Mayoral candidates diverge on one-ways, downtown and more

The six candidates for mayor of Mitchell differed during a forum Tuesday night on downtown enhancement, converting three streets to two-way traffic, the expansion of alcohol access in the city and reviving the Corn Palace Polka Festival.

Six mayor candidates
The six candidates for Mitchell mayor are pictured at Tuesday night's forum at MTI: (clockwise from top left) Becky Haslam, Roger Haley, John Claggett, Tara Volesky, Jerry Toomey and Ken Tracy. (Photos by Chris Huber/Republic)

The six candidates for mayor of Mitchell differed during a forum Tuesday night on downtown enhancement, converting three streets to two-way traffic, the expansion of alcohol access in the city and reviving the Corn Palace Polka Festival.

John Claggett, Roger Haley, Becky Haslam, Jerry Toomey, Ken Tracy and Tara Volesky all spoke at the Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce forum held before a packed house of roughly 150 people at the Mitchell Technical Institute Technology Center.

Claggett said he feels the second, third and fourth floors of downtown buildings must be enhanced.

"That's where the real problem is," he said.

Parking is also a major concern, Claggett said. If those two issues are addressed, the city can boost the downtown area, he said.


Toomey said a tax benefit should be considered to aid building owners to invest in their buildings. That might help to revitalize downtown, he said.

Volesky said she wants to emulate Rapid City and offer a downtown plaza, which could be done relatively quickly and for a reasonable cost.

"I'm sick and tired of all the studies," she said. "We've wasted so much money on so many studies. We're in a state of paralysis in this town. If I'm elected mayor, something will get done."

Tracy said people a lot smarter than him have studied the city's core area and haven't come up with a workable solution.

"As far as specifics, I'm not sure what we can do," he said.

Haley agreed, and said he would rely on Mitchell Main Street & Beyond to lead the effort to improve downtown.

Haslam said MMS&B has done a "wonderful job so far."

She said emulating Rapid City's presidential statue project might boost the community. Smaller versions of the former Corn Palace could be placed in downtown to enhance the visitor experience, Haslam said.


The Mitchell City Council voted last fall to convert Second, Third and Fourth avenues from one-way to two-way traffic. The change was halted, however, when citizens circulated petitions and referred the decision to a vote in the June 5 municipal election.

Tracy, who serves on the City Council, said he was on the Traffic Commission when the decision to recommend the change to the council was made. He said to "avoid the confusion" and improve safety, the streets should be converted.

"Just because it's been that way for a long time isn't a good reason to leave it that way," he said.

Toomey, the chief petitioner in the effort to overturn the council decision, said he feels the decision was right in 1950 because of concerns about a lot of traffic in residential areas. Now, with both parents and many teens driving, the issue is still relevant, he said.

"We still have heavy traffic on these streets," Toomey said.

In the winter, snow often reduces the streets to one-lane traffic, he said.

Haslam said she opposes changing the streets from one-way to two-way traffic.

She said the streets are often lined with cars, since some houses are without garages and driveways. Making a change can only reduce safety, she said.


Volesky said she avoids the one-way streets because she finds them confusing, and she doesn't have a position on them.

"To me, it's not that big of an issue," Volesky said. "To me, it doesn't matter to me one way or the other."

Haley said he has been driving up and down the streets in recent days to study the question. He said he favors two-way traffic in the downtown area to avoid confusion there.

But in the end, he said, the voters should decide.

"You guys are going to make the call here," Haley said.

Claggett said the state Department of Transportation has not produced data to sway him one way or the other on the street issue.

He said he wants to hear from the speakers on the issue at the forum set for Tuesday before taking a stance.

Haley said he regretted the council decision to change course and not allow alcohol sales at sidewalk cafes.


"I'm against alcohol abuse, but it's different than alcohol use," he said.

Claggett said he is opposed to any further expansion of access to alcohol.

"Personally, I think we're fine," he said.

Toomey said he is against the expansion of on-sale liquor in residential areas and feels there is enough access to alcohol in the city.

"The level right now is just fine," he said.

Volesky said she feels it's not a major issue or concern in downtown.

Business owners have told her not much wine is sold at restaurants. As far as proper alcohol use, that's a matter best left to the family and home to educate people, she said.

Haslam said there is enough alcohol access in Mitchell. She works with at-risk youth at her job and said many have dependency issues.


Tracy said it is already regulated by state and city law. He said he didn't think sidewalk cafes serving alcohol was "all that bad of an idea, but as a council person, you have to listen to the people. I'm not promoting the sale of liquor, but I think it needs to be regulated," he said.

The cancellation of the Polka Festival was also an issue.

Claggett said he isn't a dancer and was tempted to dance around the question. But he said the numbers make the case for canceling it.

"I would not bring it back," he said. "It is fiscally not viable."

