BROOKINGS – Candidates for Brookings City Council met virtually Saturday morning, in a Zoom forum hosted by the Brookings Area Chamber of Commerce’s Public Affairs Committee.
Incumbent Patty Bacon, Dr. Isaiah Crevier, Nate Holden, Nick Schmeichel and incumbent Nick Wendell are vying for two three-year seats on the council. Absentee/early voting has already begun at the Brookings City & County Government Center, and election day is April 13.
Following candidate introductions, moderator Andi Fouberg asked the candidates, if they were elected, what changes if any they would like to see to COVID-19 restrictions in the city.
Schmeichel said it’s been important to him to reach out and connect with small businesses that are being harmed, and being cognitive about what’s happening in the community.
“To me personally, I’ve never cared about wearing a mask. I wear one to go watch my kid go play hockey, and he wears one to go to school,” Schmeichel said.
“Two things that I’ve heard from business owners in town, the big two things, they wish that city council would have, from the beginning when restrictions were put in place, started having a conversation of how we get back to normal. And the second thing that I heard the most was agility, ... not putting something in place for 60 days and not really talking about it and then moving on,” Schmeichel added.
Holden said the COVID-19 regulations imposed by the city council was government overreach. Recommendations would have been fine, and if they weren’t working, it could have been addressed then.
“I think, honestly, what the city council has done this past year, I know it comes from a good place, but to me it’s just a little bit of too much overreach by the government. I think Brookings is smart. The people are smart. They would social distance. They would wear masks when needed. Businesses would restrict if needed for their areas,” Holden said.
“The automatic, immediate shutdown of businesses, ... and then we kept these limitations on, I think we’ve really hurt the citizens of Brookings, and we need to get that off,” he added.
Crevier said he’s looking forward to the future. Mandates and masks might not be an issue much longer, but communication and listening are key.
“I can assure you that anybody whose decisions we on the council make, we will make sure to listen to those who are going to be impacted by those decisions. As far as business restrictions, that is a problem,” Crevier said. “We have to make sure that businesses are, No. 1, communicated with. I spoke to many, many business owners that actually heard from a Facebook post or actually heard from a friend saying, ‘Hey, you can’t be open tomorrow.’ And those are people that are active community members that just didn’t attend a meeting.”
Bacon said it’s been a difficult year, but she felt the restrictions were necessary.
“COVID has been a really unfortunate situation for all of us. And being on council, we had to step back and take some measures that we didn’t want to but we felt were necessary, and have had a mixed review. Yes, there are people in this community and businesses who are very upset with us for the restrictions we put on, but we’ve also had a large number of people who have thanked us, both private citizens and businesses, who have thanked us for taking those measures,” Bacon said.
“I feel that we did the best that we could, and it did keep our community very safe, so I have no regrets on that part of it,” she added.
Wendell said council is already easing back to some sense of normalcy, by keeping the mask mandate but easing business restrictions. Among his goals are ensuring that the community can have in-person graduations and seeing the return of events such as the Brookings Summer Arts Festival.
“The overwhelming amount of feedback we received from business owners, hourly workers, residents, students, was to maintain the mask mandate but lift the capacity limits. I think that’s a good example of how we continue to be vigilant, we consider the fact that we’re still in substantial spread, we encourage mask usage in particular and indoor spaces, but we lift some of the other restrictions so we that can start to move back toward normalcy,” Wendell said.
Later in the forum, Fouberg asked the candidates what the council can do to address the city’s affordable housing issues.
Holden acknowledged that housing is an issue in Brookings, and land is at a premium. The council should look at affordable renting and then affordable buying, he said.
“I think part of it is we need to maybe do some incentives. ... With landlords, what can they do as a landlord to maybe have that affordable renting at areas, and we can start with things like that. That they can reduce their rent because we’ve given them incentives as landlords, if they keep the upkeep of their house so that it doesn’t look as bad as it does,” Holden said.
Crevier said smaller, nearby towns can help Brookings solve the issue.
“There hasn’t been too many things that have actually come to pass in the last number of years even though this has been an ongoing issue for a number of years. Personally, I would like to see Brookings create an open communication with our surrounding communities and towns, places like Aurora, Volga, Elkton, Bruce, White, these other areas to where we can potentially either influence or help, in some shape or fashion, them create infrastructure for some more affordable housing. Because by 2030, I believe, we’re going to be pretty much out of land,” Crevier said.
Bacon said the council can incentivize things like smaller lots and smaller setbacks so more homes can go in less space.
“We also have to look at existing structures in our community and rehabilitate some neighborhoods and some housing, and find ways to incentivize that. ... We have most of our lower income families live in mobile homes, and many of those mobile homes are in dire need of repair, so we have to find a program to help them improve that,” Bacon added.
Schmeichel said Brookings developers are shifting to meet needs.
“We have a lot of single-family homes and we have a lot of high-density apartment complexes, but we’re missing duplexes, triplexes, those things. And I think developers have kind of responded for that. If you’ve looked since 2016, we’ve seen more duplexes, we’ve seen more triplexes get developed in town, and a lot of them are being sold very quickly. ... It’s going to be a collective thing, but I think letting the developers develop what they’ve been doing is what we need to continue,” Schmeichel said.
He said tax-increment financing districts are talked about a lot, “but that also does mean raising taxes, and with the way property is right now, really, we have to see if the community, if that’s going to be palatable as well.”
Wendell disputed that the city hasn’t made any progress on affordable housing.
“A lot of you are familiar with the affordable housing task force that relied heavily on input from the development community and the Realtor community. As a city, we’ve been really open and flexible to changes in zoning regulations, smaller lot sizes and setbacks, which ultimately impact the cost of development and the cost of homes.”
The city also has two emerging affordable housing neighborhoods and an internal design review team to streamline the process for developers and builders, Wendell added.
Saturday’s virtual city council forum, along with the March 22 mayoral forum and the March 25 school board forum, can be viewed online, on the Brookings Area Chamber of Commerce’s YouTube and Facebook pages.
The Brookings County Mental Health Coalition is hosting candidate forums from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Wednesday via Zoom. School board candidates will speak from 11-11:30 a.m., city council candidates from 11:45 a.m.-12:15 p.m., and mayoral candidates from 12:30-1 p.m., with time for about two or three questions per forum.
Community members may register at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/brookings-county-mental-health-coalition-candidate-forum-tickets-148011238599 to get the Zoom link.
Contact Jill Fier at [email protected]