Lively city election season awaits in Burnsville
Gustafson drops bid, Willenburg seeks rematch
A lively city election season awaits in Burnsville, with a possible rematch in the mayor’s race and eight candidates seeking two City Council seats.
Council Member Dan Gustafson withdrew his bid for a third four-year term on Tuesday, the last day of filing. That leaves Mary Sherry as the only incumbent in a field that also includes ex-Council Member Steve Cherney.
In the mayor’s race, Jerry Willenburg is seeking a rematch with 18-year incumbent Elizabeth Kautz. In 2008, campaigning as a critic of the $20 million Performing Arts Center then under construction and of the Heart of the City downtown redevelopment, Willenburg gave Kautz the closest race of her career, losing with 46 percent of the vote.
Bill David Ansari was a last-minute entrant in the race, filing Tuesday.
The loaded fields trigger an Aug. 14 primary for both mayor and council. The fields will be whittled to two mayoral candidates and four council candidates.
Council candidates are Sherry, Cherney, Suzanne Nguyen, Richard Hoel, Bruce Johnson, James Cammarato, Rochell Ansari and Pat Madden.
Kautz cited a litany of accomplishments in Burnsville and touted the contacts she’s made during a career that has included a year and a half as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Willenburg said he aims to connect with voters he didn’t reach in 2008, when the mood of change was in the air. He’s reprising a familiar theme from his campaign, but with the number 18 instead of 14.
“When you say the number 18, now you’re saying we have a mayor that’s been there for nearly two decades,” said Willenburg, who ran for council in 2002 and 2004 and for the District 191 School Board in 2003. “That’s a big number. There are people out there that were born when she first took office that are now old enough to vote. And I also kind of feel that if you haven’t done what you came to do in 18 years, you’re probably not going to get it done.”
“It’s OK,” Kautz said of the criticism. “But also people can see the results of the things we have achieved and accomplished.”
Progress often takes patience and the cooperation of private landowners, such as the growth of job-creating businesses along County Road 42 that flourished during her tenure or future redevelopment in the Minnesota River Quadrant, Kautz said.
“Please,” she said, “if you don’t know how the economy works, then you’re naive.”
Kautz listed city accomplishments during her career including job growth along 42, the addition of more than 150 businesses from 2009 to 2011, serious-crime reduction of more than 30 percent since 1995, an infrastructure trust fund that means lower assessments for road projects than in other cities, securing of funds for the Highway 13/County Road 5 interchange.
“Under my leadership as mayor, we have improved our bond rating twice,” said Kautz, who was first elected in 1994. “We are now a strong, Triple A rate, better than the state and better than the federal government.”
She praised the recent performance of the Performing Arts Center, a project she championed. The center had an operating loss of $275,000 in 2011, about $115,000 less than expected in the center’s budget.
Willenburg said he didn’t set out in 2008 to “take up the banner of the PAC,” but “people just kept shoving the banner of the PAC into my hand, because that’s what people wanted to talk about.”
The center isn’t likely to pay for itself, but the annual subsidy must be pared, Willenburg said.
“To me, the number $100,000 is a nice, round number,” he said.
The annual loss plus debt and interest will cost Burnsville an annualized sum of “close to $2 million a year,” Willenburg said. “It’s a pretty big nut for a city our size.”
He expanded his concerns about vacancies in the Heart of the City — where an empty restaurant space remains despite overall improvement since 2008 and where a CVS Pharmacy is being built — to include vacancies all over Burnsville.
Willenburg suggested a coalition of business and city people form to inventory commercial properties and recruit businesses that would be a good fit.
“I think we need to have a business environment that is not just steady, but robust,” Willenburg said.
Kautz said the Heart of the City — where land for the arts center and Nicollet Commons Park were bought with outside grant money — is generating more than $1 million in property taxes annually compared with $246,000 before redevelopment.
“It was a very, very tiny investment for the return we’re receiving now,” the mayor said. “The Heart of the City is doing well.”
Ansari said he’s reserving judgement for now on issues including the Performing Arts Center.
He said he wants to promote development of vacant commercial land, including parcels in the Heart of the City. One is the city-owned property near the Mediterranean Cruise Cafe, where Ansari works for his brother, owner Jamal.
“I’d like to get at least three more hotels in the town,” said Ansari, a former partner with his two brothers in their former Mediterranean Cruise Cafe in Eagan.
A Burnsville resident since 1975, Ansari said he’s satisfied with the city.
“But I can do a little bit more, hopefully, if the people are willing to work with me. I’m willing to spread my wings, as they say.”
The two-term council member had filed early for re-election.
“I withdrew today,” he said Tuesday night. “My wife and I have been talking about it on and off for quite a while. I’ve had eight really good years on the council. I really have enjoyed it. I’m almost 60 years old. I want to go to Arizona this winter and spend two or three months (with relatives) and work on some business concepts that we have, one of which is existing right now (a roving food truck called the Wicked Palate).
“We have a lot of people running. Out of that crowd, there’s going to be a good candidate.”
He said accomplishments during his eight years include the Performing Arts Center, funding of the 13/5 interchange, state construction of freeway sound walls and preventing a pipeline company from indiscriminately clearing-cutting a path through numerous yards.
Like Kautz, he has taken it on the chin from many arts center critics.
“That goes with the territory,” said Gustafson, who thinks the center’s prospects are bright.
He expects some of the new city candidates will again flog the project and its decision makers.
“‘And if they want to talk about what happened in 2006, 2007, 2008, well, go ahead,” Gustafson said. “As it turns out, the theater’s here. It’s actually doing better than we anticipated for this time, and people are embracing it.”
After undergoing a highly publicized bankruptcy and the loss of his freight company during his tenure, Gustafson is now hauling his Wicked Palate trailer to Burnsville locales.