Ann Arbor Mayoral Candidates Share Thoughts On Economic Development

Jul 21, 2014

Ann Arbor's Democratic mayoral primary is rapidly approaching on August 5th. Since incumbent Mayor John Hieftje isn't seeking re-election it offers the community a chance to chart a new course in a wide variety of areas.  

Ann Arbor Mayoral Candidates
Credit Andrew Cluley / 89.1 WEMU

Voters will be considering these issues and where the candidates stand when they go to the polls.  One important issue that will separate the candidates for many is economic development policies. For many Ann Arbor businesses, the key is for the city to take steps to attract and retain talented people. But what steps do they want the city to take to ensure this happens?

Ann Arbor Ypsilanti Regional Chamber Vice President Andy LaBarre says local businesses want a particular emphasis in a couple of areas, "Improvements in our infrastructure and a maintenance of the existing infrastructure we have.  I think that's beyond just economic development though.  How do we leverage the educational institutions that are in our backyards."

There are 4 current city council members vying to be Ann Arbor's next mayor and they have some different ideas on how best to promote the economy.  Sabra Briere thinks there are many approaches to economic development.  They vary from relying on the University of Michigan directly or through spin-off firms, or from trying to recruit one big tech firm.  

The first ward council representative however prefers focusing on keeping existing unique businesses to maintain Ann Arbor's special feel, "This is what we're selling, is the unique capacity of Ann Arbor to be high tech, forward looking, progressive, politically liberal, and just distinctive from every other place."

Briere thinks offering micro loans through the local development finance authority as well as local investing efforts may be keys to assisting crucial local businesses.

Christopher Taylor believes the city has a real role in promoting economic development locally.  The third ward council representative says the city's $1.5 million investment in the local development finance authority is important.  He says, "We need to make sure young people come to our city, that young people thrive in our city, and that young people stay in our city.  And economic development, encouraging entrepreneurial culture are tremendous way to do that."

The third ward has a second city council representative running for mayor.  Stephen Kunselman says he's not a fan of either tax abatements or subsidies.  He thinks abatements pits communities against each other and subsidizing public parking hasn't gotten promised results. Kunselman prefers investing in basics to make Ann Arbor attractive to all, "When you invest in your infrastructure than all else can build around it, and that's what economic development I think is best accomplished at the local governmental level."  

One thing Kunselman doesn't want politicians to do is try to pick winners and losers instead of letting the marketplace determine what will happen.

The final candidate to consider is the one most pushing economic development on the campaign trail.  Sally Hart Petersen believes the city needs to take the lead in economic development.  According to the second ward council representative the University of Michigan helped buffer Ann Arbor during the recession, but the city is responsible for meeting infrastructure needs.  

Petersen is pushing for a policy group of city, business, and U of M leaders to ensure the best results come from anticipated job growth.  She says, "How do we translate and transform the economic growth that's happening ahead of us.  Again the jobs report, we've seen property values in Ann Arbor increase 6 and a half percent in the last year.  How do we transform that growth into better value for the tax payer dollar.  That to me is the bottom line."

Petersen believes tools are in place that can help economic development but the city lacks a comprehensive plan on how to best move forward.  

No matter who gets elected mayor, LaBarre says members of the Ann Arbor Ypsilanti Regional Chamber want any economic development policy delivered with transparency and efficiency, "Validate the good work being done, and explain how it's a good use of taxpayer dollars.  And that's not just for economic development."

Voters will decide August 5th which candidate has the economic development vision for Ann Arbor they like best.

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— Andrew Cluley is the Ann Arbor beat reporter, and anchor for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him acluley@emich.edu.