Jun. 1—With the June 8 citywide election on the horizon, a pair of incumbent Mitchell City Council members are being challenged by two hopeful candidates seeking to change things up on the eight-person governing body.
In Ward 1, incumbent Dan Sabers is being challenged by Clay Loneman, while Pam Bathke is vying to unseat Marty Barington in Ward 3, a position he's held for over 15 years.
While Clay Loneman came up short in his previous attempts running for City Council, his goals to grow the city largely remain the same this time around.
The 26-year-old council candidate who is challenging incumbent Dan Sabers for Ward 1 said spurring growth, increasing pay for the Public Safety Department, improving downtown and bringing more transparency to the council are his top priorities.
"I know that Mitchell can be better than what it is. I think there are ways to make Mitchell grow bigger and better," Loneman said, pointing to . "Why do our firefighters and paramedics have to have a second job to survive? They shouldn't, and we need to work on our pay scale for the public safety officials."
As potential solutions to drive more economic growth, Loneman, a Dakota Wesleyan University graduate, suggested making efforts to bring more outside businesses and industries to the city, along with embracing the medical marijuana industry that will be legalized in the state on July 1. The city is in the process of rolling out regulatory measures to welcome the industry, which Loneman said is a good step in the right direction.
On the housing issue the city faces, Loneman said the city should work to develop grant programs with District III Planning and Development aimed at incentivizing more outside developers to build in Mitchell.
"We need housing badly, because we have too many renters in the city. If we continue the trend of having more renters, property values will go down and less people will want to move here due to no housing options," Loneman said. "I also want to focus on bringing more recreation and entertainment options to the community, because that's what will help attract more young people to move here and raise a family."
Loneman characterized downtown Mitchell as a "dying area that has tremendous potential to rebound." Some of his solutions to reverse the course of downtown and bring back the vibrant atmosphere include "easing restrictions" on property owners who are seeking to make changes to their buildings such as apartment renovations and facade work. In addition, Loneman said maintaining the sidewalks and roads along Main Street are critical for the city to attract more businesses and developments.
"The city has been trying to bring more businesses to downtown and other parts of the community, but we have to fix the sidewalks and infrastructure to make that happen. There are some areas that are in bad shape which need to be addressed," Loneman said.
While Loneman said restoring the lake is vital to make it into the asset it was once when the water quality wasn't as poor as it is. But any big decision moving forward such as a dredging project needs to be referred to a public vote, Loneman said.
The city's $4.1 million land purchase — which came with a multimillion-dollar home — along Firesteel Creek where a wetland and dam is expected to be built was a decision Loneman believes should have been brought to a public vote.
"I think we need just get the bottom dollar amount of what it would cost to dredge. The council has been making moves on the lake that I believe should have more public input like the land purchase and the house that came with it," he said. "Any decision moving forward on the lake is going to have to be referred to a public vote."
Another goal of Loneman's is to build a stronger relationship between the city and Davison County, which he says is lacking. As a former police chief for the small town of Scotland, Loneman said a better relationship among Davison County Sheriff's Office and the Mitchell Police Department would make for improved public safety in the community.
Loneman, who works at the Poet ethanol plant, pledged to make himself more readily available to the voters in his ward and in the community as a whole.
"I've always been active in following the city government, and I often hear some elected representatives won't respond to their concerns. I hope to change that," Loneman said.
With his first term on the Mitchell City Council behind him, Dan Sabers likes the direction the city is headed.
However, the community business owner and manager said there is some important work that needs to be done to continue moving Mitchell forward. Sabers, a Salem native who has resided in Mitchell for more than a decade, plans to focus on advancing the wetland project along Firesteel Creek, improve aging infrastructure and work with the Mitchell Area Development Corporation and Mitchell Main Street and Beyond to rejuvenate downtown.
"We need to keep up on our infrastructure, because if we don't, we are going to run into some very bad situations," Sabers said, noting the city needs to continue going after grant funding to improve the city's roads, sewer systems and bridges. "Our pipe in the ground is 80 years old, so we need to be focused on that issue as well."
For Sabers, the council's decision to purchase the land along Firesteel Creek, where plans call for the creation of a wetland aimed at reducing the phosphorus and sediment flowing into the lake, was the "right move." He believes controlling a major source of the problem that's causing the lake's algae woes needs to be a priority before any dredging takes place.
