Downtown issues dominate at mayoral candidates forum

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From left mayoral candidates Matt Scruton, Doug Lachance, Donald Barnes and incumbent Caroline McCarley. (Courtesy photo)

ROCHESTER - When real estate agents are figuring what makes a property a hot seller, it always comes down to three things: location, location, location.

And when you tap into the crucible that could well forge Rochester's next mayor, there's just three, too: downtown, downtown, downtown.

Indeed there are some stark differences between these four who would be mayor, but when it comes to the plight of Rochester's empty storefronts and much-vacant downtown, they all seem to agree it is the number one priority moving forward.

Last night's faceoff between incumbent Mayor Caroline McCarley, former mayor Doug Lachance, state rep Matt Scruton and political newcomer Donald Barnes will be the candidates' only such forum, and while it was absent of any snarky comments or animosity between the rivals, it quickly defined itself as a referendum on McCarley's efforts to revitalize downtown Rochester.

In answer to her first question, McCarley said the greatest disappointment of her first term as mayor was the continued "lack of energy" in the downtown, but she quickly pointed out that things were moving forward and pointed out many of the great businesses that are located there like Jetpack Comics, Riverstones Custom Framing and Miss Peach's Candy and Confections along with many others.

In reaction to her comments, however, Barnes recounted how he was thinking about the downtown's problems while on to his way to work one recent morning around 5 a.m. when he was solicited by a prostitute while at a stoplight at the corner of Columbus and South Main.

"I was very disappointed that that would happen to me in Rochester," said Barnes, a project manager at Safran Corp.

The opening remarks shaped much of the evening with McCarley speaking to the measured gains that have been made downtown, while the other three offered their ideas on how to rehab something that has been broken a long, long time, far before McCarley stepped into the mayor's office just two years ago.

Lachance tried to stake out his place as being the one candidate who would "think outside the box" when it came to rejuvenating downtown, even to the point of bringing a class action suit against absentee landlords who seem unwilling or disinclined to rent their vacant storefronts.

"I went from Hanson to North Main to Union to Wakefield and counted 23 empty storefronts, so we're not doing enough," Lachance said. "These building owners have some rights but their rights stop when they're depreciating the value of properties around them."

Lachance added that he thought the city should consider a class action lawsuit to force the landlords' hand, a lawsuit McCarley later said the city would lose at taxpayer expense.

Scruton added that unless there's a clear and present danger regarding a dangerous building, "there's nothing we can do."

He said he would like to encourage some of the building owners to take advantage of a state statute that allows them to renovate buildings but continue to be taxed at the prerenovation assessment.

Barnes said he, too, was disappointed by the makeup of downtown businesses, including a plethora of tattoo parlors and pawn shops.

"That's not going to attract the kind of people want downtown," he said.

He pointed to cities like Portsmouth, Dover and Somersworth that have craft breweries that seem to be drawing interest.

Scruton said service-oriented businesses might be the answer to the problem, while Lachance floated an idea to create a loan fund that would assist businesses in buying a building.

"We need some gentrification, a resident base that has more money that lives downtown," he added. "Substandard housing should be brought up."

McCarley talked about creating a "walkable community."

While all four agreed in large part that the downtown was the city's greatest challenge, there was stark contrast in their views on whether Keno gambling should be approved for bars and taverns to help fund kindergarten in the state.

McCarley and Lachance both support Keno, while Scruton and Barnes are firmly against it.

"I don't think people inebriated in bars are good gamblers," said Scruton, who has introduced a bill in the House to ban Keno in New Hampshire.

"We have enough problems in our bars with overserving," Barnes added. "We don't need another."

In closing remarks, Lachance said he was the candidate who would be the strongest advocate for downtown revitalization, while Barnes said his job at Safran was fixing things that are broken.

"I've seen things I think I can improve," he said.

McCarley, meanwhile, said the city is making great strides and now is not the time to switch.

"Rochester is on verge of shattering its negative image," she said. "I have loved to be your mayor and I ask for two more years to finish some things."

Scruton took his opportunity at closing to thank the volunteers that have helped with the opioid problem and fixing up the downtown.

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