Toomey said attendance at the event has been declining and perhaps another, smaller venue is needed. But he said the Corn Palace has a right to drop an event that isn't making a profit.

Perhaps the polka dancers could offer lessons to young people to try to revive interest, Toomey said.

Volesky pledged to revive the event.

"Absolutely, if I am elected mayor, the polka festival is back and we're going to make it bigger and better than before," she said.


Volesky said a national cable show has expressed interest in taping the event and showing it to hundreds of thousands of people.

Haslam said she wonders if the city "put more into" the festival if it might grow and be viable again.

Tracy said when he served on the Corn Palace Festival Board, the festival drew good crowds and was worth holding. But he said the numbers have shrunk.

"And they're not being replaced by a younger group of people," Tracy said.

Haley said he loves to dance and got an A in a college class where he had to dance a polka with his instructor. But he said it's simply a business decision and the Polka Festival is no longer pulling its own weight.

"We can't afford to do it," he said.

While they differed on some of the questions that were asked by a media panel, which used both its own questions and those submitted by the audience, they took similar positions on the Corn Palace.

All six said they favor some improvements, but none support the proposed $35 million expansion that was unveiled in January after a Minneapolis design firm was hired to produce a plan for a "Next Generation Corn Palace."

"That's way too much money, way, way, way too much," Volesky said. "We can't wait 20 years; we need to get something done now."

She said her proposal to create a plaza next to the Corn Palace would make the area more inviting to people. Some modifications and improvements could be made to the building, she said.

Haslam said she has yet to see a good plan for the future of the Corn Palace.

"I don't like the ones that have been going on," she said. "I haven't seen anything for the Corn Palace I like yet."

Haley said a small investment could pay big dividends.

"It's important that we make it look nice and have it look attractive for people," he said. "Maybe we don't do the whole thing."

Haley said the city needs to "make it something we're proud of" and attractive to children so they will find it more interesting.

Claggett said he supports continuing to study the issue and wants to hear more from the city committees and officials who are studying it.

He said he is not a single-issue candidate and doesn't want to base his campaign on the future of the Corn Palace. But he said a reasoned investment seems the best solution.

Toomey said he wasn't in favor of the "stairway to nowhere" and wants to view detailed reports before making a call on what to do with it.

He said a phased-in approach appears to be the best solution.

Tracy said the unique building must be protected and improved, but that doesn't mean a massive and costly project is the answer.

"I think we can do that without spending millions and millions of dollars," he said.

Tracy said he feels people are more interested in adding a second ice sheet, an indoor pool and other additions to the city rather than pouring multi-millions in the Corn Palace.

When asked what was the next major issue facing the city, the candidates offered diverse ideas.

Haley said the city must help develop more affordable housing, and doing that will boost downtown and local businesses.

"We don't have any place for them to live," he said. "Right now there are none."

Claggett said he supports relocating City Hall and is still interested in a joint city-county building.

"Governments need to work together," he said. "We could share space, share facilities."

Toomey said he wants to focus on downtown.

"I visualize a Main Street linked to the Corn Palace," he said.

Toomey said murals on storefronts or building sides, curb cutouts and other downtown improvements could be wise investments.

Volesky said she is opposed to the study that was just done on the Recreation Center and instead wants to revive the idea of a joint wellness center with Dakota Wesleyan University and Avera Queen of Peace.

Other cities have worked with colleges to build state-of-the-art wellness centers and Mitchell should do that as well, she said.

"The town needs to work together as a team," Volesky said. "United we stand, divided we fall."

Haslam said downtown must be revitalized. She also favors creating a way to improve the traffic flow from Interstate 90 to downtown.

Tracy said relocating City Hall can enhance people's visits to the Corn Palace. He said the space currently used for city offices could make the downtown icon a bigger, better place for people to tour.

"We need to prioritize and make tough choices," he said.

Tracy said he wants to provide facilities that local people want, and investing too much money in the Corn Palace won't provide the return that is sought.

"An indoor swimming pool is a must," he said.

Some of the candidates said the city and county need to work better together, but those currently in office said they believe such efforts are already under way.

Haslam said the county and its employees are already a major part of the city and must continue to work in tandem.

Haley said as "an old coach," he feels a united effort is the key.

"You've got to win, and if you're going to win, you've got to work together," he said. "Everybody has to work as one team."

Volesky said she believes in transparency and honesty. She said she is learning a lot by going door-to-door.

Claggett said he revived regular city-county meetings.

"I'm building on that," he said. "We need to continue to build on that. It only makes sense."

Tracy said the city and county already do a good job of talking and working with each other.

The city built a road to the landfill and fixed a segment of Ohlman Street and worked on the West End Bridge together, he said.

"Can it be improved on? I certainly think so," he said.

The candidates said while the city's nuisance property enforcement has caused some pain, it needs to continue.

