Meet the Candidate Forum: Neil Elkins and James Hopf

By: Corbin Lingenfelter, News Director

Huntingburg- On November 7th, the citizens of Huntingburg will cast their votes for who they want to lead them for the next four years. 

They will choose from two mayoral candidates, Neil Elkins (Independent) and James Hopf (Republican). Both Elkins and Hopf sat down and shared their thoughts during the first WITZ Meet the Candidate Forum.

What are the issues or concerns you look to address should you be elected mayor?

Elkins: I think everybody wants to hear about a new and exciting project and those things they can look at. Really the big thing I’m going to be concentrating on is the basic operation of the city. Right now the morale within the city employees is very low. I think they get a little nervous around election times and what’s going to happen in their lives, but I just want to deliver a stronger level of communication between the city departments and within the city as well. (I) really want to establish a stronger external communication plan as part of that. I’m somebody who likes to get out and talk to the public, get out in public and engage. I’m very approachable in that manner. While I’m proud of the city of Huntingburg, we still have some poor quality buildings. You drive through town there are both vacant homes as well as vacant commercial spaces. The poor quality needs to go away. I guess one of my phrases are we need to get rid of the ugly, we need to bring back the beauty of Huntingburg. We have what I like to call slumlords, people that don’t even live in Huntingburg, but own properties there that are substandard. We need to put in place the ordinances, strengthen the ordinances we already have, and look a lot stronger on code enforcement. Of course, I think any community you go to, streets and parking are always an issue everywhere we go. I work around the state around a lot of communities. That's the first thing that comes up. I said listen, let's not talk about streets and parking, let’s look at what are more important issues, but that is something we have to address. The root cause of a lot of the street issues in the city of Huntingburg go back to not having a stormwater plan. The erosion of the streets is caused by stormwater, so the first thing I want to do is institute a stormwater plan. We’ve already completed a study a few years ago, but that does mean bringing back a stormwater department. Charging small fees, probably around three dollars a month per household, to be able to improve that stormwater so we can come back and improve what’s on top and that’s the streets.   

Hopf: If I were to be elected mayor, a couple things have been brought to my attention that people are concerned about is strong leadership. Someone who is going to get out in front and show the people that they are respected again. Someone who is going to continue to fight for them, and someone who in the good ol’ boy system people can feel like they have room and the opportunity to sit here at the table in Huntingburg. 

What does your five/ten year plan look like?

Elkins: My five year to ten year plan, you know they’ve made it easy on me because about three years (ago) the city of Huntingburg instituted the Ten Year Comprehensive Plan. Part of that comprehensive plan was, and I’m going to take sections of that as we go, no need for public hearings. We had hundreds of hours of meetings, thousands of interactions with the citizens of Huntingburg asking them what is important to accomplish over the next ten years. Not a lot of work has been done on the comprehensive plan, so move that forward. The big one is bringing Huntingburg back as a point of destination. We talk about possible bypasses and things coming around Huntingburg, it won’t impact Huntingburg if we’re that destination they’re heading to. Part of that is we need to expand the visual performing arts in the city as part of a comprehensive tourism plan. We need to expand the use of League Stadium. That’s one of our biggest priorities there is to bring people back to the parks. Expansion of our museum and identifying long term plans and where we could house it. People don’t even know we have a museum, it sits on the second floor of City Hall and we need to bring that to the forefront where people can walk in the door at street level. Improve our gateway entrances at all four main entrances. Right now the southside sign has been completed, the northside sign is under construction, but from the east and west the gateways into the community are not very appealing. Those will be very important as the midstate’s corridor is being built and we want people to come into Huntingburg and realize they’ve come somewhere special. As I mentioned earlier, we need to improve the appearance of Main Street. That could be through streetscapes but also elimination of the blighted properties. We have Gas stations that have been there probably twenty years that are blighted properties. We have other businesses that are blighted, we have homes that are inhabitable that sit along our main streets. We need to get rid of them is what it’s going to amount to. We need to improve our parking with proper space markings. Most of our parking spaces aren’t even marked downtown. We have six hundred parking spaces, but they’re not there, nobody can see that they’re there. We also have parking lots that nobody knows how to get to and during our last festival we had the seventy spot parking area near city hall that had two cars in it. But people complain about not having parking. We need to actively pursue a national hospitality organization, such as a Holiday Inn or some other major hotel. We have one hotel in town. He does a nice job but we need more to not only handle the tourist traffic, but also to utilize the Huntingburg Event Center more fully. They turn a lot of events because we don’t have enough hotel space. We have plenty of land around there, the city even owns some of that property that we could develop into a hospitality location. Our local parks, we need investment in those. Make them viable for all ages. Right now they’re dated, they’re old. We need to think about our seniors, our latino community, as well as our youth in the way we develop our parks plan over the next couple years. I want to see a teen hang out as an example, I want a place seniors can go and exercise, I want an area where latinos can express their culture with their music. Charlestown, Indiana has a teen hang out area in one of their parks, or it’s under construction now that has really impressed me. It’s an area designed by the teens that they can go after school, hang out in the park, listen to music, play music. I actually think it’s this weekend where they have a whole day where teenagers come in an hour at a time to play music and just hang out. They don’t hang out with us old people all the time, so give them a place where they can get out and express their art. We need to work with the school corporation to investigate ways that we can share facilities to decrease the burden on the taxpayer when it comes to recreation. We know the school needs a swimming pool and it’s not really at an affordable range. Our schools are getting larger, (one) elementary school is at capacity. Pretty soon that’s going to lead up to middle school and high school and as they get larger, their facility will be taxed even more. Next thing in the plan is providing excellent leadership to all the employees. Think of my years of leadership experience will be an asset to the development and stronger core of an exceptional city staff. I have worked thirty-three years from a private level, eleven years, and not for profit management. The thing I really pride myself in is the development of my employees to make them stronger. The other part of the ten year plan is to invest in a long term infrastructure plan that supports the growth and improves the existing infrastructure. We need an aggressive ten year plan on our streets, that when we take care of those stormwater issues we’re able to improve everything. This is not going to happen overnight, we don’t have the money, no community has the money that we need there in a short period of time. Flooding can still be an issue. It was just a few years ago that we had cars floating down first street after a heavy rain. We need to encourage the development of green engineering to retain the flooding in our properties, and be able to reutilize that property. Rather than sending it down to our treatment plant at a million gallons a day during heavy storms. We need to utilize that somehow within the community with landscaping or we could use some of the parks, but definitely could do a better job retaining (stormwater) on our properties. In the middle right now, the city is in their largest capital program ever. It’s at twenty-four million right now, it was at twenty-two. It might go up to twenty-five before it’s all over with. The next mayor will have to oversee that project, make sure that it’s completed quickly, and that we don’t continue to delay it and raise the cost even higher. We need to expand our trail and sidewalk systems to make Huntingburg a more walkable community. On a scale of one to ten, there is a rating, I think Huntingburg is at a four. My home is at a one on the walkability, meaning I can walk to one location on a sidewalk. I can not walk to the store, I can not walk down to the gas station, to Dollar General. I have to walk on the state highway. It’s that way for a lot of people on the southside and a few on the northside. So, we have to look at a way to bring our sidewalks in and supply sidewalks to every location. We need to expand the housing options, as well as I mentioned earlier, improve the conditions of our current structures. By increasing our housing options we really need a concentration on housing options that attract young workers to our community. The employers say they don’t have enough housing to bring in the new workers, the college graduates that want to move here. We don’t have the proper house size, we don’t have the proper house price in order to meet them. I’m right now working as part of the housing study in Dubois County, hopefully we’ll have some answers there. That is one background I had, I had eleven years in housing. It allows me to be able to contact and talk the language of the developers we want to be able to attract to the area. We need to have an ongoing owner/occupied rehabilitation program to help seniors and low income people improve their existing structures. There are structures that can be improved in longevity, if they had the funds to be able to invest. We need to increase higher quality rental units that will attract remote workers. Remote workers are going to account for thirty percent of the workforce and they really are demanding a higher quality apartment and rental property than most. We need to enact an ordinance that increases the responsibility of property owners in maintaining their present structures. We have to use the existing code, institute that ordinance that allows for inspections of existing rental units and improve the conditions on which they live. And get more aggressive with the codes that we currently have. 

