Who will be Niles’ mayor?Published 11:35pm Monday, July 18, 2011
The four candidates in the city of Niles mayoral election offered their opinions on the local economy, jobs, the Southeast Berrien County Landfill, the 11th Street corridor, the possibility of establishing an historic district downtown and a variety of other topics during Monday night’s candidate forum at the Niles District Library.
The event, sponsored by the League of Women’s Voters of Berrien and Cass Counties, the Four Flags Area Chamber of Commerce, TPC Technologies and Leader Publications, featured each of the four candidates — former city fire marshal Bruce Leach, three-term incumbent Mike McCauslin, 5th Ward city council member W. Tim Skalla and 25-year-old write-in candidate Michael Squier II.
The two candidates with the most votes in the primary election Aug. 2 will advance to November’s general election.
Many of the questions posed to the candidates by moderator Katie Rohman, editor of the Niles Daily Star and by residents among the more than 60 in attendance revolved around the state of the local economy and job market.
Leach said the city needs to do a better job of marketing itself to bring in businesses and start-up companies in order to “retain people and even draw more in.”
McCauslin said Michigan is beginning to “turn the corner” in terms of the economy with changes in the business tax structure and said Niles is taking strides too by working with the Southwestern Michigan Economic Growth Alliance and reaching out to manufacturers.
He pointed out in the past several years 55 new businesses have come to Niles with 27 still operating, and two times the city has been voted to Forbes List for best communities for businesses and careers.
Skalla argued Niles needs to bring in revenue by capitalizing on its history through adding an RV park or camp ground and promoting Fort St. Joseph.
“Our history is as storied as anyone west of the Appalachians,” Skalla said.
Squier said the city needs to realize that the “industrial age is over” and embrace new businesses, especially those involving information and technology.
“A problem throughout Michigan is it’s been unable to get its eggs out of one basket,” he said, referencing the struggling manufacturing industry.
But Squier said his No. 1 goal would be to get the younger generation involved in local government.
“The people in my generation I have talked to are cheering me on but said they still won’t vote,” he said. “They are so cynical they say ‘what’s the point?’ We need to restore people’s faith in government.”
Regarding the Southeast Berrien County Landfill, which is owned by the city of Niles along with four other local municipalities, Leach, McCauslin and Skalla said they favor pursuing an agreement with a waste-to-energy company interested in converting its trash into biodiesel.
Local officials have been debating whether to sell or keep the facility for more than a year.
In the past, both McCauslin and Skalla have supported selling it but have since changed their minds with the new management and the waste-to-fuel opportunity.
“If you own a multimillion-dollar business, you should be getting something for it other than liability and heartache,” McCauslin said. “But the new leadership at the landfill has increased profitability.”
Leach said he would be worried about increased rates if the landfill is sold to a private company and supports holding on to the facility, while Squier said he didn’t have enough information to formulate an opinion on the issue.
All four candidates agreed on supporting establishing an historic district in downtown Niles, which would provide more opportunities for state and federal grants.
But Squier said he supports it “reluctantly.”
“There’s nothing wrong with tradition, but if it starts hindering progress, there’s a problem,” he said.
When Squier was asked about his lack of experience and his youth, he said he has “passion and dedication to make it work.” He also pointed to his political science degree as valuable experience.
In his closing remarks, Leach encouraged residents to come together and get involved in their community.
“This is our town. It’s starts with the people in this community,” he said. “And I will work my hardest just as I did as fire marshal.”
McCauslin, during his closing comments, pointed to the many accomplishments the city has made in the past 10 years, including the Riverfront trail project, the Law Enforcement Complex, improvements to the wastewater system and the development of downtown.
“There are people who only see the bad. But when I look at Niles, I see the good,” McCauslin said.
On the other side of the spectrum, Squier issued “a plea” to residents to elect him and let him make changes that will restore his generation’s faith in government.
“I’m not in this election for me but for those who have lost hope in my generation,” he said. “Let us (his generation) take control of our own futures.”
Wrapping up his comments, Skalla again called for the city to take advantage of its history and make itself into a “tourist destination.”