GULFPORT — City Council elections are a few weeks away, and the race is drawing its share of attention. On the ballot this year, council member Christine Brown faces challenger Linda Bailey to represent Ward 2, and Ward 4 incumbent Michael Fridovich is running against Richard Fried, Bobby Reynolds, and Ernie Stone. The Times asked the candidates what they thought about two recent and controversial business developments, what responsibility the city has to maintain art it purchases with city funds, and the biggest challenge facing Gulfport in the next two years. Only Ward 2 candidate Linda Bailey did not respond.
Recent actions by the City Council to facilitate new drive-through businesses on 22nd Avenue S and a multi-level building on Beach Boulevard appear to signal growth and expansion of the city's business districts. How will you address some concerns that such growth may alter Gulfport's character?
Brown offered that the idea for a multistory building was part of the vision a 1993 Waterfront Redevelopment Area plan had in mind for downtown that addressed density, height, and uses.
"The proposed building is the first project to take advantage of that plan." About the 22nd Avenue approval, she said: "The area is currently zoned for drive-through We extended the area with the caveat council sets limitations, like hours of operation, ingress, regress, and buffering.
Fridovich said neither project would alter Gulfport.
"Every town has to make changes to continue to exist," he said. "Besides, any rebuilding downtown would look a lot like the (proposed) Colby building.''
Regarding the drive-through decision, he wants to make sure that any new drive-through business "won't feed more cars into the surrounding neighborhoods."
Fried recognizes that "growth is going to happen, it just needs to be scaled appropriately and conceived with the community's character in mind." He believes "governing is maintaining the town as it is, and ensuring growth is controlled." He also has no problem with the access changes on 22nd Avenue S, adding that he's "not looking to see a standalone national chain there."
Reynolds said the city needs to define its character before it continues growing.
"Beach Boulevard, 22nd Avenue South, and 49th Street South: do we want the city to have the same character or three different characters ... and do the codes allow us to obtain that vision?" He wondered whether the city had a long-range plan that should be re-visited. "Or get started on one."
Stone also has no problem with the city growing a bit.
"As long as we don't outgrow ourselves, we should be fine ... we're going to need better service systems, and that's okay."
A few years ago, the city spent over $55,000 on 10 public sculptures. Since their installation, some show signs of vandalism, or storm damage. Should the city be responsible for maintaining art created with public money? If not, who should?
All five candidates believe the city should be responsible for maintaining art paid for with taxpayers' money.
Fridovich suggested that "we maintain our public buildings, why not public art?" though he wondered if a public/private partnership might be possible.
Brown suggested that, "if possible, the artist should have the opportunity to remedy any problems and maintain the sculpture."
Fried wondered if anyone had thought about the maintenance issue in the beginning, adding that the works also need proper lighting. "If we're in for a penny, we're in for a pound," he said.
Stone agreed, saying that "the city put the art there, and the city has to maintain it."
Reynolds expressed disappointment in the park itself. "With the walkway on one side of the park, and plans for another walkway on the east side of the park apparently defunded, the park feels like other projects in the city: half-done. I'd like to see more attention paid to fixing up what we already have."
What is Gulfport's biggest challenge in the next two years; how will you address it?
Brown said the city "can't put all our money in roads and neglect playgrounds, or money into parks, and not take care of sewers." She maintains council should work closely with the city manager and his staff "to keep all the plates spinning, and still be prepared for surprises."
Fridovich anticipates continuing to find ways "to maintain what we're doing, like repairing the infrastructure, and working to find monies for our roads and sewer systems, adding that the backbone of a city is its sidewalks, streets, and sewers."
Fried said the biggest challenge is Clam Bayou. "I've thought about reseeding it in the dark of night, with mussels, clams, and fish. Why do we need to wait for another study? Why can't we do it ourselves?"
Reynolds sees the challenge is growth and development. "How do we make it convenient for tourists while still maintaining quality of life for residents?" He suggests the city "look to other communities along the Gulf that have gone through this, learn from them, and find common solutions."
For Stone it's the sewer system. "We need to really look at what we're doing to fix it. What if it only works for 10-15 years? We need to have a plan in place."
University of South Florida St. Petersburg student-journalist Devin Rodriguez contributed to this report.