Springfield’s Zone 1 candidates shared their vision for the city’s north side Thursday while offering opinions ranging from repercussions for the police chief to the future of the Jefferson Avenue Footbridge.
Incumbent Phyllis Ferguson and challenger Thomas Quinn took questions for an hour Thursday before some 50 attendees at the Library Station. The forum was arranged by the Springfield News-Leader, which began the event with a series of questions before lending way to citizen queries.
Zone 1 is located in Springfield’s northwest quadrant, bordered by the city limits to the north and west, and parts of National Avenue and Grand Street to the east and south.
The election is Tuesday, April 4.
Ferguson was appointed to the Zone 1 seat in 2015 after the resignation of its former representative. She serves as the chief operating officer and treasurer for Mexican Villa restaurants, is co-founder of the Moon City Creatives District and formerly served as president of the Woodland Heights Neighborhood Association.
Quinn ran an unsuccessful bid for Missouri’s 132nd House seat last November. He is a customer liaison with the document destruction company Shred-it. He’s formerly worked in the uniform sales business and as a general manager of a Papa John’s franchise. He spent four years teaching English in the Philippines.
The topic was brought up on a number of occasions throughout the night, including after a citizen posed the question of if Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams should be fired after a jury awarded $30,000 to a police officer who had sued saying the department failed to promote him because he is Hispanic.
Quinn said he’s “not necessarily pro or against the police chief,” but would like an investigation conducted.
“A hard yes or no? Yes I would fire him [Williams],” said Quinn. “But it takes an internal process.”
Ferguson stopped short of dismissing Williams, saying the person should first be counseled on the issue.
“And you give them a warning and you give them the opportunity not to do that again. If they did, then it’s a pretty cut and dry ‘Yes,’” said Ferguson.
After the remark, an audience member is heard uttering “that’s a pretty expensive warning.”
Another moment in the forum sought response to allegations of city officials misusing public resources for political purposes, a claim brought by the Springfield Police Officer’s Association (SPOA) last month. Among the allegations, which also list Mayor Bob Stephens and Councilmen Ken McClure as offenders, was Ferguson’s request that two armed officers accompany her on constituent visits in Zone 1. SPOA has asked Missouri’s attorney general to open an investigation into the matter. A city spokeswoman has denied the allegations.
Quinn has called the allegations against his opponent “illegal.” On Thursday, he said “I can’t speak for the Police Officer’s Association but I can say that if I got a speeding ticket [and] not one cop but two cops gave it to me, there’s not a judge in Missouri who would side with me. So it’s something for the attorney general to decide if he’s going to do something with that or not.”
Ferguson called the allegations “balderdash.”
“For them to make a political issue of my going onto West Hamilton Street after there had been two murders of two 19-year-old boys in five days - and as my opponent here has said that I took armed bodyguards with me - there’s no basis to that.”
Ferguson said she requested one officer and two showed up.
Overall, public safety was listed as the number one concern of both candidates, with Quinn saying it’s been on the rise for decades. Ferguson said in order to lessen crime; officials need to address poverty, unemployment and substance abuse.
Zone 1 has been the focus of a city initiative to alleviate poverty. The 18-month Zone Blitz kicked off last July. It includes 11 focus areas, such as chronic nuisance properties; infrastructure, and crime/public safety.
Ferguson, who has often used the phrase “Northside Pride,” says first and foremost raising awareness in that part of Springfield has been the number one “game changer.” She’s also pleased with the addition of a north side job center, where the city’s unemployment is highest.
“Now that you can walk, I mean no transfers on the bus [to the south side job center], you can ride your bike. Already I hear in January they saw over 300 individuals. They told me a couple of days ago that they’ve added more computers. And I think we’re busting out at the seams in just a few months,” said Ferguson.
She notes that coordinating the many resources involved in the Blitz has been challenging, and wishes some of the focus areas could have been addressed quicker.
Quinn applauds some of the infrastructure components of the Blitz and the way in which the initiative has brought together various community players.
