KENDALLVILLE — Four Republicans are running for a single at-large seat on the Kendallville City Council in the spring primary.
The council race is the only race Kendallville residents have to decide on the primary ballot, as no other offices are contested.
Incumbent Regan Ford is seeking his fourth term on the council, but has several challengers lined up for his seat in Kristen Johnson, Zack Smith and Jim Cook.
Ford is a former business owner and commercial real estate agent, who now serves as pastor of two area churches. Johnson operates his own business, Honey Pot Development, and serves as adviser for the Mayor’s Youth Advisory Council. Smith is the Noble County Highway Department engineer and a Republican precinct committeeman. Cook leads Kendallville’s Economic Development Advisory Committee and serves in local veterans groups.
The News Sun sent three questions to each of the candidates and received responses from three. Cook said he is attending to a family issue and was unable to return the Q&A in time for publication.
Due to the length of responses submitted, some responses have been trimmed for space while maintaining the core of the candidate’s response. A version with the candidates’ full responses can be found online at kpcnews.com/newssun.
Q: Why should voters pick you for Kendallville’s at-large seat on the city council?
Ford: I think my personal experience and training has been an asset to the community. I believe that this administration has made great progress together. We’ve made great strides forward by continuing to work in a collaborative way in partnership with one another, with the community, the private sector and other community-based organizations. I bring to the office actual experience assisting with economic and community development in both the private and public sectors. I understand the limited powers of local government but also understand many of the tools that we have available to us.
Each member of the Council also serves on committees in addition to their role as Council members. In my case, I have been able to utilize my additional training and experiences to help our community in my role as Chairman of our Streets and Alleys Committee, City Buildings Committee and member of the Kendallville Advisory Planning Commission but also serving as President of the Board of the Noble County Council on Aging.
Johnson: Anyone who knows me, knows I have a passion for getting involved with my community, along with a crippling inability to say “no” to any worthwhile project. I’ve worked with and volunteered for organizations such as: Drug Free Noble County, United Way, the Humane Society of Noble County, and many others, because I believe it’s every citizen’s responsibility to give back to their community in some way, and I find great pleasure in doing so.
One of the areas that has been most rewarding for me is working as a mentor with the Mayor’s Youth Advisory Council over the last 12 years, helping young people discover their own passion and ability to make an impact on their community.
I currently serve as a volunteer on both the Heart of Kendallville committee and the Kendallville EID, in an effort to better understand the needs of the community, to drive commerce and growth, and to bring attractions and amenities that draw people to our great city.
I’m also involved in bringing the Fairy, Gnome and Troll Festival to Kendallville to attract families with young children to our community, and I am working closely with the Chamber of Commerce, the SBDC and SCORE to bring a “Shark Tank” style Entrepreneur Camp to Noble County this summer for young people who want to start their own business here in our community.
I think that these examples demonstrate that I’m eager, willing and motivated to learn, to get involved, and to make positive things happen. I want to do more than just sit at the council table; I want to play an active role in Kendallville’s future.
Smith: I believe my knowledge and experience would be an immediate benefit for the city. I am well versed in the Indiana Code pertaining to local government and am already comfortable overseeing a multi-million dollar budget. Lastly, I would be a fresh set of eyes that could bring a new perspective to the day to day responsibilities of the council.
Q: What are the top three issues you think are facing Kendallville and how would you address them?
Ford: Affordable and decent housing is clearly one major issue that faces the City of Kendallville.
In the 1990’s the City’s housing stock was 80% owner occupied. Today, over 40% of our existing housing stock is rentals or vacant. Our City is now over 150 years old. Everything has a life cycle and will not last forever. So, I believe that we need to work toward preserving and rehabbing what makes sense to preserve and protect but also redevelop and plan for new development. We can begin doing that understanding that there is no quick fix, that it will take time and resources.
As a member of the Kendallville Advisory Plan Commission I am currently working in committee updating our Comprehensive Plan. The Comprehensive Plan is required by the State for land use and zoning purposes. I believe that completing this process is a first step toward addressing our overall strategy for redevelopment and new development. The Comprehensive Plan is intended to be a guide for the community and is to be re-evaluated and updated periodically. Once this is accomplished and adopted it seems likely that changes to our zoning ordinances will also begin to be made and recommended for adoption.
In this regard, I personally would be interested in exploring an expanded use of what is known as Planned Unit Developments (PUD) which would allow for greater flexibility for both the developer and the city to work together from concept through development. For redevelopment a PUD allows for innovative uses of spaces and structures to achieve planning goals. A PUD is a special type of floating overlay district which generally does not appear on the City zoning map until a designation is requested. Benefits of a PUD include more efficient site design, preservation of amenities such as open space, lower costs for street construction and utility extension for the developer and lower maintenance cost for the City. The downside to this is that it’s not traditional zoning as we know it to be and we may need professional guidance to implement it.
