Taking the Haven Auditorum stage Thursday were the six candidates – three Republicans and three Democrats – seeking the Kokomo Common Council’s three at-large seats.
The forum, which headlined the second political event held on Indiana University Kokomo’s campus in as many weeks, led to candidates engaging topics like Carver Community Center growth, economic diversification and rumors about whether out-of-towners are taking Kokomo by storm.
Those candidates included two Democratic incumbents, Council President Bob Hayes and Vice President Mike Kennedy, a Democratic newcomer, Matt Sedam, and three Republicans, Matt Grecu, Kara Kitts-McKibben and Tony Stewart.
Here are some highlights:
The risks associated with Kokomo’s dependence on the automobile industry and the city’s need to diversify its economy and attract new businesses has been well documented this election season.
Grecu, for instance, called on the city to increase its focus on “direct economic development” by attracting businesses that can locate in Kokomo.
He believes that can happen at the same time as the quality-of-life and -place initiatives that have been common in recent years, such as bumpouts and trails.
“All of those things are good. … But we have to learn to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Grecu said, calling for a industrial park with shovel-ready sites that he believes would make Kokomo attractive to prospective employers.
Hayes also acknowledged the importance of diversifying the economy and pointed to growing opportunities like solar energy and software design and systems analysis.
“Those jobs are going to people from outside of our community. We got to get kids started in high school in coding and doing software design. It’s going to be important. That’s where your growth industries are in my opinion,” he said.
Similarly, Kennedy said Kokomo needs to create a “conducive environment” for new businesses, mentioning the tax breaks that have previously been employed by the council and the need to embrace quality-of-life improvements that can make the difference when competing with other cities.
Kitts-McKibben, meanwhile, mentioned supplying seed money to “young entrepreneurs to invest here in our town, whether it be downtown or south end, north end. We need to continue those efforts.”
She also presented what she called a “non-Republican answer”: hemp farming and opportunities for hemp processing plants.
And Stewart, who works in the health care industry and highlighted Kokomo’s aging population, promoted the idea of working with local hospitals and utilizing the city’s placement near big cities like Indianapolis, Fort Wayne and South Bend to develop “a tremendous health care center here.”
He referenced giving tax abatements as part of his plan.
“But if we would do that with one of them to make us one of the centers where we could take care of almost anything, from pediatrics or cardiac … that would draw our employment and even give us a higher skill level,” he said.
Carver Center growth
For years, a rumored expansion of the Carver Community Center has traveled through public circles. At the forefront has been the need for a new fieldhouse – a plan acknowledged by Carver Center officials.
Each candidate agreed Thursday that the city should help fund any expansion, and the two incumbents, Hayes, and Kennedy, noted that discussions between Carver Center officials and the city are already underway.
The city, Hayes pointed out, owns the land that houses the Carver Center.
“A Carver Center expansion is probably something that has been talked about for a few years,” Kennedy said.
“They would like to build some more … gymnasiums, I know that, because they’ve got a huge contingent of people that are there already. We’ve had some discussions. … We haven’t seen any complete plans yet. They will have their own fundraising activities, and if the city can help we would certainly be glad to do so.”
The rumored ‘influx’
There seemed to be a consensus Thursday among at-large candidates that Kokomo needs more housing, specifically affordable housing.
But there was severe disagreement on the longstanding rumor that Kokomo is being overrun by out-of-town criminals. It was a conversation that existed largely without proof or data but led to audience applause for both sides.
Kitts-McKibben, who started by saying affordable housing should be expanded in Kokomo, then cited what she called “the Section 8 public housing authority” in an apparent reference to Section 8 housing vouchers and the Kokomo Housing Authority.
“I think we need to maybe pull the reins a little bit on this. I think part of Kokomo’s problem has been the increase and the influx of people coming in from some of the highest-crime cities around the nation,” said Kitts-McKibben, who did not provide any population data showing an influx of out-of-town residents.
She went on to say “the towers here” – the KHA oversees the Civic Center Tower and Terrace Tower – have gotten too old and are having maintenance problems.
“So if we are looking to build and grow in that area, we need to be taking care of people that live here first before we allow an influx of people from out of town,” said Kitts-McKibben.
Grecu, who called for more housing across economic levels, echoed those concerns.
“We do have an issue with outside people coming and causing an issue as far as crime, with drug trade,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s directly related to that housing, but that’s where we need to return the focus to community policing and rooting out those problems in whatever neighborhoods they’re in.”
‘Let’s not stigmatize folks’
Last week, KHA CEO Deb Cook emailed the Tribune a statement and thorough explanation about the oft-cited worries concerning public housing and out-of-towners coming to live in Kokomo.
Cook first posted the information, she said, “several years ago.” Nonetheless, the rumors, which often center on Chicago, have persisted.
“I keep hearing this rumor and I want to set the record straight and clear up any misconceptions. KHA is NOT ‘recruiting’ or allocating a certain percentage of vouchers for Chicago, Detroit or any other city’s residents,” she wrote.
“Every aspect of this rumor is completely false. KHA’s housing programs are federal programs hence they are open for anyone to apply for participation WHEREVER they live. Applicants are screened and processed on a first-come, first-served basis no matter where they currently reside.”
She continued: “HUD explicitly prohibits residency requirements to participate in our housing programs. Limiting participation to just residents of a certain jurisdiction is against federal regulations.” She also noted the KHA has “a stringent criminal history background check tenants must pass.”
Cook even questioned the motivations driving these conversations.
“And frankly, since the cities named, such as Chicago, Gary and Detroit have high minority populations, this seems discriminatory to suggest that we should not allow these residents equal opportunity to live in Kokomo,” she wrote.
Democrats also pushed back, in part by pointing out that Section 8 funding is not a Common Council responsibility. The KHA board, meanwhile, is appointed by the mayor, which does allow the city to participate in conversations about things like public housing conditions.
“I keep hearing about this Chicago, and I understand that we’ve had some people, some bad actors, and they’re from Chicago,” said Hayes. “But I’ve heard everything from Mike Kennedy and I are bringing them in on buses to their just driving down in caravans.
“I think some of this is reality, but I think a lot of it people are using it for political means.”
Sedam, who called for more affordable housing and complimented the city’s urban infill program, added: “Let’s not stigmatize folks because they come here seeking a better life.”
“In the school system, I have people from Chicago, and their kids are great students. Great parents. So let’s stop the stigma that they’re all [criminals]. There’s a lot of great folks in this community that are coming here making our community better.”