Candidates differ on what's best for Eau Claire

The Eau Claire Development Corp. has defaulted on $1.1 million worth of loans that taxpayers have had to pay back, but its existence has become a symbol in the mayor's race for the city's commitment to its impoverished North Main Street neighborhoods

Today, City Council members will have a "financial discussion" about the development corporation's future - but Tuesday night the candidates for mayor stood in front of the Eau Claire Community Council to have a discussion of their own that bounced between responsibility and restraint.

"We can't as a city continue to invest money in projects that lose money, because then we have to come tax you to find it," said candidate Kirkman Finlay, who as a sitting City Council member will argue at this morning's council meeting to disband the development corporation. "What I hope and expect and desire as mayor is that we can bring business to Eau Claire in different ways.

"Why don't we try a change in small business initiatives. It's not as big and not as glamorous, but it sure might work."

But Finlay's arguments were met by a mostly silent crowd at the quarterly meeting of the council, whose longtime executive director, Henry Hopkins, is also the chairman of the board of directors for the Eau Claire Development Corp.

"(The corporation) is one of the mechanisms that is necessary for this community to prosper," Hopkins said after the meeting.

The development corporation spent $1.1 million in loans to develop the North Main Plaza, which houses a barber shop and the North Main Deli, among other businesses.

But the plaza has failed to attract the retail businesses required for it to make money, and the development corporation has been unable to repay the loans. Last week, city officials acknowledged that the plaza's business plan had failed and council members voted to take a $700,000 loss in order to close out the city's books for the 2009 budget year.

The plaza was the largest asset of the Eau Claire Development Corp., whose other properties include some residential lots scattered throughout some north Columbia neighborhoods.

But the other two candidates who also are leaders in fundraising for mayor, attorneys Steve Benjamin and Steve Morrison, said the development corporation is vital for sustaining the community's confidence and said shutting it down would be a mistake.

"It would send the most horrible message to the people of this city and the people of north Columbia if we were to close the Eau Claire Development Corporation," Benjamin said. "It would be a mistake that we would regret for the next 10 or 20 years. We must find a way to sustain it, and of course at the same time to demand some accountability in the bookkeeping."

Morrison said shutting down the corporation would be a "horrible symbol," but said the corporation needs "new leadership."

"Our city ... has not been good at investing in shopping centers," Morrison said, adding that as mayor he would not vote to develop another shopping center. "But now that it's there, you don't abandon it."

The candidate forum featured eight of the nine candidates running for mayor in a rushed discussion of topics that touched on crime, public transit and salaries for city employees.

Joseph Azar, Sparkle Clark, Aaron Johnson, Irwin Wilson and Gary Myers all cast themselves as the candidates of the people who would not be beholden to wealthy campaign contributors or hindered by conflicts of interest.

"For decades, this city has been mismanaged by politicians," Johnson told the crowd. "What we need is leadership."

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