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Lawrence City Commission candidates talk business at Chamber forum

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Lawrence City Commission candidates on Wednesday morning answered a variety of business-related questions as part of a forum.

Three commission seats are open on the ballot in the November general election, and candidates seeking votes spoke to an audience about expanding Lawrence businesses, tax systems and more.

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Hosted by the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, candidates said Wednesday’s attendance was the largest they’d seen at a forum they’ve been a part of this season.

Hugh Carter, the Chamber’s vice chairman of external affairs, served as the forum’s moderator. He asked questions of candidates Brad Finkeldei, Courtney Shipley, Dustin Stumblingbear, Justine O. Burton and Mike Dever. Candidate Amber Sellers was absent due to traveling out of town for work, but a representative gave her introduction and conclusion on her behalf Wednesday.

Q: ‘What do you believe the role of the city is in regard to cultivating existing businesses and attracting new businesses to grow primary jobs?’

Shipley said focusing on small businesses and supporting local efforts, namely KU’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC), takes precedence. From what she’s gathered in conversations with community members, small businesses owners need help either starting their businesses or taking them to next levels, she said.

Burton, however, said she’s got her eyes set on large companies that could “kind of support our tax base.” She suggested attracting technology companies to Lawrence or incentivizing University of Kansas tech graduates to stay local and create and grow businesses here.

“It seems like every time that something has to be done here, we have the citizens that get taxed to pay for it,” Burton said.

Pushing back against the idea of bringing new businesses to Lawrence, Dever followed by saying it’s “unrealistic.”

“I want to make sure we understand that we can’t invite more businesses to Lawrence without places for their people to live,” Dever said. “And so I don’t want to put the cart before the horse. I want to underscore that housing has got to be the first step in this.”

He said Dwayne Peaslee Technical Training Center, the SBDC and the Lawrence school district are resources for growing business skills and offering jobs. The tools are here, he said; funding is going to be the need.

Finkeldei agreed with Dever. The city’s new land development code, that a steering committee is currently working on, will hopefully include a process that “invites” business to thrive in Lawrence, making it easier for them by changing rules and regulations. 

He also said one of his goals if reelected would be to continue pushing toward building another industrial park, which is a zoned and planned area meant for industrial development – like Lawrence VenturePark. He said he hopes that will come to fruition over the course of four years.

“We’re going to run out of industrial land very quickly,” Finkeldei said. “And it’s a long process, so the next four years, we’ll be looking for the next industrial park. We need to have the next industrial park, we need to find that land and have it ready. So that’s something that the private sector can do on its own.”

Stumblingbear answered the question from his experience as a Native American man who has had to navigate white-dominated business spaces. He put responsibility on the Chamber to actively be available to everyone. Same with city and county agencies; their websites should be reflective of a diverse pool of connections and resources, he said.

“The fact that this is a mostly white room, I’m a Native, I feel uncomfortable going in with you and saying, ‘I need help’ and expect an honest answer. And it’s just a cultural history,” Stumblingbear said. “… And so having people of color as part of your organization is certainly helpful.”

Maya Hodison/Lawrence Times

Q: ‘How can Lawrence diversify its tax base and shift more of the burden to commercial and industrial? And what does commercial and industrial development look like to you?’

Commercial industrial property is taxed at a higher rate and residential property taxes make up a disproportionate amount of Lawrence’s current property tax base, according to Carter. As assessed valuation continues to rise, homeowners are experiencing significant tax increases. 

Carter asked candidates how they would approach the issue and help Lawrence diversify its tax base.

Shipley mentioned past successes, such as creating KU Innovation Park, which she said was a “brilliant partnership.”

“Something I’m very excited about is the work that Senator (Jerry) Moran did to work with the FBI and the government to bring cybersecurity to campus,” Shipley said. “I think that will be the fourth phase, unfortunately not the next phase, but I think that’s really important and that that caliber of government jobs will attract other people who want to be here that are all different income types not just tech industry or security industry.”

The new land development code has the potential to encourage more mixed-use buildings, referring to infrastructure with multiple businesses and housing units attached, Stumblingbear suggested. He said that model would increase walkability and expand space for more people to live in.

“More people can live near where they work, near where they shop, near where they can find entertainment, which will then make it easier for them to walk nearby, which would then alleviate the stress on our streets and would also allow more people in a small area, which we can get more money out of them for taxes, and also diversify that tax base off of the residential sector,” Stumblingbear said.

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There’s some available land currently in VenturePark, Dever said, but he said the issue is less about land availability and more about making Lawrence a desirable place to build in. High costs of living and high utility charges turn people away, especially since industrial land users use a large amount of the city’s utilities.

“We need to have an environment in the city where people want to develop their businesses; where they want to grow their business; where the city is easy to work with; where we have reasonable utility rates; we have reasonable staff and people to work at their places; and there’s reasonable costs of living for their people,” Dever said.

Reimagining existing buildings and spaces that have sat vacant is the solution to trying to increase commercial space without spending a lot, in Finkeldei’s eyes. Six projects, including transforming the old downtown Borders building into corporate headquarters for First Management, will transform empty buildings and spaces into “commercial projects of much greater value,” he said.

Burton reiterated one of her most prioritized positions: treating all parts of Lawrence equally, which she believes starts with advancing East and North Lawrence. She said building grocery stores in both East and North Lawrence so that residents without transportation aren’t forced to walk far to get their groceries and bring them back home.

Q: ‘Why is it important to you that minority-owned businesses come to Lawrence and thrive here?’

All candidates addressed a need for the city to connect better with people of color owning businesses in town, but how to accomplish that from a commission standpoint varied.

Burton said it’s vital to first find common ground.

“The population has to be, I think, a mixture for everybody to be able to start understanding each other and what their culture is all about,” Burton said. “And I think that makes a lot of difference in the way people communicate — we communicate — with each other [and] our thought process as well. So I think that’s something that we need to have is a lot of minority businesses, and if we can, we give the same support that we give anybody else.”

Plenty of people in marginalized groups have great ideas and potential but lack access to opportunity, Stumblingbear said. He said more spaces for marginalized communities of people to grow their businesses will create a ripple effect because more people will want to shop and may even be drawn to Lawrence from other locations. If any of those businesses then become nationally renowned, he said that would be positive for Lawrence.

Both Shipley and Finkeldei supported the idea of pouring more into business owners facing systemic barriers. Dever suggested the city may be able to set up a “small business minority fund” or provide people with rent subsidies or tax incentives to rent spaces for their businesses. 

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.

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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

Note: Post updated to add video at 1:16 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 5

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