Editor's note: This story has been updated to include the names of the two District 4 town council candidates who participated in the forum.
While the standing-room-only crowd, along with webcast viewers, had the opportunity to learn a bit about this fall's candidates for town council, they heard much more from the two candidates for Zionsville mayor.
A dozen candidates for five contested town seats participated in the Zionsville Chamber of Commerce Mayoral and Town Council Candidate Town Hall Forum Tuesday evening, Oct. 22, with town council candidates giving opening and closing statements, as well as answering a single question about their top three issues. The mayoral candidates — incumbent Republican Tim Haak and Democrat Emily Styron — fielded nearly a dozen questions after their opening comments.
Economic development and Creekside Corporate Park, zoning and Sycamore Flats-type development, traffic concerns, and transparency were frequent themes throughout the evening.
Samm Quinn, a reporter for the Indianapolis Business Journal, served as moderator.
Questions for the forum came from members of the community via a real-time online polling tool. Top questions were presented by the moderator with each candidate answering the same questions. Candidates did not interact with members of the community or each other during the forum, and Quinn noted that neither she nor the chamber would attempt to declare a "winner" at the end of the evening.
The format provided an information-packed two hours, with Town Council District 2 candidates Julie Johns Cole (D) and Jason Plunkett (R), District 3 candidates Craig Melton (R) and Tim Ottinger (D), District 4 candidates Joe Culp (R) and Andrea Simmons (D) and, and At-Large candidates for two available seats Bret Brewer (D), Brad Burk (R), Alex Choi (R), and Kristine Towns (D), taking the stage for the first hour. A fifth At-Large candidate, Michael I. Kaminski (L), is on the ballot but did not participate in the forum.
Plunkett, who has served two years as an At-Large councilman, is the only present council member in a challenged race.
Following the council candidate forum, Haak and Styron took turns during the mayoral forum answering nearly a dozen community-generated questions, that included top priorities for the town, if civil discourse is still possible, and the purpose and practicality of TIF districts in Zionsville.
One of the biggest differences between the two candidates were their perspectives of Creekside Corporate Park.
When asked about the plan for the corporate park, Styron said that while the plan for the area is fine, she would take a multi-layer approach to determine what has deterred new businesses from moving in there, to look at possible changes in pricing for properties there, and to help identify investment capital. Haak said that, with $18 million in investment to date, the corporate park is ahead of its goal as outlined in a 16-year build out plan. He said it's not the cost of the land but the price of commercial construction that has deterred business there, and that the town wants to be picky about what is developed there — it is not interested in attracting call centers or distribution centers to that area.
Both of the candidates had a mixed take on the failed Sycamore Flats development on the edge of The Village.
Haak said the plan had a lot of great features, but also a lot of flaws. He believes the zoning is correct for that area and that a PUD will be the only way to develop the property. He said he did not support the TIF sharing because it was too heavy on the developer's side. He also said that because the developer wasn't willing to make even minor changes, it made the project difficult to support.
Styron said the development plan had a lot of positives to it, but the location was too problematic. She said the town's own 2012 study indicates traffic issues need to be addressed before development in the area and that the mayor's office has a responsibility to follow that plan.
The two had markedly different answers on how frequently zoning variances should be granted. Haak said that comprehensive plan only offers a broad view, but that variances often need to be considered as plans get down to the "street level." He said the town's process for zoning variances has numerous opportunities for public input before approval can be considered. Styron said she thinks variances might sometimes be appropriate, but that they shouldn't be granted 100% of the time "which has been the practice for at least the last several years." She called for a benchmark of rationale and some "discretion."
In closing remarks, Styron said, "It's wonderful to be a 19-year member of this community, and to have spent the last six months really digging in deep and getting more familiar with the issues that matter to you ... really understanding that we are an engaged community despite the fact that many of us travel outside our town boundaries to go to work or do other things, that Zionsville is our home and we feel particularly passionate about what happens here. I feel like regardless of the outcome in two weeks, we have all won. We have all won, right here, right now, because we are all more informed, we're all more engaged, and we feel a sense of ownership in what happens next."
Haak closed by saying, "Thank you for allowing me to share my vision of the future of Zionsville, which started 12 years ago for me. ... It's been a blur, it went by in a blink of an eye and I promise, if re-elected, we will continue to engage in the topics I talked about earlier, keeping our neighborhoods safe, investing in our infrastructure, investing in our police and fire, and continuing to foster those school partnerships that are so important to our community. ... I'm proud to serve as your mayor. There are not too many people who can say that they're the mayor of their hometown. It's humbling, it's challenging, it's the best job I've ever had."