I also believe that there are several other things we should also consider regarding this issue. I would like to see the same type of collaboration that is taking place with the repurposing of the old middle school by bringing together community leaders, developers, lenders, real estate professionals, property owners, legislators and others with a purpose of developing a workable strategy, working together to pool ideas and resources in partnership with the City of Kendallville. Working together I believe that we can make a difference in the future of our housing.
In addition, though we’ve made gains in enforcing local codes and even demolition of blighted properties, I think we need to consider and act on updating and eliminating old ordinances that have been on the books for a long time. In addition, I think we should explore new potential ordinances to protect the health, safety and welfare of our residents. While local government has limitations we should pass ordinances that we intend to enforce and provide the resources necessary for enforcement. Of course I am in favor of working with property owners to the degree possible. However, it is in the interest of everyone in the community to have affordable and decent properties free of blight.
The second issue is similar to the first. Preserving and protecting our historical downtown is important to the community.
Just as with housing, collaboration is a necessary component to preserving and protecting the historic downtown. A recent example of that collaboration was the acquisition of current technology movie projection at the Strand Theatre giving it new life and bringing more visitors to the downtown. The Hyatt-Palma downtown study was also a collaborative effort. I have and will continue to support these kinds of efforts to revitalize and preserve our historic downtown through private-public partnerships.
Some of our downtown buildings are listed on the State Historical Register or National Historical Register as contributing or are historically significant by archaeological design. The City has a long history of partnering with building owners and the Chamber of Commerce. The City has made considerable effort over the years conducting studies and plans, establishing tax increment financing areas (TIF), economic development target areas (EDTA), making physical building improvements available in the form of façade grants and loans and special zoning considerations.
We are currently seeking a grant to improve the streetscape downtown. We have changed traffic patterns on both State Street and Orchard Street to accommodate easier access to public parking areas. Also, during my tenure on the Council we’ve assisted the downtown building owners in the creation of the Economic Improvement District (EID) which is essentially a self-taxing entity of the downtown building owners for snow removal and other downtown esthetics. The EID has its own board of directors and its own budget.
I’m also encouraged and support that the Kendallville Chamber is leading the effort and the “Heart of Kendallville” committee is taking steps to promote special downtown events and is planning an entrepreneurship camp to assist young potential entrepreneurs develop business plans and ideas that could potentially be located in the downtown area.. Many may think of the Chamber as a club such as the Rotary or Lions. But, the Chamber of Commerce charter is about supporting the business interests of the business community through its programs, training and even governmental advocacy. The Kendallville Area Chamber of Commerce has been and remains a vital link to the long standing private-public partnership with the City. With some new building owners that have recently acquired some of these buildings I have renewed hopes for more collaboration between these owners, the business community and the city. I fully support continuing efforts to revitalize our historic downtown through our public-private partnerships.
Just as with housing, I would be interested in exploring an expanded use of what is known as Planned Unit Developments(PUD), which would allow for greater flexibility for both the developer and the City to work together from concept thru development. For redevelopment a PUD allows for innovative uses of spaces and structures to achieve planning goals. A PUD is a special type of floating overlay district which generally does not appear on the City zoning map until a designation is requested. Benefits of a PUD include more efficient site design, preservation of amenities such as open space, lower costs for street construction and utility extension for the developer and lower maintenance cost for the City. The possible downside to this is that it’s not traditional zoning as we know it. It will need to be carefully studied beforehand to see how it might work in practice and we may need professional guidance to implement it.
Retaining and helping to create new jobs and private investment remains important. We should never stop trying to be competitive to retain jobs, create new ones and promote private investment in our community. There is nothing that will encourage more development and increased demand for new construction faster than demands that significantly increase job creation, increasing incomes and private investment.
So, I will continue to be engaged and support efforts that lead to retaining jobs, creating new ones and fostering overall economic development and private investment, including community-driven and collaborative efforts and projects that will preserve and enhance the City of Kendallville in a responsible way, while also being fiscally responsible with the people’s money.
The City of Kendallville is fortunate and I fully support our role as partner in a regional economic development effort that is working nationally and internationally with and for us called the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership. In addition, we also are a part of the Noble County Economic Development Corporation. Together, Kendallville is working through these entities to strengthen our competitiveness in attracting and retaining jobs and private investment.
But, here’s something that I think is some more good news for the people of Kendallville. I fully support our City’s involvement and cooperation with the Dekko Foundation, the East Noble School Corporation and various other community groups that is working together to establish our the former Kendallville High School/ former East Noble Middle School into a new learning center that will be operated and maintained by a 501c(3) not-for-profit organization. Not only are we saving a historic building but its potential for being repurposed could be a huge economic development asset for the City of Kendallville and surrounding area. It is my personal opinion and others agree that this learning center could become a centerpiece to future economic development for the City of Kendallville and surrounding area. Through skills training and a myriad of other educational opportunities our community can play an important role increasing the competitiveness of our work force. The number of ideas and opportunities of how to use this facility to help our citizens and our labor force is only the beginning of something that I think can be “game changing”.
