Development of the Crestwood Mall site, first responders and economic development were some of the topics debated in a forum last week by the Crestwood residents running for mayor in the election Tuesday, Nov. 6.
Current Ward 3 Alderman Grant Mabie is facing Christopher Court, a business analyst, and Neil Brown, a professional engineer, to fill the remaining 18 months of former Mayor Gregg Roby’s three-year term. He resigned unexpectedly in June for health reasons.
At the Oct. 25 forum at the Crestwood Community Center moderated by the League of Women Voters and co-sponsored by Call Newspapers, the candidates often agreed with one another.
All three candidates agreed that they were in support of keeping the Crestwood Police Department, rather than using county police services.
“The voters spoke pretty loud and clearly that they want local first responders,” Mabie said in response to a question about retaining the Crestwood Police Department. “They support their Police Department and their Fire Department, and I do too.”
All three agreed that more needs to be done to attract businesses to Crestwood.
“We need to figure out what is keeping businesses from coming to our city,” said Brown. “As the mayor, I would sell my city to attract businesses here…”
Mabie has served on the Crestwood Board of Aldermen since 2015. Court worked for the St. Louis County Board of Elections for 13 years. Brown’s family has lived in Crestwood for three generations.
Attendees could submit questions during the event, and the majority of the questions revolved around the development of the former Crestwood mall property.
“I’m glad to see there’s been some movement both in dirt and developers at the property,” said Court. “I’m a little worried though that time may not be on our side. If recession hits in the next 12 to 16 months and nothing is started at this site, we may be looking at this mall site empty for the next four or five years.”
Mabie agreed that the mall site was “obviously priority 1A.”
One question regarding the mall site asked if the candidates felt that the proposal was the best for the site, as well as if they felt that it was a unique development.
“It’s hard to say if anything in this day and age is necessarily unique…But I believe that a business like this, with this many diverse things to be that close together, and the beauty of it, of being able to walk amongst all these places… I think that’s a wonderful idea,” said Brown. “I want to draw people back into our community…If there are any ways to make it more quote-unquote ‘unique,’ I would love to hear them.”
“The current plans that I’ve seen — I like them. I like the mixed use, the livability, the walkability,” said Court. “For it to be more dense, I don’t think it needs to be a more densely packed development. I think that some of the parts are a little bit less desirable…”
Mabie joked that a Fortune 500 headquarters could be a “higher and better” use, but said that out of the six plans in recent memory, this proposal has received the best feedback from residents.
The candidates also agreed that the $25 million in tax incentives given to the original developers of the site, Chicago-based UrbanStreet Group, could be transferred to new developer Walpert Properties. This would save time from the project having to go through the Crestwood TIF Commission to get approval for tax-increment financing again.
One question asked about the possibility of future property tax increases.
“The last time and only time we’ve asked the voters for a permanent property tax increase was to stabilize city finances, primarily due to Crestwood mall closing. We took our tax rate…from the second-lowest in St. Louis County…to the 10th-lowest in St. Louis County,” said Mabie. “The only way I could see asking the voters for another property tax increase would be if Sam’s Club or Kohl’s announced that they were closing tomorrow.”
“I don’t think any type of property taxes would be necessary in the foreseeable future. The real growth potential is in the business district. Any type of business growth is going to bring the sales tax base and revenue stream to the city,” said Court. “It’s time to get the business sector going.”
Another question inquired about the potential of having to increase Crestwood’s first responder staff size to accommodate for the potential development of the mall site.
“It’s not something you’d undertake lightly. With public safety, you want to make sure you’re listening to professionals…You don’t want to be understaffed with the Police Department or the Fire Department. Whether or not additional staffing is needed, we’ll see,” said Mabie. “By way of example, our Fire Department is the same size and structure as the Maplewood Fire Department. They have a pretty robust retail district over there… They are able to accommodate their city pretty well.”
“I could definitely see something that would need to be increased, but at the same time this will be a new building built to new building codes. So for example, they’ll have an entire fire suppression system in the entire building, which is something firefighters love,” said Brown. “By the time they get there, they’re literally mopping up a mess from a sprinkler head from a fire that would have destroyed a normal building.”
One topic the candidates disagreed on was the idea of a city-county merger.
“Prop Z, a zoo tax — it’s only being proposed to the county because they didn’t feel that the city could bear an extra tax burden,” said Brown. “The city can’t bear a minor tax burden such as Prop Z? I don’t think a merger is an appropriate thing to do because we’d end up being the purse for the city.”
“At this juncture certainly not,” Mabie said. “While there’s certainly a case to be made for consolidation for very small municipalities, probably looking more in north county, you look at the municipalities around here…they’re good-sized cities and they’re a good balance between being efficient in their services and not having too many people for their size.”
But Court thought that a merger could be a good idea long term.
“In general I do like the idea of merging the city and county together. This is going to take definitely 10 to 20 years for this to happen,” said Court. “I don’t think currently the voting base of this county is really ready to take on another municipality.”