Mercer forum gives soapbox to candidates


Richard Jenkins/Daily Globe

MERCER TOWN candidates make their pitches to voters Tuesday in the Mercer Community Center during the Mercer Candidate Forum. The candidates in attendance are, from left, John Sendra, Jim Kichak, James Schmidt, Jeff Stenberg and Tom Thompson. Neil Klemme moderated the event.


MERCER, Wis. - The candidates in Mercer's two contested race in April's election had the opportunity to make their cases to voters Tuesday night at the Mercer Candidate Forum.

The April 4 ballot will feature John Sendra facing off against incumbent Jim Kichak for town chairman; while incumbent Jeff Stenberg, Tom Thompson and James Schmidt are facing off for two town supervisor seats.

Sponsored by the Mercer Public Library and the Iron County Citizens Forum, the event began with brief opening statements from the five candidates before they all fielded questions from moderator Neil Klemme.

The candidates briefly answered a range of questions, including the promotion of silent sports in the area, affordable housing, road improvements, the vision for the town's park, downtown parking, all-terrain vehicle and snowmobile tourism, the town's assets and views on shoreline preservation and water quality.

An early question asked the candidates what they would do to fill the town's business park.

The question prompted a variety of answers, ranging from new ideas to explanations of past efforts.

Sendra advocated casting a wider net for businesses to relocate.

"I think a simple thing, like getting a (Thomas Register of American Manufacturers) from the library and starting to call large businesses - it tells you who owns them, where their satellites are - if there's a possibility, call some of their CEOs ... and talk to them about the possibility of relocating here," Sendra said, adding the area also needed core businesses - like the previously proposed Gogebic Taconite mine development.

Kichak, who said the business park was an early goal of his when he became town chairman, explained past advertising efforts had been unsuccessful.

"We went to Minneapolis, we went to Milwaukee, we went to Chicago; we even did the Fox Valley. Our response was zero," he said.

According to Kichak, the feedback he got was the Northwoods was too far from markets to profitably operate from the Mercer area.

"Transportation is a killer when you live far away from where you have to deliver (products) to," Kichak said, adding the town may need to rely on local entreprenuers.

Schmidt said he has contacted national politicians who are willing to help attract business.

"They want their area to grow and I want Mercer to grow," Schmidt said. "They said they'll help Mercer to do the best they can to get businesses in here."

Stenberg argued he has talked to the representatives in the past and they haven't been helpful. He said there were two primary problems with getting businesses to relocate to Mercer - the lack of a signifigant local workforce and the shipping costs associated with locating to the town.

"So if we're going to put people in (the industrial park), it's going to have to be a product from this area," Stenberg said. "We're constantly looking, but everybody wants business in their town. It's difficult (to attract them), we've tried a lot of different things."

Thompson said it seems like businesses have always struggled in Mercer; and as there are workforce issues, thinking smaller may be key.

"My idea (for the park) is probably more a service - like cutting grass or cutting trees - a business like that, and hoping they'll hire one or two people," Thompson said. He added while attracting businesses was worth the effort, the payoff was uncertain.

Toward the end of the event, the candidates were asked about moving forward and their visions for Mercer's future.

Schmidt focused on developing the motorized and non-motorized trail systems.

"If we expand on those, we'll bring more people in," he said. "Like I said earlier, (Manitowish Waters) and Winchester are planning on adding ATVs to their areas. If we can link up with them, Mercer will no longer be a dead end."

Stenberg said it was important to listen to why people come to the area.

"I talked to people from Springfield, Ill., and from St. Louis, Mo. They come up here because they love it here - they love the trails, they love the land, they love the people," Stenberg said.

Thompson seconded expanded ATV trails and maintaining the town's recent progress.

"The main thing is, I hope (to) maintain what we have with the silent sports and just keep things the way they are - (keep) things beatiful the way they are now," Thompson said. "This town has come a long way since I was a kid."

Sendra painted a picture of Mercer growing into a destination for tourists.

"I just want you to think - Aspen, Col., wasn't always a hotspot for the rich, it might have been a Mercer at one time; with people trying to develop it and grow it into something great," Sendra said. "I truly believe our environment is unique and beatiful and, accordingly, maybe one day we'll be like an Aspen."

Kichak talked of his love for the town and its residents.

"When I talk to people that move here, you know what they tell me - 'The people are so good. They'll help you out, they'll do anything for you,'" Kichak said. "When I was a kid and there was a house that burnt down; two days later in the front yard there were all kinds of clothes, food and everything else. That's what you call a good community."

Following the question period, each candidate was given time to make a brief closing pitch to voters.

Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. April 4 as town voters decide which three of the five candidates will represent them.

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