adding he will fight against it if pursued by the city.
The general election will be held on Nov 3. Early voting began Monday.
Resources – candidate campaign sites
- Economic growth, planning common themes among Washington City Council candidates
- Southern Utah 2015 primary election results
- 9 candidates vie for Washington City Council seats
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