COLLEGE PARK – It is Oct. 28 and the council chambers are abuzz with political talk. The city is experiencing the first contested mayoral race in 25 years and elections are Tuesday. To help citizens make informed decisions the city, along with community groups and organizations, hosted the first and only debate between College Park […]
COLLEGE PARK – It is Oct. 28 and the council chambers are abuzz with political talk. The city is experiencing the first contested mayoral race in 25 years and elections are Tuesday.
To help citizens make informed decisions the city, along with community groups and organizations, hosted the first and only debate between College Park Mayor Pro Tem Denise Mitchell and Councilmember Patrick Wojahn in the council chambers.
“We’re at a critical moment here, when College Park is on the verge of so much potential,” said Kathy Bryant, president of the Old Town Civic Association. “The next mayor is going to have to be a guiding force, because our city is really growing. More and more people are realizing that College Park is a great place to live, work and go to school.”
College Park will be the epicenter of rapid development in the coming years as the county looks at reinventing the metro stop area, the incoming of the Purple Line, a luxury hotel, a plan to revitalize downtown, and the continued community growth. All of these changes were up for discussion at the debate, moderated by College Parks resident, WTOP’s Shawn Anderson.
“This is local politics at its very best,” Anderson said. “There’s rarely been a contested mayor’s race in College Park, and now we have two equals going against each other at a very important time in the city’s history.
Mitchell, a 40-year College Park resident, has served on the council since 2009 for District 4 and previously served on West College Park Civic Association Board of Directors. He is also Past Chair for the City of College Park Education Advisory Committee. During her time on the council, she has advocated for education and for senior citizens to “age in place.”
“My theme for mayor is ‘creating College Park with you in mind’ and that means every citizen, every student, every business owner,” she said. “I want to make sure that we move College Park forward with excellence, but we need to do that together. We need to do that with accountability but also fiscally sound principals.”
Wojahn currently serves District 1. During his eight years on council he has advocated for improved communication between the different factions of the city, helped created College Park Day, and established a community charity. He has also served on the Equality Maryland board and the College Park Food Bank board.
Wojahn said it is the upcoming changes to the city were a major factor in his decision to run to mayor.
“I want to make sure that the way we shape this change in the years to come is shaped by the residents, is shaped by what residents want to see, and what is going to improve our quality of life,” he said.
The debate opened with a discussion of “growing pains” the city might incur during the project, the proposed development on this city, and the direction the candidates think the city should go. Both candidates agreed the development within the city needs to have the resident’s best interest in mind.
Wojahn said, while the county has ultimate control over planning, as mayor his job is to act as an advocate for College Park. Mitchell agreed and said ultimately the goal is to provide amenities to residents.
“We want to make sure we provide good restaurants, other stores; we also want to provide good opportunities for business owners, self entrepreneurs to be able to locate in College Park. But, we also want to make sure we look at how we look at Route 1, as well as look the development around the Metro corridor,” Mitchell said.
She said the development of the area must be planned in conjunction with the county, but with residents in mind.
Wojahn said he sees a lot of opportunity in College Park, starting with the renovation of city hall.
“The reason why (the council) decided, and I voted in support of keeping city hall where it is, is that we now have the opportunity, working with the university that owns part of the land located on this block, to create an exciting location that is a civic amenity that brings the community and the university together,” he said.
The councilmember said his vision is to create a downtown public space to allow for programs and community engagement.
As development continues in the area, Mitchell said, the mayor will have to sit down and have discussions with all the stakeholders to obtain as much information as possible to take back to the city and share with the residents. She said the whole city needs to make an informed decision when it comes to new development and the growth of the metro station area.
Wojahn said he thinks the city should do everything encourage possible relocation of the FBI to Greenbelt, as well as foster smart growth around the metro.
“We should work with residents to formulate a plan for the College Park Metro Station to do it in a way that’s not terribly dense, that respects the neighborhoods, the residential neighborhoods, that are close,” he said.
Anderson then asked the candidates questions about perceived inequities within the city: does the university has too much say, do some districts get more attention.
Wojahn said it “troubles” him that any one part of the city would feel inequality since he believes the community will “rise and fall together as a city.” He said, however, he is happy with the city’s partnership with the university.
“I think it’s critical that we have a strong relationship with the university,” he said. “The university is the largest employer in College Park. It’s the No. 1 entity that has the single greatest impact of any other entity on the quality of life in the city.”
However, Wojahn said, the university must not have more power than the residents.
Mitchell said the council and mayor must make sure residents’ voices are heard. While she believes the university and city must work together to promote the city and collaborative projects, she said the city must stand on its alone as well.
“We can work together collaboratively, but we also need to work in regards to our own identity as a city,” Mitchell said.
The mayor pro tem also said she believes every resident has a point about desiring more development and a neighborhood identity, and wanting as much council backing as other sections of the city. She said it is her role as mayor to bring all the voices together to move the city forward as a whole.
“We do need to work with the residents to create a plan with development and giving every district the opportunity to have their voice heard,” she said.
In 2017, the city’s contract with county police will end and the city will need to decide whether to extend the contract or consider their own independent police force.
Wojahn said the city should keep the current arrangement, citing the amount of police in the city (from university police, park police, county police, and metro police) and the hefty price tag associated with housing an independent police force. Mitchell said, while the cost may be hefty, she believes every option must be fully vetted before a decision is made.
Other issues discussed included the introduction of new members to council after the election and dealing with an animosity carried over from election, the introduction of a new city officials, the rate of growth of the city budget and the perception of the city.