Dunedin candidates answer questions during in a forum Sept. 26 at the Hale Senior Activity Center. From left are Mayor David Eggers, his opponent former Mayor Bob Hackworth, League of Women Voters moderator Judy McSwine, Heather Gracy and her opponent Commissioner Dave Carson.
DUNEDIN – Get the candidates for Dunedin City Commission and mayor in a room and they can all agree on one thing: preserving quality of life in the city is more important than ever.
At the Sept. 26 candidates’ forum, current Mayor Dave Eggers and his opponent former Mayor Bob Hackworth, as well as City Commissioner Dave Carson and his challenger for Commission Seat 3, Heather Gracy, tackled hot-button issues, including the future of the city’s relationship with the Toronto Blue Jays, funding for the Dunedin Fine Arts Center and Historical Society and Museum, and challenges that face the city.
Moderated by the League of Women Voters and organized by the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce’s Governmental Affairs Committee, the forum gave candidates the opportunity to speak to residents. In addition to prepared opening and closing statements, each candidate answered three questions from the LWV, followed by different questions written by residents and randomly chosen from a bowl. The forum was held at the Hale Senior Activity Center.
The first question posed to candidates regarded the Blue Jays’ future, since the team’s contract with the city expires in five years. All four agreed that maintaining ties with the baseball team is imperative and negotiations to renew their contract need to start now, as the economic loss would be detrimental to the area.
“They’re a huge part of the landscape in Dunedin and we need to do everything we can to keep them here,” Eggers said.
“It would be an absolute tragedy (if they left),” Hackworth added. “We need to determine now what the Blue Jays need to commit to staying.”
The LWV next asked candidates about their financial support for the Historical Society and Fine Arts Center, which recently requested that the city match a state grant for $500,000 for its expansion.
Hackworth and Gracy wholeheartedly supported matching the grant money.
“The economic impact that these investments will have, makes the case as to why public funding (for them) is entirely appropriate,” Hackworth said, reminding residents that the center was initially founded and funded in 1973, during a recession. “(The economy) was worse then. … It worked in the past to invest in those institutions, and it’s absolutely appropriate again.”
Gracy called the center and Historical Society cornerstones of the community that set Dunedin apart from other cities. She said services shouldn’t be cut and rather, creative solutions should be found.
Eggers agreed that both are “integral components to the city,” but was more cautious about supporting additional funding. “Before you just say yes because somebody comes and asks you for half a million dollars, you have to look at what else is going on in other areas of the city,” he said.
Carson said that while he supports helping groups in need, the Fine Arts Center received $121,000 or more each of the last four years.
“I think that’s substantial help,” he said. “(But this is) a $500 million commitment and it’s likely to come up again next year. We’re talking $1 million to the art center and I simply can’t support that in this day and age.”
The final question from the LWV asked candidates about what they felt are the biggest challenges facing the Dunedin community.
Carson said the city is poised for the future.
“We’re ready for the next round of good times to come,” he said. “The codes and ordinances are in place so when someone comes in to develop empty lots, they’re able to do so.”
The biggest challenges, he added, come from national and state mandates that increase taxes, which the city has no control over.
His opponent pointed to the budget and development as key issues to focus on.
“We need to make sure the money is invested in the citizens,” Gracy said.
And smart residential development is important, she added, saying no to high-rises while diversifying the residential housing base.
After four years in office, Eggers said he expects the primary challenge for the city to remain the same: continuing the level of services the community has learned to expect despite the economic downturn.
“No challenge can be so tough that we can’t overcome it,” said Hackworth.
Referring again to the Fine Arts Center and Blue Jays, he added, “The great times didn’t happen by accident. We need to honor the legacy of investing in the community. These investments have a return to the citizens ... I promise to get through the tough times with investments.”
During his prepared statements, rather than highlight his own accomplishments while in office, Hackworth turned to those of past mayors who made at-times controversial decisions during their tenures, such as initially bringing spring training to the area and signing a contract with the Sheriff’s office.
“These initiatives were controversial at the time, and not easy,” he said. “I want to honor these legacies and build upon them,” adding that the city can be both “fiscally responsible and forward thinking” without compromising vision and foresight. “This is a different message from what’s going on at City Hall.”
Eggers instead focused on what he’s helped the city accomplish during his time as mayor, including the creation of new parks, the control of flooding in some areas of the city, and continuing to attract vibrant businesses to the area, most recently the Achieva headquarters. “We’ve kept services intact while balancing the budget,” he said. “I want to keep Dunedin charming, quaint and economically powerful.”
Newcomer to local politics Gracy said, “It’s time for change in the makeup of the City Commission.”
She focused on the upkeep of and creation of parks and green spaces to maintain the quality of life in Dunedin. She also criticized the transparency of the current administration – which includes her opponent – for this past June appointing former mayor and state Rep. Tom Anderson to fill a vacant spot on the city’s Board of Finance before letting the board follow its standard procedure by reviewing all applicants and providing the commission with recommendations.
Meanwhile, Carson also highlighted his administration’s accomplishments: improved infrastructure, public safety updates and business growth. He pointed to his experience on various city boards and committees – “the breeding ground for the Commission,” prior to his time on the Commission, he said. He defines his term on the commission as “accomplished. We did what we set out to do with a concise, easy-to-understand, rather pragmatic, business-like approach.”