Wheaton council candidates debate future of downtown

Updated 3/8/2013 11:17 AM
  • Alberta Adamson

    Alberta Adamson

  • J.T. Del Alcazar

    J.T. Del Alcazar

  • Ted Rodgers

    Ted Rodgers

  • Philip Suess

    Philip Suess

Four city council hopefuls in the race to represent Wheaton's north district are clashing over strategies to attract new businesses.

While city leaders are touting major developments under construction downtown, including a six-story apartment building and a Mariano's Fresh Market grocery store, the candidates in the only contested race for a seat on the council are outlining different perspectives on issues of economic development.

Incumbent Phil Suess will face off against challengers Alberta Adamson, J.T. Del Alcazar and Ted Rodgers in the April 9 election. The winner will serve a four-year council term representing the north district.

Suess, who has served the district since 2005, said a favorable environment for businesses hinges on maintaining the city's infrastructure. The 55-year-old investment consultant highlighted a project scheduled for the spring with a "95 percent probability" of solving flooding on North Main Street. Over the past three years, the city "has gotten its act together" by developing a list of needs that must be addressed, Suess said.

"We were starting from zero," Suess said. "We basically have built the databases, the information to move forward, in a methodical, reasonable way."

He expects the fruits of a downtown strategic plan currently in the works by Denver-based Design Workshop Inc. will add more open and green spaces to spark foot traffic. Officials have not yet unveiled a final vision.

"That's going to cost money, but if we do it right, we're going to get revenue from it because the people downtown are going to be more successful," Suess said. "More people are going to come into the community."

But Del Alcazar, a 41-year-old attorney, says a business strategy should start with the Downtown Wheaton Association, a group charged with promoting the central business district. Suess voted against a special taxing district that funds the association in December 2011 and has argued the group should rely more heavily on private sources.

Del Alcazar hailed the new leadership under Executive Director Paula Barrington, who started in December.

"The key to revitalizing downtown is bringing people into Wheaton, and we have to be more creative in that," Del Alcazar said. "I think we're off to the right start by having a new executive director that is aggressive (and) caters to the needs."

Del Alcazar said he would like to see more events bridging the north and south sides of the railroad tracks, floating the idea of an ice rink in the winter south of the tracks.

He said the city should look to the model of Glen Ellyn's business process improvement team.

"Their whole role is to make sure the Glen Ellyn process is streamlined, making sure there's no hiccups, making sure their standards aren't too high and prohibitive for businesses to open up," Del Alcazar said. "I say we implement the same thing."

While Adamson agreed the city's biggest potential for downtown development lies south of the tracks, she said the city needs to promote its history and arts to drive more visitors to Wheaton and spur sales tax revenue in restaurants and shops surrounding downtown museums and other assets.

Adamson, president and CEO of the Wheaton Center for History, ran under a similar campaign for the council's at-large seat two years ago but finished third behind Jeanne Ives and Evelyn Pacino Sanguinetti.

"I do believe if we got a really good economic development plan and implemented it with culture, history and art, our sales tax revenue would increase and our empty storefronts would also fill up," said Adamson, 65, who also called for more retail uses downtown.

When asked if the city should hold off on culture spending in sluggish economic times, Adamson said the city "is already losing."

"You've got to have something that people think, 'Wow, this is wonderful,' and Wheaton has it," Adamson said. "But we don't package it."

She said the city should restore funding to the Center for History, adding that view is not her reason for running. The last payment from the city to the center was $225,000 in 2009. The payments covered roughly 40 percent to 50 percent of the center's operational budget, depending on the year, Adamson said.

Adamson said the payment was not a gift, but a "fee for service" that adhered to a city ordinance. A previous agreement hired the nonprofit organization to preserve and promote Wheaton's history.

If elected, she said she would not step down in her role at the center.

"Because the city has never funded the museum 100 percent, it shouldn't be a conflict," Adamson said. "If people think I'm only here so I get a paycheck, I resent that. I, as a candidate, am not asking the city to do anything that other communities have not done."

Rodgers says the city should identify three to five destination venues as part of a plan bringing together the private sector and government stakeholders.

"Too often, the addition of new businesses or even new ventures is more ad hoc and episodic than part of a comprehensive plan," said Rodgers, 61, the national director of estate and gift planning for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

From a district perspective, he called North Main Street a vital, but "languishing" gateway into the downtown. Rodgers said he's talked with the chamber of commerce about creating a North Main Street association for businesses.

"They feel they don't get any communication from the city unless there's a problem," Rodgers said. "I think we need to have better communication and interaction with our residents and business owners, particularly along North Main Street."

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