LACONIA — Brenda Baer, a former city councilor known for examining the fine print and asking pointed questions, is trying to unseat Mark Haynes, the incumbent Ward 4 councilor, who is often quiet at City Council meetings but says he asks plenty of questions behind the scenes.
Both came in for campaign interviews Thursday at The Laconia Daily Sun. The election is on Nov. 5.
Baer, 93, who served a dozen years on the City Council before losing a re-election race to Haynes two years ago, said the council needs to be more judicious with municipal expenditures.
“I do kind of oppose spending city tax money on some of the huge programs where you’re pouring money in it time and time again,” Baer said. “I refer, of course, to the Colonial Theatre, which we’re committed to and are going to end up owning a piece of property that I don’t know how we’re going to run it after we get it.”
Baer has said she regrets her vote in favor of the city’s initial $1.4 million loan to the Belknap Economic Development Council that got the proposal off the ground. The theater revitalization is intended to jump start revitalization of the downtown area.
On July 22, the City Council gave unanimous final approval for $6.7 million in bonds to fund the theater project, growing the city’s overall financial commitment to $8.1 million. The deal is to close soon, followed by the start of construction.
Haynes, 69, the retired former facilities director at the Laconia Clinic, said he wrestled with whether or not to boost the city’s level of support for the project, but finally decided it was the right thing to do.
“I had some very influential people in Ward 4 call me and say, ‘This is crazy. Don’t spend any more money.’
“So I was going to the meeting and I was going to suggest that maybe we need to slow down on this; maybe we are moving too fast.”
On further reflection, he decided that the involvement in the project of Rusty McLear, the developer who turned around the fortunes of Meredith, tipped the scales in favor of increasing the city’s financial commitment. McLear plans to build eight to 10 spacious, market-rate apartments as part of the theater project.
In the City Council discussion on July 22, Haynes said a move forward for the Colonial project would send a signal to other investors interested in changing the face of downtown.
“If we don’t believe in ourselves, how do we expect other people to believe in us?” he asked at the time.
Baer also said further funding for the WOW Trail could have a negative impact on city finances.
“We gave them almost a half million dollars for the second phase and the second phase cost just under a million, so how are they going to raise $10 million for the third phase?” she asked. “Are they expecting the city to help?
“That’s how I would be if I sat on the City Council. I would be questioning the need for it.”
She also questions a state panel’s plans for the former Laconia State School property. Current plans call for a boutique hotel, a sports complex and a wellness center. She wonders whether the economic potential of those projects is sufficient and whether they will lead to as many new jobs as hoped.
There has been much emphasis on the current City Council in finding a way to attract younger families and workers to the area. The city has an aging demographic and a workforce shortage.
Haynes said he supports the idea of encouraging the construction of more moderately priced housing.
The theory is that providing more housing would allow for an enhanced workforce and foster economic expansion.
For her part, Baer said there are a lot of disincentives to business growth that will be hard to overcome.
“I guess I have to say I like Laconia the way it is,” she said. “I don’t think you’re going to find any major industrial business coming into Laconia to create good-paying jobs.
“What would bring families in is that if they like the way it is now, they like the general, peaceful atmosphere. However, we have a problem: If you were a young couple moving in, would you be worried that you don’t have obstetric care if you are pregnant and have to travel to another city to have a baby?”
Lakes Region General Hospital last year ended labor and delivery services, but its doctors provide care before and after childbirth.
“Having more business is a grand idea, but we have two industrial parks that we have not been able to fill,” Baer said.
“There just is no interest out there, and we’ve spent years trying to attract business. And the reasons for it is that anything north of Manchester, you don’t find that kind of industry interest. The further you are away from points of distribution, the costlier it is.”
When she was first elected to the City Council, Baer was a 79-year-old widow who spent time golfing, watching television, doing arts and crafts and writing occasional letters to the editor.
After her defeat by Haynes two years ago, she has kept up with City Council affairs, attending occasional meetings and watching others on television. She said she will attend an upcoming mayoral candidates forum on Oct. 21, having missed one last Tuesday night to celebrate her son’s 70th birthday.
Haynes is the retired facilities manager at the Laconia Clinic. He is a graduate of Plymouth State University with a degree in English literature.
He said he is running because he wants to give back to the community.
“I really get tired of the negativity that happens in Laconia,” he said. “I want to turn that around. I think the city has enormous potential that hasn’t even been tapped into. I know there are a lot of positive things going on and just would like to contribute to that.”
Baer said she has been disappointed that Haynes has not been more vocal at City Council meetings, and that, on many important issues, there is little debate or questions asked.
Haynes will often go for long stretches of a meeting without saying anything, and will speak only briefly when he does make a comment.
“I’ve learned you need to be a good listener,” he said.
Haynes said he meets frequently with city staff to get his questions answered before City Council meetings.
He said he is proud of his efforts to have a police officer stationed at the middle school, as well as for his advocacy for improvements to city parks.
“I’ve worked in management all my life,” Haynes said. “I never punched a clock. I learned you need to work within the confines of the system, work with department heads, the chief executive officer or the boss. You need to know how to work in the system.”