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Gering to choose four council members
November 01, 2012 Jerry Purvis   

Read more by Jerry Purvis
On occasion, one or more of Gering’s city council seats will go unchallenged, but 2012 isn’t the case. Eight candidates will square off on Tuesday, Nov. 6 as Gering residents choose four council members.

We recently asked the candidates their thoughts on some of the issues the city has been dealing with.

Ward I

Gering’s Ward I will have a new council member this year after Joyce Hillman-Kortum moved from the city and stepped down from the council. Ric Johns, who made an unsuccessful run for council two years ago, is in the race again, along with newcomer Justin Allred.
Allred, a Gering graduate who moved back from Colorado in 1993, is employed with the Masek Golf Car Co. in Gering.

Before moving to Gering, Johns served for 13 years as a board member and clerk for the Village of Melbeta. He was also a member of the Creighton Valley Cemetery Board.

Both candidates would like to see continuing growth for small businesses and more opportunities for younger families to become part of the community. Part of that is to keep the cost of living and the city’s tax burden to a minimum.

A sports complex for Gering has been talked about for about a decade. Allred said existing city property in Oregon Trail could be used because it’s more accessible. He added that perhaps the city swimming pool could be expanded at the same time.

Johns said a full-blown sports complex isn’t something the city or the citizens can afford. He added the city is already involved in a restaurant, an RV park and a convention center, so the city shouldn’t be involved in the housing and sports business at all.

When it comes to retail development, Allred said the city should be promoting the private sector rather than getting involved in those ventures. That would include making unused space available for retail, rather than government use.

Johns’ viewpoint was simple: The city should make it as cheap as possible to do business in Gering, they shouldn’t micromanage those businesses and should stick to government issues, letting the private sector take care of itself.

Both candidates thought the city should continue to promote itself as a tourism destination. Allred said the city could use another hotel, which would encourage visitors to stay in Gering. On the other hand, Johns said the tourism venues shouldn’t “gouge them with high costs when they get here or they probably won’t come back.”

Both candidates said Gering should continue to work with Scottsbluff on specific projects that would benefit both communities.

Ward II

In Gering’s Ward II, incumbent council member Don Christensen is seeking a third term against challenger Lance Cline.

Christensen worked in the newspaper business as a reporter and photographer until he retired in 1998. Along with his wife, Jean, they owned a kitchen specialty shop until she decided to retire.
Cline is the owner of his own painting and construction business, in addition to being an engineer for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad.

Both candidates agreed the city should actively pursue economic development and work with local retail committees in search of new business partnerships.

Cline said the city needs to recruit bigger businesses that offer higher paying jobs to keep young people here. He added it’s important to give downtown a facelift to entice news businesses.

As for the proposed sports complex, Christensen said he couldn’t support it at the current $12 million price tag, plus cost of ongoing operation. He said the city needs to start over and talk about something more sensible, as the citizens shouldn’t be saddled with another bond issue for such an elaborate building.

Cline said he would support a sports complex only on the condition it could be self-supporting and not a taxpayer burden. He also said if the facility is built, it needs to be in a better location to allow for expansion.

When it comes to retail development, Christensen said the city needs to take a more active role in the business affairs of Twin Cities Development, which the city supports with $50,000 a year.
Cline said the city could help business development in a number of ways, including tax breaks and assistance with startup costs. He said the community will need to get more involved with the challenge of economic growth.

Both candidates said Gering should continue working with Scottsbluff on projects that would be mutually beneficial, but both cities should remain self-sufficient.

Ward III

Longtime Gering City Council member Larry Gibbs is running for another term in Ward III. His challenger is newcomer Ben Backus.
Gibbs holds degrees in political science from Hiram Scott College and business administration from Chadron State College. He also has years of experience as a small business owner.

Backus earned his degree in electronics technology from Western Dakota Tech and continues to hone his technology skills with Action Communications.

Gibbs said his vision for the future of Gering included continued promotion of the removal of derelict and neglected old buildings to make room for new growth. However, he said there’s a lack of venture capital to offer expanding businesses.

