Apr 24, 2023 - Politics

Westfield mayoral candidates look beyond sports

Illustration of a soccer ball being kicked along an upward trend line.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

In a state with a stagnant population, Westfield is booming.

Yes, but: Indiana's fastest-growing city has a lopsided tax base, which has become the biggest issue in its upcoming mayoral race.

Driving the news: Three Republicans — Kristen Burkman, Jake Gilbert and Scott Willis — are running in the May 2 primary to succeed Mayor Andy Cook, who will leave office after four terms.

  • Burkman is a member of the city's plan commission and the first woman to run for mayor in Westfield.
  • Gilbert coaches the Westfield High School football team, a regular state title contender and 2016 champion. Gilbert was elected to the Westfield City Council in 2019.
  • Willis is a retired U.S. Marine colonel who runs an executive search firm and real estate company. He also was elected to the council in 2019.

Of note: There is no Democratic primary, which means next month's winner will be the presumed incoming mayor.

State of play: Cook led Westfield from a town of about 20,000 people in 2008 to a city of more than 50,000. He built a defining anchor in the Grand Park sports complex but also faced criticism for developments that sometimes appeared to lack logic and cohesion.

  • For example, while Grand Park attracts out-of-town visitors for big events like soccer tournaments, the city didn't have any hotels within its borders when the park opened. Even today, travelers stay in nearby cities because of the lack of hotel rooms.

Why it matters: Westfield is a magnet for people and housing with zoning in place to accommodate 20,000 to 30,000 more residents.

  • But it's failing to attract — and keep — commercial development. About 90% of the city's tax base is reliant on residential properties.

Here's how the candidates say they would change that:

Burkman: "The citizens really want us to be more than a bedroom community," Burkman tells Axios. "And, right now, that's kind of what we have, is a bedroom community. The next mayor needs to lay out a vision and a plan for how we balance that tax base."

  • To do that, Burkman says she would lean on her experience in marketing and strategic planning to determine which types of businesses might find Westfield attractive and go get them. She touts a "data-driven approach" to solving the problem.

Gilbert: He says he would conduct a similar evaluation while prioritizing relationships with existing businesses to make them "feel supported by the city, so they can grow and thrive right here and not feel like they have to pack up and move."

Willis: He sees Westfield as a potential hub for the life sciences and battery manufacturing industries. He wants to review Westfield's comprehensive plan and prepare land for business development.

  • "Investing in a city like Westfield that has not been friendly to development is a costly venture," Willis tells Axios. "So we've got to build that trust back."

The intrigue: Westfield has been mired in drama over city finances and developments like Grand Park, sniping between Cook and the council, and litigation between Cook and Clerk-Treasurer Cindy Gossard.

  • Burkman, Gilbert and Willis each pledge to restore civility.

The bottom line: Each of the three mayoral candidates say they would steer Westfield in a new direction.

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