By Gabe Licht
DELANO, MN Area residents and business owners had an opportunity Oct. 27, to learn about five candidates for Delano City Council and two candidates for mayor at a forum sponsored by the Delano Area Chamber of Commerce.
Participating in the forum were Mayor Dale Graunke; challenger Dan Gustafson; and city council candidates Larry Bartels, Sara Beamish, Jason Franzen, Holly Schrupp and Elijah Sinkel. Incumbent Councilman Dan Vick was unable to attend due to back spasms, and Ron Drake is not seeking votes, though his name will remain on the ballot.
DACC Executive Director Ryan Gueningsman and DACC government affairs committee chair John Tackaberry asked questions as moderators, as did some of the 40-or-so individuals in attendance. Some conversations were more heated than others, but first, candidates had an opportunity to introduce themselves.
Graunke, who has lived in Delano for more than 50 years, called Delano a “gem in the rough, with just about everything it needs here,” which just needs a little more detailing to make it even better.
Gustafson said he was running to reduce the scope of government in residents’ lives.
“I’ve got no personal or financial gain from this position, other than freedom,” Gustafson said.
Bartels previously served on city council for 16 years and has 12 years of committee experience.
“Even if other council members don’t necessarily agree with me, I can show them the numbers, show them the way to do things,” Bartels said.
Beamish moved to Delano in 2009, after her husband, Ken, said it was a good place to put down roots. She joined the planning committee within a year, but expressed concern about committees “rubber stamping” things, which motivated her to run for city council.
Franzen has lived in the area for eight years, but his family has lived in the area for five generations. For that reason, he referred to himself as “a bridge between old and new residents.”
Schrupp served on the council from 2003 to 2012, before deciding not to run for re-election because she was in school and beginning student teaching shortly thereafter.
Sinkel was born and raised in Delano and said he has always wanted to do his part to serve the community.
“I probably don’t know half as much as some of these guys do about the big issues, but I would take time to look over all issues and use every resource possible to come up with the best decisions,” Sinkel said.
Gueningsman relayed a message from Vick.
“He hopes the job he’s done on the council the last four years will answer most of the questions. Stop and chat if you have questions,” Gueningsman said.
One of the most contentious issues of the night revolved around the city’s decision in 2003 to develop Rivertown, which includes eight rowhomes and the commercial building housing Juke Box, Fran Stein’s Barber Shop and Alex Roeser’s American Family Insurance across from city hall.
Funds were borrowed from the sewer reserve to finance the project. According to Dale VanderLinden, the rowhomes sold at a net loss between $300,000 and $500,000, while the commercial building is currently assessed at $555,700, compared to its $1.25 million price tag.
“I’m interested in how you’d keep this from happening again,” VanderLinden asked.
Sinkel disagreed with the funding of the project.
Franzen called the project an embarrassment and said the city should not be competing with private businesses, adding, “You could’ve predicted that the bottom would fall out of business property values.”
“I wish we would’ve had the ability to predict it,” said Schrupp, who served on the council at that time. “We had a business excited to move downtown. The residential property was there to supplement that building, not the other way around.”
Graunke shared his perspective.
“Someone tried to do something and it didn’t work,” Graunke said. “If it made $1 million, people wouldn’t be making as much of a stink about it as they are. . . . Was it the best way to do something? I don’t know, I wasn’t involved in it, I didn’t make the decisions.”
He asked for suggestions, rather than complaints, and also noted, “There are taxes being generated off a property that was a parking lot.”
Gustafson disagreed, saying “Government in business doesn’t work.”
Beamish suggested selling the property to a visionary business owner.
Bartels said he would have advised the council not to fund the project, and rather utilize a tax increment financing incentive, because he saw the economic collapse coming.
“But to crucify people for doing something is not right,” he said.
State Rep. Joe McDonald, who was mayor at the time, took blame for the project and said the decision was made following survey responses asking for a vibrant downtown.
“After years of input, we decided to develop it,” McDonald said. “Unfortunately, the market crashed. I don’t call it an embarrassment. I’m proud to put my name on it.”
Calvin Brandt brought his business to town in 1997, and expanded it with a second building in 2004. He was required to build two separate drainage ponds to support those buildings, but said the second pond was unnecessary and expensive. Based on his experiences dealing with the city council during Schrupp’s tenure, Brandt questioned her pro-business credentials.
“It’s not that I’m not pro-business,” Schrupp responded. “It was probably a matter of taking recommendations from city staff.”
While she acknowledged the city council has final say, she believes city engineers and city planners know more about drainage and other issues than she does.
Franzen suggested that city codes be implemented consistently, especially when dealing with businesses.
Promoting growth in the business park
The city is also developing the West Metro Business Park and one talking point asked how to promote retail and industrial business growth in the park.
Graunke said the city is, and should continue, working with brokers to bring businesses to those lots, rather than creating a group to promote it elsewhere. He noted that some cities give lots for free.
“It’s not free land,” Gustafson said. “You know who bought that land? You did.”
He believes the town, with a great school and well-educated workforce, sells itself, and several other candidates agreed with that idea.
Bartels said citizens should not be afraid of incentives.
A separate organization, an economic development association, should work with the Delano Area Chamber of Commerce to bring new businesses to town, Beamish suggested.
Franzen said he would be happy to meet with businesses interested in Delano.
Having fewer restrictions is better for businesses, Sinkel said, before expressing concern about bigger businesses hurting existing businesses.
“You can debate not having a big-box store, but people here are going somewhere else to shop at one,” Schrupp said.
With the cost of living rising quicker than many residents’ wages, what can the city do to control costs they have to pay?
Bartels gave an example of wanting to build flood control in the early ‘90s. Because it would’ve cost about $5,000 per person at that time, the council opted to raise the funds over 20 years.
“Bonding our way to prosperity” is not possible, Franzen said. Instead of focusing only on new things, he believes the city should better maintain existing resources, such as parks.
When times got tough, the city of Delano learned how to better spend and save money, Schrupp said, speaking of her time on the council.
Gustafson believes the city’s staff would support a population of 20,000.
“If we don’t need more employees, don’t hire more employees,” Gustafson said.
Graunke pointed to the city’s taxes, the fourth-lowest in Wright County, and noted that all things come at a price. Sometimes, bonding with a low rate keeps those costs down, he added.
In that same vein, candidates agreed that general obligation bonds, which require a vote, are generally better than other bonds, but also come with a cost.
Other topics included the option of an independent economic development authority, improving communication with constituents and getting quotes for positions such as city attorney and city engineer.