Retail, Red Roof Inn, Future of the City: Woodbury Council Forum
The League of Women Voters last week held a forum for Woodbury City Council candidates; three of the five attended.
Incumbents Amy Scoggins and Paul Rebholz were joined by challenger Joe Grinols. Mark Doree was unavailable for the forum and Mike Thissen declined to participate, officials said at the outset.
Grinols, a political science major and current college student, said he’s primarily running to improve opportunities for free speech in public places in the city.
Overall, he said he’s pleased with how the city is run.
“Woodbury is in good hands,” Grinols said.
An eight-year veteran of the Woodbury City Council, Rebholz said the city has done well to focus on planning, development and growth.
Also a two-term incumbent, Scoggins said the council works work as a unit.
“We look at the city as a whole when we’re making our decisions,” she said.
She wants to retain low taxes while providing good service to residents.
At-Large vs. Wards
Woodbury City Council seats are elected from the city at large, rather than specific wards, as in the case in some cities.
Grinols said he likes the at-large system because it brings the city together “where we’re not a community divided.”
It also allows for a larger pool of candidates, he said, and he doesn’t feel underrepresented with the current system. (Grinols also reiterated his stance regarding fewer hurdles for people to engage in free speech at city parks.)
Rebhoz, too, said he supports the at-large system, and noted the challenges and expenses associated with developing a ward system in Woodbury.
I could also be more costly to administer services if the city were split into wards, Rebholz said, adding that only 12 percent of Minnesota cities have wards.
Scoggins said she prefers the current at-large system, which allows every council member to represent all citizens in Woodbury.
She said the system works fine as is.
Meeting Seniors’ Needs
The moderator asked if the city was overly focused on youth and how Woodbury should prepare for an older population in the future.
Saying she disagreed that Woodbury focuses entirely on young people, Scoggins said there have been recreation programs created for seniors and plans for senior housing, along with transportation for the elderly.
Grinols lauded Woodbury Senior Living and appreciated the access to parks for seniors.
He also said the coming urban village will have housing specifically geared toward seniors.
Charging for Field Use
The candidates were asked whether the city should charge non-Woodbury residents to use recreational facilities.
The city does charge for certain programs, Rebholz said, and families that come to Woodbury for sports also spend money at local businesses.
Scoggins noted that some places—such as the Bielenberg Sports Center—are partially funding by taxpayers outside Woodbury through the school district.
She also noted that people spend money at Woodbury establishments when they come here for youth sports, and charging fees wouldn’t likely be a big revenue driver.
Grinols said the fees wouldn’t likely offset the city’s maintenance costs much.
While he said he hasn’t had any experience in governing—aside from voting and caucusing—Grinols said he does watch Woodbury City Council meetings via the South Washington County Telecommunications Commission.
Scoggins pointed to her eight years on the council, though she didn’t have much experience prior to that.
She said she’s enjoyed her time on the council and said it’s a great way to get involved with the city.
(Scoggins also lauded Grinols for running, then said “not that I’m suggesting you vote for him,” drawing laughs from the crowd.)
For him, being involved in the city is like “the dog that won’t stop scratching.”
Asked about a community center/pool and how the city might pay for it, Rebholz talked about existing programming at the Bielenberg Sports Center and Central Park.
Grinols said he wouldn’t raise taxes to fund such a facility, and it wasn’t something he had planned to bring forward if elected.
Saying her children would put a new pool at the top of their want list, Scoggins said she has to look at the idea through a “different lens” as a council member.
She said she would rather look into public-private partnerships or put it to a referendum, and would not raise taxes to pay for it.
Scoggins said the city works with other groups, noting the Gateway Corridor project, and said she would have an open mind about ideas to reduce single-occupancy vehicles in the area.
Rebholz, who often takes the bus to work in downtown Minneapolis, said the city is already involved the in Gateway Corridor process and said that will allow people to get more out of public transportation.
He also noted that while the project is vying for federal dollars, the options are “all very expensive.”
Grinols said he would have an open mind to different transit options, and said he took the bus for two years.
“I also appreciate the efficiency,” he said.
There’s no need for intra-city bus service, Grinols said.
The candidates were asked about Money Magazine’s ranking of the city and how it can maintain a strong bond rating.
Grinols said he appreciates that the city is fiscally sound and does a good job of managing its finances.
He said the city hangs a plaque about its AAA bond rating but should have the Bill of Rights hung on the walls of City Hall.
