LACONIA — "Leadership is something I am familiar with," said Kailief Mitchell, the second of the two mayoral candidates to field questions before the regular weekly meeting of Laconia Rotary Club in as many weeks. Ed Engler, president and editor of The Laconia Daily Sun, addressed the group the week before.
Mitchell, who works as an academic aid at Spaulding Youth Center in Northfield, described his decision to run for mayor as "a natural progression" from his longstanding commitment to civic affairs that began with Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts when he was a schoolboy at Woodland Heights Elementary School, Holy Trinity School in Laconia and Bishop Brady High School in Concord.
After a year at Maine Maritime Academy, he became an optician, eventually serving as president of New Hampshire Board of Opticians. Since 2002, Mitchell has served in the U.S. Navy Reserve and is president of the New England chapter of the Chief Petty Officers Association. As a corrections officer, he worked at the Lakes Region Facility. He has served as a member of the city's Conservation Commission and as moderator in Ward 5 since 2006. Referring to the leadership positions he has held, Mitchell said he was confident that his experience prepared him for the responsibilities of mayor.
Mitchell said that after speaking with outgoing mayor Mike Seymour, he approaches the office as "a liaison position," meaning that the primary role of the mayor is "representing the community to the City Council." He acknowledged that "if the council is polarized, the mayor must step in. But, first and foremost," he continued, "the role of the mayor is to represent the people to the council." He described the mayor as "the eyes and ears of the community."
The incidence of drug abuse and trafficking, Mitchell said, represented the biggest challenge to the city. "We're seeing more and more drug busts," he noted, adding that the number of arrests is not a sign of "the problem getting worse, but of the solution getting better."
He also pointed to the stagnant and aging population of the city as an impediment to growth and prosperity. "The aging can be a concern, but it's that people aren't staying," Mitchell said, adding that although he returned to Laconia, he is not sure his children will.
Remarking that opportunities "kind of present themselves," Mitchell said that the natural setting of the city, marked by a chain of lakes and ringed by wooded mountains, was perhaps its greatest attraction. "People love the look of Laconia," he said. However, he called for steps to create more jobs, increase property tax revenues and draw more visitors to the city. He suggested that big box stores would generate entry-level jobs for young people as well as attract retail shoppers while "some sort of additional venue," like a casino or resort, would be an attraction for tourists. When the weather, too much rain in the summer and too little snow in the winter, deters visitors, the ripple effect is felt throughout the economy. Other than providing tax incentives to businesses and developers he doubted there much the city could do to attract and support commercial enterprises.
Calling the tract on North Main Street that once housed the Laconia State School "spectacular," Mitchell recommended that the city work with the state to attract a private buyer rather than purchase the property itself. The site, he suggested, could be redeveloped for a hotel, resort or casino — "something that will bring people to our community." Likewise, without commenting on tax increment financing, he said "we can't just spend money to make the city look pretty. We must have something to bring people here."
Mitchell said that the WOW Trail "accents our best asset — the river and waterfront and serves much like a city park." He agreed that the project warranted some public funding. On the other hand, he expressed concern about the prospect of a new county jail. "It's in our backyard and it's an asset to us," he said while asking "how much are we willing to invest in it? Should we sign up for the bill or is there another option?" Noting that the original estimate of $45-million was high, he wondered if county officials have considered adding a second level to the existing facility, which would reduce the cost of the project.
"Good communication is always key," Mitchell said of the sometimes strained relationship between the City Council and School Board. Conceding that "breakdowns" are sometimes unavoidable, he stressed "you have to be as transparent as you can." Without taking a position on the recent decision of the council authorizing the School Board to pursue a $1.8-million loan to fund renovations at the high school, Mitchell stressed the importance of deciding "what is a necessity and what is not." With the sluggish economy, he that "everyone must tighten their belt."
Mitchell said he would not support a "Pay-As-You-Throw" program, insisting the collection of trash and garbage should be a service funded by property taxes. At the same time, he said that the city should continue to promote recycling and acknowledged "we're not doing enough yet."
Mitchell and Engler will appear together, along with the candidates for City Council, at a forum sponsored by Weirs Action Committee at the Weirs Community Center on Thursday, Oct. 24, beginning at 7 p.m.