Race for Mayor: Mitchell looks to invigorate tourism & retail economy

LACONIA — "The mayor's job is not just to be out there at parades and presiding at meetings," said Kaileif Mitchell, one of three candidates for the office. "He is the only one elected by all the people and I really think his job is to represent the people as a liaison to the City Council."

At 34, Mitchell is the youngest in the race, but he brings varied experience to his candidacy. Coming to the city as a child, he went through Holy Trinity School then graduated from Bishop Brady High School in Concord. After a year at Maine Maritime Academy, he interrupted his formal education to earn a living to support his family, which grew to four children. In the U.S. Navy Reserve he qualified in avionics as well as aviation electrical and mechanical technology. After a spell as an optician he became a corrections officer and currently serves as a teaching assistant at Spaulding Youth Center in Northfield while completing his degree in sociology and psychology at Southern New Hampshire University.

"We're a dying city," Mitchell said flatly. "There are more deaths than births and young people are moving out in search of economic opportunities." To reverse the trends of a dwindling and aging population, he believes that the local economy must be "re-energized." In particular, he suggested what has traditionally been a seasonal tourist sector, "dependent on warm summers and snowy winters," should be augmented by more stable attractions, including a stronger retail sector.

Noting that many residents turn to big box stores in Concord or Tilton, he would seek to keep them in the region by bringing major retailers like Target to the Lakes Business Park.

"The city should not get into the business of buying and selling property," Mitchell said, proposing instead to provide tax incentives to encourage the redevelopment of existing buildings. The Colonial Theatre, he said, could become an entertainment venue akin to the Flying Monkey in Plymouth, competing with Meadowbrook Musical Arts Center in the summer and replacing it in the winter. Mitchell said that "rejuvenating the tourist economy and growing the retail sector will create jobs, demand for housing and expand the tax base."

Mitchell believes that downtown can support a mix of entertainment venues and retail outlets, on the one hand, and affordable housing and social services, on the other, offering Bangor, Maine, where a popular casino and homeless shelter are close neighbors. "It is definitely feasible to have both in the same neighborhood," he said.

Likewise, he dismissed the notion that a residential treatment facility for the mentally ill, which Genesis Behavioral Health seeks to locate on Church Street, would have an adverse effect. "I don't see Genesis being there would be detrimental to the redevelopment of downtown."

The city, Mitchell said, should not pursue its effort to acquire the former Laconia State School property, but instead work with the state to market the site to a private developer. He said that the city and state should cooperate in providing incentives to attract a buyer to redevelop the property in way that is in the best interest of both.

Mitchell was skeptical of using tax increment financing (TIF) for "beautification" projects. "The reason people are not coming to Laconia is not because the city isn't beautiful," he claimed, "but because there is nothing to come her for." He said that while he could understand applying TIF funds to the projects like the construction of the WOW Trail and restoration of Weirs Beach, he urged "caution." Although both are popular, he stressed that neither is "really the first step. The first step is expanding the tax base so that we have the resources to invest other projects. I'd love to say let's throw them a bone, but I don't see how we can when we're looking at funding a fire station, four fire fighters, road works and a county jail."

Mitchell considered it premature to make a definitive decision on whether to retain the four firefighters, who were hired for two years with federal funding at a cost of more than $300,000 a year, when the grant expires in 2015. He said that the ultimate decision would depend on the extent to which the additional personnel reduced the cost of overtime, strength of the economy and other priorities.

Although Mitchell recycles, he is firmly opposed to a Pay-As-You-Throw program and has mixed feelings about the mandatory recycling program introduced in July. He advocates providing residents with "some sort of tax incentive" to encourage them to recycle. "To change behavior, people need positive incentives," he said, adding that he is troubled that those who fail to comply with the program may be punished with fines for illegal dumping.

Among the original petitioners for the tax cap, Mitchell said "I wouldn't ever consider overriding the tax cap. It's a check and balance that is there to keep us honest." Nor, he added, would he favor removing the county tax from the cap in order to forestall a steep increase in the county tax from displacing local expenditures.

Mitchell, who has served as both a selectman and moderator in Ward 5 as well as a member of the Conservation Commission, said that he hopes his candidacy will inspire other young people in the city to become more engaged in civic affairs of the community.

Mitchell will face former city councilor Bob Luther and Ed Engler, president of The Laconia Daily Sun, in the primary election on Tuesday, Sept. 10. The two top vote getters will appear on the general ballot in November.

(Editor's Note: This is the third and last profile of the mayoral candidates. All were asked the same set of a dozen questions at interviews, which provided the information for these articles.)