Candidates for six Bryan and College Station city council races discussed issues facing the community at Monday night’s Bryan-College Station Chamber of Commerce candidates forum.
Topics included candidates’ concerns for each city and how to cope with the challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Bryan candidates were questioned about the regional park project on Villa Maria Road, often called the super park, and the city’s Midtown Area Plan. College Station incumbents and challengers spoke about their thoughts on impact fees, the city’s tax rate, and whether the city should have a business council similar to Bryan’s.
Thirteen council candidates are on the ballot this year, four from Bryan and the rest in College Station. Single Member District 3 candidate Bobby Gutierrez and Single Member District 4 candidate Flynn Adcock participated in the forum. Their opponents, Jonna Schreiber and Doris Machinski, respectively, did not attend, citing COVID-19 pandemic-related concerns.
Place 1 and Place 3 College Station incumbents Bob Brick and Linda Harvell were on stage Monday with their challengers, Jason Cornelius and Dell Seiter. Place 5 incumbent John Nichols and his opponents Brian Alg and Craig Regan also spoke.
This was the second Chamber forum that College Station Place 4 candidates Elizabeth Cunha and Joe Guerra Jr. attended since the special election for that seat turned into a runoff.
When asked how the city will cope with pandemic-related changes at Texas A&M University, Brick and Cunha pointed out that the school’s recent decision to shorten spring break to one day will be a positive for the city since students will stay in the area and spend money locally.
Brick said the pandemic and the changes that it caused with A&M students leaving town highlights the importance of a diverse local economy.
“We need greater diversification,” Brick said. “We’ll always have Texas A&M as the largest employer in the city, and its students are major contributors to our economy. But diversification will bring greater stability to the economy such that we’re not saddled with as much sensitivity to fluctuation in student numbers as we are now.”
His challenger expressed similar sentiments, while emphasizing that the city should ensure things are done safely as the economy reopens.
“Obviously, as we’ve both been mentioning, we do need diversity in our economy,” Cornelius said. “And that’s why I keep going back to looking at having and working more closely with local entrepreneurs and local businesses that will give us that needed diversification beyond just what we have from Texas A&M.”
Cunha said she hopes that by the spring “students will be filling our businesses” and that “it’ll be 100% capacity.”
“If A&M says the spring is going to be the same for them,” she said, “I hope on our end we’re more open and more willing to accommodate them and provide services and retail and bars so they can help our economy the way that we’ve come to take for granted until COVID hit.”
Guerra, her opponent, said one of his priorities is to help small businesses open safely. He stressed the importance of quickly distributing CARES Act funding that the city has received for pandemic-related aid.
The city’s tax rate is currently unsustainable, Seiter said. Even so, he said that before raising taxes, the city should talk to the residents about what they need, and focus on being “good stewards” of the money residents provide.
Harvell said she doesn’t want to raise the tax rate, and said the city needs to do all it can to find other ways around economic challenges.
“We can’t put it on the back of the residents to have to try and pay for whatever shortfall there might be because the students aren’t here, the businesses aren’t open or whatever,” she said.
Maintaining fiscal and budgetary discipline would be Nichols’ top priority if reelected, he said. He also wants to work with the local business community to recover from the “pandemic economic fallout,” and pointed to his involvement with things like Operation Restart, an effort led by local leaders to give guidance on safely reopening the economy.
If elected, Regan said he would focus on managing the city’s debt and expressed a desire to partner more with local nonprofits.
Alg emphasized the need for recovery efforts to be done well, saying he does not want to give subsidies to businesses but wants to focus on making it easy for businesses to make a home in the city.
As forum moderator Scott DeLucia pointed out, many small businesses may not survive the challenges caused by COVID-19 shutdowns and occupancy restrictions.
Gutierrez pointed out actions Bryan has made so far to try to help local businesses, such as providing funding for subsidies, and said that those efforts must continue.
Funding from the federal and state level are key to the recovery process, Adcock said. He said funds could be used to target as many of the businesses that are in trouble as possible.
About 25 people attended the in-person event at the Brazos Center.
The Chamber will host another forum at the Brazos Center on Thursday at 6 p.m. It will feature candidates from U.S. House of Representatives District 17, State House of Representatives District 14 and Brazos County’s Precinct 2 commissioner races. People can attend in person, listen live on WTAW 1620 or at RadioAggieland.com or view the livestream at KBTX.com.
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