DENHAM SPRINGS — The six candidates for the one open seat on the Denham Springs City Council addressed during a debate Thursday a desire to bring more business to the city, which has struggled since the August 2016 floods.
It was one of a number of issues the candidates on Saturday's ballot discussed at the forum hosted by the city's Denham Strong recovery group and the Livingston Parish News.
The candidates are vying for a one-year at-large seat on the council vacated by Chris Davis, who left for a job in Mississippi in March, citing difficulty rebuilding after the flood.
All but one of the candidates are running as Republicans. Ray Riley is running as a Democrat.
Candidate Brian Ross, owner of OK Computer and OK Auto Sales, said he has a "real deep concern about big box stores starving out our small businesses."
"I think there was not enough small business pre-flood and certainly not now. My concentration on the council would be to give incentives to small businesses to come here and help stabilize our economy in case of future disaster," Ross said.
Amber Dugas, owner of Taste of Louisiana restaurant in the antiques district, said she would like to keep improving the historic downtown, which she said is second only in the state to New Orleans.
She suggested also reviving some of the history of Denham Springs by improving Spring Park, which is a green space off River Road and which is the namesake for the city of about 10,000 residents.
An area of particular focus for some of the candidates is Florida Boulevard, which they cited as an unattractive gateway to Denham Springs.
Riley, a supervisor in the child attendance and welfare office for East Baton Rouge schools, said he would want to enforce beautification ordinances there so that new business owners will improve the look of the highway that runs through the town.
Laura Schmitt Smith, a school counselor, suggested inviting developers to help on larger sections of the strip.
Keith Stark, a community liaison for Life Source Hospice, suggested incorporating some land near Denham Springs as another way to boost business in the city. He said there is some available, unoccupied land near the city that could be zoned industrial, potentially bringing some bigger business and tax revenue.
"In the near future, we’ll need to think about how we can have more land for commercial purposes," Stark said. "Without the money, we can’t provide the services."
Beyond a better business area, candidates said they want to see the city become a better place for kids — and a place that kids will want to return to after college.
Smith said growth is important but it shouldn't come at the cost of the "family-oriented" nature of the town.
"I’m for new growth in Denham Springs, while still preserving our qualities," she said. "There’s a reason our residents moved here … because we are an awesome town."
Scott Kimble, owner of Liberty Auto Sales, said he wants to boost the number of "kid-friendly" activities in the bedroom community. He also said residents are going to Baton Rouge, though they would be happier to spend their money and pay sales taxes in Livingston Parish.
The debate moderators also asked the candidates to speak on big-picture issues in the city, including its identity and future.
Kimble suggested the idea of a "family community" as a future perception, while Riley spoke to recovery as a new common ground.
"Where I see it is recovery," Riley said. "I see Denham Springs in a few years looking a whole lot better than it is right now. I see the people are back, the businesses are back, and I see children playing in safe neighborhoods."
The primary will be held Saturday. A runoff election, if needed, is scheduled Nov. 18.