Economic development on the minds of Auburn council candidates

Bridget Powers
Bridget Powers

As Auburn searches for new sources of revenue and large retail centers loom outside city limits, four candidates for City Council are running on a similar theme: economic development.

Auburn Planning Commissioner Matt Spokely and Auburn Union School District Trustee Daniel Berlant are vying with Mayor Bridget Powers and Councilman Mike Holmes for three at-large council seats. The council will feature at least one new member because Councilman Kevin Hanley declined to seek re-election after becoming CEO of the Auburn Chamber of Commerce in June.

Auburn officials in recent years have struggled to increase a tax base that has stagnated due to the recession, the city’s small population and new development in neighboring unincorporated north Auburn.

Spokely and Berlant have emphasized they will bring new ideas to the council, whose current members have each served multiple terms. Holmes has sat on the council since 2002, and Powers since 2006.

At 30, Berlant is also the youngest candidate in the race, something he said would work to his advantage.

“It’s about new energy and ideas. That’s what this council so desperately needs – somebody new to think outside the box,” said Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

But Powers, 51, said the city needs proven leadership, not a new face.

“I’ve been working my butt off,” she said, adding that she has been instrumental in reeling in businesses for Auburn Municipal Airport. “I’m telling my constituents, ‘Give me one more four-year term to continue my work out at the airport and downtown.’”

Civic and business leaders have expressed concerns that a proposed Costco in north Auburn would take away significant sales from local mom-and-pop shops.

A deal to bring Costco to the city fell apart a few years back, according to Holmes, who said the city has been hurt by the lack of a dedicated economic development manager.

“We need to figure out what we want to do and how we want to get there,” said Holmes, 74. “(The economic strategy) has to be a living document. You don’t just agree to it and put it on the shelf.”

Spokely, 46, said he wasn’t opposed to Costco moving into the neighborhood as long as Auburn could be fairly compensated for costs such as increased traffic on city roads. He suggested that the city’s aging infrastructure is likely to further strain the budget.

“As a civil engineer, I’m uniquely qualified to work on that,” Spokely said.

Aside from the theme of fresh ideas vs. experience, the four candidates are largely similar on other issues, promising to promote tourism and expand public safety.

Auburn’s population has remained relatively unchanged even as its neighbors in Placer County grew exponentially in the past decade. The city’s population skews older, with a median age of 45, 10 years more than the statewide average, according to the latest U.S. Census figures. The median age in the city has risen by four years in the past decade.

Candidates have waged what Holmes described as a “polite” campaign and have avoided the bitter attacks that marked the last Auburn City Council race in 2012. In addition, the Auburn Chamber of Commerce has taken the unusual step of endorsing all of the candidates, though only three can win seats.

Call The Bee’s Richard Chang at (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang. Bee staff writer Phillip Reese contributed to this report.