The four candidates running to become the next mayor of Slidell are all stressing the same central issue as they campaign for the March 24 primary: reviving the economic fortunes of a city that boomed during the heyday of the U.S. space program a few decades ago but has struggled post-Katrina with stagnant revenue and population.
The four candidates who hope to be mayor of St. Tammany Parish's largest city outlined their thoughts on economic development, flood protectio…
The four, all Republicans, have deep ties in the community, having lived there for decades if not their entire lives.
Each brings a notable resumé to the race: Kevin Davis served as St. Tammany Parish president for three terms. Bruce Clement was chief operating officer for Slidell Memorial Hospital, one of the largest employers in the city. State Rep. Greg Cromer and Landon Cusimano, a Slidell councilman at large, have spent years in legislative roles and can claim first-hand familiarity with city issues.
But in an election year that is seeing significant turnover in top Slidell offices because of term limits, the candidates are stressing the need for change, with all saying that Slidell is at a crossroads and needs to diversify its retail-heavy tax base by bringing in better-paying jobs that will keep younger residents in the city and attract new ones.
What the candidates are selling as they walk through neighborhoods and address homeowner groups are their ideas and their ability to bring about Slidell's renaissance.
A runoff is likely; it would be on April 28.
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Clement is the only one of the four who can position himself as a political outsider, and the former hospital administrator is taking on that mantle in a parish that has often shown a strong anti-establishment mood of late.
A mayor needs to be able to listen to a diverse audience and have creativity and vision, Clement said, pointing to his work in making Slidell Memorial a regional cancer center and tripling the size of the emergency room, a project that involved acquiring a portion of 12th Street from the city. In the face of skepticism, Clement said, he told his boss the project wouldn't happen if the hospital didn't try. Five years later, it was a reality.
With both the Stennis Space Center in nearby Mississippi and the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans East ramping up for increased activity, Slidell needs to have a seat at the table with those and other entities, Clement said, pointing to his experience on the St. Tammany Economic Development Board.
"I believe we're at a tipping point, which is one of the reasons I wanted to run. I have the skill set to convince large businesses to come in and to be able to help smaller businesses and existing businesses grow," he said. But he said the city now is suffering from a "stale brand" and has not created a dynamic marketing campaign to attract people.
At the end of 100 days as mayor, Clement said, he plans to have completed an external analysis of all city services. After one year, he said, he will have demonstrated success in bringing companies to Slidell.
"I'm a doer, not a dreamer. I will push myself harder than anyone could ever push me. The future of our city is at risk if we do not take immediate action," he said.
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Cromer said a mayor needs to be able to get others to work together toward consensus, something he said he has shown he can do.
"In my over 30 years as a project manager in aerospace, insurance and construction, I've never been the smartest guy in the room, but I can pick out the smartest and get them to work together," he said.
As a state legislator and a city councilman, Cromer said, he's had to wrestle with tough budget decisions. And he points to practical achievements like getting sound barriers along Interstate 12 under Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration and improving drainage on the north side of Slidell by putting together a private-public venture to create retention ponds.
Slidell has too much retail space, Cromer said, adding that he is not a fan of tax increment financing districts or pursuing big-box stores that harm local businesses. He wants to see empty storefronts repurposed as sites for high-tech businesses.
Cromer said he would draw on his broad network of connections to ensure that Slidell has a seat at the table with Partners for Stennis, GNO Inc. and other area economic development groups.
"I don't want to take business from Stennis," he said, but the city can look for second- and third-tier vendors that support Stennis and that would create high-paying jobs and stimulate the economy.
At the end of 100 days, Cromer said, he would have worked with city employees on reducing redundancies to make the city's government more efficient. By the end of his first year as mayor, he said, he would have brought in additional money through grants, improved the permitting process and made it possible to do city business online.
"I will knock on doors and be the city's biggest cheerleader," Cromer said.
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Cusimano, whose grandfather was a long-serving Slidell mayor, can boast the most years served in Slidell city government, with 18½ years on the City Council. He's running on that experience, noting that he is the only candidate in the race who is currently in city government and saying that his years there have prepared him for the job of mayor.
He points to efforts he's made to beautify the city, particularly an ordinance that requires commercial buildings to use metal panels that look like stucco or stone rather than corrugated metal to avoid looking like a barn. He said he was helped in that effort by the construction of Fremaux Town Center, which has its back to Interstate 10. City officials didn't want the center to have an "ugly loading dock" appearance from the highway, he said.
Another ordinance that he pushed created the Fremaux corridor to preserve the appearance of a gateway into Olde Towne and avoid creating what he called another Gause Boulevard. Both took some selling, he said.
His solution to the city's economic malaise is to create an all-volunteer economic development board and hire a full-time or part-time economic development director. "I would use him to assist me to get those career jobs," he said.
His first-year goal would be to work on making neighborhoods more beautiful and safe. "We have to have a showcase, something to show to say, 'Hey look, our town's beautiful, the best place to live, and always has been,' " he said.
In his first 100 days, Cusimano said, he would focus on how to improve the city's revenue stream by challenging department heads to streamline their work and increase efficiency.
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Davis said his record shows an ability to listen and put ideas into action. Although he is not in office now, he said, as a traffic consultant he's been involved in getting federal funding to build a traffic circle in front of the Country Club subdivision, an idea that sprang from a conversation with residents who said they have trouble getting in and out of their subdivision.
He rattles off lists of projects that he played a role in, including helping Slidell to secure funding from FEMA to restore streets, drainage and water lines after Hurricane Katrina — work that is about to go into full gear.
But Davis is clearly most proud of the Tammany Trace, a rails-to-trails project that he began working on as a parish police juror when the railroad wanted to abandon the line. Despite having no funding, Davis said, he thought it was critical to preserve the corridor for the future and launched an effort to get funding and negotiate with the owner.
"We had some opposition, which is true anytime something is new," he said. But property values along the Trace went up, he said, and now people want to buy homes and build closer to it.
Slidell's economic revitalization will be a multiple-step process, Davis said, and includes addressing flood insurance rates that make the southern end of Slidell an expensive place to set up shop. Developing a levee system to protect the city is critical, he said.
Davis said he's been involved in bringing large businesses to the area and has close ties to groups like GNO Inc. He has gotten good information about business expansion from residents as well, he said.
In his first year, Davis said, he would want to make Slidell "a place that you never want to leave." That includes job creation but also projects that build the community, like the Slidell Fishing Pier and Camp Salmen, both of which he spearheaded.
In his first 100 days, Davis said, he would convene a priorities convention that would include participants from just outside the city limits. He also would redo the city's website and streamline the permitting process.
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