“I’m happy with the fact that we’re getting sidewalks over on Nichols Street near the school. Kids get out of school they wouldn’t have anywhere to walk on a busy traffic way. And I’m happy with the fact that we can organize nonprofits and our city government together to get things done.”
He does question some prioritizing of Blitz projects, citing the slow pace at which sidewalks are being laid along other high traffic areas.
Questioned about how best to drive economic activity in Springfield, Quinn seemed to link the lack of economic opportunity to high crime.
“When we have a community that’s not safe, no matter how much we address these ancillary issues if we can’t get these fundamentals out of the way and just create a stable environment than we have an issue we need to get back to.”
Later in the forum, when specifically asked about developments along Kearney Street, Quinn said while he’s happy with any improvement ideas he’d prefer “we spend city money on city property, rather than city money on businesses.”
The City Council has allocated $100,000 to study future opportunities along the corridor. Quinn says he likes the idea of buying power lines to improve the street’s aesthetics and raise property value.
“But I would prefer to see less business favoritism and just broad even keeled tax rates and performance for the city on business,” says Quinn.
Ferguson believes north sides should have the opportunity to “shop, do business and be entertained on Kearney Street.” For many years that was what happened, she added. But then businesses started to move to Springfield’s south side.
“We just got through the study part – we just learned that there’s $90 million dollars of retail opportunity that is sitting on the table on Kearney Street – if it’s redeveloped. You have to spend money to make money.”
She says now, thanks to the study, there are developers interested in Kearney Street.
Ferguson also points to the north side job center as an economic driver, saying “bringing jobs means bringing job training.”
She also referenced recent grants totaling more than $3 million that would boost green jobs and careers in healthcare. She did not elaborate on the grant details.
Ferguson says the city is addressing homelessness, but got “stuck” when it felt compelled to repeal its ordinance against aggressive panhandling last year after courts had struck down similar laws elsewhere.
Ferguson said she and Ken McClure, who sit on a committee with faith leaders and social service groups, are “developing a program that’s going to be roll out soon that will be addressing homelessness.”
She didn’t want to provide any specifics on the program Thursday night.
She says it’s key to address pre-homelessness, or “couch surfing.”
Quinn says while homelessness has gone down in Springfield, chronic homelessness has gone up.
“I think the big issue is counseling and just helping these people grow out of this situation.”
He suggests offering jobs to panhandlers, who are given food and then redirected into city resources to them “mature and become self-sufficient citizens.”
The latest “Every One Counts” survey conducted by the Community Partnership of the Ozarks Alliance to End Homelessness in January found at least 165 people without any form of shelter.
The city is currently in the design phase of how to rehabilitate the Jefferson Avenue Footbridge, a more than century-old structure on Springfield’s north side that was closed last year due to safety concerns.
Asked their views on the project Thursday, Quinn called the bridge a beautiful structure, noting “there’s nothing to not like about it.” But when examining the costs, he doesn’t think it’s worth it.
“The millions upon millions of dollars to save a bridge that no one really uses functionally in large for the dollar value that it costs per capita, to me it seems like it’s not well allocated resources of the city,” said Quinn.
Quinn added he’d “love to keep the bridge, but I don’t see the finances that are there.”
Ferguson noted it’s an important method of transportation for north siders and an economic driver for Commercial Street.
“Many, many people come from all over the world when they are coming and doing Route 66 or you have these train-chaser people [the bridge crosses railroad tracks] and they show up on Commercial Street. So to say ‘close the Footbridge,’ I don’t think is a good idea.”
She feels a public-private funding source is the solution to its rehabilitation and reopening.
Nearly 90 percent of survey respondents said they favor preserving the original bridge, which comes with an estimated initial price tag of $2.8 million with a cumulative cost of $16.8 million to maintain it for 100 years.
Little money has gone into the race for the Zone 1. The latest campaign finance reports dating through mid-February show a statement of limited activity from Quinn and $1,500 in contributions to Ferguson's campaign.
Phyllis Ferguson: https://www.facebook.com/FriendsOfFerguson
Thomas Quinn: https://www.facebook.com/QuinnforCityCouncil