HIBBING — Three candidates faced off Thursday for the Hibbing City Councilor at-large seat with a four-year term.
The hour-long Hibbing Chamber of Commerce forum included political newcomers Nick Hill, Justin Fosso and Jason Johnson.
This four-year, at-large seat is new due to the city’s change in form of government. All Hibbing voters will have a say in this race on Nov. 6.
The trio answered a variety of questions regarding broadband, Hibbing Public Utilities (HPU), blight, worker shortages and healthcare, among others.
Hill, City of Hibbing retiree, is a lifelong resident of Hibbing and is running on the platform that the council needs new faces and new ideas. His top priority is to “think of out the box” for ways to expand the job market beyond the concentration of healthcare and mining jobs. He hopes by doing so, youth will start returning to Hibbing after college to work and raise families.
As such, Hill believes the city needs a full-time developer to promote economic growth. He also expressed a focus on tourism and activity creation, like softball tournaments.
“I just want to see this community thrive, like when I was a kid,” said Hill. “It’s not, I hate to say it. I would like to get businesses to move into this area, whatever we can do, because we need people.”
Fosso is employed at Delta Airlines, grew up in Bear River, Minn., and has been a resident of Hibbing since 2005. His focus is to make Hibbing a destination city for new business and leisure activities while simultaneously building on what exists.
Some leisure activities he’d like to see include: ATV trails, an ATV park, an expansion of the bike trail, upgrading the Carey Lake area to a family-focused campground and wifi in Bennett Park.
He also hopes to engage the youth in government via a junior city council.
“If we sell Hibbing as a place you can come and work and 5 minutes later, you can be out on your bicycle, or 5 minutes later, you can be out kayaking after you’re done with work instead of spending 2 hours (commuting) in a car, people are going to look at that and say, that’s where I want to be,” Fosso said. “That’s how you get jobs here. That’s how people will come.”
Johnson owns Johnson Catering and manages the Canteen at the Hibbing Curling Club and the Mesabi Country Club’s Bar Restaurant. His priorities are to keep local money local and to focus on the future of HPU and its ratepayers.
He’d also like to improve parks and recreation areas and foster an increase in commercial and manufacturing development along Highways 169 and 37.
“Being a resident and growing up here, I understand how the city works and has changed over the years,” Johnson stated. “I want to makes sure that it continues to move and grow in the right direction. We’re going to attract new young adults back to the area after college to start families and raise their children here so that our communities keep growing.”
When asked to name the top issues facing Hibbing in the next three years, Fosso said he believes the city needs to improve communication with its residents and that the Hibbing Public Utilities Commission (PUC) needs to move forward finding a profitable solution that moves away from steam.
Hill agreed the PUC is a priority and believes it “hasn’t been run the way it should be.” The same applies to administration and jobs within the city, said Hill, so jobs would be his main focus.
Johnson feels it’s important to appeal to state legislators for more Local Government Aid (LGA) for economic growth and to take care of existing businesses. He would also like to maintain “first class” core services throughout the city.
There were some areas all three agreed: economic growth is vital, there’s a need for affordable daycare facilities with extended hours, and a solution for the worker shortage needs to be determined.
When asked about providing financial incentives to new business, all were for it. Johnson expressed satisfaction in the ongoing efforts made by Hibbing Economic Development Authority (HEDA), while Hill suggested sweetening the pot with land for potential businesses.
Fosso reiterated his idea that improving housing, broadband, parks and more will provide an overall better package that entice businesses to Hibbing.
However, a line was drawn in the sand between candidates on several issues; one being their view of the health and vitality of downtown.
Johnson’s view was downtown has adapted well by embracing professional businesses and keeps restaurants busy.
Hill stressed the importance of filling empty downtown buildings by whatever means possible.
Fosso acknowledged there are good aspects but there are holes and a lack of things to do to keep people downtown, spending money. He suggested a wider variety of businesses, pocket parks and an art district, among other activities.
They also had different views on housing and blight. Johnson felt there are already decent options for renters and that efforts to eliminate blight are headed in the right direction.
Hill noted some apartments need improvements and that temporary housing needs to be provided to help area homeless until they get back on their feet.
Fosso ceded there’s a lot of housing available, but that there’s a waiting list for people with low income that needs to be addressed. Blight, he said, could be better combated by organizing seasonal and citywide clean-ups.
As for dealing with concerns over utility costs, Fosso suggested the city provide loans to businesses for new insulation where needed and/or help them transition off of steam and onto more efficient heating options, to which Hill concurred.
Johnson’s stance was to work with PUC to make sure the Laurentian Energy Authority (LEA) buyout money is spent in a way that ensures responsible rates are maintained and maintenance costs stay within budget.
Watch the entirety of this forum along with the Hibbing City Councilor at-large (two-year term) forum and Hibbing City Councilor Ward 4 forum on Hibbing Public Access Television’s website at hpat.org, or look for replays on HPAT Channel 7.