The city’s economic recovery and the future of development downtown dominated the conversation at the first forum in the 2020 Scottsdale mayoral race.
The Scottsdale Area Chamber of Commerce, Scottsdale Coalition for Today and Tomorrow (SCOTT) and Scottsdale Leadership presented the online forum, which can be viewed at youtu.be/Ug5Xpq5Ft0A.
All five candidates participated, including former Councilwoman Lisa Borowsky, Councilwoman Suzanne Klapp, Councilmember Virginia Korte, former Councilman Bob Littlefield and former Councilman David Ortega.
The candidates also differed on their views of the city budget, which has undergone significant changes in recent months due to pandemic-driven revenue shortfalls.
While some candidates called for long-term structural changes in city spending, others advocated for more nuanced cuts.
Klapp said the city made large structural changes to the budget during the Great Recession but did not envision similar changes this time around.
Still, she said, the city should make “strategic cuts” such as those already included in the proposed budget for next year, which included over $30 million in spending reductions.
“But I think the changes that we now make will be more strategic and aimed toward making sure that we can maintain our city services and also provide all the capital projects that the voters have requested from us,” Klapp said.
Littlefield took a different approach, calling for wholesale changes to city spending, including doing away with all no-bid contracts.
“We need to do a whole lot of things that are structural changes to make our budget not just balanced every year but sustainable,” Littlefield said. Borowsky said structural changes could be made to the budget to increase efficiencies, such as combining staff positions or eliminating those made obsolete by new technologies.
Korte said the city has already reacted to the immediate shortfall and said it is too soon to make wholesale structural changes to the budget.
“I do not believe it’s wise to make structural decisions at this point because we don’t have data to make those decisions upon,” Korte said.
Ortega called for both short-term and long-term adjustments, using community feedback from the ongoing general plan outreach.
“The long-term vision and our ability to stay in art city and keep moving forward has to be based on where we came from and where we want to go,” Ortega said.
Beyond the city’s immediate financial condition, the candidates were also asked about the future of the city’s downtown core and what role developers and their advocates should play at City Hall.
The conversation was largely spurred by the recent debate over Southbridge Two, which was ultimately pulled by the developer.
Some critics of the project and other large developments have argued that developers and their campaign contributions have too much influence over the decision-making process at the Planning Commission and City Council.
Borowsky, who referred to “the Southbridge Two debacle,” pushed for more citizen feedback, arguing that new development should keep “with the character of Scottsdale” and that moderation is key.
She said that city should not give in to all developer demands for 150-foot buildings downtown.
“I’m the first one to say that I think downtown and Old Town needs restoration and some redevelopment…there should be a vision though,” Borowsky said.
Ortega, a longtime opponent of Southbridge Two, drew on his professional career as an architect who has built buildings in downtown Scottsdale and called for “more sensible balance with lower profile buildings.”
Korte pushed back at Borowsky’s contention that the city lacks vision for downtown redevelopment.
She argued there is already a vision for downtown Scottsdale in the form of the Old Town Character Area Plan adopted unanimously by the City Council in 2018.
It included the allowances for 150-feet in some areas of downtown that were used by the defunct Southbridge Two project and other successful developments like Museum Square and Marquee.
But Littlefield argued that residents do not see it that way, using the recent elections and Southbridge Two referendum to support his contention that developers have too much sway over City Council.
“It’s pretty clear that the citizens of Scottsdale are not happy with the direction the current council majority is taking, and they want something different,” Littlefield said.
Klapp called for a balanced approach that brought together residents, businesses and the development community.
“In the final analysis when it relates to downtown…it has to be what’s good for the entire 258,000 citizens in Scottsdale, not just a small group of people,” Klapp said.
Klapp disagreed that the city was not adequately taking residents’ perspectives into account when it considers new developments, citing surveys stating “96 percent of the people in the city feel that the city is doing a great job in listening to their interests and providing the services that they want.”
It’s unclear what metrics Klapp was citing.
The city’s 2018 citizen survey found 96 percent rated the city positively for quality of life, 56 percent gave positive marks for treating all citizens fairly and 65 percent approved of the city’s overall direction.
All the candidates called for plans to unify the city through a common vision.
Both Littlefield and Ortega called on the city to adhere more strictly to the city’s General Plan.
Littlefield said he would put “together a group and come up with a resonant friendly general plan update…then we need to stick to that because that’s the only thing the voters say that is our plan for the future.”
Borowsky called for restoration of the citizen budget commission that she championed during her time on Council as well as increased citizen involvement in other city processes.
Korte proposed starting a long-term community outreach process, which she dubbed Scottsdale Community Conversations 2050, to elicit feedback on the long-term direction of the city.
Klapp said she would work to unite Council while reaching out to Scottsdale’s various communities to “have the ability to come together to come to some common ground that will actually work for the benefits city of Scottsdale.”