Five candidates for three Farmington city council seats answered questions from voters during a September 23 forum held at City Hall.
Incumbents Sara Bowman, Joe LaRussa, and Steven Schneemann, and challengers Geof Perrot and Sarah Davies are on the November 5 ballot. The two top vote-getters will earn 4-year terms; the third place finisher, a 2- year term.
Topics ranged from food trucks to pedestrian safety, with one of the city’s hottest issues leading off.
Maxfield Training Center
Candidates dove right in with their opinions about the Maxfield Training Center, which the city purchased this year from Farmington Public Schools.
Bowman said the city has taken on the property as a priority. “It has the ability to connect our downtown with our greatest asset, which is Shiawassee Park,” she said.
Davies had questions about the impact on the surrounding neighborhood and its historic value. “I would like to see a town hall,” she said. “I think it’s something we need to talk about and see what residents want.”
LaRussa sees the MTC as an opportunity to “transform the downtown” by connecting it with Shiawassee Park. He said officials have taken resident feedback during Master Plan activities, and it’s time to “execute on the planning.”
Perrot believes any solution has to have scale and cannot be “enormous”.
“As a planning commissioner, my number one priority is how is it going to impact the neighborhood,” he said.
Schneemann, who lives near the project area, also mentioned the downtown-Shiawassee Park connection. He pointed out that the city also now owns the west end of the park, previously held by the school district.
“There are lots of opportunities that would work in scale with the neighborhood,” he said.
Davies, LaRussa, and Schneemann said it’s time to revisit the city’s food truck ordinance. Perrot questioned why that would happen, given that it was approved just two years ago. Bowman, however, said the issue is balance between the trucks and the city’s brick-and-mortar businesses, which pay city and Downtown Development Authority taxes. She said the application process is simple, and the fee paid by food trucks covers any costs the city incurs.
Moving City Hall
Candidates also addressed whether to keep City Hall downtown. Davies was an emphatic yes, LaRussa said the people (city staff) need to be centrally located, Perrot favored benchmarking with other towns, Schneemann supported a City Hall that’s most accessible to residents, and Bowman said while the property is a piece of prime real estate, she can’t imagine City Hall anywhere else.
Greater Farmington Area Founders Festival
A bit of laughter erupted when candidates were asked whether the Greater Farmington Founders Festival should come back to downtown Farmington.
Bowman said the festival has changed over the years and is no longer the summer’s focal point after spinning off Art on the Grand, outdoor concerts, and more. “I am open to discussion about who should be in charge of it. I want to see it continue, but I think it’s going to be different,” she said.
Davies has heard from people who want the festival to come back downtown, and they want the festival of the 1990s, with features like sidewalk sales and the “Farmington Idol” talent competition. “We put on a showcase of our own talent. I think we need to go back to that.”
LaRussa pointed to the need to re-examine the event’s ownership and identity and advocated for strong public engagement. “Form follows function, so until we say what it is, it’s really hard to engage in a dialogue about … where is it going to be or who’s going to run it.”
Perrot also wanted to see the Festival of years past, when streets closed and all the activity was downtown. He suggested surveying residents about what they’d like to see happen. “We also need a stronger presence from the businesses in town … we need that participation, ownership, and buy-in of celebrating downtown.”
Schneemann agreed with LaRussa that the Festival has “existential issues”. While he kept an open mind about this year’s move to Shiawassee Park, he said, “I do believe there needs to be at least components of the festival downtown… The MTC project will open up the downtown to the park, so that the festival can just roll between the two.”
About two dozen people watched the forum hosted by the League of Women Voters Oakland Area. The event video will be posted at farmgov.com.