Three candidates looking to replace outgoing Alderman Martin Schoppmeyer in Fayetteville’s Ward 3 City Council race participated in a public forum held Wednesday evening inside the former Chamber of Commerce building in downtown Fayetteville.
Realtor Sarah Bunch, youth intern Benjamin Harrison and developer Tracy Hoskins appeared in front of a crowd of about 20 people in an hour-long question-and-answer-style forum moderated by chamber board member Alex Baldwin.
Ward 3 includes several neighborhoods in northeast Fayetteville, including the Rolling Hills Drive corridor, and the Huntingdon, Candlewood and East Oaks subdivisions. Gulley Park, Fiesta Square, Lake Fayetteville, and the Northwest Arkansas Mall are also in Ward 3.
The candidates divided themselves into two categories Wednesday: experience and enthusiasm.
Sarah Bunch / Staff photo
Bunch and Hoskins were quick to mention their career skills and time spent serving on the Fayetteville Planning Commission, while Harrison focused on his love for the city and his desire to increase communication and engagement in Ward 3.
Bunch, 53, spent six years on the commission where she served two terms as secretary and one term as chair. She said her experience in banking and real estate has taught her how to listen to people in order to analyze problems and come up with solutions.
“The council needs people like that,” Bunch said. “I have worked with a variety of people from the top of the socioeconomic ladder to the bottom. I’m a good listener and I really care about what people have to say.”
Hoskins, 52, said what the council really needs is a business owner with experience on both sides of the city’s development process. He is serving his seventh year as a member of the Planning Commission, and owns several local businesses, including Maggie Moo’s, Great American Cookies, and Paradigm Development.
“We’ve got plenty of academics here,” Hoskins said. “I think it’s time we had a business person on the council. Somebody that has crafted budgets, followed budgets, improvised when they didn’t work out so good, and somebody that has actually built streets, knows what it costs to build one, and somebody that’s employed people and had to make payroll week after week after week.”
Harrison, 22, gushed over Fayetteville and its people, calling it the best place to live in America – one with a diverse and inclusive community that always has the city’s best interest at heart.
“If you’re moving the city forward, I want to help move you forward,” said Harrison. “I don’t think I can give back to Fayetteville all it’s given me, but I will try.”
Benjamin Harrison / Staff photo
The questions from the audience had a central theme, with many residents focusing on development and business growth.
One person asked how the candidates would work to close the perceived gap between Fayetteville and other cities in the region when it comes to being friendly to development.
Harrison said education and outreach could ensure developers are more familiar with the intent of the city’s rules before making plans to build in Fayetteville.
“There’s a reason our codes are the way they are,” Harrison said. “I don’t think a lot of people are privy to that information, but I think a lot of people would want to know that information.”
Bunch said while some people like to repeat the claim that Fayetteville is a hard place to do business without presenting any facts, there are people who struggle with the process. She said she’s spoken to developers who’ve gotten halfway through the construction process only to discover that they’d unknowingly violated a rule which led to costly changes and delays to the project.
Hoskins said streamlining the system is the answer. He said the city’s antiquated codes make it difficult to tell the difference between policy and regulation. Certain designs that the city’s goals encourage, Hoskins said, sometimes interfere with ordinances which leads to confusion and the potential for developers to look elsewhere.
With growth on the horizon, one audience member asked how aldermen balance the interests of developers with those of the city’s residents.
Tracy Hoskins / Staff photo
All three candidates said it’s a tricky subject.
“In seven years on the commission, I have yet to meet anybody that ever came to me and said, ‘I really wish you would find somebody to build something right behind my house,'” Hoskins said.
However, he said, it wouldn’t be much of a balancing act if some of the city’s regulations weren’t so difficult to interpret.
Harrison said improving communication between builders, residents and city staff could lead to less contention when developments are proposed near existing neighborhoods. He advocated for regular Ward 3 meetings, which don’t currently exist.
“I think that’s a giant mistake,” Harrison said. “I think people are much more comfortable with projects and would be more likely to support projects after they know the information.”
Bunch said collaboration is key. Developers have a right to improve their land, she said, but they shouldn’t be allowed to build something that would create a safety issue or a detriment to the environment.
“It’s a real challenge,” she said. “It takes a lot of skill and you have to be a collaborative person who thinks about things thoroughly and who educates yourself as much as possible.”
Early voting starts Oct. 24 for the Nov. 8 general election.