Two of Gering’s four council wards will be decided in the November 8 election. Candidates and incumbents alike addressed top issues including a smaller budget, the city’s continued growth, and more than a million dollars for needed infrastructure repairs.
Susan Wiedeman, who served as Gering Mayor from 2006 – 2010, is seeking a seat as council member in Ward I.
“We need to continue working on our successes,” she said. “One area is that we’ve become the tourism hub for the area. “The Civic Center is a big part of that.”
At an April forum before the primary, Wiedeman said the Civic Center has become one of the jewels of the city, bringing in visitors and convention attendees from across the area.
“The more times we get people to our area and into Gering, the more they like it,” she said. “They’re surprised by the area’s natural beauty and the amenities we offer to visitors.”
She said the downtown plaza plays a big role in economic development and tourism with its downtown space for concerts, farmers’ markets, and other activities.
Funding for construction has been released by state and the Downtown Redevelopment Committee continues to rework its overall plan and construction could begin in the spring of 2017.
“I’d also like to see some new businesses moving into Gering,” Wiedeman said. “It’s exciting to have a hotel coming in and I think that’s important to the revitalization of the downtown area. The more travelers and visitors who stay, the more businesses will be needed to cater to them.”
She added the hotel, slated for completion in 2017, would help secure Gering as a destination stop, bringing in more conventions and building on the assets the city already has.
In the area of economic development, the city has been effective in designating blighted areas, allowing it to take advantage of Tax Increment Financing for developing new properties. One area that was completely transformed was the site of the former McKinley School, which was torn down to make way for an entire section of single-family housing to go back on the tax rolls.
Wiedeman said she’d also like to see Tax Increment Financing used to develop the 10th Street corridor, including some type of business for the vacant site that used to house Packerland Packing at 10th and Country Club Road.
When it comes to keeping up with needed infrastructure upgrades, Wiedeman said passage of Proposition 1 allowing for an additional half-cent sales tax would help. The way the state currently allocates for road and water and sewer projects doesn’t allow Gering to take on major projects. What funds that can be set aside are often eaten up quickly when and emergency happens, like an infrastructure failure.
“Partnerships and working together is a good thing,” she said. “If we combine any of our services, it has to be a win-win for everyone.”
Wiedeman said she wants Gering to be a strong city going forward. “I want to see a place where our young people want to raise their families. If we don’t have an affordable city where people want to stay, we might not have a future.
Challenging Wiedeman for the Ward I council seat is Alan Doll, who’s served Gering on both the city council and the school board. He was on the city council at the time and resigned when elected to the school board. Doll is completing his second term on the school board.
Doll said that economic development is critical to Gering’s future, but it has to be a collaborative effort between the public and private sectors.
“Gering and private developers have a role to play,” he said. “The city needs to know when to step aside and not be a roadblock to more development.”
He said the city shouldn’t compete with private enterprise. The city owns a lot of real estate within the city limits, but development has to be a two-way street. We need to encourage partnerships with the people who will be developing those properties.”
Doll said their relationship with Twin Cities Development needs to continually be strengthened to assure the city’s budgetary support is being well spent for economic development in Gering. He also wants to city to work with other developers, realtors and property owners to put together an inventory of available properties when a business wants to come to Gering.
Doll emphasized the city has to be careful with spending because those funds belong to the citizens. The city only acts as a steward of that money. So, the money should be spent in the area that needs it most – like infrastructure.
“I think we have some crumbling infrastructure in immediate need of attention,” Doll said. “We need to prioritize that because it’s the lifeblood of the city. You have to have good infrastructure and be able to maintain it. It appears we’ve gotten behind the curve and are trying to catch up.”
He added the million-plus dollar baseball field project and the $50,000 feasibility study for a new library are good things to have, but not as much an immediate need as the city’s roads and water lines.
“The city said the funds have been set aside for those projects, but maybe we should re-evaluate our priorities,” he said. “Infrastructure is my biggest priority now.”
A proposal to merge Scottsbluff and Gering has floated around the community for several years. Doll said he hasn’t heard any interest in the idea.
“People told us in a previous election they’re opposed to merging cities or police departments,” he said. “No one I’ve talked to has any interest. If a merger does happen, it will need to come from the people, not the city.”
Two candidates are running for the Ward II council seat. Michael Gillen has lived in Gering most of his life, and with a love for the city he now wants to be part of making it an even more special place.
For the past year, he’s been a member of the Gering Planning Commission, the group that takes the first look at zoning and building projects in the city.
Gillen was one of the candidates interviewed to replace outgoing Ward II city council member Rebecca Shields last year. Pam O’Neal filled the vacancy.
“Economic development is of paramount importance to any community,” Gillen said. “Gering always seems to be the bedroom community, which is fine. But I think we should also want businesses to open here.”
He added the city should springboard recent development with Twin Cities Development and work together on keeping the economic ball rolling. “We’ve been very receptive to businesses that will soon open here,” Gillen said. “Once they open, they’ll be great spokespeople for others that might want to come here.”
Several areas along 10th Street have been blighted for potential development. Gillen said the city should work to encourage more development in that area, as well as identifying other areas that would work for business development.
“There’s a finite amount of space in the downtown area,” he said. “We need to be looking at other areas that can be earmarked for future development.”
When it comes to the city’s infrastructure, Gillen said the city has a good sense of the needs in the way of streets and water mains. However, mandates from the state and federal governments often change how those funds are allocated. “We keep deferring projects which only become more expensive each year, he said. “We have a lot of aging pipes and storm drains, so we need to get those on the budget and determine when we can get those done.”
Because of unfunded mandates, the cost of repairing the infrastructure often falls on utility rates, which have to be increased each year to help balance the budget.
While shared services and the three local communities working together on projects are important, Gillen said he doesn’t see an official merger of the communities.
“One of the things I love about Gering is that council members represent their own neighborhoods,” Gillen said. “We elect our own mayor and have the ability to represent ourselves. That’s different from Scottsbluff’s at-large system where the council selects its own mayor. I wouldn’t want to give up our system of government or lose the unique identity of Gering.”
Gillen’s opponent for the Ward II council seat is three term incumbent Don Christensen. Like Gillen, he doesn’t see an official merger of cities, but would like to see more cooperative projects among municipalities.
“I’ve seen us work with Scottsbluff and Terrytown more over the last couple of years,” he said. “Those cooperative efforts are spreading out even farther into the county. A lot of other communities are all sitting down at the table to discuss things they can accomplish together. I want to see that continue.”
For Gering, one of the big draws is tourism. Christensen said a strong tourism policy offers a strong opportunity to further develop economic development.
Although Gering has programs in place to promote the city to both visitors and people who want to bring businesses here, the city continues to face the challenge of a tight budget.
“I’m not the only one concerned about rising utility costs,” Christensen said. “During our budget workshops, I was a voice for holding the line and I plan to continue that.
Christensen admitted there’s no easy answer to utility rate hikes. When the city’s supplier of electricity raised its rates, Gering must pass along some of those costs in order to break even.
The city also recently approved a study to determine the needs of the city library and whether a new one should be built.
“There’s just no more space in the current library building, so we should look at what we can do,” Christensen said. “I think a library is a serious consideration but we need a study to determine our needs.”
“The responsibilities of council members have expanded greatly since I started,” Christensen said. “It’s become more important to stay fully involved with the city. I enjoy the work and hope to continue doing it.”