The seven candidates for Muncie’s three at-large city council positions discussed their viewpoints on stage at a forum at Muncie Central High School Auditorium Sept. 20. The other city positions represented at the forum were city court judge and clerk-treasurer.
Over the course of 90 minutes, the ten candidates talked about a variety of issues, such as brownfields and solar energy, the future of the 600,000 square foot Muncie Mall and abandoned homes in Muncie.
The use of brownfields and potential solar energy
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies brownfields as “a property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.”
As of Feb. 2022, Muncie has 64 brownfield properties that are a part of the Indiana Brownfields Program, according to the Indiana Finance Authority (IFA).
In June 2022, the Muncie City Council voted down a proposed solar farm at the former General Motors (GM) property by a 5-4 vote.
In a question directed to the at-large city council candidates only, they were asked how they would address the brownfields and solar energy in Muncie.
William McIntosh, Democratic candidate, said that the city has to move forward when it comes to environmental issues such as solar energy and brownfields. He also said it is important to think of the big picture as well.
Ro Selvey, incumbent Republican at-large councilwoman, said she supported the GM property plan, which failed to pass the city council, but she thought it would have been great for Muncie. When it comes to brownfields, Selvey said she would set some money aside to consult businesses who help write grants for cleaning brownfields.
Steve Smith, Libertarian candidate, said that as long as the solar energy projects benefit the community as a whole and not specific organizations and outside interests, he would support solar energy projects.
Audie Barber, Democratic candidate, said he has no issue with using the brownfields for solar panels, but that it was important they be domestically manufactured.
Dale Basham, Republican candidate, said the solar project at the GM property was a great opportunity for the city to bring in renewable energy. He said that he will continue to advocate for renewable energy and not play politics.
Aaron Clark, incumbent Republican at-large councilman, said he voted for the solar field as well, and he wants to bring back the proposal for the former GM plant to be the location for the field or to bring it to other locations. Clark also said that brownfields are a unique opportunity for solar farms.
Holly Liddie-Juip, Democrat candidate, said she wants the placement of the solar farms to make sense and to economically benefit Muncie in the long run. For the brownfields, she said they are unique because they have been contaminated in different ways, but pointed to the Kittleman Energy Park on East Jackson St. as a brownfield being used for energy.
Future of Muncie Mall at center stage
Over the years, the once proud Muncie Mall has withered away. Its previous owner, the Washington Prime Group, filed for bankruptcy after defaulting on its mortgage loans. And while the Woodmont Company has since taken control, it has been unable to attract former anchor stores like JCPenney and Sears.
The candidates were split on how to revitalize the mall and the role the council should play in such a project.
Selvey said she sees potential in it as a center for youth employment. She said the focus should be on attracting businesses that appeal to people between 12 and 19 years old, as well as on hosting events that would appeal to that demographic.
Smith said the facility needs to reflect Muncie’s identity and values–things he said were up to the citizens to determine. He said he would be open to investing money into it if were to pursue a specific direction in line with that identity and those values.
Barber stressed that the mall is still privately owned. He said he would work with the Department of Economic Development to create incentives for businesses to move back in.
Basham said this was an issue faced by many cities around the country. He said he would work with the council and mayor to develop a new plan for the Muncie Mall: one which would take advantage of its space.
Clark said times change and the shift to online shopping played a big role in its decline. He said it is important its owner uses the space in creative ways, and they care about the community.
Liddie-Juip said that since the mall is privately owned, she would rather focus on the renovation of the downtown YMCA, which was sold to the city last year. She said it could be turned into a warming or cooling shelter, as their absence places significant strain on the city’s most vulnerable residents.
McIntosh said that with the rise of online shopping, there is no chance of returning the mall to its former state. He said the council could help introduce a skating rink or warming shelter, but that whatever the space is used for should reflect the city’s identity and reputation.
Abandoned homes around Muncie a focus
In March 2017, the results of the ScoutMuncie project, used to survey every property in Muncie, were released. The survey found that 8 percent of lots were vacant, and 62 percent of all properties were within 300 feet of vacant land.
Muncie Land Bank, established in July 2017, focuses on acquiring abandoned property in Muncie and providing it to the public. Muncie Land Bank has a link on their website to report abandoned properties.
Basham said that he used to live in the Washington Street area of Muncie, and the neighborhood association began to address the issue one house at a time. He said he believes current Muncie Mayor Dan Ridenour is addressing the need to remove homes that are uninhabitable.
Clark, who is a member of the Unsafe Building Housing Authority board, said many of the properties they deal with have to follow the Indiana Code with how they deal with hearings and rulings. He said the biggest thing the board deals with are property owners who are from out of town, and people need to support the Muncie Land Bank.
Liddie-Juip, who has previously served on the Historic Preservation and Rehabilitation Commission, said that for a home to qualify as historic in Indiana, it has to be over 50 years old. She said the East Central Neighborhood is a good example on how rehabilitating abandoned homes can improve the area.
McIntosh said he has lived next door to an abandoned house for the previous five years, and that was one of the primary reasons why he wanted to get involved. He said updating the enforcement codes and holding specifically out of state owners accountable would be a good start.
Selvey said when she first joined the city council, people were calling about blighted and abandoned houses, and she found out that there was nothing in the city code about a registry about blighted houses. She said she worked with other people in the city to create a registry, which she claimed had 750 houses on the list as of this week.
Smith said that he wants to give citizens hope, referencing a time when someone’s home was about to be demolished, so his church helped that person reclaim their home. Smith said he wants to invest money in blighted homes instead of having empty lots across Muncie.
Barber said he wants to make sure the owners are being held to a rigorous set of rules so that the owners are responsible for their property. He also said it is important to have these homes in the hands of people who care for the property and want to remodel it.
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