By Mark Ambrogi
It was billed as a forum not a debate.
Nonetheless, Noblesville Mayor John Ditslear and his opponent, Mike Corbett, squared off at a Noblesville Rotary Club breakfast session at the First Presbyterian Church of Noblesville on April 16. The primary is set for May 5. Ditslear, who beat Corbett four years ago, is seeking his fourth term. Corbett launched a late campaign as an independent candidate in 2011. Ditslear won with 4,283 votes compared to 2,292 for Corbett.
The candidates faced four questions, economic development, vision for historic downtown, plan for tourism and recreation and public safety, and then had time for a few questions from the audience. The first and most contentious issue was the city’s economic development.
Corbett, who owns the Hamilton County Media Group, said he would like to see more ambitious planning to recruit businesses to the corporate campus. Corbett said Noblesville has the second highest tax rate in Hamilton County.
“I would like to see more focus on the nuts and bolts of recruiting businesses to town and less focus on the ribbon cutting and job fairs and the sort of public relations of economic development,” he said.
Corbett said the city giving BlueSky Technology Partners $3.5 million over the next 20 years to stay and grow in Noblesville was a bad sign.
“I would suggest that when we get to the point we have to offer millions of dollars for companies just to stay here, that our economic development has gotten off track and I would like to see us do a little better job than that,” he said. “I’m not in favor of throwing money at the problem, I think we have to be careful about the economic incentives we give to people to stay. We do have to be aggressive about economic development in Noblesville.”
Corbett said he believes that Ditslear didn’t hire the most qualified economic development director.
Ditslear bristled at Corbett’s comments.
“In spite of what you heard, I think we’ve done a great job in economic development,” Ditslear said. “We have grown our economy. We’ve added hundreds of jobs. We’ve increased our tax base.”
Ditslear said SMC America headquarters has brought more than 600 employees to Noblesville. Helmer Scientific has doubled its size by 170,000 square feet and doubled its number of employees. He pointed out Cabela’s, a retail outfitter for hunting, fishing and outdoors gear, is scheduled to open in the fall. Ditslear praised the 80,000-square foot building for the store. Pharmakon Pharmacy and its manufacturing affiliate Pharmakon Pharmaceuticals will move its headquarters from Carmel to Noblesville by 2016. Zevacor Molecular, a health care firm, also purchased a 72,000-square foot building in 2014.
Ditslear defended the work of economic development director Judi Johnson, praising her communications skills.
“It’s all about relationships in that business and attracting people to here,” he said. “We are very active with the state and the Japanese-American Society. We have boots on the ground, getting the job done. Certainly we’ll defend that. I would put (his team) against any economic development group in the state of Indiana.”
Ditslear said as the county seat, Noblesville’s downtown is older and many buildings have been there for 200 years.
“Unlike some of the other communities that are maybe getting credit because they didn’t have a downtown (before),” he said. “We were fortunate 200-some years ago we were picked to be the county seat. That has some advantages and disadvantages. … We are proud of the culture and authenticity of our downtown and the history of downtown.
“It’s (downtown) is the heart and soul of Noblesville. We work hard to make it vibrant. We have the Street Dance, First Fridays and Jazz on the Square and all those activities to entice people to come downtown. We have movies downtown and we’re lucky to have vintage cars coming there on Saturday nights in the summer. We have a goal of expanding downtown to the west and we’re starting to accomplish that goal.”
Corbett said he believes the downtown area needs more attention.
“Frankly, we’ve had very little private investment in downtown,” he said.