"I think we need to do everything we can to make Mitchell a beautiful place, a more beautiful place," Volesky said.

Haslam said the enforcement efforts will take time to get used to for some people, but they must continue.

"I think it's a good step forward for Mitchell," she said.

Tracy said the city had to do something.

"I think it was a good move, and I think it was something that was needed," he said.

Tracy said it's important to be careful and work with and listen to people.

"I think we have been doing that so far," he said. "I think it's very important to proceed with it."

Haley said it's important to continue the effort and perhaps the code enforcement officer could communicate better with people.

He said he has been dubbed "the scrape and paint candidate" because he is willing to go out and help paint and clean up distressed property for people who need assistance.

Claggett said he feels the city has been "kind enough" with people and he said he is seeing people clean things up. That shows the effort is working.

Toomey said he supports the effort and Code Enforcement Officer Jeff Lanning.

"I think Jeff is doing exactly what he was told to do," he said.

But he said he has empathy for seniors on a limited income who perhaps can't afford to improve their properties. A plan to deal with that is needed, he said.

In their opening and closing statements, the candidates emphasized their belief in civic cooperation while also making the case for their election. Five of the six, all but Volesky, are Army veterans.

Haslam, a Mitchell native, said she developed leadership skills while serving eight years in the Army. She studied South Dakota government and administration at the University of South Dakota.

She quoted a professor in saying she has the "vision to see, ability to lead and will to do."

Tracy, a Kennebec native, has lived in Mitchell since 1969 and served on the City Council in two stints for a total of nine years. The retired state employee was a Department of Revenue agent.

He said he is the sole candidate with "extensive experience" in city government.

"I think that would be greatly beneficial," Tracy said. "I'm proud of the things we've accomplished in the past and I'm looking forward to leading the city in the future."

Tracy said he will use "plain old common sense" to make his decisions. He said people know him as a man of few words.

"But I am a good listener and I will listen to the people if I am elected to be your mayor."

Haley taught and coached in the area for two years before he got into the financial services field, which led him away from Mitchell when he was offered a leadership role in a company that required he live in Nebraska. But he said when he retired, he and his wife returned here.

"I am healthy and ready to serve the city of Mitchell," Haley said. "I am a fresh face with business savvy."

He said his "team-building skills" could greatly benefit the city.

Claggett, the chairman of the Davison County Commission, said the packed room was a sign of great interest in the race and the city.

"I want to become your mayor because I've already been your mayor," he said. Claggett was named mayor for a day as a high school student in 1969.

"So this is like coming home again," he joked.

Claggett said he has long called for increased cooperation between the city and the county, including building a city/county building.

"Today in government, you cooperate or you fail," Claggett said.

Toomey said he has spent most of his live in Mitchell and the area.

He said working for Avera Queen of Peace Hospital he was responsible for a budget in the millions.

Toomey said he ran for mayor for a day as a high school student but lost by a few votes. He said he hopes for a different outcome this time.

"I will listen to the people and I will be diligent in my research in making decisions," Toomey said. "I will do all I can to move our city forward with vision and leadership if they honor me with their vote."

Volesky said while this is her first run for office, her husband, Ron Volesky, of Huron, has been a longtime state politician.

She said she can guide people and agencies to work together to move Mitchell forward

"I really think I have the leadership skills," Volesky said. "I think I'm the only candidate who can move this town forward."

Tracy said he has worked with department heads in his time on the council and feels he would be a good leader and a strong advocate for the city.

"Those qualities are essential to serving as mayor and I think the experience I have had on the City Council lends itself greatly to providing that kind of leadership," he said.

Haley said his diverse work experience makes him qualified to lead Mitchell.

"I have done just about all things that city employees do," Haley said.

He said he knows budgeting from his career in the financial world.

"I want to get the best for Mitchell and the most for our dollar," Haley said. "I have been a leader. I will not only get things done, but get things done right."

Claggett said he has leadership experience from serving on the commission.

"It's a little bit of a smaller venue, but it's still the same thing," he said. "We need to make sure those dollars are working hard."

Claggett said he wished "talent, background and connectivity" had been discussed.

He said during his time as the president of the South Dakota Association of County Commissioners he met a lot of state officials and knows how to work with them.

"Those are the kinds of things most people don't think a lot about," he said.

Toomey said in his career, he was in charge of 25 to 30 employees as well as handling a budget of $15 million or more. He was also on the council for two years.

Toomey said he favors a new visitor center with the city teaming with the chamber and development corporation.

"We do not need a log cabin visitor center," he said. "That is an embarrassment to our city. We must all work together to make Mitchell a better place to live and a place we can be proud to call home."

Davison County Auditor Susan Kiepke served as moderator. It was the largest crowd for a forum in many years, perhaps fitting in an election with a large pool of candidates. The six hopefuls are vying for the chance to replace Mayor Lou Sebert, who is not seeking re-election.

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