Three Republican candidates seeking to become the next mayor of Westfield are headed into the home stretch as the May 2 primary election approaches.
Kristen Burkman, Jake Gilbert and Scott Willis have been on the campaign trail for months meeting voters, participating in mayoral forums and going door-to-door leading up to the primary. All three candidates, who bring a vast range of experience and qualifications, answered a series of questions from Current about their priorities and why they believe they’re the right individual to lead Indiana’s fastest-growing city.
What are some of your priorities if elected and how do you plan on tackling them?
Burkman: My priorities include developing data driven systems for decision making, attracting new high wage employers, optimizing Grand Park, revitalizing the downtown and listening to our citizens. As a city with a population of 50,000, we need data driven systems implemented to effectively manage the city. I will develop strategic plans and a branding message to target and attract high wage employers to our community. With my experience in travel sports and marketing, I will lead our city to utilize Grand Park as an asset to attract new businesses and realize the full potential of the Grand Park facilities. Our downtown needs a development, trail and thoroughfare plan and I will continue the work I started as Downtown Streetscape Leader to accomplish this. Our citizens are the fabric of our community and their participation in guiding our future is critical. Instilling transparency, collaboration and integrity is a top priority.
Gilbert: My strategic focus will be on (bringing) the community together, and I believe that starts with Westfield’s leaders. We need servant leadership in city hall that will reflect the civic pride we all have in our community. We must eliminate the political posturing and personal quarrels that distract from the work that needs to be done on behalf of taxpayers. I believe we can accomplish big things if we are first focused on a positive, results driven culture. In addition, I will focus on key policies critical to Westfield’s future including smart & managed growth, infrastructure improvements, and public safety funding.
Willis: Westfield must keep taxes low while making sure that we keep up with the infrastructure and public safety needs of the community. Focusing on growing our commercial tax base will allow us to have the income to keep up with those needs while protecting residential taxpayers. In a business where seconds matter, we owe it to our residents to ensure we have the tools, technology, and resources available to keep them safe. To help further our ability to elevate our community, my plan is to revitalize downtown Westfield and bring more density, businesses, and parking to the area. We must capture and keep our dollars here in Westfield by creating a vibrant, walkable city center that provides the dining and shopping opportunities that our residents want.
What makes you the best leader to serve Westfield as its mayor?
Burkman: Having a mayor with an executive marketing business background, strategic planning and branding experience, travel sports expertise and highly developed communication skills is exactly what Westfield needs right now. In addition, I’ll complete a doctorate in Leadership and Organizational Innovation this summer from Marymount University in Washington, D.C. I’ve spent the past two years learning the latest leadership and organizational trends and strategies and I’m ready to utilize this training to lead Westfield. The Mayor of Westfield job is not a political steppingstone for me. I want to lead for the people of Westfield, and I will listen to citizens. I’ll also be a full-time mayor, not part time. I understand the importance of Westfield’s history and the need for greenspace preservation in our city. Westfield is special and I’m the candidate who will strive to preserve and enhance our city’s identity, greenspace and sense of community.
Gilbert: Everything rises or falls on leadership. As a leader and local official, I think it is important to note that I am the only candidate who manages people daily (a staff of 40). I am also the only candidate who has won a contested election. On a personal note, my family and I are fully immersed in our community. My wife and I made the decision to send our children to Westfield schools. I am the only candidate who sent all their children to Westfield public schools. I am also proud to be the only candidate who has served our community on a daily basis for years.
Willis: Experience matters. I have the right leadership skills from running my own businesses as well as from 30 years of managing Marine battalions. I’ve managed large budgets of more than $100 million. I’ve led groups of more than 1,500 Marines. I know what it’s like to create a vision and work to inspire large groups of people to accomplish the goal.
What is your vision for Westfield’s Grand Park Sports Campus and how can the city capitalize on its success?
Burkman: Grand Park is Westfield’s most strategic asset and a top 15 youth sports facility in the country. I do not want to sell Grand Park. In graduate school, the first thing that you learn is to protect your assets. As mayor, I would work diligently to protect and optimize this asset. The first step is to compile and share a complete financial picture with citizens. Next, we need to think strategically about Grand Park. Youth sports is a $20 billion industry. I will pursue companies in the youth sports industry. With my executive marketing background, I’m qualified to create strategic plans and a branding message to not only attract new companies but also increase amenities near Grand Park to keep the tax dollars in Westfield. I’ll also explore initiatives to increase the viability of the sports facilities and event center.
