On Thursday, April 10, 2014, the Milford/Slaughter Neck branch of the NAACP sponsored a Mayoral Candidate Debate at Milford Senior High School. Moderator Michael Dukes asked candidates questions regarding the issues facing Milford in the coming years, and then opened the floor to questions from the audience.
The program began with a presentation from the NAACP to Mayor Ronnie Rogers, thanking him for his years of service. Mayor Rogers was unable to attend the event, and Councilwoman Katrina Wilson accepted the award on his behalf.
Economic development, infrastructure and electric rates were the hot topics for the evening, both in questions from the audience and the moderator. The first question asked of the candidates was what their “Day One” objective would be if they were elected.
“As Mayor, I would begin with a connection to state officials, letting them know Milford is open for business,” said Bryan Shupe. Jim Oeschler echoed Mr. Shupe’s sentiments, saying that his first call as mayor would be to Al Levine, Director of Economic Development for the state, but that he would also begin learning what infrastructure was needed in Milford. However, candidate Betty Lou Schiedenheim had a different approach to her first day in office if she were elected.
“I think I would begin by reinstating the Economic Development Council,” Ms. Schiedenheim said. “I think we need to know where the people of Milford want to go before we start contacting state level officials. I think the 2010 Strategic Plan is a great direction.” Ms. Schiedenheim also said that as an outsider, not being born and raised in the city, she was welcome to come live there but not open a business. She said that other business owners gave her the impression that she was taking away their business, but that the more businesses available in the town, the more people would come to visit.
Mr. Shupe pointed out that he had started two small businesses in town, and that the community had welcomed him with open arms. He also said that it was important to take care of the current businesses and residents, and that city council was working toward building the infrastructure that would not only provide assistance to current residents, but help Milford offer more to businesses who may want to locate in the city.
“If our businesses are healthy, they go out and tell others who will then want to come here,” Mr. Shupe said. “Whether we are encouraging small businesses or developing middle class jobs, we need to show the public what we are doing and how we are benefitting them.” Mr. Oeschler said that infrastructure was critical to drawing businesses to the city, pointing out that Middletown was ready when Amazon was looking for a location to build in the state, but Milford was not.
Mr. Oeschler pointed out that the city started projects a few years ago, including a proposed water tower on the east side of town, but that it had not come to fruition. In addition, Baltimore Air Coil on the west side of town needed additional water supply and if the city did not find a way to get the water to them, there was a danger of the company closing the Milford location and relocating elsewhere.
Mr. Dukes told the candidates that the group had conducted an informal poll regarding what people saw as negatives in each candidate. According to the poll, citizens felt that Ms. Schiedenhelm was “inexperienced, outspoken and temperamental.”
“I won’t say I am inexperienced as I raised two kids on my own as a single parent,” Ms. Schiedenhelm said. “I pay my taxes, I put myself through college, I own my own home and managed to buy a business working in the restaurant business. It doesn’t mean I can’t learn.”
Mr. Oeschler’s negatives were that he “represents the status quo, is out of touch with minorities and has ties to private business.” Mr. Oeschler replied that he was “as far from the status quo as you can get,” and that he fought hard for the people of Ward 2 when he was on City Council.
“My only business interest is to my clients at Black Diamond Financial,” Mr. Oeschler said. “I am a man of the people. There are some rumors about my relationship with Mr. Fannin, who is in the audience this evening, but I can tell you that when I was on council, Mr. Fannin and I had some pretty heated battles, but we have managed to find common ground.”
Mr. Shupe’s negatives, according to the informal poll, was that he was “too young, self-serving and using the political office as a stepping stone. Mr. Shupe said that his age should not be a factor based on the fact that he had opened two successful businesses in Milford.
“I am the President of the Boys and Girls Club, on City Council,” Mr. Shupe said. “I think that shows I do have experience. I have worked in politics, and I returned to Milford, built two businesses, invested a lot of time and money and I consider Milford my home. My main goal is to help Milford grow.”
Mr. Dukes asked the candidates how they would go about increasing traffic and tourism downtown when all the businesses are closed by 6 PM. In addition, he asked about increasing the minority-owned businesses in downtown, stating that only three of the current businesses were minority owned.
“The City of Milford has helped DMI and they are looking for business,” Mr. Oeschler said. “We need to meet with the community to see if there is a business needed, and help that business owner succeed. The downtown Milford businesses close because of the nature of their business. We need to enhance the Riverwalk, possibly adding an amphitheater with entertainment to encourage businesses to stay open later.”
Ms. Schiedenhelm said that the downtown area was simply not a safe area for people, pointing out that there was a shooting downtown the night before. She also indicated that there was a significant drug problem in the downtown area, and that if that was not cleaned up, people would not want to venture into the area after dark.
“We need to go out and talk to people,” she said. “I went for a walk through that area last night. There was a child’s hopscotch game in chalk on the sidewalk in the same area where there was a shooting. I wouldn’t want my children or grandchildren playing in an area like that.”
Mr. Shupe felt that the mayor should listen to the people, remaining approachable, and that his answer to the downtown area was incubators and helping businesses create sustainability plans.
“According to research I have done on Realtor.com, the number one thing that draws people to an area is a sense of place,” Mr. Shupe said. “We need to grow that sense of place. Downtown Milford is coming back, but we need to market who we are.”
Questions about infrastructure were also asked of the candidates, as Mr. Dukes asked what the city’s energy future looked like. Ms. Schiedenhelm said that, in reading the minutes from various city meetings, it appeared that the council used the electric fund as a piggy bank for everything.
“They transfer from electric into sewer then into general so they can use electric funds for whatever they want,” she said. Mr. Shupe pointed out that, on his initiative, a recent referendum for water projects was cancelled after he worked with the Public Works committee to find ways to fund the projects without going to the taxpayers.
“But you voted for that referendum,” Mr. Oeschler said in rebuttal. “Why didn’t you see the first time that there was a significant amount of money in reserves?” Mr. Shupe responded that they were able to find the funding for the project, saving the taxpayers money. Mr. Oeschler pointed out that, in fact, the cancelled referendum cost the city $3100 in attorney fees.
“We corrected it and found a better solution,” Mr. Shupe said. “I continue to look for ways to avoid any tax increases, as I pay the same taxes as everyone else.”
Peggy Bradley, who plans to open a new business in downtown Milford, asked what the candidates are doing to bring young people back to the city. Mr. Shupe said that the city needed more good paying middle class jobs to entice people to the area, while Mr. Oeschler said that his son did not live in the area, and that he missed seeing his grandchildren. His belief was that Milford needed a good higher-education system in the town that would bring in big business. Ms. Schiedenhelm said that big business was necessary to encourage young people to the area.
Treibian Banks, owner of Longshots Bar and Billiard, asked what incentive the candidates were offering that would encourage him to keep his business in Milford. He pointed out that only Mr. Shupe had come to his establishment and talked to him about what he needed as a business owner.
“I’ve been in your business,” Ms. Schiedenheim said. “You hear how much I talk, so if you didn’t talk to me, that’s not my fault.” Mr. Oeschler said he, too, had been in the establishment, and that he would like to connect with all businesses, focusing on the positives each brought to the town in order to keep them in the city.
The city election will be held on April 26.
DISCLOSURE: Mayoral candidate Bryan W. Shupe is the editor-in-chief and co-owner of MilfordLIVE.com and the Milford Review. All content on the mayoral election is handled by Terry Rogers and publisher Dave Burris. Mr. Shupe has no input or control over coverage of the election.