Rebholz said he’s proud of the magazine ranking and the city does well to support business and is cautious about spending money. He pointed to small tax increases over the past several years.
“I believe our best days are still ahead of us,” Rebholz said.
Scoggins said the city keeps an eye on future expenses and makes fact-based decisions.
She said the city will have to look at new ideas as it grows in the future and “change with the times.”
Council Pay Increase
The city in the spring increased pay for the mayor and council member jobs.
Was raising the pay necessary? “Probably not,” Rebholz said.
But he did say Woodbury had fallen into the lower quartile among comparable cities in terms of how it pays its elected officials.
“I don’t think our community is lower quartile,” Rebholz said.
Increasing the pay also helps attract qualified candidates, he said, calling the pay raise a “reasonable thing to do.”
Grinols said he was fine with the pay increase, and added that the salary for the president of the United States is too high while pay for local officials is too low.
He said council members are “guardians of our freedom” and it should be more of a full-time job.
Admitting it was an “awkward” conversation, Scoggins said it was a small pay increase and not unreasonable.
Nobody does the job for the money, she said, and Woodbury is one of the 10 largest in the state and pay for council members and the mayor was “nowhere near that.”
She mayor’s job particularly deserved a bump, Scoggins said.
Managing development will be at the forefront for Woodbury in the coming years, Grinols said.
But he also said that as the city focuses on its core values, “we’re forgetting freedom of speech.”
Grinols again advocated for more public space for speeches.
It’s sometimes difficult to know what issues the city will have to address in coming years, Scoggins said, noting an October storm several years ago that led to storm water management becoming a focal point for Woodbury.
The city will continue to prepare for the future needs of its residents, she said.
Future councils must prepare for Woodbury’s transition from a developing city to a mature city, Rebholz said.
The city has benefited from growth over the past several years and will have to work to manage tax rates, he said.
The candidates were asked about retail development, specifically the Mattress Firm being built at CityWalk.
Scoggins said she understands residents’ concerns about Mattress Firm.
“Mattresses must be selling like hotcakes,” she said.
Many empty retail parcels in Woodbury are being filled or about to be occupied, and the city only has so much control over what types of businesses go where, Scoggins said.
The city is “in a pretty good place right now,” she said.
It makes sense to allow the market to dictate the retail environment of Woodbury, Rebholz said.
The city does encourage filling vacant space, pointing to Aldi going in at the former Borders as an example.
The city has been reviewing its zoning and will continue to look at land-use plans.
It would be giving the city too much power to be able to tell a business it can’t open in a certain space, Grinols said.
Those taxes also help pay for parks and trails, he said, and the city has a good balance now.
Red Roof Inn
It would be difficult for the city to shut down the Red Roof Inn, said Rebholz, who also said the city and police department worked “quickly and aggressively” on a plan to address criminal activity there.
At the council level, the city will work with management, he said. Woodbury will also look at long-range redevelopment of that area, Rebholz said.
Grinols said it’s wrong to require credit cards of those who rent rooms there. Cash is legal tender, he said.
He also said requiring people to be 21 years old to rent a room is discriminatory.
While he said he would like to reduce crime at the motel, Grinols said the city has to “deal with crime as it comes.”
The city wants the Red Roof Inn to be safe and is working with management, Scoggins said.
If changes aren’t seen, “more conversation will have to occur,” she said.
Overall, however, Scoggins said she’s pleased with how the city has dealt with the concerns.
State Farm Building
When it comes to redeveloping the former State Farm complex, Grinols said council members must listen to city commissions for input.
The building is for sale, Rebholz noted.
He said the city will continue to reach out to State Farm and may work with lawmakers for support in the redevelopment effort.
The city worked to support the Wellington Management plan for the site, and Rebholz hopes the Greater MSP group helps draw attention to the facility.
Scoggins said she would like to see the building house jobs for Woodbury residents.
The city has tried to spur action at the site, she said.
“None of us has forgotten about it,” Scoggins said.
She was confident the building will eventually be occupied.
Scoggins encouraged people to give her feedback and support her as the Nov. 6 election draws near.
She said it’s been a pleasure to serve on the city council.
Rebholz said the city spends hours discussing the questions posed to them during the forum, and there’s only so much that can be said in 60 seconds.
He said surveys show people are satisfied with how the city is run and called serving on the council a “rewarding experience.”
He said he’s always open to listen to constituents.
Again talking about his primary issue—freedom of speech—Grinols said the city must eliminate the need for police permission to speak in public and Woodbury needs a “speakers’ corner.”