When Town of Leesburg voters go to the polls Nov. 8 they will be voting for something more than the rest of Loudoun County. Leesburg will elect three members of the Town Council from among six candidates, and choose its next mayor from among incumbent David Butler, Vice Mayor Kelly Burk and former Town Councilman Kevin Wright.
There is no clear favorite in the mayor’s race, and each brings a different background and style to the table. The three met separately with The Loudoun Tribune recently to talk about local issues, their goals and why voters should elect them as the face of Leesburg.
Why are you running for mayor?
Dave Butler: My background is suited for this. I’ve served on the council for the last eight years, have a good grasp on the law and was on the planning commission. I’ve had an opportunity to run large groups and manage large budgets, so I certainly know how that whole process works. And more than anyone on the council, I’ve been able to work with all the other members to try to get the right things done for the town. I’ve moved Leesburg forward and if you look at the things like K2M that I worked on for nine months, the gas station on Oak Lawn, the Leesburg Bloom and widened sidewalks, I’ve been trying to get the right things done rather than pretending nothing needs to be done.
Kelly Burk: I have a lot of experience on council and the Board of Supervisors. I’ve also represented the teachers for four years. With the departure of Kristen Umstattd, who had been there for 12 years, and my retiring from teaching, it was a prime time to be able to say I’ll be a full time mayor. I won’t have a conflict so that I have to dedicate my time to the other job.
Kevin Wright: When I’ve looked at what’s happened on council since Kristen Umstattd left, there’s a lot of frustration, whether it’s frustration with inaction, indecision or the Council seeming more and more partisan. I wanted to run for mayor to bring back the even balanced approach I had when I served on council. My day job is about how we bring people together, what is the problem, what is the issue and how we move people forward, and that’s what I want to do. How do we make the best decisions for Leesburg and not any other drama? That was one of the big drivers, hearing the frustration in the community, as well as the current tone and the missed opportunities.
What are your big goals if elected?
DB: I’d like to continue to transition downtown from the traditional five days a week during the day type of place to visit and turn it into a night and weekend destination, so that people are coming downtown because they’re going to find something that they like to do. I think Village of Leesburg is like that. They have a lot of events and there’s a lot of people that say we’re going to go to the Village and we’re going to shop and we’re going to eat or do something. Downtown, we have a vision for arts and entertainment, and I’d like to drive that forward.
KB: I’d like to work on economic development. The county has 30 people on its staff. We have two. We have to look at how do we help the staff, how do we help the economic development department be a powerhouse. Our town plan has a goal of 60 percent revenue coming from commercial and 40 from residential. Right now we get 24 percent commercial. That’s something we have to work on. If we keep rezoning land from commercial to housing, we’re not going to get there. We’re going to end up continuing to put the tax burden on the homeowner, and until we realize the importance of working to get commercial development in here, it’s going to be that way.
KW: When I was on the council, one of the things we got recognized for by the Virginia Municipal League for our long-term financial plan. It’s great we got this award from the state recognizing our long-term financial planning, buts sad that it’s considered innovative that a government would look out five years. We should always look for ways to reduce the tax bill, but we also want to make sure it’s stable. The worst thing we can do is cut their taxes one year and then another year you have to replace the roof on town hall and it shoots back up. Consistency is almost as important as finding ways to reduce the tax bills. Making sure we’re looking at that long-range budget sustainability.
How do you see the relationship between the mayor and Town Council?
DB: My biggest disappointment with the council over the past eight years is they don’t seem to be very forward. There always seems to be a reason not to do something, and rarely a reason to do something. I’d like the voters to send a message saying look, we want things to get done. We don’t want things to go to a bureaucratic never-never land. We want you to cut down on bureaucracy. We don’t want you to go off the cliff and do all sorts of bad things, but we want you to go and get done more than you have in the past eight years, which actually isn’t a whole lot. If you look at the things that are accomplished, the vast majority are driven by staff or developers. There isn’t a whole lot that’s gotten done that was actually driven by the people on council. A traffic light here, a stop sign here, but not a lot of things that are bold. I think it’s time.
