By CHELSEY POLLOCK
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY -- Taking up issues like Walmart-type development and future funding for Exit 4A, Town Council candidates spent about an hour telling voters where they stand during a televised debate on Sunday.
While economic development has been a major goal of the sitting council, District 3 candidate Shannon Coyle said she wants to see money diverted to other projects, speaking during Sunday’s debate sponsored by Derry Community Television.
“I wish they’d stop putting taxpayer money into (economic development),” said Coyle, wife of current Councilor Kevin Coyle. “It seems like they’re just throwing it into a black hole and it’s going away. I’d really like to see the town shift into finding ways to make the community more enjoyable.”
Coyle works as a police officer in Londonderry. This is her first attempt at public office.
Speaking to Derry’s downtown, councilor at-large candidate Doug Newell said he would not support public funding for some economic development projects, like construction of a parking garage in the downtown.
“To use taxpayers’ money in an effort to prop up the downtown through a parking garage is set for failure,” said Newell, a candidate for councilor-at-large.“I think we ought to think outside the box a little bit on downtown and maybe encourage opportunities that aren’t purely retail.”
Newell, who has twice run for council but never been elected, has served on two charter commissions and is a member of the School Board’s fiscal advisory committee. Newell runs a pattern recognition and data analysis company in Derry that employs five people.
Incumbent council Vice Chairman Neil Wetherbee, who represents District 3, said that the sitting council has made some strides to improve conditions in the downtown, such as updating lighting and opening discussions for tax incentive programs for property owners.
But, he said, there’s only so much the council can do.
“There’s no one magic bullet that’s going to fix the issues in the downtown, and I think that anybody that tells you otherwise is not being honest,” said Wetherbee. “The businesses that close, there’s a story behind each one. I don’t think there’s a particular factor and, quite honestly, I think that a lot of it is out of the control of the Town Council.”
Wetherbee is coming off his first term on the council. He and his wife run a marketing and design company in Derry.
Councilor at-large candidate Jeff Lawman said he sees much of the problems with Derry’s downtown as tied to the town’s property tax rates.
“Derry businesses primarily rely on Derry shoppers and Derry shoppers have limited funds right now,” he said.
Lawman, who recently ran for School Board, has worked for 20 years in the quality assurance and reliability engineering industry.
While he said he would support the growth of large businesses in sectors other than retail, like in high-tech fields, Lawman said he would prefer not to see “big box” stores moving to town.
“The larger retail stores, although they are necessary, do not pay as good of earnings (as small businesses) and they are generally going to bring people from outside of Derry to work there anyway,” he said. “Londonderry, Manchester and Salem have a multitude of large retail stores to choose from.”
Coyle said she expects the council to weigh in on future development, if only to set the tone.
“(Businesses) look at the Town Council as leaders, so absolutely if a business comes in and we don’t want it here, we say no. We take our opinions forefront,” Coyle said. “… We need to be careful and selective.”
All candidates at Sunday’s forum said they were not ready to support more funding for the proposed Exit 4A, but Newell took a harder line on the project.
“Not one more dime for 4A would I ever vote for,” he said. “... We’ve wasted $2 million now, and I wouldn’t fund the other $3 million.”
Addressing perceived friction on the council, Wetherbee said he believes the sitting council is working well together.
“There are urban legends, so to speak, that the Town Council doesn’t get along and that we’re a fractious board, but people who say that haven’t done their homework,” he said. “This Town Council over the past year has voted unanimously 75 percent of the time, and I personally think that’s a real good number.”
Council Chairman Brad Benson, who is seeking re-election to his district-at-large seat, was not present at the Sunday forum. A taped video statement was aired in his absence.
The full candidates forum will continue to air on local cable.