LACONIA — With Tuesday's municipal election fast approaching, the two candidates for mayor — Kailief Mitchell and Ed Engler — appeared at Belknap Mill last evening to field prepared questions before a half-dozen people, among them two city councilors, Mitchell's father and a student too young to vote.
It was the third time the pair were together on the same stage, including their appearance on WMUR-TV earlier this month, and their answers to the questions posed by moderator Robert Fisher, a former Democratic candidate for the New Hampshire House of Representatives, took well trodden paths.
Engler, the president and editor of The Laconia Daily Sun, said that he decided to run because "it matters very much who is the mayor of Laconia," explaining that when none of those he expected to run entered the race, "I did." Mitchell, an academic assistant at the Spaulding Youth Center, viewed his candidacy as "a natural progression," noting that he has served as a poll worker in Ward 5 for the past six years.
Asked to identify the city's strongest and weakest qualities, both pointed to its natural surroundings as its most important asset and its aging population as its greatest liability. Mitchell expressed concern that young people were leaving the city and not returning, while Engler stressed the high number of unemployed or under-employed.
Referring to this "underclass," Engler said that addressing the demographic problem held the key to reducing the abuse and trade of drugs.
Mitchell said that citizens represented "the first line of defense" and that the citizens police academy, where officers introduce residents to the staples of police work, would prepare them for this role.
Mitchell referred to the traffic pattern as "the major obstacle" to the revitalization of downtown. He said that steps must be taken to expand the tax base in order to provide the resources to address the traffic pattern. With respect to downtown Engler said "what we lack now is a specific plan of what we want our downtown to be." Once a consensus is reached, he continued, then "we can ask what do we have to do to get there." He stressed that in weighing the future of downtown the mix of housing must be considered along with the businesses.
Mitchell and Engler agreed that the redevelopment of the Allen-Rogers complex represented a significant benefit to the city. Engler took the question as an opportunity to note that the closing of the factory and loss of the jobs was a blow to the city and a reminder that "we're never going to replace those jobs." Instead, he emphasized the opportunity to develop the skilled workforce needed by advanced manufacturing firms in the region.
Mitchell repeated his opposition to a "Pay-As-You-Throw" trash program while offering qualified support for the mandatory recycling program introduced in July. He said that he would prefer a recycling program that provided tax incentives to residents based on how much they recycled, without explaining how it would operate. Engler said he had no "philosophical objections" to either program. He expected the mandatory program to meet the target set by the budget and to continue. But he said that it still costs almost $600,000 a year to dispose of trash, adding "in effect we're burning that money." Noting that other municipalities recycle a much larger share of their trash, he said there are opportunities for greater savings.
The two agreed that the former Laconia State School property represents a potentially valuable asset to the city, which should work with the state towards its redevelopment. Mitchell said the state should offer tax incentives to persuade businesses to locate there while Engler described a corporate office park on the site as "a game changer" that would not only provide employment but also right the demographic balance in the city.
In closing, Engler said that the candidates' positions on particular issues were less important than which of the two "is most capable of being mayor," to which Mitchell responded "it's going to be a tough decision."