South Bend mayoral candidates highlight jobs, houses at public forum
By Jeff Parrott, The South Bend Tribune
March 29, 2011
SOUTH BEND — On a stage in Century Center’s Bendix Theater Tuesday night, five men sat in comfortable chairs for a nearly two-hour job interview.
They fielded questions on a range of issues that included economic development, public education, vacant houses and crisis management, as their potential employers, a crowd of more than 500, listened intently.
Democrats Mike Hamann, Ryan Dvorak, Pete Buttigieg and Barrett Berry, and Republican Wayne Curry fielded questions from moderator Dustin Grove, WSBT-TV reporter and anchor. The questions were crafted by the forum’s sponsors, The Chamber of Commerce of St. Joseph County, the Young Professionals Network, The Tribune, WSBT-TV and radio.
The format was more casual than a debate, Grove stressed at the outset. No podiums. No chances for rebuttal. But the candidates were asked to keep their replies to 90 seconds, and a woman sitting in the front row held up a large card to notify them when their time was up.
Here were a few of the questions and answers:
How would you describe South Bend?
Buttigieg: “Home.” South Bend is a city that is “struggling to find its identity.” The city may never again have a single employer that puts thousands of people to work. That is OK. A stronger economic base consists of many smaller employers.
Berry: A “city of transition.” South Bend “misnamed” itself in the past as a “city of manufacturing. We were a city of entrepreneurs” and it can return to that.
Hamann: “We are a city emerging into a new phase - a city in a transformation. We’re a very diverse city. That’s our strength.”
Curry: South Bend is a city of “great people,” who are willing to volunteer and participate in efforts to make the community strong.
Dvorak: “My hometown. Everybody, even if they’ve moved from South Bend, loves to come back. It’s also a city with some problems.”
What is your strategy for putting South Bend on a path to new ideas and innovations, and how would you put that in place in your first six months, if elected?
Berry: His first two hires would be a “job czar” and a “public schools liaison.” He would create a “jobs council” that would take a regional approach to economic development. He would create a “business/education roundtable” and spin it off as a private nonprofit.
Hamann: The first thing a city should do is “do no harm.” He would review city regulations to make sure they are business-friendly, and would hire a “small business advocate” responsible for helping small businesses navigate city regulations. He would hire an economic development director who has had success in a city comparable to South Bend.
Curry: “We’re not viewed as a very business-friendly town.” He would ask business leaders for advice by forming a business advisory panel. He would consult with that group in hiring his economic development director.
Dvorak: He would streamline how economic development is handled, making sure there is more coordination and accountability among the area’s various economic development entities. He would focus most on helping existing businesses expand.
Buttigieg: He would focus on competitiveness, nurturing local start-ups and attracting new firms to town. Although it’s unlikely that new, huge employers will come to South Bend, “we’re not done manufacturing here.” He has visited many local firms and been struck by how many are making products locally and exporting them to Asia.
The city’s department of code enforcement says there are 1,500 to 2,000 vacant homes in the city. How would you tackle that and how would you pay for it?
Dvorak: Not every vacant house needs to be demolished. The city needs to go after absentee landlords.
Curry: The city must start by taking an inventory, block by block, of vacant houses and then coming up with a strategy. After demolition, the city should promote building clusters of new homes, rather than a single new home on a distressed block, so that the new homes retain more of their value.
Hamann: The city needs to be more aggressive. Code enforcement is doing its best, but if elected he would lobby the Indiana General Assembly for a law that would allow cities to seize abandoned properties if their owners haven’t fixed them up within a certain time period.
Berry: He agrees with Hamann. He would bring back neighborhood resources centers, eliminated by the Stephen Luecke administration, as a way to increase pride in neighborhoods.
Buttigieg: The city has demolished more than 500 homes over the past few years, but it does not seem like it because “100,000 people are living on a footprint built for 132,000.” He would form an “investigative team” to determine the actual owners of vacant houses, whose deeds are often recorded under vaguely named entities.