What can you do for us? This age-old interview question was at the heart of the Downtown Business Association’s mayoral candidate forum Friday morning.
The event — which DBA Vice President Eric Forst pointed out was “a discussion not a debate” — offered downtown business owners a chance to see where each candidate stands on the issues that will impact them most.
Downtown revitalization, for instance, was the first topic of discussion. And though mayoral candidates Ken Koelsch and Karen Crane generally seemed to agree on many issues, this was not one of them.
“I think we need to build on the positive rather than looking at downtown as something that needs to be revitalized,” Koelsch said. “It is vital.”
Like a preacher delivering a sermon, Koelsch was met with some approving head nods and “uh-huhs” from the crowd gathered in the third floor of the Senate Building.
“Downtown is vital during part of the year,” Crane responded. “It’s also empty during part of the year. We really need to work on making downtown vital year round, not just during tourism season.”
Though Crane offered a different take on the needs of Juneau’s downtown core, she too was met with similarly affirmative gestures from the crowd.
Though the discussion was primarily about downtown businesses, no mayoral candidate forum in Juneau would be complete without a question about the city’s housing woes. Forst, who moderated the event, made sure to remind candidates to try and restrict their answers to the downtown area.
“I cannot fathom why we have housing units above Diamonds International and in quite a few places downtown that are not being used during the legislative session,” Koelsch said. “Why are we not working with these buildings to free them up?”
He went on to say that he built a relationship with Diamonds International during his time working as a port director for U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, which may help him broker some type of deal.
It’s not that simple, according to Crane.
“It’s easy to say we need to do it; it’s a little bit harder to make it happen,” Crane said, explaining that the city has tried and failed in the past to work out similar deals with the landlords in question, most of whom are from out of town. She said that the city ought to look at a tax abatement program instead. “It’s an approach that we haven’t tried in Juneau and one that I think we need to get serious about.”
If there was one point that Koelsch really hit home throughout the course of the event, it was that he loves parking and wants to see more of it downtown.
“I’m going to harp on parking until people get the idea that I like parking,” he said with a smile and a laugh, although he certainly kept his word. He talked about parking several times throughout the discussion and proposed tearing down the three-story parking garage in the Willoughby District and replacing it with an eight-story garage that goes “up to Calhoun (avenue).”
Koelsch also proposed adding more yacht moorage downtown, which he said could help nearby businesses.
“You talk about some high-end people, that’s a group of people that we’re missing out on,” he said, adding that most yacht-mooring locations in Juneau are in Auke Bay. The dock across from the Goldbelt Hotel is not enough, he said.
In addition to her tax-abatement idea to actuate more housing development downtown, Crane also suggested a city fund for helping develop businesses. Inspired by the Juneau Economic Development Council’s Innovation Summit, which took place earlier in the week, Crane said that the city should be investing more money in Juneau businesses.
“I’d like to see a business development fund located in JEDC so that we can help spur some more entrepreneurship in Juneau,” she said. “I think that is a good way to spend CBJ money.”
Both candidates will meet at a forum on Feb. 24, organized by the Juneau League of Women Voters, the Juneau Empire and KTOO. The forum will be held at KTOO’s @360 North Studio. A meet and greet with the candidates will begin at 6:30 p.m. and the event will begin at 7 p.m.
The special mayoral election will be held on March 15.