KB: Transparency is a huge one. That’s an overused word, but since the mayor left the deals that have gone on behind the scenes have been horrendous. The public doesn’t know it. They see it now with this development thing, two months after you vote no you vote to rescind it. I say what I mean and I mean what I say. Sometimes I can be brutally honest and expect the same in return. I don’t like working behind the scenes. I don’t think it’s the right way to do it. You may do it in business. That’s maybe the way they work at it, but I don’t think it’s the way you do the people’s business. So open, fair, honest government is one of the things I feel strongly about.
KW: It’s about having an ongoing conversation and building relationships. I will be trying to moderate or shepherd the discussion so everyone at least has the same understanding or set of facts on an issue. From there, reasonable people can still disagree on what the outcome is, but if everybody is working on that same baseline line of facts, it’s going to make it a lot easier to work together. Sometimes I’ll sit in the audience of council meetings and I want to say “guys, you’re talking about the two different things!” Someone will ask question “Y” and someone will answer question “Z”.
What are your thoughts on downtown Leesburg and how to make it better?
DB: I think in some respects we’re on the right track, but we need some other destination things like a performing arts center. I think the Tally HO has done some of that, but the audience that tends to go to the Tally Ho doesn’t have a lot of overlap with Palio. We can’t force people to do these kind of things, but we can create incentives. I was disappointed when the council decided to double parking rates in the parking garage and triple rates in the meters. I thought that was a disincentive for people to come downtown, so I’d like to go in another direction. I’d like to see free parking in the parking garage, and if that’s not going to happen, we have to make it a lot easier. I’d like to see parking on both sides of the street on Loudoun Street, Market Street and King Street. We need more outdoor music and dining, and I’d like to see shops that are complimentary to those places. Leesburg used to be a strong tourist attraction and buses with people would come to Leesburg and they’d do shopping and antiquing and those kinds of things, but tourism is not nearly the activity it used to be. We have retail pretty much all the way from Tysons to Leesburg, so going out to Leesburg isn’t the same thing it used to be.
KB: The study that came out for Loudoun County confirmed that more night life, arts and culture would really make Leesburg a place for people to go. We have an arts trail. We have pop up art shows. We have a 5-by-7 art show coming up, and we have such amazing well-known entertainers who live in the Leesburg area and are willing to contribute their time and their efforts to make Leesburg a place where people want to go. As controversial as widening the sidewalks was, if you talk to any of the restaurants, their night time business has increased because people like to be out, they like to eat outside and they’re staying longer. And we have to have a marketing plan. I think that the Downtown Business Association has done a great job coming up with activities. We need to support them with their efforts and get the word out.
KW: I don’t think downtown is necessarily thriving or dying. It’s changing like a lot of retail and business in general, and has its specific challenges. You have businesses struggling to get oxygen and attention in a more competitive world. But you still have some businesses there that are thriving so I think the one thing we need to be mindful of when we talk about downtown is public perception. One concern is that every time council talks about downtown, they’re listing all the problems. So if you’re Jane or Joe resident and you live outside the downtown, outside the bypass, your takeaway is “don’t go down there.” We do have tons of thriving businesses, great restaurants, new restaurants, and new retail establishments, so there are things that are doing well, but we’ve got this identity crisis.
Are you satisfied with the state of policing in the Town?
DB: I’m very excited about having (newly sworn-in) Leesburg Police Chief Gregory Brown on board. He’s really focusing on community policing. He seems to be well aware of that and understands the concerns, and I think with some of the personal changes we’ve made and with Chief Brown on board, we’ll fill some of our vacancies soon. When I ask about concerns generally, I get three responses. One is “I have no concern, I love Leesburg.” Surprisingly, that a very high percentage of the people I talk to. The second is “we have too much traffic” or “I love Leesburg, I wish there wasn’t so much traffic.” The third are tactical issues. You have somebody where the guy has chickens or they don’t know where to throw their trash or their sidewalk needs repair or people are speeding down my street. Outside of those three things, there’s little feedback.
