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Candidate Q&A: Austin City Council

Author’s note: This is a continuation of the Herald’s candidate Q&A features and the first involving the Austin City Council candidates. For this feature, the Herald reached out to First Ward candidates Helen Jahr and Oballa Oballa, who were asked questions about economic development. These are their responses.

Be sure to check for responses from Second Ward candidate Mike Postma and Third Ward Councilman Paul Fischer in the Saturday, Aug. 29, edition of the Austin Daily Herald.

1. What type of businesses (or specific companies) have voters told you they would like to see in Austin?

Helen Jahr

Jahr: Many are grateful for the recent opening of several businesses in Austin; however, I hear that Target is greatly missed and how fun it would be to have a “farm-to-table” type eating establishment to connect to our rural resources with our goals for economic growth.   

Oballa: The first thing I hear is that Austin has some amazing unique businesses already here. We have non-chain experiences you can’t get anywhere else, like restaurants such as Piggy Blues and 1910 Fresh, and retail outlets like Twice is Nice and Brick Furniture. It has been exciting to see new retailers like Marshalls, Shoe Sensation, Pet Supplies Plus, Pet Authority, Five and Below and Real Deals come to Austin. So my first priority is to encourage residents to “Eat.Drink.Shop.Austin” as much as possible so that we support our local community members who do so much for our community and local economy.

I also hear Austin residents discuss a “wish list” of other businesses and companies they would like to see come to Austin, such as Chipotle, Buffalo Wild Wings and Forever 21. I know that the ultimate decision on what companies move to Austin is largely made by those companies, so as your City Council representative, I will work closely with other local leaders to make sure that we build a community that is vibrant and growing so that we are highly attractive when they are making those decisions.

2. What existing City economic development programs would you like to see expanded or enhanced (if any)?

Oballa Oballa

Jahr: I would like to see an extension of the Austin Homes Initiative. I think that housing continues to be a challenge in Austin and is a good indicator of growth and prosperity. By creating strategic partnerships, Austin can continue to move in a positive direction, strengthening neighborhoods through integration, beautification, and project planning.

Oballa: Austin’s economy is strong because of our major employers like Hormel Foods, Quality Pork Processors and Mayo Clinic Health System, as well as so many critical small and medium-sized local businesses. The City of Austin should continue to provide a good quality of life through the library, parks systems and vibrant downtown to help these employers attract a workforce.

The City of Austin has great partnerships with the Development Corporation of Austin and the Austin Area Chamber of Commerce to support positive business growth, and those should be further strengthened. I think the strategy of targeting food, agriculture and bioscience businesses is smart, and we should find more ways to increase our resources to support that strategy through things like collaborating regionally. It’s particularly exciting to think of new bioscience businesses that would benefit from close proximity to the Hormel Institute.

As we think about how to grow Austin long-term, we need to build on our strong foundation of entry-level jobs and find ways to also attract higher paying jobs so that any child growing up in Austin who wants to stay in Austin to raise their family can find the right job for them to be able to do so.

3. What key issues do you think the City Council should focus on to foster economic development?

Jahr: In my opinion, the City Council should continue their focus on programs that enhance the quality of life in Austin. As a member of the Austin Park and Recreation Board, I understand the importance of the protection of our natural resources. The City Council should continue efforts to improve and maintain amenities to encourage economic growth, new job opportunities and the expansion of Austin.

Oballa: Austin needs to continue work on housing, quality of life and welcoming diversity to support economic development.

The lack of available housing at all income levels is a major challenge for our employers to attract workforce and needs immediate attention. Private developers can make a better return on the investment of constructing new housing in the Twin Cities or Rochester, which means local governments in Greater Minnesota need to play a role in supporting new housing development. We should focus our support on helping to prove out the housing market locally so that we can attract more investment from the private sector. A perfect example of this is the collaboration that led to building the new apartments that just opened behind Runnings. The City worked with the developer to get the project off the ground, and we now have increased housing that is not only beautiful, but is filling up at a much faster rate than the developer expected. We should use this as a case study to attract more private development to help solve our housing challenge.

Quality of life offerings in and around Austin need to be a priority. These include retail availability and entertainment. Encouraging entrepreneurs to innovate with new retail and entertainment businesses is a win-win for the community.

As a member of the Human Rights Commission, I participated in the development of Austin’s Welcoming America status and other efforts. I also participated in the Honorary Councilmember program, which connects residents from populations traditionally disconnected from local government. We have so much opportunity to fully harness the passion and talents of everyone in our community, both those who are new and those who have lived here their entire lives. On the City Council, I will continue to be an active community leader to do exactly that.

4. Anything else you want to add?

Jahr: I have been a lifelong resident of Austin with family ties to the farming community, attending school and church, working in the community, marrying Gregory Jahr in 1986 and raising two children. In 1994, I accepted the Head Women’s Volleyball Coaching position for Riverland Community College. I have been active directing and hosting volleyball camps and tournaments for Austin and the surrounding area for many years. I also directed national volleyball and softball tournaments for the Minnesota Sports Federation. After completing a Master’s Degree from the University of Minnesota, Mankato, and my 19th year as Head Riverland Volleyball Coach, I transitioned to head the Athletics Department as Riverland’s Athletic Director, managing six intercollegiate men’s and women’s sports. Currently, I am adjunct Health faculty at Riverland as well as serving on the board of the Austin Parks and Recreation Department (2014 to present) and a member of the newly created Consumer Advisory Panel for Austin Utilities. I look forward to serving the Austin community as an Austin City Council member for First Ward.

Oballa: Our local businesses are essential to the fabric of our community and we should support them in every way possible to ensure that they have the best opportunities to survive, thrive, and grow. As a member of the City Council, I will push to do things like expand the DCA’s technical assistance program, find creative ways to help small businesses who are at risk due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and work to limit the increasing tax burden our local small businesses face. I will leverage my fresh voice and leadership skills to work collaboratively with local businesses, educational institutions, and community members to find fresh and innovative ways to help our local economy rebound and thrive.