Ward 2 Alderman Race: Michelle Harris on Downtown Residential Space, Partnerships

In April, Michelle Harris will seek another term representing Ward 2 on the Clayton Board of Aldermen.

In anticipation of April 3 municipal elections in St. Louis County, Clayton-Richmond Heights Patch invited local candidates to answer several questions about their background, their respective city and their goals if elected to office. 

Links to Saturday's profiles and those published in the weeks to come will be added to the Election 2012 Headquarters page. Questions for the candidates may be posted by commenting on this article. When doing so, readers are urged to follow Patch's terms of use.

Additional questions about elections coverage may be directed to the editor by emailing nate.birt@patch.com.

The following is a profile of incumbent Alderman Michelle Harris, who is seeking another term representing Ward 2 on the Clayton Board of Aldermen. She is unopposed in the race. 

A profile of aldermanic candidate Alex Berger will publish at noon Saturday. Look for a profile of incumbent Richmond Heights Councilwoman Camille Greenwald on Sunday.

Name: Michelle Harris
Age: 56
Years lived in Clayton:
Married to Scott Harris, 2 children who attend Clayton High School
Education: MBA
Professional background: Principal, StrategyFinder LLC (current); 20 years in business management at Nestle Purina family of companies, and DuPont
Elected office(s) held previously: Alderman, City of Clayton-Ward 2, 2006-current

What do you like about your city? 

What I like most about Clayton is the vitality of our downtown area, and the sense of community I experience throughout the city. Clayton’s bustling downtown is the home of many major corporations, a thriving restaurant community, the seat of county government, and an outstanding regional park. All of these things together create a sense of life and vitality and help to support the economy of the region. This combined with the high quality educational institutions that call Clayton home and neighborhoods that are family friendly, infuse our 2.5 square miles with an active and engaged population of residents and workers that care about Clayton and actively create strong community spirit.

If you could change one thing about your community what would it be? Why?  

I would add more high density, affordable residential rental living space in our downtown area. This is the key to supporting our retailers and restaurants, and beginning to diversify the city’s revenue base.

Identify three challenges your city is facing at this time. 

The most important challenge we face is that of declining revenues over the next three to five years. This impacts our eventual ability to maintain the high quality of service that residents and businesses have come to expect. It affects our ability to invest in Clayton so that we continue to attract business, institutions, and residents, and remain a strong economic engine in the region.

Describe a difficult decision that you have had to make. How does this situation illustrate the approach you would take to problem-solving as an elected leader? 

Deciding whether or not to run for alderman my first time was very difficult, since I was coming in late as a write-in candidate. At that time it was even more challenging than it is now to win as a write-in, since voters actually had to write my name on the ballot sleeve, as well as the position I was running for—and spell it right! I felt strongly about the issues at hand, but could I win? My approach was to jump in with both feet to research and assess how the City was dealing with problems and opportunities, and do my homework on how much support I had. Once I understood that I had a reasonable chance, I worked nonstop to connect with residents in my Ward and gain their input and support. Hard work and persistence won out, and I haven’t stopped working hard for the people of Clayton since. With any problem to be solved, I will bring an open mind for understanding the issue, and energy and persistence in working to resolve it.

How would you characterize Clayton’s economic climate? 

Like most cities, Clayton has faced an unusually challenging and unusually long period of declining revenue and increasing costs. We have faced the recession and slow economic recovery with an outstanding level of reserves. We have and can continue to utilize these reserves to bridge tough economic times, and maintain our City so that it is positioned well to benefit from an improved economy in the future. However, it would be unrealistic to believe that our reserves will be the answer long-term, and we need to make plans now for the best budget strategy to maintain a safe level of reserves.

What is your philosophy with regard to economic development and financial responsibility in the city? 

Economic development is at a low point across the country. If we believe in an eventual rebound in new or redeveloped office and residential properties, we need to make sure that we are prepared to capitalize on opportunities that make sense for Clayton. Projects must fit our master plan for development; driving support for our retail businesses and measuring up to our standard of excellence for architecture and respect for our charming neighborhoods. We also need to protect our excellent school system, a cornerstone of our strong property values. Our financial responsibility is finding the balance that can be true to all of these objectives and keep Clayton attractive to quality developers.

Identify three issues that are of greatest concern to the Clayton residents you represent. How would you address each of these concerns? 

If you take a look at our annual residential survey data, you will find that Clayton sets the standard, and in many instances sets a record for satisfaction with services, amenities and quality of life. Basically, most people are happy with the way things are!

But if I had to identify things that are mentioned most frequently as less positive, they would be empty retail space, concern about declining revenues, and isolated problems with street conditions.

One of the perceived issues with retail is parking. I have already been working hard to address these concerns. I have proposed that we move more rapidly to provide better signage in our downtown to make parking near retail easy to find. And I have proposed advertising that illustrates where we have ample parking close to retail clusters to communities outside Clayton, making shopping here less intimidating. I continue to reach out to our retail community directly and through the Chamber of Commerce to better understand issues and opportunities they face. 

To address declining revenues, I have promoted fiscal prudence and collaboration. I have proposed that we more aggressively collaborate with our area institutions, such as the public schools, to share some service delivery and take advantage of combined buying power where it makes sense and savings can be achieved. I was one of the original founders of the Clayton Century Foundation, the very first public-private partnership in the City of Clayton. The foundation has already raised roughly $2 million dollars to invest in quality of life and cultural amenities that will help enhance Clayton’s margin of excellence. 

With regard to our streets, which make a significant statement about the quality of our city, I continue to shine a light on residents’ concerns, and to facilitate communication with our staff in addressing problems.

Clayton will celebrate its 100th year in 2013. What does this anniversary mean to you? 

Clayton’s centennial is a source of pride for all of us. As we look back at the last 100 years, we can take satisfaction in how our city has grown and been a real influence in the region, while at the same time striking a wonderful balance between growth and preservation of neighborhoods and sense of community. Our anniversary can also provide inspiration for how we will approach the next 100 years. With our wealth of engaged and creative citizens, I believe we will not only meet our challenges but exceed our wildest dreams!

Anything else you would like to add?

It has been an honor to serve the community as an alderman the past six years.  I am committed to working hard to bring together important stakeholders in Clayton to keep it a great place to live, work and play! My experience in business management, leadership for our schools, and building collaborative partnerships is right for Clayton now.


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