KB: It’s very exciting to see this new police chief come on board and one of the things I’m going to ask is for him to come to the council quarterly and talk about policing. We’re kind of blinded on everything that’s happening. We hear things or something explodes, but we don’t know the day to day. One of my big concerns is Walmart. It’s terrible that they’re leaving, because a lot of those people live near there, work there and most certainly shop there. Now it’s not supposed to leave till next year or the year after, but we should be prepared. That’s going to be a major change to that area. What we do will determine how that area survives.
KW: The first challenge is the significant vacancies in the force right now. I think we’re down to 15 officers short of the fully funded compliment of officers, and the first thing is getting the police force fully staffed. Our goal with the police force is that we have a focus on community policing, communicating with the community and addressing those type of issues. If we’re that short, you have people working on overtime, so they’re working on burnout. Or you spent all your time responding to calls for service, so you’re not able to do the proactive things like getting out in the communities, walking around and talking with people. The other issue that we’re seeing – and the Chief of Police said this in our interview – is that we don’t necessarily have a gang problem but we have a gang issue. We need to push that out of our community. Additionally, all parts of our community continue to battle with drugs, with opiates, you name it. I’ve been door-to-door to pretty much every part of town, and pretty much every quadrant has talked about seeing this as an issue.
Traffic in and around Leesburg has been a major issue for years. What more should be done to alleviate it?
DB: Routes 15, 9 and 7 west are all problems, with 15 being the biggest problem. They’re all Northern Virginia problems, not just Leesburg problems. We have to look at it like a macro concern. One solution is to build a bridge to Maryland at Belmont Ridge Road or Route 28 and a lot of traffic would go that way instead of going through Leesburg and north.
KB: Route 15 is one of the big ones. The Town has done just about everything it can, and we did convince the county to do a study. It was started by VDOT and we got the county to take it over and that’s supposed to be coming back to us pretty soon with recommendations. One of the things they’re look at is doing a roundabout at White’s Ferry Road, because roundabouts keep vehicles moving.
KW: The town has several big projects that are in the pipe line, working with the state. The first is to get the lights off Route 7 and the interchange with Battlefield. That will also take out the light at Cardinal Park. That’s obviously not something the town is going to fund, but we’re working with the state and the other resources on the dollars to fund that interchange. Another big one is the interchange at the Route 15 bypass and Edwards Ferry Rd. That project will be more expensive.
Are there other Town projects you’d like to take on?
DB: I bike the entire W & OD Trail. In Arlington, it’s wonderful how they have loops and signage where you can travel anywhere in Arlington on your bike. I’d like to turn Leesburg into a small version of that. As a town matures, you see more and more people who want to bike. You hear people say nobody commutes by bicycle, but I know people who commute every day by bicycle into Sterling. I want Leesburg to be bike friendly, and pedestrian friendly.
KB: The Leesburg airport is important. People don’t realize what an economic driver it is. We compete with Winchester and Manassas which are bigger airports, but we’re holding our own. We need to support it and we need to help it become more competitive. The airport is no longer a recreational airport. It’s an executive airport. You’ve got companies that have their jets there and it brings business here.
KW: One of the other things is our communication strategy and public outreach. Having served on Council, I know how to find the out what’s happening with the Town. But even as someone who knows all that, it’s still hard. When you’re sitting at a tax rate public hearing and the room is empty, that’s not your sign that everyone is happy. It’s your sign that everybody is busy and you need to go knock on some doors and hear what the concerns are.
In 30 seconds, why should voters elect you?
DB: If you like Leesburg, and you think I’m doing a good job, I’d love to continue to be your mayor. I’m the one candidate over the last eight years that’s actually moving Leesburg forward, and I work with every member on council to get that done.
KB: Because Kelly Burk is a very experienced leader who can be a full time mayor, who is very concerned with open and honest government and how we develop and grow, and what we do to help people move here, live here, retire here, raise families and have their families come back.
KW: All of us have experience, so my answer is first the tone and style I bring to governing. My focus is that we work for the people. The other is that I’ve always had a detailed focus on the budget because we’re spending the people’s money. We need to understand first and foremost that it’s their money, not government’s money, and we need to be responsible.