TEMPLE TERRACE — City Council and mayoral candidates addressed a crowd of about 200 Tuesday, telling their stances on redevelopment, as well as the need to improve Riverhills Elementary School, hire more police officers and ensure a strong code enforcement policy in a city where 47 percent of the residents are renters.
The office seekers offered various strategies for assuring that the city's original vision for the Downtown Temple Terrace project stays alive. Four of the five candidates said they would insist on stores on the first floor of the residential buildings, a plan the project's developers say isn't economically viable.
The $160 million redevelopment project stretches east of 56th Street from Bullard Parkway to the Hillsborough River.
Only Eddie Vance, seeking one of the two open City Council posts in the Nov. 6 election, expressed a willingness to explore an alternative.
"Retail is vital to a prosperous downtown,'' he said. "As to whether it does end up being beneath an apartment complex or if an apartment complex is relocated, that is something to be considered.''
Council candidate Grant Rimbey insisted that the residence-over-retail concept is crucial for attracting restaurants.
"You need retail on the first floor because it energizes Main Street. That's what we're trying to create. The downtown that Temple Terrace never had was planned in the '20s, and we're going to build it 80 years later.''
City Council member Mary Jane Neale, the only one in the race running for re-election, said the apartments need to be almost completely occupied before talking about dropping the effort to attract first-floor retailers.
"I feel strongly that we need to finish the redevelopment, and I think, yes, we need to have retail on the first floor. Yes, we need to have density above, in order to attract the retail on the first floor."
Mayoral candidate Sherri Donohue, former executive director of the chamber of commerce, urged residents to help the developer, Vlass Temple Terrace, find retail renters for the project.
"We need an alliance of believers,'' she said. "Let's go out and help that developer fill that retail space.''
She's running against former City Council member Frank Chillura for the office with limited powers; the mayor can only vote to break a tie on the council.
"Retail is a must on the first floor, because it is the vision of the people,'' said Chillura, who also promised to work with the developer. "There's going to be some sacrifices, but experience at the table, negotiations and thinking outside the box will get you there.''
After making introductory statements, candidates responded to questions from the audience that had gathered at the Temple Terrace Golf & Country Club. The Temple Terrace Bar Association organized the event.
Addressing another concern, the candidates talked about the need to improve Riverhills Elementary in order to entice people to buy homes in the town. The school was given a grade of F last year but improved to a D this year, based on the 2011-12 school year. Rimbey, project manager for Elements Architects in Tampa, said he would like to see a charter school movement to replace it.
Vance said he would work closely with the School Board to make improvements.
As a member of the city's school support committee, Vance said he helped bring in a program to certify all the faculty as gifted teachers within three years. Saying that many of Temple Terrace's preschoolers aren't ready for elementary school, he would push for wider enrollment in voluntary pre-kindergarten.
As for other issues:
• Vance, Rimbey and Neale said the city should hire more police officers.
• Donohue called for boosting the pay of city workers, who, she said, haven't had a raise since 2003.
• Chillura, Rimbey and Vance agreed on the need for what Chillura called "smart annexation'' to raise taxes and help erase the deficit of nearly $400,000. They also said the fee that Temple Terrace pays Tampa to treat its sewage is too high and that they should explore a contract with Hillsborough County or renegotiate with Tampa.
Vance, and an executive with Suncoast Schools Federal Credit Union, said putting the city on sound financial footing "all does boil down to (Downtown Temple Terrace) redevelopment. If we can get that going and get businesses in there, that will increase our tax revenue, and that is really what we need.''
Philip Morgan can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3435.