Candidates for Lawrence City Commission on Thursday answered questions touching on issues that are key to many members of Downtown Lawrence Inc.
Six candidates are vying for three seats that will be on voters’ ballots in the Nov. 7 general election.
Thursday’s forum, held at Sunflower Outdoor & Bike Shop, was moderated by Andrew Holt, who became director of DLI in mid-April.
DLI describes itself as the “nonprofit organization dedicated to the enrichment, preservation, and promotion of Downtown Lawrence as the cultural and commercial heart of the community.”
Holt asked candidates for their thoughts about the camping ordinance downtown and the city’s role in managing its public right of way within the downtown district.
The topic came up during a recent Lawrence City Commission meeting when city staff members were providing an update on homelessness initiatives. Before June 2020, it was illegal for people to camp on any public right-of-way area. But city commissioners made efforts to decriminalize homelessness by adopting an exemption to the ordinance that prohibited nightly camping (Ord. 9754). The exemption made it legal for people to camp on city property located in the commercial district downtown — but only when shelters were at full capacity.
Amber Sellers said although camping may have an impact on businesses, public space is for the public, regardless of whether a person is housed or unhoused.
“While it is not the most ideal situation to implement, it is one that by having individuals in a public space, that gives you a public safety eye to look over and to be accountable to that,” Sellers said. She said she thinks the city is struggling with how to implement it.
Courtney Shipley said downtown isn’t the only area that has “been afflicted by people camping — it’s in pretty much every park and on every trail in town.” She said retailers have certain amounts of space they may use for their businesses, and restaurants that have outdoor eating areas pay per square foot for that area.
“We can add that into our policy; we can make that an issue and address tents,” Shipley said. “… I think there are some practical things we can do that could limit that in addition to all the work we’re doing to get people completely out of those spaces.”
Justine Burton kept her answer simple: “No camping downtown, period.”
Brad Finkeldei said he thinks it’s clear the city has a plan to fully enforce no-camping rules once the city opens Pallet Shelter Village, which will add 50 beds in small cabin-like shelters in the Pinkney neighborhood. The city’s goal is to open Pallet during or before November.
Finkeldei said the city has been enforcing camping bans in some areas of town, but the plan is for full enforcement once Pallet is open.
Dustin Stumblingbear said public spaces are for everybody, but some people are living in those spaces and yelling at others to get out of their space.
“We have individuals in our community who are unhoused who are turning these into their personal living spaces and threatening physical violence against individuals in this community, and that has gone too far, and we’ve allowed it to go unchecked,” he said.
He said he wants Pallet to succeed because he wants to see people become housed and productive members of society if they choose to participate in programs to help them.
Mike Dever said that with Lawrence’s shortage of housing, he understands reluctance to push people to move along because “there’s nowhere for them to go.
“But in reality, we have to create some sort of hierarchy of needs within our community, and we can’t let every space be public, per se, for this purpose, which is basically … taking up space for your own personal use and not allowing public access to it,” he said.
Dever said it’s not safe for people to be sleeping in public spaces, nor for others to be walking by and may be seen as threats. He said the city needs to start moving people from downtown “when we can.”
Holt asked candidates a question from the audience:
“Downtown businesses are confronting growing costs from an increase in vandalism, graffiti and criminal activity. What are your thoughts on following the practice of some other cities who have created funds for small businesses to recover their costs from these incidents?” (The question did not cite specific cities where such a fund has been put into practice.)
Burton said since she’s “kinda new at this,” she has a lot of ideas but she doesn’t really know from a city perspective how to combat those issues. She said she would look at other cities to see what they’re doing.
Finkeldei said that as with any government program, he thinks it could get pretty complicated pretty quickly from a legal perspective, but he was interested in it.
Stumblingbear said he hadn’t heard much about that kind of concept and couldn’t say much, but he’d want to know more specifics from other programs that are functioning and how to make such a program equitable for everyone within the community.
Dever said he thinks stepping up police foot patrols and adding security cameras downtown could help inhibit the problem rather than just treating the symptoms, but he said he thinks a form of insurance that DLI and the city could both contribute to might be a good way to start.
Sellers said there is potential funding available with the Department of Commerce for beautification programs, and the city could look at how to leverage those dollars. She also suggested creating space for people who are tagging with graffiti to express themselves and look at it from a more positive, rehabilitative way.
Shipley said she wasn’t disinterested in the suggestion, but she would start by focusing more on murals downtown and looking at ways the city can support local artists. She also said downtown now has “100% more visibility of police officers now than we’ve ever had” with added foot patrols, and that she was really proud the city was able to make that happen.
Holt asked candidates, “What is the one thing that you think would improve downtown the most?”
Burton again kept her answer simple: “Cleaning it up.”
Shipley said she thought ambassadors were a great idea to help people with wayfinding, particularly during events that bring a lot of people to town.
Sellers said more co-op spaces, such as Art Love Collective, could give startup businesses a chance to have a space in downtown Lawrence.
Dever said he wanted to see more people using resources, buying, walking and living downtown.
Stumblingbear agreed — more people downtown, using the pool and library, walking, biking, and helping local businesses thrive.
Finkeldei said more density, and developing sites on the edges of downtown such as the former Allen Press building and the former Lawrence Journal-World building “so that from Sixth Street all the way down, we have much more vibrance.”
The general election is coming up Tuesday, Nov. 7.
Meet the candidates and find out how to register to vote, double-check your registration and/or request a mail ballot on our election page, lawrencekstimes.com/election2023. The deadline to register to vote or update your registration is Tuesday, Oct. 17; advance voting begins the following day.