Re-energizing Main Street and addressing development in Laurel were hot topics Wednesday night as the 2017 Laurel City Council candidates shared their visions to bring more business to the shopping strip and regulate residential development.
Several newcomers are challenging incumbents for the single at-large seat and two seats in Ward 1 and Ward 2. City Council members are elected every two years, with a mayoral election every four years.
For the two Ward 1 seats, incumbents H. Edward Ricks and Valerie Nicholas return to the ballot alongside Carl DeWalt, a retired Laurel police officer, who ran unsuccessfully in the city's 2015 general election.
Newcomers Keith Sydnor, Thomas Matthews and Adrian Rousseau join incumbent Frederick Smalls in the race for the two Ward 2 seats. Councilwoman Donna Crary, who has served on the City Council since 2008, will not run for re-election.
Matthews and Rousseau did not attend last night's forum.
Candidates for the at-large council seat are Council President Michael Leszcz and two-time candidate Jeffrey Mills. Leszcz has held the at-large seat for 21 years, and Mills owns and operates Out & About Advertising on Main Street.
The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 11, Laurel's police union, endorsed Ricks and DeWalt for Ward 1 and Smalls and Sydnor for Ward 2; however, they did not endorse an at-large candidate.
About 60 residents attended the Oct. 18 public forum.
In the last few years, Laurel city officials have pushed economic development on Main Street. Earlier this year, Leigha Steele, the city's economic development coordinator, launched the Second Saturday celebrations, featuring discounts from local businesses and entertainment, while popular events continue, such as the Laurel Board of Trade's Main Street Festival and the Fourth of July celebration.
On Wednesday, Sydnor said he'd like to find funding for a circulator bus to transport residents to and from Main Street to increase pedestrian traffic. A pre-trial service officer in Washington, D.C., Sydnor said he's watched circulator buses increase revenue in certain parts of the city around his workplace.
"If we have a circulator bus, you don't have to worry about getting in your car to drive," he said. "It can drop you off at the gym, library or Main Street. This will increase the revenue on Main Street and give our residents a place to stop, buy, work, learn and exercise without difficulties of searching for parking."
Parking is a struggle on Main Street, DeWalt said, despite efforts from the Laurel Community Redevelopment Authority, which opened a 24-space parking lot at 518 Main St. in 2016.
The lot charges $1 per hour with a two-hour minimum between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., weekdays, and is free on weekends and holidays.
"There should be no fees to park on Main Street because it deters people," DeWalt said.
Ricks, whose ward encompasses Main Street, said the city is continuing efforts to increase parking, which he said is also necessary at the Laurel commuter train stop at the lower end of Main Street.
"[The city] bought and the CRA tore down a little house to increase the parking" on Main Street, Ricks said. "It takes cars off the streets and puts them into a nice parking lot, where they can be safe. It's not all that we want it to be, but they're all good improvements."
As families move to Laurel, Leszcz said, the need for housing is also growing.
"You build what the public demands and that's what you market," Leszcz said.
Smalls said apartment complexes in Ward 2, especially those built within the past 10 years, have little to no vacancy and are popular among younger generations.
"Many millennials don't want the house with a picket fence that my generation worked toward," Smalls said. "The offerings in many of our apartments meet the needs of either our younger professionals or our empty nesters, who are looking to have certain amenities without having the responsibilities that come along with owning a house."
Following Cohen Siegel Investors development company's announcement last month to build single-family homes and townhouses on Laurel's Patuxent Greens Country Club, DeWalt said he is "totally against" the proposal, which calls for up to 450 units on about half of the 200-acre property. If approved, construction would begin in about two years.
Ricks said the city maintains a good relationship with the developer of Patuxent Greens and will work together as the project moves forward.
"It's going to take two and a half to three years or longer before we see anything really happen," Ricks said.
Absentee ballot applications for the November City Council elections must be completed by Oct. 31.
Early voting for all wards is 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 4 at the Laurel Municipal Center, 8103 Sandy Spring Road. On Election Day, Nov. 7, polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Laurel Municipal Center for Ward 1 residents and the Robert J. DiPietro Community Center, 7901 Cypress St., for Ward 2 residents.