"I'm a firm believer that we have to finish working on the problem upstream before we move onto the lake itself. We have some great groups involved with us like Ducks Unlimited and James River Water Development District, who have been helping us with funding methods to ease taxpayer burden," he said.
As a Main Street property owner, Sabers said he is heavily invested in the revitalization of downtown Mitchell. While bringing more commerce and business to downtown is what city leaders have been pushing for lately, Sabers said maintaining existing properties and infrastructure is just as vital to the area.
To rejuvenate downtown into the bustling business district it once was several decades ago, Sabers said it will require a strong working relationship with private enterprise and community organizations.
"We have been addressing the corroding buildings, but I'm hoping we can work with the MADC to get some of those downtown lots developed and get businesses inside vacant buildings. We have some good stuff coming up here I believe that will be a big win for downtown," Sabers said.
Bettering the quality of life in Mitchell also ranks high up Sabers goals for the future. He highlighted Mitchell's city facilities — the Corn Palace, Mitchell Recreation Center, aquatic centers and the Lakeview Golf Course — as big advantages the community has to attract more growth. Sabers was previously the Corn Palace director for eight months in 2015.
While maintaining the city's facilities are crucial priorities for Sabers, he said bringing more economically feasible recreation opportunities will only add to the "great quality of life" Mitchell has to offer.
"If you have a great quality of life, people will come. When they see the Corn Palace, the golf course, indoor and outdoor pools, it can be the difference in their decision to make Mitchell home," he said. "We have a great baseball complex, soccer field as well. But we can always make them better to host bigger events like state tournaments."
With Mitchell's centralized location along Interstate 90, Sabers said investing in ways to expand the Corn Palace seating could have a huge economic impact on the community by putting Mitchell in the running to host larger-scale events.
"If we keep our facilities looking great and add the right things, events will come," Sabers said. "We have a great community, and I hope we can keep things going in the right direction."
As the longest-serving City Council member up for reelection, Marty Barington is seeking to continue making "good progress" on some major issues facing the city.
Among the key goals he hopes to tackle in what would be his sixth term as a Ward 3 council member are advancing Lake Mitchell restoration efforts, bringing more economic growth and redeveloping parts of the city that are in need. After the Mitchell native earned a business degree from Dakota Wesleyan University, he decided to stay and raise his kids in the community that he says he "loves more than any other place" in the world.
"We all know there are some areas in the city that need some development, not just some of the vacant buildings downtown but some commercial areas and buildings on the north side as well," Barington said, pointing to the vacant former Shopko building on the north edge of Mitchell as one of them. "Being born and raised on the lake, I know that our lake is one of our biggest assets in the city. It's so important that we focus on taking care of it and getting it back to where it used to be, and we've made leaps and bounds over the past few years on that mission."
To advance the restoration of Lake Mitchell, Barington pointed to finishing the wetland project along Firesteel Creek that's anticipated to begin by late summer as a critical step toward achieving that goal. Long-term, Barington supports a dredging project, which has been heating up lately.
"We have some great momentum right now on the lake with all the groups we've been working with on the wetland and Firesteel watershed like the NRCS, James River Water Development District and Friends of Firesteel," Barington said. "We can't give up now. An improved lake is going to help this city grow, and we have to recognize the unique opportunities it can give us."
Bringing more economic growth to the city has always been a goal for Barington, he said. He said the most effective way to do that is strengthening the relationship with the Mitchell Area Development Corporation and Chamber of Commerce, which are two nonprofit organizations tasked with recruiting businesses, bringing industry to Mitchell and promoting the city. With the recent hiring of the group's new leader, Geri Beck, he said it's vital to develop a strong relationship with her right away to get empty buildings filled with businesses.
"We need to strengthen our working relationship with the MADC and Chamber. That's how we can get some bigger economic developments in our city that we're always looking for," he said. "There are some prime areas along Main Street that we want to see get redeveloped like Third Avenue and Main, along with some other buildings."
While much of the business recruitment and development work falls on the MADC and the private sector, Barington said improving the infrastructure and bringing more unique features like the Corn Palace Plaza and Veterans Park are things he and city leaders should continue to facilitate.
"The green space at the Corn Palace Plaza and Veteran's Park are two examples of what we've done to make Main Street more appealing with a more vibrant atmosphere. Adding some more green spaces and bump outs where it makes sense is something I think we need to keep working on," Barington said.
