LACONIA — "We have got to figure out ways to broaden prosperity and expand opportunity within the community," said Ed Engler, who stressed that "my commitment is that if I am elected, economic development will be my focus, my top priority every day."
Engler, the editor and president of The Laconia Daily Sun, grew up in Ipswich, South Dakota, and graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of Texas. After a brief stint in advertising, he has worked in the newspaper business for 36 years, the last 27 of them in New Hampshire, where he has worked as a co-owner of The Daily Sun since the first edition appeared on June 5, 2000.
Engler finds the city's shrinking and aging population "very alarming," explaining "it's not so much the total population, but more alarming is the rapid decline of the school population, which signals a lack of younger families and prosperity."
"City government must play a more activist role in economic development," Engler said. "We can't sit around and wait for private developers to turn things around." He described Laconia's position as the county seat and commercial hub as analogous to a suburban situation. "Most people are not aware that Shaw's, Lowe's, Hannaford's and the Belknap Mall are not in Laconia," he said, "there is an invisible line. But when it comes to collecting property taxes it's very visible. We're not only competing with other states and countries," he continued. "We're competing against our neighboring communities, which makes it very challenging."
A director of the Belknap Economic Development Council, Engler envisions redevelopment as a cumulative process. "If positive steps are made in targeted areas, the residual effects will be felt in other parts of the city." But, he emphasized, the process must begin with consensus.
"The bigger picture is that we as a community have to decide what we want downtown to be," Engler said, adding that city government must play an active role in reaching consensus. "It's about the place and what we want it to be more than about the people and businesses that happen to be there," he said. "Redevelopment is for the city, for all of us. If redevelopment happens to help businesses, all the better, but that's not the aim."
Once consensus is reached and goals are set, Engler suggested they should serve as filters for proposals and projects. "If a proposal furthers the goal, we should encourage it and if it doesn't we should discourage it," he said. For instance, he said that the prospect of Genesis Behavioral Health operating a residential treatment center for the mentally ill at its property on Church Street raises the question, "What do we want downtown to be? It would be of concern to me," he allowed, "but that conversation needs to be had."
Engler said that tax increment financing (TIF) offered an effective means of making significant investments in public infrastructure required to support redevelopment. However, he cautioned against speculative building. "I'm very leery of 'build it and they will come'," he said. Instead, he said that he would prefer to work in partnership with a private developer to pursue projects in which public investment was contingent on private investment.
At the same time, Engler said that TIF funds could be applied to projects like the construction of the WOW Trail and the restoration of Weirs Beach. "I'm a big supporter of the WOW Trail," he said, "but I find the relationship between the WOW Trail organization and the city confusing and unusual. It makes little sense to me the way it is currently configured." The city holds the lease on the railroad right-of-way that the trail follows and once complete the trail becomes a city park, Engler said. "If it is a city park," he continued, "then we should treat it as such by investing in its construction and maintenance. It's either a city park or it isn't." Likewise, he insisted that Weirs Beach is a city park and if restoration is feasible, the city should fund it.
Noting that the federal grant that funded four additional firefighters for two years will expire in two years, Engler said that "it is way too early to make a judgment about whether to retain them at a cost of more than $300,000 a year." He said that Chief Ken Erickson told the City Council that adding one firefighter to each shift would help mitigate the cost of overtime, which has been a source of concern to councilors for some time. He said that after an appropriate time the impact of increased staffing on overtime can be measured to provide the basis for a decision. "If there is no significant effect," Engler said, "the decision will be much harder. And we're also looking at $4-million to expand and renovate Central Station."
Engler said that although "I have no philosophical objection to Pay-As-You-Throw, the mandatory recycling program should be given every opportunity to succeed." At the same time, he remarked that "as a business owner I understand that it is appalling on the face of it to spend so much money burning trash when it could be avoided. It's just bad business." More important, he said that the current city budget is balanced on the assumption that disposal costs will be reduced by a specific amount. "If we're nowhere near the necessary savings," Engler said, "the City Council will face a difficult choice sooner rather than later." He added that he believes for the mandatory recycling program to succeed, recyclables must be collected every week, not every other week.
Engler said that he could not anticipate either excluding the county tax from the tax cap or overriding the tax cap to offset an increase in the county assessment. "I'm a big supporter of the tax cap," he declared. "It takes away the 'oh, well factor', meaning 'oh,well' it's not our fault, it's beyond our control. It eliminates that response to anything," he explained, "and makes government focus on priorities."
Engler said that since the tax cap was introduced in 2005 successive city councils have made adjustments to comply with it with "not a hint of overriding it."
The most important job of the mayor, Engler believes, is "presiding over the City Council in every sense of the word. It's overlooked and difficult, but must be done fairly and competently, and not just during meetings," he said.
Engler is in a three-cornered contest to succeed Mike Seymour, who retired after serving two terms as mayor, with former city councilor and state representative Bob Luther and political newcomer Khaleif Mitchell. The two top vote getters in the primary election on Tuesday, Sept. 10, will square off in the general election in November.
(Editor's Note: All three mayoral candidates are being asked the same set of dozen questions at interviews providing the information for profiles of each to be published before Tuesday's primary.)