WARSAW — What was supposed to be a mayoral debate turned into more of a community forum for incumbent Mayor Joe Thallemer while his challenger, Ron Shoemaker, chose not to participate and instead hosted an event three-quarters of a mile away Thursday night, April 11.
At the Lakeview Middle School’s auditorium, Thallemer sat on stage next to an empty seat reserved for Shoemaker and answered 16 questions collected from the community by the event organizer, News Now Warsaw.
At the same time, Shoemaker hosted a listening event down the road at the Shrine Building at the Kosciusko County Fairgrounds.
Shoemaker balked at the invitation to participate in the debate, saying the Republican Party should have had a role in it and also suggested more media should have been invited.
Both events attracted 50 to 60 people.
Questions were delivered from panelists Joshua Short of WNDU, Dan Spalding of InkFreeNews, Gary Gerard of the Times-Union and Warsaw Community High School Student Body President Emily Sutton.
Instead of a face-to-face comparison of the two Republican candidates, though, the event was an opportunity for Thallemer to convey his vision without challenge.
The questions ranged from public safety to the need for a grocery store on the west side and the lawsuit involving motorized racing at the fairgrounds.
During the 45-minute forum, Thallemer avoided mentioning Shoemaker by name.
Thallemer was asked about the rift between the city and county police. He said he thinks relations are getting better. “I see the resumption of the unified drug task force as a very strong sign that they are back working together. It’s so critical that we address that opioid issue and do it together with combined resources,” he said.
The lack of grocery stores on the city’s west side came up twice. The closing of Owen’s earlier this year and Marsh’s supermarket two years ago has left a void that Thallemer said he’s trying to address.
He said he’s heard that major stores elsewhere are trying out the concept of smaller, urban grocery stores, he said.
At the same time, there may be limitations as to what can be done with the old Martin’s store, and added, “We need a downtown grocery store.”
Thallemer was asked for clarity on the lawsuit involving the fairgrounds racetrack in which homeowners are seeking to reinstitute a longstanding prohibition against motorized racing. Thallemer lives along the lake near the fairgrounds but is not a participant in the lawsuit. At one point, he tried to broker a compromise, but the suit continues to move forward in court.
“I happen to live on the lake, so it might be easy to tie me to that but I have no involvement. I suppose it’s just going to play itself out in the courts,” he said.
Thallemer was asked about the demand for affordable housing and the impact on job recruitment. He said it’s a major concern, but noted that Little Crow Apartments, with 42 units, opened last year and offers subsidized housing.
“The bigger issue to me is single family homes that are starting … somewhere around $170,000 and $180,000,” he said. “We’re hearing that level of house is a difficult price point for our builders.”
He said the city recently annexed about 300 acres of land that is adjacent to infrastructure that could help minimize some of the upfront costs for new housing.
Thallemer was asked about traffic concerns along US 30 and said he considers it to be the biggest challenge the city faces. In addition to short- term improvements happening this year at two intersections along the highway, he said the bigger solution is the proposed limited access highway that would replace the existing highway and stretch across much of the state.
He said officials are working on several options on how the highway would pass through Kosciusko County.
“The community has to sit down and look at how they view what US 30 will look like … in 10, 15, or 20 years, but it’s a tremendously expensive project that will have to be funded,” Thallemer said, adding that right now, the main effort involves securing money from the state to study the environmental impact, which will determine to a great degree the path of the highway.