While doorknocking for votes in the past few months, Bloomington mayoral candidate Tim Busse sometimes got more questions about his plans for slowing down drivers than on large projects such as the proposed $250 million water park next to the Mall of America.
Busse's opponent, Ryan Kulka, said that's indicative of an ongoing problem in Bloomington: City leaders like Busse being too focused on expensive projects without communicating what they mean for residents.
"I don't think the community could begin to explain the financing structure of that water park," Kulka said. "I'm here to say 'Whoa … let's take a better look at this.' "
But Busse said his vision for the city is "aspirational," focusing on "the good parts of Bloomington as opposed to what we shouldn't be doing."
As Busse and Kulka battle for Bloomington's first open mayoral seat in 20 years, both promise to bring fresh perspective and increased transparency to City Hall even as they disagree on spending and the reach of local government.
Busse, a 54-year-old communications consultant, has served on the City Council for eight years. He aims to continue what he calls the city's tradition of "gutsy" endeavors like the one 30 years ago that built the Mall of America.
Kulka, 35, who touts his business experience as head of a digital marketing firm and co-founder of a DJ entertainment company, wants to roll back regulations on everything from RV storage to business permits.
Kulka and Busse, both of west Bloomington, finished a tight first and second, respectively (separated by only 38 votes) in the city's hotly contested August primary.
Mayor Gene Winstead, who is stepping down after 20 years, has endorsed Busse as have all current City Council members and the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation. Senate District 49 Republicans are supporting Kulka, though the race itself is nonpartisan.
Busse traces his interest in municipal government to his job as communications director for the League of Minnesota Cities in the 1990s. It was there, he said, that he realized local government is "where the rubber hits the road and government directly affects the lives of people."
Kulka said he decided to run for mayor as a way to engage younger people in city decisions. While acknowledging that voting records show he has never cast a ballot in a municipal election, he said he never felt that a candidate had reached out to him.
Bloomington voters also will be electing two City Council members next month. Jenna Carter and Brian Clemens are vying for Busse's at-large seat, and Al Noard is challenging incumbent Dwayne Lowman for the First District seat. Susan Woodruff is running against incumbent Shawn Nelson for the Second District seat.
The MOA water park
The two biggest issues in Bloomington's election are the proposed indoor MOA water park and the building of a new community center.
Busse supports the complicated financing plan for the water park, which officials say would lower borrowing costs and protect taxpayers from risk.
Rather than directly financing and owning the water park, the city would have a nonprofit borrow money on its behalf from an issuer of tax-exempt debt. The mall's owner, Triple Five Group, would retain ownership of the land, and a mall-affiliated entity would operate the water park.
"This financing plan is being used across the country," Busse said. "It's not as if Bloomington and the Mall of America are making it up as we go and it's some scheme."
Kulka said he wouldn't be opposed to the water park if it were privately funded.
"There's a difference between being bold and being irresponsible," he said. "I'm not about being bold at the risk of the city."
Kulka said he believes the city has been spending too much on what he calls want-based projects — including the $38 million Civic Plaza, built in 2004 — and not enough on upgrading aging infrastructure across the city.
Busse agrees that reinvestment in the city's neighborhoods and commercial centers should be priorities. Both candidates have repeatedly called for the creation of more "centers of community" to foster private development such as the recently launched Gateway Development District, an effort to transform Lyndale Avenue into a series of walkable neighborhood centers.
And both candidates have spoken out about the need for better residential input on city decisions, a major topic in conversations about the proposed community center.
Valley View center
After a five-year process, city officials made Valley View Park the preferred location for a new community center. But that decision has been criticized as lacking sufficient community engagement. Neither candidate is opposed to a new center, but both say they've heard from residents that Valley View is not where they want to see it go.
Last month the City Council passed a measure approving a contract for pre-design services and collecting input on amenities and site selection. Busse voted against the contract, which will go back before the council in November.
"Building a community center shouldn't be a source of division, and right now it's a wedge right through the center of the community," he said.
Kulka said the community center discussion is an example of projects getting "pushed through" with minimal community feedback. As mayor, he said, he would use his marketing skills to solicit more input from residents and revamp the city website so information is easier to find. Busse said he thinks those conversations should happen in community forums.
Busse said the city's next mayor should have a record of proven leadership, which he says he's earned in his years working on the council, in communications and with community groups.
"Being the mayor of Bloomington isn't a figure-it-out-as-you-can type of position," he said. "The mayor's role is a big role. Bloomington is a leader among cities and has an opportunity to be even stronger."
Kulka said that despite his desire to reduce business regulations and rein in large-scale projects, he's not looking to uproot what is working in the city.
"I'm not about revolution here, but evolution," he said. "We need to enhance what works and educate residents about the awesome programs we have and what's happening with the city."