Batavia 4th-Ward hopefuls talk priorities

Posted3/15/2013 4:36 PM

Jim Volk has had it easy the past 18 years when running for Batavia 4th Ward alderman. No opponents. Nonetheless, he's glad to have one this go-around. "It's not adversarial," he said, "I'm happy people are interested."

Volk faces Jamie Saam.

Why run?

Volk became interested in city politics because of seven junk cars parked along the fence separating his yard from a neighbor's. He asked the city for help, and was drawn in to government. He was appointed to fill a vacancy.

"It's incredibly educational," Volk said of the breadth of issues the council has dealt with, from the electric industry to whether the town should allow folks to keep chickens. "I learned about chickens; chickens were a load of fun," he said. (He is chairman of the city services committee, which dealt with the issue.)

Saam ran for city council in 2011. She sees being alderman as the next logical step in her community-service career. She is on the board of directors of Batavia MainStreet, the nonprofit dedicated to improving the downtown area, volunteers with the Batavia Mothers Club and the Art in Your Eye festival, and was on the launch team for the new River City Church. She also started an artisans' collective that sells wares monthly in Batavia.

At a March 13 candidates forum, she noted the council's demographics don't match the town's. The median age in Batavia is 40.4, and slightly more than half the residents are female, but only four women are aldermen, and only one alderman is younger than 40. Saam is 29, and Volk is 58.

Volk says he wants to remain on the council to tie up "loose ends." He wants to see the downtown streetscape improvement project through, and continue pushing for improving and installing sidewalks throughout Batavia, among other things.

Development issues

Volk is particularly passionate about the sidewalks; he described himself as a New Urbanist, and chose his house based on its proximity to downtown and to stores. He usually walks to city meetings. He's critical of the large-lot large homes built west of Randall Road in the 1990s and early 2000s. It's too sprawling and too expensive, he said, and he wonders if they are now even sellable.

He called the car-oriented Randall corridor a "Faustian bargain," generating sales tax for the city. He's amenable to offering sales tax rebates to fill the empty big-box stores such as Wickes, as well as other incentives to fill spots in the industrial parks in the 4th Ward.

City surveys of residents have for years ranked improving the downtown high. Volk said he envisions a compact downtown, and that the new curbless, pedestrian-oriented streetscape on North River Street will take off in popularity once warmer weather arrives.

Saam listed improving the downtown as a top priority. She especially wants to bring more shops (it's good on restaurants, she said), entertainment venues, and "especially more people." She wants to make sure Wilson Street isn't the only hub, and wants attention paid to the Water Street/First Street area. She has said city procedures may be thwarting improvement, putting projects through lengthy approval processes. She favors continuing too offer economic incentives, such as grants to pay for facade improvements and installing fire sprinklers, and microloans for business starts.

She agreed that incentives may be necessary to fill vacancies along Randall. She also said she wonders how Randall rents in compare to rates in neighboring towns. "How did you fill it up in the first place?" she asked.

Saam acknowledged she doesn't have the experience Volk has on other matters, such as whether to institute a stormwater utility, but has been attending committee meetings, including a recent one where expansion of the sewage treatment plant was reviewed. "The wastewater plant is a big one; it was eye-opening to see the extent of the work to be done," she said.

But the council needs a fresh voice, she said.

"Every once in a while there comes a time where there have to be some changes," Saam said.

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