With a closely-watched campaign for mayor drawing to a close, candidates Yvonne Spicer and John Stefanini described their plans to boost economic activity in Framingham during a forum Thursday at Ken’s Steakhouse.
The pair met for their final public discussion before the Nov. 7 election, addressing topics that ranged from reducing taxes to strengthening partnerships with Framingham’s two institutions of higher learning.
The MetroWest Chamber of Commerce and the MetroWest Daily News presented the event, which focused on economic issues. It was co-sponsored by Framingham State University and Bowditch & Dewey.
With a new mayoral administration set to take office in January, Stefanini said Framingham will benefit from greater clarity and focus on its economic development agenda. A former selectman and state representative, Stefanini said he will tap his network of personal and professional contacts to achieve goals such as establishing a downtown campus for Massachusetts Bay Community College, creating housing and recreational opportunities to lure younger workers to the city and improving the climate for small businesses.
“Our small business community in particular has significant issues with regulations,” he said, “be they signs or permitting or development that have been ignored or not been of concern to our government in Framingham today.”
Spicer, a vice president at the Museum of Science in Boston, said her time selling real estate gave her insight into the needs of small business owners. Framingham’s first mayor should establish a business-friendly climate, countering the perception that it’s difficult to do business in the community, she said.
“We hit the reset button on day one,” she said. “We hit the reset button to say, ‘Yes, we’re open for business. Yes, we’re welcoming, and yes we want to make sure that Framingham is thriving.’”
Describing their plans to reduce taxes, Stefanini contrasted Framingham with Natick, saying Natick’s commercial value has increased 28 percent while Framingham’s has fallen 3 percent. Residential property owners shoulder a heavier tax burden as a result, Stefanini said.
The city can grow its tax base by collaborating more closely with business owners, using tax incentives and other inducements to court investments and having an “honest conversation” about the need for both commercial and residential development, he said.
Spicer said the community lacks a tax policy to guide its economy. She said the community should focus on smart growth, with an eye toward affordability, stability in year-to-year tax increases, sustainability, and fairness between commercial and residential taxpayers.
“We need to be having those conversations,” she said, “because we also need to make sure that we’re getting what we need in this community, but we’re also making sure that we’re growing our businesses in a way that is smart.”
The candidates also discussed tapping the resources and expertise of the business community — particularly to help local schools. Spicer said the city should follow the lead of the Museum of Science, which has worked with large companies on educational initiatives, particularly around STEM education.
Stefanini, who has called for the city to offer a universal early childhood education program, said Framingham should seek grants from area employers to fund the initiative, as well as after school enrichment programs and other community needs.
“We need to make sure that 4-year-olds have an equal opportunity to succeed,” he said. “That means they need to enter kindergarten and first grade reading to learn, not learning to read, because when they’re learning to read, they’re falling behind.”
Spicer took a commanding lead in the preliminary election, topping a field of seven candidates with about 54 percent of all votes. But she has trailed Stefanini in fundraising, bringing in a little less than $70,000 through mid-October, compared to Stefanini’s haul of more than $113,000.
Since winning spots on the ballot, the candidates have participated in a series of sometimes-contentious public events, including three forums and a pair of debates.
The winner of Tuesday’s election will be sworn in Jan. 1 as the city’s first mayor.