Backus said Gering might need to scale back on some of the grand ideas and try not to be Scottsbluff. The city should work on being the best city of its size in the area as it stresses quality over quantity.

Both candidates said they were open but skeptical to a proposed new sports complex north of Five Rocks Amphitheater. Backus said something with that large a price tag shouldn’t be considered without a lot of research and citizen input to see if a sports complex is feasible.

Gibbs said the idea of a sports complex has been around for about a decade. However, the current proposal has grown into something much larger than the original idea. He also doubted whether the cost of construction or operation could be supported by a town Gering’s size. While Gibbs said he’s open to new information and research, he is skeptical at this time.

As for recruiting new retail business to Gering, Backus said the city needs to present an image of an organization that people want to do business with. That includes city council members that can sell the finer points of the city and know how to conduct business negotiations.

Gibbs said that because Gering is under 10,000 in population, it can use LB 840 money to assist startup businesses. He said the city needs to fill the financial gap to get new business activity started when it benefits both the city and the business owner.

Both candidates said that while Gering does a great job in promoting itself as a tourism destination, more always needs to be done. Gibbs said Gering must encourage growth of tourism related businesses as well as building on its assets already in place.

Backus said that visitors from large cities want to relax in a small town, so the area should have that kind of feel. He also said the city could help encourage more events and activities, such as Oregon Trail Days and the Christmas Parade and Santa’s Village.

Both candidates believe that working with Scottsbluff on specific projects can be beneficial to both cities. Backus said the criteria should be that any project shouldn’t affect Gering’s distinct personality or its pocketbook.

Gibbs agreed, saying any joint projects should be based on mutual benefit to all parties involved, such as the joint landfill project. The city should maintain governmental separation, but not ignore potential cost savings by working together.

Ward IV

In Gering’s Ward IV, incumbent Manuel Escamilla is being challenged by newcomer Troy Cowan.

Cowan is a life-long Gering resident, graduating from Gering High School in 1989. He currently works with his father, Chuck, at Cowan’s Custom Cabinets. He is also a 19-year member of the Gering Fire Department.

Escamilla, a graduate of Western Nebraska Community College with an associate degree in Information Technology, has been a council member since January 2007. For the past 32 years, he’s been a social worker with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. He’s a graduate of Leadership Scotts Bluff, has been a member of the Gering Public Library Board, and was a commissioner with the Nebraska Equal Opportunity Commission.

When asked about his overall vision for Gering, Cowan said he would like the city to be more than just a bedroom community, but wants growth that still allows for a hometown feeling. He also said he’s like to see more business development along the expressway.

Escamilla also sees development of new library, development of commercial property at 10th and M Streets and relocating of the landfill as part of his vision for Gering’s future. He added the city also needs to focus on its infrastructure, as many water and sewer lines are aging and need a schedule of repair and replacement as they become problematic.

When it comes to tourism, both candidates think Gering is doing an effective job of promoting the area. Escamilla called the city “western Nebraska’s tourism center” and we should continue to actively promise our many historic and cultural sites and events to potential visitors.

Also in the news this season was a proposed $12 million sports complex to be sited north of Five Rocks Amphitheater. Both Ward IV candidates believe it’s something a city of this size cannot afford. Cowan said that a sports complex might be a goal to set in the future, but the city would be better served by improving the sports facility it currently has.

Escamilla said the city already had approximately $350,000 for recreational purposes, so they should consider building baseball and softball diamonds at the site. Currently, Gering doesn’t have softball diamonds for older players, such as the high school team. He added that the addition of more baseball diamonds would provide opportunities to host tournaments, bringing in more economic development.

As for working with Scottsbluff on mutually beneficial projects, both candidates support the idea. Cowan said he sees more than just a supportive role for Gering, but one where the city shows leadership in bringing in new projects.

Escamilla said the cities should be active with communication among the mayors, city councils and citizens. Interlocal agreements for fire and street services have been beneficial in the past and both cities should continue striving for more teamwork and collaboration.
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