FAIRBANKS — With Mayor Doug Isaacson limited out after two terms, a new leader is about to take over at North Pole City Hall.
That means a crowded four-candidate race next week will determine the next mayor. Those pursuing the seat include current council members Dick Holm and Bryce Ward, former councilman Mike Welch and Preston Smith, who is making his second run for the office.
The candidates all see similar concerns ahead in North Pole’s future — high energy costs, city budgets and the shaky fate of Eielson Air Force Base — but have varying takes on how to move the city ahead.
Dick Holm has spent a quarter-century as a resident and business owner in North Pole, including the past two years as a city councilman. Holm is the owner of North Pole Prescription Lab as well as two pharmacies in Fairbanks.
Holm said he’s a good leadership fit for the city, after a career managing businesses and in state and national pharmacy positions.
“I decided I needed to jump in and do it,” he said.
He said the city needs to stop its current practice of operating “paycheck to paycheck” and that a savings account is necessary for the long-term health of North Pole.
“We have no reserves — nothing to speak of,” he said. “If something major came up, we don’t have the money to deal with it.”
Holm said the next mayor will need to do some trimming to the city budget to make room for those savings. He doesn’t feel the city is especially bloated, however, and said cutting back will require hard looks at its various departments.
“Those are tough decisions,” he said. “You’re talking about people’s lives and levels of service that people have gotten used to.”
Holm said it’s clearly important for the North Pole area to have a healthy, fully staffed Eielson Air Force Base nearby, but he said he’s skeptical that local residents can play a significant role in a decision that ultimately will be made in the Pentagon.
He said, however, keeping military personnel in the Interior could be made more attractive by slashing energy costs. Holm said local leaders need to embrace a specific project and lobby the state for funding.
“I think we’re coming closer to having everyone stand behind one plan,” he said.
Holm said he’d also like the city to create a more attractive environment for businesses, particularly medical facilities that he said are lacking in North Pole. He said a local acute care clinic is especially needed.
“Government needs to facilitate,” he said. “We need to talk to the entities that hold the purse strings and say, ‘What do you need?’”
Preston Smith has had a lifelong fascination with politics stretching back to his days growing up in North Pole.
Smith returned to his hometown after attending the University of Iowa and has since made unsuccessful runs at the council and mayor’s seat. He’s been particularly focused on boosting the economy of North Pole, both through stretches as co-chairman of Christmas in Ice and the North Pole Economic Development Corp.
Smith, a salesman at Frontier Plumbing, said his goal is to “have a place to call home” in a strong, livable city, and he thinks he’s in a good position to lead the city in that direction.
“I think we’ve got a good team on the council,” he said. “I don’t know that we have a good quarterback to run the team.”
He said energy costs and the future of Eielson are the key issues facing the city. Smith said it’s important for North Pole leaders to examine both, making sure state and national leaders know where the community stands.
Although the decision on the future of Eielson’s F-16 squadron will be made at the national level, Smith said there’s evidence that local officials can influence the discussion. He looks back to 2005, when Eielson was threatened with closure, as a point when community involvement made a difference.
“The whole town rallied to keep Eielson off the (closure) list,” he said. “We need a team effort to keep them.”
Smith said he’d like to look at all available options for bringing cheap natural gas to the Interior.
He said more city funds should be allocated to repairing aging infrastructure, and he also backs a new North Pole community center, which also could be used as a gathering spot in community emergencies.
“I have a lot of fresh ideas, and I’ve got a lot of energy,” he said. “I want to keep pushing.”
A year after winning a seat on the North Pole City Council as a write-in candidate, Bryce Ward is looking to shift to the mayor’s office.
Ward grew up in the Interior and moved to North Pole in 2005. After getting married, he built his home in 2008, enjoying the experience so much that it led him to launch his own general contracting company, Ward Alaska.
Ward said a primary goal of his candidacy is to boost transparency and openness in North Pole city government. He said a perception of a closed City Hall and an unsuccessful recall election against Isaacson in 2010 have led to fractures within the community.
Ward said many residents have told him he has an approachable personality that could help the city overcome some of its lingering image problems.
“It’s a slow process, but people need to feel like they’re being listened to,” he said.
His key budget goal, Ward said, is to gradually build up a six-month reserve account for the city, allowing it to be better prepared in case of an unexpected financial crisis.
But after a year on the council, Ward said he believes city leaders have done a good job of keeping the budget in check.
“I’ve heard people say it’s big, it’s out of control,” he said. “I really feel the department heads have done a good job of keeping us trim and fit.”
Ward said North Pole should use whatever resources it can to lobby for the retention of the Eielson F-16 squadron, including continued work with Fairbanks borough and city leaders. If the Air Force requires specific moves by local government to remain, he said the council should seriously consider them.
In the end, Ward said he’s skeptical that moving the squadron to Anchorage will save federal dollars, which is one of its goals.
“I really question if that’s going to happen with the move they’re looking at,” he said.
Ward said he’ll shift to a part-time work schedule if elected mayor.
“It’s been a difficult decision, but I’m willing to put my business on the side,” he said.
Mike Welch’s political career began in 2005, when he happened to hear a report on the radio that there was only one candidate for two openings on the North Pole council.
“I thought, ‘Why not me?’” he said. “That opened a whole new door for me.”
Welch spent a term on the council, including two years as mayor pro tem. He also worked as chairman of the North Pole Audit Finance Committee, a position that he said allowed him to become familiar with various city departments and develop a good relationship with city employees. He also said it gave him an up-close look at the city’s budget and needs.
It’s his second run for mayor, including his unsuccessful effort in a six-way race in 2009.
Welch believes the police department could use at least one additional officer, which would help prevent shifts with just a single officer on duty. Welch thinks grants and revenues from criminal seizures could pay for the position.
He also believes North Pole needs to pay its rookie police officers more, providing more incentive for them to remain in the city.
“We’re in this perpetual training ground,” he said. “I think we should be beyond that by now.”
Welch likes the Lowell Group plan for bringing gas to the Interior, a trucking plan that supporters say could materialize within two years. He thinks local officials should stop pondering the issue and pick a plan to back.
“I think they’re victims of analysis paralysis,” he said.
He also believes North Pole leaders are in a strong position to speak on behalf of keeping the F-16 squadron at Eielson, which has been eyed for relocation to the Anchorage area.
“I could give good arguments why it should not only stay there but be expanded,” he said.
The 13-year North Pole resident is due to retire from his long career as an air traffic controller on Oct. 31, allowing him to devote all his energy to overseeing city government and more than 40 employees. Welch also ended his term this summer as Alaska deputy of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization.
“I offer them a full-time mayor — that’s important for me,” he said.
Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518.