Hopf: Obviously, some people have heard and I’ve been pretty strong on this, on not building anything new in Huntingburg. I want to utilize, if elected, my first term to fix what we have here. Continue to upgrade our infrastructure; to have a two, four and ten year plan for our roads and sidewalks. I want people to know what’s coming down the pipeline so they know ‘hey can look forward to my road being replaced, at whatever year coming up’. Or ‘hey we know we’re going to get sidewalks in this area of town’. To continue to push us in the right direction to not let some of our roads go to the waste side. I’m pretty big on not building stuff, just to have stuff. I don’t think we need to keep up with the Jones’. Huntingburg is very blessed to have that small town feeling, with fourth street looking so beautiful the way it does, I don’t think we need to continue to build, build, and build. I want to focus on maintaining what we already have and push that in a positive direction. 

What is the current administration doing that you would continue?

Elkins: Some of the things I look at with the current administration, they do have a parks study going on now which is good. They’ve engaged with the seniors in the development of a new senior center. I want to see that through, make sure of the funding, which has not been secured yet, so I will need to work with that. Right now I think the structure of the city and the way it’s set up is good. It’s run more like a business that’s manageable. You know I commend Mayor (Steve) Schwinghammer on keeping an eye on long term plans. 

Hopf: I think our current administration does work well with certain organizations in the community. I like how destination Huntingburg strives to grow our Fourth Street and Market Street Park. I like the way the merchants continue to come up with new ideas for not only their stores, but to grow Huntingburg. So, I want to continue that voice. I do want to have a little more involvement personally as the Huntingburg leader, if elected. But Huntingburg does a lot of great things. I want to continue that small town feeling that we’ve established here in Huntingburg to continue to push that in the right direction as well. 

What is your message to the citizens of Huntingburg?

Hopf: My main message is, I’m running to bring back the people’s voice. A true leader who’s going to listen. I want to bring all people, organizations and cultures together again. I want us to sit and truly work hard on what we want to do with Huntingburg on moving it forward. Not just a few people in a closed door making these decisions, but bringing all organizations and people to strive for what’s best for all the people of Huntingburg. 

Elkins: You have a lot of messages when you go through a campaign like this because you get a lot of feedback. Some of it positive, some of it negative. I got a little emotional last week, between what was happening on social media and elsewhere of attacking present candidates. Myself, I really don’t care what they say about me, I can take it. But I look at all the candidates, even the candidate that’s my opponent, they’re all giving up something in their lives. They’re all dedicating their time, their talents to the city of Huntingburg. None of them are running for office for reasons other than they want to serve. I think if I had a message I’d say, just be kind. It’s easy to be kind and understand that these are public servants that have put a lot into the city of Huntingburg already and they’re dedicated. There’s no reason to be as rude as we have been, especially through the social media where I’ve seen it. 

The 2023 Municipal Election is Tuesday, November 2nd.