LACONIA — After fielding a flurry of questions from fellow Rotarians at the club's weekly meeting yesterday, mayoral candidate Ed Engler said that "elections, including this election, are not about specific issues. They are about picking the most capable person to be mayor."
Engler, co-founder, president and editor of The Laconia Daily Sun, is touting his record of business success and civic engagement in his race against Kailief Mitchell, an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and teacher at Spaulding Youth Center, to succeed retiring mayor Mike Seymour. Mitchell will be the guest of the Rotary Club next week.
After 36 years in the newspaper business, Engler said that he gained an understanding of "the necessity of dealing with people on a day-to-day basis to achieve common goals and of solving problems with the resources you have." While stopping short of insisting that government run like a business, he allowed there is "some truth" in the notion and believed his experience equipped him to govern.
Much of the questioning bore on the demographic and economic challenges facing the city. Engler described the aging population, along with "a considerable level of poverty" and "high number of working poor" as the greatest threat to the future of the community. Referring to the shrinking school population, he said that "you're either growing or you're dying" and ways must be found "to keep people here and attract people here" to reverse these trends.
Although Engler said he had no "specific agenda," he stressed that economic development, fostering "general prosperity," is his highest priority, adding that "it pertains to just about anything you can name." He noted that the city does not employ an economic development director and said that "the mayor needs to be the economic development director for the city."
On the theme of economic development, Engler suggested that the city pursue two particular opportunities. First, he said that manufacturers in the region have positions for qualified employees and development of an abundant supply of skilled labor would enable existing firms to expand as well as attract new firms to the area. Second, Engler said that the former Laconia State School property and adjoining tracts owned by the state, which together amount to some 400 acres, offer "the potential, and I emphasize potential, to be a game-changer for the city, Lakes Region and the state." He said that his personal preference would be to work with the state to develop the site as a corporate headquarters or campus for corporate offices employing thousands of white-collar workers.
Noting that the Lakes Region has become a popular destination for retirees, Engler said that while this is to the city's advantage, the demographics have gotten "out of balance." By a game-changer, he said, he meant development that would restore balance by generating opportunities for skilled and professional workers.
The future of downtown, Engler said, depends on reaching a consensus within the city on what downtown should be. "We have to start with the consensus then marshal the resources and pursue the goal," he said. However, he added "if we're going to invest in downtown, then we should invest in what the community wants, not what the people and businesses already downtown want."
By not optimizing opportunities to recycle, Engler said that the city was burning a significant sum of money each year that could be spent on other projects. He noted that the 2013-2014 city budget rests on reducing the cost of disposing of solid waste by more than $200,000 and questioned whether that target can be met without collecting recyclable materials every week, which adds $90,000 to the solid waste budget. "If it doesn't work," he said, "we're almost certainly going to Pay-As-You-Throw."
Engler said he would welcome closer cooperation among municipalities and with the county to deploy resources and consolidate services. "Better management", he said, "means making better use of the resources you have." Although respectful of tradition, he said "I don't want our slogan to be 'because we've always done it that way.'" The tax cap, he explained, forces government to make optimal use of limited resources. "Everything should be on the table," said Engler, who said that if elected, "I'd be willing to start those conversations."
With the city bearing a fifth of the county tax burden, Engler said that the mayor, city council and five state representatives must "play a very politically active role" in the process of planning for the county jail. However, asked if he would do anything to help the Belknap County Convention and Belknap County Commission "play nice," he answer with a flat "no."