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Tracy: City Hall move is a top priority

Mitchell Mayor-elect Ken Tracy, seen here in front of City Hall, will be sworn in July 2. (Chris Huber/Republic)

Moving Mitchell City Hall to a new location is Mayor-elect Ken Tracy's first priority amid an array of facilities issues facing city government.

In a wide-ranging interview Tuesday at The Daily Republic, Tracy said the relocation of City Hall could be the kick-start needed to finally achieve some long-lingering goals. The current City Hall, which is connected to the north side of the Corn Palace, has long been considered a barrier to Corn Palace improvements. If City Hall is moved, space would be freed up for more tourist-oriented space.

"It's a priority I think because it kind of gets the ball rolling," Tracy said. "To get the ball rolling, we're going to have to relocate City Hall. We're moving forward in that regard."

Among other facilities proposals floating around Mitchell, Tracy identified priorities including the addition of a second ice sheet to the Mitchell Activities Center, a Recreation Center expansion, and a remodel and expansion of the public library.

"We're going to have some tough decisions to make," Tracy said. "[Monday] night, the council meeting kind of set the tone for what is to come."

He said there were about $25 million in major projects discussed Monday. Including committee meetings at the beginning of the night, Tracy and the council participated in a marathon five-hour session in the Council Chambers.

The $25 million figure mirrors the cost of a proposed arena project that was rejected by voters in 2007. It was linked to a property tax increase, and such a tax hike seems unlikely right now, Tracy said.

Mitchell has the bonding capacity to invest about $12 million in large projects, according to Tracy. It also has about $1.7 million that has been set aside in a fund for an events center, but Tracy said that money could be repurposed for a City Hall relocation.

Ready to serve

Tracy believes he is ready to serve as Mitchell's 34th mayor.

"I feel like I'm ready to step right in and get moving without a long period of learning," he said. "I'm ready to tackle the issues."

He will be sworn in during the City Council's July 2 meeting. He will serve a three-year term and be paid $23,484 a year.

The mayor is the chief officer of the city, with about 180 full-time employees and a budget of approximately $30 million.

Tracy, 65, is coming into office with many years of experience in city and state government.

He worked for the state of South Dakota for 30 years, 10 for the Department of Labor and 20 with the Department of Revenue before retiring as a revenue agent in 2002.

Tracy was appointed to the Mitchell City Council in 2000 and then won two full terms in 2002 and 2005, running without opposition both times.

He was ousted by Doug Backlund in 2008, but returned to the council in 2011, once again running unopposed. He served as president of the council for three years.

On June 5, he was the winner in a six-candidate field for mayor to replace Lou Sebert, who did not seek a third term. Among Tracy's first duties will be naming someone to fill the Ward 1 seat he will vacate to become mayor.

City Hall first

Moving city offices to a new location is a logical first step toward multiple facilities goals, he said. As a councilman, Tracy is chairman of the City Hall Relocation Committee.

On Tuesday, representatives of Puetz Corp. will unveil a proposal for converting space at Mitchell Technical Institute's north campus to a new city hall. The campus will soon be vacated by MTI, which is consolidating at its south campus along Interstate 90.

Tracy would like to see a design that will work in that building as well in a new building in case the council decides to build.

He knows people want to keep City Hall in the heart of the city.

"Even the Mitchell Tech location is a bit of a stretch," Tracy said.

Moving City Hall would open up space for a project at the Corn Palace. On Monday night, the "Next Generation" Corn Palace committee released a plan calling for a $12.2 million package to expand and alter the building. Tracy said he is impressed by parts of it, but is against the dollar figure.

"It's not because I don't think they're good projects or worthy, but because there are other things that would provide good value to the people of Mitchell," Tracy said. "The return on the investment is just not there. I'm still going to have to be sold on the 10 to 12 million dollars."

If the city moves ahead with a $12 million Corn Palace project, he added, it would leave no dollars available for other projects.

Other projects

He said other projects may mean more to the citizens of Mitchell and could be completed in a relatively short time period.

"I think the sheet of ice is one that is very doable," Tracy said. "The association is very supportive, not only in terms of volunteerism but monetarily. They step up to the plate."

