Local business leaders were out to identify those who would help or hamper their livelihoods Wednesday night as they took turns grilling most of the Santa Barbara City Council candidates.
Eight of the 10 candidates running for three open council seats on the Nov. 5 ballot gathered at Fess Parker's Doubletree Resort for a debate hosted by five Santa Barbara business organizations that laid out the challenges before them.
The hosting organizations included the Milpas Community Association, the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara Association of Realtors and the National Association of Women Business Owners-Santa Barbara Chapter.
“This is the night where we find out who’s got the chops to handle business,” said Alan Bleecker, president of the Milpas Community Association. “This forum is designed to keep you on your toes. We’re business people; we appreciate a great sales pitch.”
Candidates were kept to strict one-minute time limits for short answers and were forced to pick a side with “yes” and “no” placards for certain questions.
Megan Diaz Alley, Gregg Hart, Frank Hotchkiss, Michael Jordan, David Landecker, Jason Nelson, Bendy White and Lesley Wiscomb participated in Wednesday’s debate, which was without candidates Cruzito Herrera Cruz and Matthew Kramer.
All candidates — many of whom have worked in small business — said they agreed that small businesses play an important role in the local economy.
In order to show more commitment to the sector, most candidates recommended streamlining some processes.
Alley and Wiscomb said they would support some sort of buy-local campaign, while White, who is running for re-election, referred to council members as facilitators to untangle problems.
Hart emphasized that better transportation and more affordable housing could go a long way to guarantee that business stays local.
“Those aren’t going to happen because we don’t have any money,” said Hotchkiss, who is also running for re-election.
As for how to streamline processes, candidates had fewer solutions.
Nelson suggested the city provide business owners with a packet and checklist of what needs to be done to set up shop, while Alley and Wiscomb focused on more supportive city staff to help the process along.
Jordan said the city should develop an economic strategy that targets and recognizes businesses that will really return revenue.
“The city is clearly missing an opportunity,” he said.
Most candidates agreed that business owners face too many fees, that traffic is too congested and that an increase in homelessness has increased crime — subsequently affecting business on State Street.
Landecker said he would get special officers onto the street to get to know and understand the homeless population in order to move them as his one action to reduce their impact on businesses.
All other candidates were also in favor of some type of increase in law enforcement.
Several candidates said the current council has an inability to listen to residents, which is why some neighborhoods — near Milpas Street in particular — have felt ignored by the city in terms of help with revitalization efforts.
Most candidates said they were in favor of the Highway 101 widening project and a commuter rail system into the city, but noted that funding and current plans weren’t quite at a level to move forward on either.
The debate closed with candidates listing their top three infrastructure funding priorities.
Public safety was No. 1 for Wiscomb, Hotchkiss, White and Jordan, and made it onto nearly everyone’s list.
Roads and water and sewer issues made most lists, with repair of public buildings, environmental upgrades and burying utility lines also accounted for.