He pointed to the recent moves the city's made to rid downtown of several eye sores, such as the former dilapidated building on Third Avenue and Main Street and the corroding First Avenue and Lawler Street building as "great steps in the right direction" for downtown.
Although costs of building commodities like lumber and steel have soared during the pandemic, Barington said finding ways to add more housing in the city is crucial for future growth. Lack of housing is something that he believes goes hand in hand with the ongoing labor shortage.
"We also need to work with private developers to get more housing. It takes a team effort to bring real positive growth, and we're committed to doing that," Barington said.
Bringing a positive change to the Mitchell City Council is what Pam Bathke is seeking to accomplish on June 8.
After all, the first-time council candidate who is challenging incumbent Marty Barington for Ward 3, believes that change is needed on the council to move the city forward and spur more growth. Bathke, an accountant and business consultant who holds a master's degree in business administration, said Mitchell hasn't been experiencing the type of growth lately that it should be, characterizing things as "stagnant."
To promote economic growth and attract more workers, Bathke is suggesting bringing more affordable housing options, improving existing rental properties and infrastructure as potential solutions.
"I think Mitchell is in a position right now where we are poised for a lot of growth, and we need to capitalize on that. There has been so much focus on the lake and Corn Palace, which are important, but there are additional important topics that need to be addressed to see that growth and get away from being stagnant," Bathke said. "My goal is to give those important things attention. We need to market and promote Mitchell in a way that really draws residents."
Although Bathke was among the large group of residents who opposed the MADC's proposed attainable housing development roughly a year ago, bringing more affordable housing is a key goal outlined in her campaign.
Bathke said she never opposed the idea of bringing more affordable housing. However, the "creative financing" program and land layout of the proposed MADC housing project — which has been stalled for over a year — were a few of the main reasons Bathke opposed it then and still does today.
Instead of building around 90 homes on MADC's 21 acres of land where a large drainage pond sits across the street from the hospital, Bathke is suggesting building a housing development on a 26-acre piece of city-owned land next to the dog park and Cadwell Sports Complex off the bypass. The nearby apartment complexes and close proximity to the Mitchell Middle School are a few key features that Bathke says make the area a "perfect" option to build affordable housing, which she noted goes hand-in-hand with addressing the worker shortage Mitchell's been facing.
"If we were to fill all the open jobs, we wouldn't have enough housing to accommodate workers. We should explore utilizing city-owned property, and the 26-acre land is perfect. You have the middle school right there, the dog park and all of the industry jobs close by like Twin City Fan and Graphic Packaging," Bathke said. "It would be more desirable for younger families, and that's what we need to get people to stay, live and work in the community."
While adding housing is a top priority for Bathke, she said improving and maintaining the thousands of rental properties in the city needs to be addressed. Bathke is proposing to implement a rental inspection program for rental property owners to follow and meet certain standards. A previous city study indicated Mitchell has roughly 3,000 rental properties, including apartments, which Bathke said makes it critical to maintain.
"As a landlord myself, I will often hear tenants looking at our rentals say, 'Everything they've looked at is not being maintained.' That's a problem because that's not what will bring newcomers to Mitchell, and I feel like city leaders have turned a blind eye to it," Bathke said. "Some cities have a rental registration and inspection program, such as Vermillion, which entails a checklist of items that rental properties must follow."
As the city has been taking steps to address Lake Mitchell's algae woes, Bathke said improving the water quality through a dredging project is one solution she shares with city leaders. For Bathke, carefully examining the numerous studies on the lake without spending unnecessary money and addressing soil contamination on privately owned land nearby are critical steps to begin improving the lake.
With the preliminary dredging design that's in motion and expected to be complete within a year from now, Bathke said it's vital to diligently prepare and look at funding options before the design is completed. She suggested selling some of the city-owned property along the lake for future development as a means to help fund what's expected to be an expensive dredging project.
"I think we're heading in the right direction with the dredging design, and when that information comes back we need to make sure we're ready," she said. "With all of the time and effort going into the lake, we need to make sure we aren't allowing septic tanks and feedlot manure on land real close by that eventually gets in the drainage system and into the lake. That's been happening lately, and city leaders need to address it."
If elected to represent Ward 3, Bathke pledged to be an "independent voice," who listens and acts on the community's concerns and suggestions.
"I've heard collective voices in Mitchell say they want change. ... Now more than ever, it is time for change. Welcoming a new voice, new perspective and an independent thinker can help do that," Bathke said.