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Mayoral candidates share ideas for community growth

Candidate for Mayor Benjamin Weber (far right) answers a question while other candidates Mike Kuhle and Alan Oberloh listen during Tuesday night's mayoral candidates forum. Both forums were coordinated by the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Committee. (Ryan McGaughey / The Globe)

WORTHINGTON — Growing Worthington in multiple ways was a central theme of Tuesday night’s mayoral candidates forum hosted in the Worthington High School band room.

At the forefront of that discussion, candidates Mike Kuhle, Alan Oberloh and Benjamin Weber shared their thoughts on not only how to attract individuals to Worthington, but how to retain them.

All three candidates agreed that that tax abatement program developed between the city, Nobles County and District 518 has had a positive effect in growing the community. They also all supported further developing Worthington’s residential areas to provide accomodation to support more families.

All three candidates made specific mention to engaging youths that now live in the community in an attempt to get them interested in remaining in Worthington after their schooling.

Kuhle suggested tapping into pre-existing educational institutions and local businesses and creating an apprenticeship program between those partners.

“Set up apprenticeships, get a degree and stay here locally in Worthington,” he said. “We need those workers, and we need a way to keep those workers.”

Similarly, citing a recent pilot program in Willmar, Oberloh said a program with local businesses that allows students to tour a facility and learn more about that business may reap higher youth retention rates for the city.

To that end, Oberloh continuously advocated for higher-paying jobs and to boost Worthington’s median salary to at least the state average.

One of Weber’s ideas to help the community grow was for the city to become more transparent and to simplify its streamline processes, like updating its maps and confusing zoning and code language.

To accomplish that goal, Weber said he would propose investing in additional city staffing to help individuals navigate and understand their building opportunities.

“We’ve got to put some money, some people and time to back up these ideas,” he said.

Along with simplifying the streamline process, Weber also advocated for a single-person, one-location resource center where individuals can come get all their questions answered.

Another common item mentioned as a potential way to retain inhabitants was to look at the community’s investment in amenities, including one in particular that has created ongoing discussion between both city council members and the community — a movie theater.

Kuhle said the process — which has included the city discussing the potential to fund a building and lease it to a movie theater company — has been divisive.

Ultimately, he said, he supports moving forward with the plan with the following conditions: the building is easily adaptable to another use, the operator agrees to all finishes and build-out and agrees to a rental contract with a purchase option.

“I believe a theater in a town of our size would not be built without public resources,” he said, adding that one will add entertainment and cultural advantages to the community.

Oberloh and Weber both said they supported the idea of building a spec building, whether that facilitates for a movie theatre or something else.

“In a case-by-case basis, when economics and population may not be there to grow the city, the city needs to step in and look at it as an investment,” Weber said.

Oberloh said he envisions that the city build a four- or five-plex facility, which would allow the potential of an indoor recreation facility.

“What more beautiful plan than adjacent to a theater?” he said. “That’s one more way we’re going to keep people in this community.”

While much of the ideas focused on new development — whether residential or commercial — a historic building in Worthington also earned a spot in Tuesday’s forum. The Thompson Hotel, all candidates agreed, has horrendous living conditions for the tenants living in the downtown building’s 39 units.

Without having knowledge of the full details, Weber said he believes that decisions should be made with a people-first mentality.

“When this is all said and done, we need, in our code, a way to prevent this from getting to this point,” he said.

Kuhle called the process to preserve the historical site and create more livable conditions long and frustrating — a process that needs resolve. He added that the city need to learn a lesson from the process when it comes to what he called “large buildings that have a big, public purpose.”

Oberloh said he supports any means the city needs to take in order to remedy the situation, and restore and preserve the Thompson to the showplace it once was that dually accommodates for both retail and housing purposes.