And they’re off: The seven Durango City Council candidates took their stances this week on issues such as housing, business and budgets during the first candidates forum of the municipal election season.
City Council members guide the policies and goals that trickle down to residents’ lives every day – impacting road maintenance, utility costs, tax rates, trail systems and beyond. Community forums provide an opportunity for community members to get to know what candidates will prioritize if they take one of three seats open in the April 6 election.
La Plata Democrats on the Move and the Durango Chamber of Commerce hosted the first two forums this week, and three more will be held by other organizations before election day.
“Each (candidate) brings a unique set of experiences,” said Jack Llewellyn, Durango chamber president, clarifying that the chamber has not endorsed a candidate yet.
But when it comes to the candidates’ responses during the chamber’s “Eggs and Issues” forum held Thursday, two topics were particularly notable, Llewellyn said. Those included the city’s first investments through its newly created urban renewal authority and ways to reduce “red tape” to help businesses meet their needs.
The urban renewal authority creates an avenue for public-private financial investments in underserved areas. The city has identified an area just north of downtown Durango, dubbed MidTown, as its first project. The area includes Town Plaza, Buckley Park and River City Hall.
Almost all of the candidates emphasized investing in affordable housing through the URA. Creating affordable and attainable housing for the city’s workforce is one of the top issues facing the city (and in this year’s election).
Olivier Bosmans, an international project manager and an environmental health and safety consultant, did not mention affordable housing in his response to the question. He said the URA’s first investments would be dictated by the interests of developers and investors, and he would use his experience to help move those projects forward.
Bosmans did highlight the importance of addressing affordable housing in other responses.
Two candidates, Frank Lockwood and Seth Furtney, immediately pointed to opportunities with Buckley Park and the Durango School District 9-R administration building.
Furtney, a commercial property owner and former engineering contract manager, said the building could house businesses, affordable housing or even a convention center. Lockwood, retired after a law career and former director of the Durango Area Tourism Office, said housing needed a strong push.
Melissa Youssef, the only incumbent candidate, said there are great opportunities for mixed-use affordable housing in the MidTown area and the city might use its air space to facilitate some growth.
Jessika Buell, a local entrepreneur with multiple businesses, said the city needed to think of housing development close to downtown and multimodal connections between downtown and the Animas River Trail.
Two other candidates, Lisa McCorry and Harrison Wendt, expressed concerns that the URA development could result in gentrification, when development brings in wealth while displacing current inhabitants and businesses.
McCorry is a landscaper with Bare Hands Landscape Maintenance, and Wendt works as a youth camp coordinator with Durango schools.
Both candidates have emphasized their familiarity with the “Durango Tango,” working multiple jobs just to get by. They have also prioritized hearing from groups typically excluded because of race, physical ability, income level or other demographics.
Wendt said he wants to address racial injustice, attacks on the LGBTQ community, insufficient resources for people experiencing homelessness and deeply rooted white supremacist attitudes.
As candidates worked to distinguish themselves, they also fell into agreement on certain issues.
All of them felt the business bump-out program on Main Avenue in the downtown area – a COVID-19 pandemic response allowing businesses to operate outdoors – should continue. The city should commit to the program for three to four years, they said.
They split over the FIS Worldpay office building, an 81,380-square-foot building near the Durango Mall. The building is up for sale, and the current City Council has expressed interest in potentially purchasing it.
When asked if the city should buy the building, Lockwood, McCorry, Furtney and Bosmans dismissed the idea; while Wendt gave it a thumbs-up. Youssef and Buell gave it a “maybe.”
The candidates also split over how they would allocate a hypothetical 1% sales tax. Bosmans and Youssef said they weren’t in favor of additional sales tax increases. But Youssef also aligned with Buell by saying the city could renew sunsetting taxes, such as a half-cent tax passed in 2005, to invest in housing and transit/multimodal connectivity.
Lockwood, Wendt and McCorry said the city would want to invest in housing. Furtney highlighted spending tax dollars to fund fire and police departments in the short term and investing in areas that offer a financial return in the future.
Candidates also tackled the budget’s structural imbalance as sales tax-generated revenues fall while expenses rise. They weighed in on the future of Main Avenue (could it become a pedestrian mall?). Throughout the forum, all of the candidates repeatedly supported addressing housing affordability.
All of them expressed support for a lodgers tax increase that will appear on April’s ballot, and some voiced criticism about how the revenue would be allocated, if voters approve it. In a poll taken during the event, 85% of respondents supported the tax increase.
If Durango residents didn’t catch the forums, they can join future events:
The Local First forum will take place from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Monday. People can register at https://local-first.org/event/2021-city-council-forum/. The Neighbors in Need Alliance forum will be held from 6:30 to 8 p.m. March 11, and the event’s registration and Zoom webinar link will be available at http://interfaithallianceco.org/durango.The League of Women Voters of La Plata County will host a forum from 7 to 8:30 p.m. March 22 via Zoom. The Zoom link will be available at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article has been updated to include Olivier Bosmans’ complete job title and additional context for his response regarding Durango’s urban renewal authority.