At the council meeting, the Mitchell Skating and Hockey Association said it would cost $2.4 million for the second sheet of ice and pledged to raise at least a quarter of that.

Tracy said the proposed Rec Center expansion and the inclusion of an indoor pool are "very important" to many people in the community.

Tracy sees a need to do what's best for the entire community all through the year, not just something that benefits tourism in the summer or tries to bring more people to the Corn Palace.

"To spend a significant amount of money to enhance the Corn Palace experience I don't think is going to raise the numbers a lot," he said, referring to the roughly 200,000 visitors who walk through the Palace turnstiles each summer.

But he said more swim meets, more hockey tournaments and more youth basketball events, as well as other activities all through the year, will do more for the local economy.

"And that to me is going to be more benefit to the business than trying to attract more of them in the summer, which is still important," Tracy said. "You have to make some tough decisions."

He said the idea of building a bigger arena to lure state basketball tournaments back to Mitchell is probably dead.

"I don't know what the opinion of everyone else in Mitchell is," Tracy said. "I am of the notion we are not going to get state boys' basketball in Mitchell."

The Corn Palace does not have the seating, he said, and he feels all the tournaments will soon be located in fast-growing Sioux Falls, which is building a new arena.

The proposed downtown streetscape is another proposal he likes, but the funding source for it is unclear.

"Certainly some of these if not all of these projects are worthy of consideration," Tracy said. "Doing all of them? I don't see it happening."

Part of his job, he said, is to prioritize the proposals and establish a plan.

Economy, housing

He plans to name a task force to study the housing shortage in Mitchell. Tracy admits it's an issue he's not very well informed on now.

"That's something I'm going to have to educate myself on," he said. "Again, that's not going to happen overnight. It's going to be months."

Tracy said he will count on economic development leaders to attempt to lure new businesses to Mitchell.

"I guess I'm not exactly sure what a mayor can accomplish in that area," he said. "I'm going to have to rely on the professionals."

But Tracy said he will use his office as a bully pulpit to promote economic development that he supports.

"I would go to the council and say, 'This is important to attract new business in town,'" he said. "As far as going out and recruiting, I think that is outside of my expertise and experience. I don't see that as part of my role as mayor."

The recent loss of Verifications Inc. hurt, he admits, but he doesn't regret the city's role in providing incentives to the company.

"Verifications was a good fit for the city. It provided a lot of jobs," Tracy said. "It's unfortunate they're leaving after such a short time."

'Consensus builder'

Tracy vowed to improve communications with the public and the local media.

"I'm going to be a strong proponent of an open city government," he said.

Perhaps a better-informed public would have prevented the public outcry against a proposed boat ramp at Lake Mitchell, Tracy said.

He said he did "not want to wage battle through the newspaper," but instead wants to bring people together to sit down and discuss it.

Tracy said while people who want to protect the lake have a right to their view, the lake belongs to everyone.

"The people who live on the lake don't own the lake," he said. "I think we need to make it more accessible to the people of Mitchell."

Tracy said he wants to get the two sides together -- "They have a common interest. They want what's best for the lake."

The same goes for creating a business improvement district to fund some projects, with the motels and other tourism businesses potentially agreeing to impose a tax on themselves to fund a specific project.

Tracy said he wants to get people thinking about possibilities.

"We have not had much success in getting a BID," he said. "A lot of what I'm talking about are things that would benefit the motels and the restaurants, at the time of year when things are slow.

"But it has to come from them. The city cannot demand it of them. They're going to have to want to do that."

The city has supported several proposals that were rejected by voters in recent years: Building an events center, adding a city manager, allowing Sunday sales of off-sale liquor and converting three one-way streets to two-way.

Tracy said he knows there has been some disconnect between city government and the public.

"It's going to be a challenge. I'm not naïve enough to think I'm going to come in and get things done alone," he said. "I hope that I'm a consensus builder. I want to be very open in the process."

He also hopes to be more of a leader than an administrator and said he will make his opinions known.

"I think as the mayor and the leader of the city, I'm going to take it upon myself to let it be known where I stand on issues," Tracy said.

"Our plate is full. We've got a lot of things we need to tackle."