Gilbert: The taxpayers paid for Grand Park, and taxpayers must be fully engaged in its future. Our residents should have access to Grand Park when it’s not being used. It’s premature to sell Grand Park because we haven’t optimized it as an asset, especially without community input. I’m open to a lease or hiring the private sector to help us run it. Once we sell it, it’s out of our control. I don’t think anyone would buy it without turning some of the land into housing. We don’t need that. If our young people lose access to it, our community will be asked to build new fields for WYSI, middle school, freshmen and JV. That will cost taxpayers a fortune. As a career coach, I know I can bring sports related businesses to our city and find new sources of sports driven revenue, such as pickleball court rental. We have just scratched the surface on non-sports-related revenues and the event center is the best mid-level convention space in the doughnut counties. Our relationship with Hamilton County tourism is growing and will provide more money to Grand Park. Lastly, it’s time to finally secure a sponsor for Grand Park. All of these solutions will help us capitalize on the record number of visitors that Grand Park is bringing in every year.
Willis: First and foremost, should the city decide to enter into a partnership to operate the park, we have to make sure our youth sports leagues are protected. After that, I have a strategic plan for attracting the right businesses and industries to Westfield. I believe we should have businesses around Grand Park that support the business of sports. There should also be options available to keep out-of-town visitors and their dollars near the park for dining and entertainment instead of them leaving to seek that in our neighboring cities. Currently, we are losing millions of dollars of this revenue to other cities.
What would be your approach to working with council members on issues facing the city?
Burkman: My approach working with any group is to approach them respectfully and with a willingness to listen and learn. This would be my approach with the city council, clerk-treasurer, city employees and citizens. I highly value the collaboration of ideas and working together to reach the best solutions for the community. I also believe in practicing transparency in communication to all stakeholders. This mindset builds community, which is exactly what is needed in our city government. Our city currently faces critical issues. The ability to come together and represent our city government as a united team is imperative to move the city in the right direction. I would instill the idea of team Westfield in all aspects of leading the city.
Gilbert: I believe people are the key to building a great organization. As our next mayor, I will work to hire and retain the most qualified and competent people in city hall. I will also make sure that transparency and open communication are valued. I believe part of being a good leader is being a good listener and I will have an open-door policy with all city officials and fellow elected officers. Again, my strategic focus will be on (bringing) the community together, and I believe that starts with Westfield’s leaders. We need servant leadership in city hall that will reflect the civic pride we all have in our community.
Willis: Great leadership starts with having a vision. After I win the election in May, I will bring the incoming council together to start the collaboration. We will work together, we will get input from the community, and we will be transparent.
What types of businesses do you believe Westfield needs and what are your ideas on how to attract them here?
Burkman: The first step in pursuing businesses is to utilize your current asset. For Westfield, that asset is Grand Park, so I would begin pursuing businesses within the $20 billion youth sports industry. The next step would be to complete a needs assessment, which includes conducting an industry analysis, environmental analysis and competitive analysis to evaluate the types of businesses best suited for our city. Using this data, I would work with my team to develop strategic and communication plans to target these businesses. Westfield must become a proactive, not reactive, community to attract the best businesses. I would also begin forming relationships with partners such as the Indiana Economic Development Corp. to expand the city’s knowledge regarding new companies locating in Indiana. Lastly, I have not accepted any donations from the development community so I can pursue the best developments for Westfield in an equal, fair and unbiased manner.
Gilbert: Westfield needs to attract quality long term employers who have a shared vision of building a community that will make Westfield’s families and local businesses proud. It is my goal to find investment in jobs and business development from employers who are looking at the long-term health and viability of Westfield. We need to refresh the comprehensive plan so that the business community knows exactly what types of businesses Westfield wants and where we want them. We must value our existing businesses at a higher level so they can thrive and expand right here (and not jump to other communities). Our economic development department has to expand, and we have to become more competitive in luring businesses from other areas to create a new home in Westfield.
Willis: Since my first day as a city councilor, I have been committed to diversifying Westfield’s tax base, identifying new businesses and jobs, being fiscally responsible, and strategically growing the city. I have a vision for this that includes light industrial manufacturing, small business and corporate office space, and businesses around Grand Park that support the sports industry. With this plan, we need to understand where in Westfield companies like this will want to plant their flag and invest in infrastructure that will create shovel-ready developments. We need to partner with companies who are committed to the City of Westfield and will be a partner in the idea of our community.