Speaking to about 30 people gathered at Sweetwaters in downtown Ann Arbor, three Democratic candidates for mayor answered downtown-centric questions at a May 1 forum that touched on issues of density and open space, the DDA, national chains and support for local businesses.
The mayoral candidate forum, held by the Main Street Area Association, featured Sabra Briere, Sally Petersen and Christopher Taylor. The fourth Democrat who’s vying for the seat, Stephen Kunselman, was unable to attend. All four candidates in the Aug. 5 primary election currently serve on the city council. There are no Republicans running this year.
In addition to their opening and closing statements, candidates responded to three questions posed by Tom Murray, president of the MSAA board and owner of Conor O’Neill’s, an Irish pub located on Main Street. Candidates were asked for their views on density and open space downtown, as well as their opinion of the DDA. The third question focused on the tension between support for local business and the growing interest from national chains in locating downtown.
All three candidates talked about the need for downtown development, with Briere and Taylor saying that density and open space aren’t mutually exclusive. Briere talked about the importance of walkability, and noted that urban parks provided “punctuation points” for the community. However, she said that for Ann Arbor’s relatively small downtown, it wasn’t logical to insist on a really large downtown park.
Petersen answered the question by focusing on the development aspect, including the need for large floor-plate office space, redevelopment of the North Main/Huron River corridor, and infrastructure like public transportation. She announced her support for the transit tax proposal that’s on the May 6 ballot. All other candidates had previously endorsed the proposal, which is being put forward by the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority. Mary Stasiak, AAATA’s manager of community relations, attended the May 1 forum.
The candidates all expressed unequivocal support for the DDA, with Taylor in particular lamenting the political culture that he says has “scapegoated” the DDA. That was likely a reference to criticism of the DDA by Kunselman, among others. Russ Collins, a DDA board member, attended the meeting in his capacity as executive director of the Michigan Theater to promote the upcoming Cinetopia International Film Festival.
And while praising the unique character of downtown Ann Arbor and the need to support local businesses, candidates noted that it’s not possible to prevent national chains from locating downtown. Taylor said he was excited that the downtown is attractive to businesses from outside this area, though he didn’t want to see national chains come in to the exclusion of locally-owned retailers. Briere described herself as a firm advocate for local businesses, saying that the downtown should focus on specialty items that can’t be found elsewhere. Petersen said she likes the whimsy of local businesses that inspire the phrase “Keep Ann Arbor Funky,” but noted that certain national retailers – like Apple – would be a perk to downtown.
There is no incumbent in this race. Mayor John Hieftje announced last year that he would not be seeking re-election. The deadline has passed for entry into the partisan primary on Aug. 5, but it’s still possible for an independent candidate to get on the Nov. 4 general election ballot.