Ben Zahn talks Kenner mall revitalization, maintaining city’s safe reputation at mayoral campaign kickoff _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Ben Zahn, Jefferson Parish Councilman

Counting on words of support from the city’s past two chief executives as well as a former top cop, Jefferson Parish Councilman Ben Zahn on Monday formally launched his bid to become the next mayor of Kenner by vowing to pressure the Esplanade Mall to “upgrade or uproot” while also promising to preserve the community’s reputation for safety.

Zahn, who’s a little more than five months into his second term as the Parish Council’s representative for East Bank-based District 4 and served on the Kenner City Council from 2006 to 2012, indicated a couple of weeks ago that he intended to run in the Nov. 4 mayoral primary.

But it wasn’t until a campaign kickoff rally at Chateau Golf & Country Club on Monday evening — a month before the July 20-22 qualifying period begins — that Zahn outlined the platform with which he hopes voters elect him to succeed Mike Yenni, who resigned as Kenner’s mayor early this year to become Jefferson Parish president.

The two points that spurred the most reaction from the crowd at his event centered around revitalizing the Esplanade Mall — which he described as “a monument to mediocrity, at best” — as well as what he called his commitment to maintaining a “first-class, well-funded police force.”

Though the shopping center recently celebrated the openings of three new retailers, the amount of vacant store space at the Esplanade has long been a source of dissatisfaction for Kenner’s residents and businesspeople. Zahn said one of his first orders of business if elected would be to meet with the 33-year-old mall’s managers, the Simon Property Group, and urge them to “reinvent” the facility.

“It has become a repository of shops that do not reflect the image of the city or the interests of the people of Kenner or its surroundings,” Zahn said. “That’s unacceptable.”

Zahn also pledged that his administration would emulate some of the results produced by the staffs of Ed Muniz and Yenni, Kenner’s mayors from 2006 to 2010 and 2010 until January, respectively. One in particular was what Zahn dubbed the “serenity” of Kenner, which last year was recognized as having one of the lowest violent crime rates in Louisiana.

Former Kenner Police Chief Steve Caraway backed Zahn on that front, saying local cops never had to worry about the mayoral hopeful providing them with support when he was on the City Council. And Caraway, who now works for Yenni, said officers can still count Zahn as an ally despite the fact that he’s on the Parish Council because he regularly checks in with Police Chief Michael Glaser to make sure the department isn’t lacking what it requires.

“With Ben, we have someone who gets public safety,” said Caraway, who joined Yenni and Muniz as some of the speakers in support of Zahn on Monday.

City Councilwoman Maria DeFrancesch and civic activist Al Morella are the only other Kenner residents who have so far declared themselves as candidates to succeed Yenni.

One of the main differences between DeFrancesch and Morella is that the former is a veteran politico while the latter has unsuccessfully run for public office multiple times.

But they have one thing in common. They each anticipated that Zahn would receive significant support from some of the Kenner political establishment’s most recognizable names, and therefore both have cast themselves as outsiders who nonetheless want the chance to represent their fellow citizens’ interests.

Until voters elect Yenni’s successor, Kenner City Councilman Mike Sigur is the city’s acting mayor. Sigur has said he has no interest in entering the mayoral race.