City's mayoral hopefuls offer mixed opinions on Wal-Mart

Candidates for Gainesville mayor and city commission answer questions during a debate sponsored by the Builders Association of North Central Florida at the Hilton University of Florida Conference Center on Tuesday.

DOUG FINGER/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, January 28, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 28, 2004 at 1:41 a.m.
Plans for a Wal-Mart Supercenter got mixed reviews from Gainesville's mayoral candidates on Tuesday, during the first forum of the election season.
The forum, held at the Hilton University of Florida Conference Center and attended by several hundred people, was sponsored by the Builders Association of North Central Florida. Candidates answered a series of questions posed by a moderator.
The election will be held March 9, with a runoff on March 30 if needed. The mayor earns $32,996 a year.
The candidates said a supercenter might cause locally owned stores to close. Wal-Mart is trying to get the city's approval to build a supercenter off the intersection of U.S. 441 and NW 53rd Street - a plan the Gainesville City Commission scrapped last year because of concerns about traffic and the project's impact on the creek system at the site and surrounding homes.
"We would have a number of local businesses probably go out of business," said C.B. Daniel, 64, chairman of the southern division of CNB National Bank.
Mayor Tom Bussing, 56, said a supercenter might be appropriate in some locations, but not others.
"It's an anchor for an activity center. It draws customers," he said. On the other hand, it pays low wages, and the profits go to a company based outside of Gainesville, he said.
Two candidates - Pegeen Hanrahan, 37, and Michael Belle, 23 - didn't specifically address the proposal for a supercenter off U.S. 441. But they were skeptical that Wal-Mart would help Gainesville.
"Is it doing us good to ultimately close down competing businesses?" said Hanrahan, an engineer and former city commissioner.
Belle, a full-time volunteer for Dennis Kucinich's presidential campaign, said he believed more jobs would be lost than created if Wal-Mart opened.
Differing views Wal-Mart was one of the only issues all four candidates had similar views about. Opinions differed on everything from identifying the source of the city's traffic congestion to whether there is too much regulation of industry.
Candidates were divided about whether new homeowners and businesses should have to pay impact fees - payments that would help the city cover the cost of extending infrastructure - things like sidewalks and water lines - to new businesses.
Hanrahan said that impact fees, along with gas taxes and property taxes, could be part of a "three-legged stool" to help pay for new development.
"Ultimately, we do need to get our hands under the fact that we have infrastructure deficits that must be dealt with," she said.
Bussing said the city has to have a "revenue stream" to pay for infrastructure. Impact fees are one option, he said.
"I think we should look at all the tools," he said.
Daniel, who said he opposes impact fees, said Gainesville has too many ordinances regulating things like building standards and the environment.
"I think we have a tendency in this community to overregulate . . . It's possible we have too many tools to regulate in this community, and I think we're there," he said.
On the subject of impact fees, Belle said "growth should pay for itself," and supported building more energy-efficient structures.
Addressing concerns Several candidates said residents should be encouraged to use public transportation to cut down on traffic congestion.
Bussing said much of the congestion comes from sprawl on the city's west side.
"I believe that redevelopment of the city is key. The more that we can entice people to live inside that urban core," the less traffic there is, he said.
Belle, who doesn't own a car, said many people don't feel safe riding bicycles in the city.
He called on the city to turn to Gainesville's college population, which he called the city's "greatest untapped resource," for research on city issues.
"The city is not friendly to a lot of groups, including students," he said, when responding to a question about whether Gainesville is "business-friendly."
Daniel suggested convening a group of civic and business leaders to change the perception that the city is anti-business.
Hanrahan said that image is based "in part on reality," as well as misunderstandings about how the city enforces state laws like building codes. But many in the city contribute to the business-unfriendly image by talking about it, she said.
"If I have a weakness in my business, I don't go around broadcasting it," she said.
Commissioner Craig Lowe, who is running unopposed for the District Four seat, also attended the forum.
Ashley Rowland can be reached at (352) 374-5095 or

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