MOUNT VERNON — Though Republican Matt Starr and Independent Wayne Link were completely civil during their city of Mount Vernon mayoral candidates debate Thursday evening at Mount Vernon Nazarene University, they clashed significantly. There were marked differences on what should be city responses to a growing region — and how to handle that growth including tourism.
One question by local journalists from the Mount Vernon News and Knox Pages asked outside of many entertainment venues, outdoor recreational opportunities and unique businesses, how each candidate would promote such ways to increase tourism.
Link, a 1974 graduate of Centerburg High School who has practiced law, said attractions like the Woodward Opera House in downtown Mount Vernon and area parks are important local attractions.
But he offered, “If I’m a tourist from the United States, I’m not going to think about coming to Mount Vernon.”
Link explained that expending city funds on tourism endeavors is “counter to my approach to government.” The city of Mount Vernon is not Disneyland nor should it strive to be in terms of making tourism high priority, he said. Instead, what the city should focus on is attracting large-scale employers who can employ 400 or more people by producing goods and services of tangible benefit to consumers.
“That builds an economy,” Link offered.
Starr, who is a current Mount Vernon City Council member, said not to maximize tourism dollars in Mount Vernon and the local area would run counter to the city’s economic development aspirations. In 2018 alone, he said, Knox County produced $94 million in tourism revenue. For every dollar invested in tourism in Ohio, entities that do so receive a return of 13 dollars. And Starr, who owns the film-making company Kokosing River Productions, said he has worked throughout his career with the Knox County Chamber of Commerce, Main Street Mount Vernon, the county Convention and Visitors Bureau, and other entities who collaborate on tourism to expand on what the city and county already offer.
While visitors and tourists may not visit Mount Vernon and the surrounding area for “theme parks,” Starr said, they do visit Ariel-Foundation Park, Hiawatha Water Park and what some visitors have described as the best bicycle and multi-use trails they have ever traveled on to see the local sights. Link, however, responded in a rebuttal that bike paths are not part of city government and don’t receive city financing, nor are they revenue producers for the city. The city’s hotels and motels would be real examples of where visitors spend money, he said.
Starr said the tourism and marketing entities he has worked with have helped transform Mount Vernon and Knox County into a regional draw for events, and offered that would be even more the case once he is elected. One thing the city has lacked is a high-functioning arts council, “And we’re on the verge of making that happen,” he said.
The first question of the evening asked candidates what their priorities would be to help handle expected growth in the region, with data from Columbus 2020 showing signficant population increase in the counties closest to Columbus including Knox County.
“No one can predict how much growth will come about in this community or in this country,” Link said. “As you know, our President Trump is attempting to cause our country to contract. And there are a number of reasons for that, very important reasons. And of course that will have an effect on every economy in the country. So I guess my best answer to that is (I) look forward to allowing necessity being the mother of invention. When there’s a need, we fill the need.”
Link said he is strongly in favor of attracting businesses to the former Siemens/Cooper-Bessimer site, which is now vacant and awaiting new tenants. Starr answered that Knox County is expected to add 17,000 new residents by 2050, according to the Mid Ohio Regional Planning Commission, and it is not ready for that growth yet and needs to start preparation. That means being proactive in areas such as improved infrastructure and utility services to handle new arrivals. The city needs to help attract employers that will raise median income from better wages to a point where Mount Vernon will be a preferred destination for relocation, he offered. Link offered a rebuttal, arguing that you cannot promote growth and maintain the area’s character at the same time.
“We have an impasse, but that’s OK,” Starr said, addressing Link’s comment. Starr added that you cannot build a new ship and expect to use it only when needed; improving area through planned growth is a continuous process,
On the issue of rerouting traffic around Mount Vernon to alleviate truck traffic, Starr said a cohesive plan is needed to improve the Ohio 13 business corridor. If the city can find a way to divert half of the trucks that travel through downtown Mount Vernon, the city’s traffic congestion becomes far less cumbersome. Starr said he has spoken with many truck drivers, who would prefer not to have to go through downtown to get to their destinations.
“Making those tight turns, I don’t know how they do it,” he said.
Link said the city needs to maintain roads in good condition and doesn’t need to jump the gun on economic growth. Regarding a road on the east side of the city that would connect Ohio 229 and US 36, he said he was not certain that a roundabout, as mentioned, would be a viable option for traffic flow.
Starr said in his rebuttal that he would not necessarily be opposed to a roundabout but wants to look at the 229-36 project proposal as a whole “to connect the whole chessboard.” And that extends beyond the project proposal, he added.
On the issue of a stormwater utility, Starr said such a fee should have been in the works decades ago. What goes on “under the surface of the roads” leads to water main breaks and other problems that delay city progress by prioritizing lengthy repairs.
Link said some areas of the city are more in need of stormwater improvements than others. It is up to civil engineers to determine how best to handle stormwater. The city has to be careful about funding stormwater projects on private property. Using what is essentially a new form of tax to reroute stormwater flow on private land is not the best use of tax dollars, he said. Starr said he agreed with Link that private property is just that, private, but along with it comes rights and responsibilities.
Asked following the candidate debate about his residency, Link — who said his running for mayor started out as his opposition toward some city residents who advocated for a charter form of government — said he currently lives outside the city’s boundary.
The office of mayor for Mount Vernon carries a residency requirement. This must be proved when filing a petition, as well as when taking the oath of office.
However, if someone is a resident when they file, but lose their residency, they can still campaign as long as they have the intention to return before taking the oath office.
They cannot take the oath of office until they have a address within the city.
Knox County Board of Elections Director Kim Horn confirmed Thursday that at the time Link filed his petition, he was living at a Chestnut Street address within the city limits.
Link said he lives “about 20 yards or so” outside the city as he currently resides on Harcourt Road near Ariel-Foundation Park. Link said if elected mayor, he would move into the city’s boundary before taking office.
City Editor Nick Sabo contributed to this story.
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