BELFAST – Two political and community newcomers with similar ideas are campaigning to represent Ward 1 on the City Council.
Both Larry Theye of Northport Avenue and Ryan Otis of Salmond Street moved to the city at the beginning of the decade.
Theye is a retired business management professor from the University of Nebraska-Kearney and part-time professor at the University of Maine’s Hutchinson Center.
Otis, whose parents are from Belfast and Searsport, was raised in Pennsylvania and is beginning a career as a financial adviser with R.K. Lindell & Co. Otis also served on the football coaching staff at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, and is an assistant with the Belfast Area High School football team. He plans to coach high school basketball this fall.
Both Theye and Otis feel that the key issue facing the council this term plays to their experience in management.
City Manager Terry St. Peter will retire in June, and the process to select his replacement will likely begin shortly after a new council is seated after the election. Both believe the city needs a strong fiscal manager who can hold the line on spending.
“That is a pretty major undertaking that is extremely challenging, and we have to do it soon,” Otis said of screening managerial candidates. “That is a big issue because it reflects on the future of the community. That is something critical that is looking at the council immediately. I want somebody who can control spending and make Belfast a better place in the long run because I intend to be around here for a long time.”
Theye said he was prompted to run for the council by the city manager situation. He said he felt that his background in human resources and conflict management could be an asset to the council when it came time to hire a new manager.
“I thought I really could be of service to that process,” Theye said. “It’s a critical decision to make in these tight-budget times that we really have somebody that knows budgets and knows money. It really underscores the need for a good fiscal manager.”
Another issue that has been percolating through the city for years is a difference of opinion over big-box stores. The city has conducted three votes on the issue. It still ignites passions whenever it is raised and led to the formation of a special study group on retail shopping after the last election.
The city’s retail review commission recently recommended taking a flexible approach to large stores, and both candidates agree with that concept.
Where they disagree is on the application of that recommendation. While Theye said he has yet to be convinced that a Wal-Mart type store would be a benefit to the city Otis said he would keep an open mind and would listen to development proposals from all comers.
“I really, pretty much support the retail commission recommendation,” Theye said. “They recommend flexibility on the 75,000-square-foot cap and that’s a good idea. But I do think we need to get more shopping opportunities to Belfast. I have argued against getting a Wal-Mart in Belfast, but some of the arguments for it have opened my mind,” Theye said.
Otis said he was not prepared to shut out any prospective developer before hearing what it had to offer. He said it would be short-sighted for a public official not to keep the lines of communication open when business opportunities present themselves.
“I want to look at every proposal,” Otis said. “We ought to look at everything and not immediately accept or reject any one thing. We have to decide how any project would benefit the city. Hopefully people will keep an open mind while the process is unfolding.”
The two men also spoke of the need to develop more affordable housing. The city has been in the midst of a real estate boom since the mid-1990s when credit card lender MBNA, since merged with Bank of America, brought 2,000 jobs to the area.
The company also played a key role in invigorating the city’s waterfront when it purchased and demolished a shuttered chicken processing plant and also portions of a wood fabrication factory that moved to another location.
The new vistas almost overnight converted a working-class neighborhood into a waterfront enclave when many of the multifamily homes that had housed factory workers were converted into single-family residences.
As a teacher at the Hutchinson Center, Theye said, he has learned firsthand of the “terrible time” students have finding housing in the city. He said the lack of housing is a problem that needs to be addressed by the community.
“There is pretty strong agreement that this is an important issue,” Theye said. “I was pleased to see the council form an affordable-housing commission. It should be a high priority.”
Otis said he hopes the commission will move quickly to determine the city’s needs and work with the existing comprehensive plan committee to create a strategy to bring more housing to the city.
“Nothing is going to get fast-tracked because that would just lead you into trouble. But I don’t think it should be a long, drawn-out process either,” Otis said “I don’t have a crystal ball to tell how the city will go, but we need to do something.”