Johnson: Housing is a big issue. According to a study presented last month at the Noble County Public Library, there are not enough moderately priced homes in Kendallville to attract young, first-time home buyers. We need to change that by making Kendallville friendlier to investors who want to bring new, affordable housing to the community. This will also help to attract and retain young people and young families in our community, who can fill jobs and drive other opportunities for economic development and growth.
Revitalizing our downtown is another issue that I hear many people talk about. We need to fill our vacant storefronts and make our downtown more attractive and inviting to visitors. Having said that, I believe Kendallville is on the cusp of change. With additions such as the parklet, the downtown alley renovation, several new festivals and events, and the pending streetscape grant, I think we’re going to see a positive shift in the commercial profile of our Main Street district in the very near future. I have personally invested my own time and money into several downtown buildings, because it is an extremely important issue to me.
Lastly, making our community a place where young people want to live is extremely important. Our population is aging, and many of our youngest community members are choosing to move to larger cities to seek out greater employment opportunities or community amenities. I believe young people are the future, and we have to find a way to keep them here. We’ve got to find opportunities to not only engage young people with those local activities and amenities they desire, but also to empower them — with leadership skills, opportunities for entrepreneurship, and a fair starting wage.
Smith: First, fiscal responsibility. Every dollar spent by any governmental body comes from taxes in one form or another. As a city, there must be a balance between keeping taxes low, while also providing essential services. I believe a focus on efficiency can provide this balance. If elected, I would dive deep into the city’s budget and work directly with department heads to help improve efficiency.
Secondly, jobs. While we have a cooperative relationship with our neighboring cities and towns, it’s important to remember that in a booming economy we are also in direct competition. I believe the city should use all the tools available, to help our businesses attract and retain the employees they need to grow. If elected, I would engage with business owners directly to understand their needs and provide support.
Lastly, community engagement. The city council members are public servants that serve the needs of the citizens. I am running a 100% self-funded campaign and do not have any special interests or a personal agenda. If elected, I would be there to serve the collective needs of the city. Where I believe we fall short, is being engaged with the public. Council meetings typically have a very low attendance rate from the public. I am out and about in the community daily and would be there through day to day interaction to understand and represent the citizens’ needs.
Q: Kendallville is placing a lot of focus on revitalizing its downtown. What do you think the city should do to attract more businesses and visitors to Main Street?
Ford: I think we have tried in the past and are continuing to try to be as supportive as we can be, using the legal tools we have available to us as a city while also making the best use of our financial resources within prudent fiscal responsibility with people’s money. I am in favor of continuing the process of working closely together wherever possible and with the business community, developers, the Chamber of Commerce and others. Again, I believe the key to revitalization of the downtown centers on collaboration, just as I called for regarding the housing issue, by bringing the players to the table in a similar way that the new learning center is being developed.
Johnson: If you look around at some of our neighboring downtown communities, you’ll see that many have become more vibrant by adding unique restaurants, boutiques, and other specialized offerings that cannot be found in the big box stores or online. I think that is the key to changing the landscape of our downtown area. I would love to see Kendallville add a brewery and a nice steakhouse or Italian restaurant.
In the last year, I have made a personal commitment to help revitalize our downtown by taking the following steps:
First, I completed the very extensive training required to become OCRA-certified to write Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) so that I have the knowledge and skills to ensure that all future grant requests from the city are meeting the necessary criteria to be funded.
I have also personally aligned with other community partners to purchase and renovate several downtown buildings. We are not only investing in the interior and exterior look of these buildings, but we are also being somewhat intentional when it comes to the tenants who occupy these spaces. We want to be a catalyst for change in the downtown district and hope that others in the community will follow our example.
As far as what the city can do to help; Kendallville already has a wonderful façade grant program to help support downtown businesses, but I do believe there is an opportunity for the city to do more. Perhaps with a similar grant that provides funding to assist with updating interior spaces, including upstairs apartments in the downtown district. Of course, businesses have to be willing to do their own share, as well. Grants and partnerships through the U.S. Small Business Association, Angel Investors, and the EDC are a great place to start.
Smith: This is an issue that cities are fighting throughout the nation. As the times change, it’s important that our perspectives change as well. The downtown will likely never return to what it was, but by thinking out of the box and bringing in community support, the downtown can be vibrant in a new way. I believe the city is currently doing a good job at this by hosting numerous events and festivals. As a council member, I would look to add to the current effort.