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401 Meeker St Delta CO 81416 970.874.4421
Larry Wilkening
Thomas Wills

Two candidates step up to provide leadership in Hotchkiss

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Thomas Wills and Larry Wilkening are running for mayor of Hotchkiss, seeking to fill the seat that's being vacated by Wendell Koontz, who is term limited.

Since moving to Hotchkiss in 1990, Wills has been an active member of the community. He has served on the Hotchkiss Town Council for a total of 14 years and was a founding member of the Hotchkiss Planning Commission. Planning is his "thing" -- in 2003 he took the lead in crafting the town's first Master Plan, which he has updated numerous times. He wrote the town's zoning ordinance utilizing a multi-use approach that allows a mix of residential and commercial uses in downtown Hotchkiss, as well as cottage businesses in most residential areas. He wrote the town's sign code, a sidewalk and trails plan, and a downtown improvement plan as an addendum to the Master Plan, all with input from staff, council and the town attorney.

He believes planning is critical to the town's growth, which is picking up. "Growth is going to be a big thing over the next five years," he said. "We've already seen one proposal for a subdivision."

In the future, he would like to develop a parks plan and a capital improvement plan.

As an artist and small business owner, Wills is also active in the Hotchkiss Community Chamber of Commerce. The town and the chamber are collaborating on the Colorado Main Street Program for the downtown area. Chamber volunteers, including Wills, began by planting flowers in boxes placed along Bridge Street, but it's been a real challenge to sustain that effort, Wills said. "I guess it's because our small businesses are run by people who are busy enough trying to keep their business going. I think we're going to have to figure out how to pay a maintenance person."

Wills said he will keep pitching ideas, hoping to land on a concept that would make the downtown area unique and get people excited. Since the town operates on sales tax revenues, business enhancement is vitally important.

Communication with business owners and the community as a whole is key, he said, but two-way communication has been a struggle for both the town and the chamber.

Wills said the mayor has little more authority than a town trustee, but whereas the town council meets just once or twice a month, the mayor must keep on top of what the town staff is doing on a daily and weekly basis.

"The mayor is the administrative head of the town so what I would be doing is having staff meetings at least once a week, and I'd probably meet with department heads a couple of times a week so I would know really well what's going on.

"We've got an excellent staff and they don't need a lot of supervision, but a major duty of the mayor is to make sure town staff implements policy and follows the law. It's not a managerial job, but when you don't have a town manager someone has to provide oversight."

Wills believes the town badly needs a town manager, but "we can't afford it right now."

Wills observed that the municipal election four years ago was cancelled due to a lack of candidates. This year, he's pleased to see four trustee candidates for the four vacant seats and another candidate for mayor.

"I'm not running against Larry Wilkening," he said. I'm offering to serve the town with everything I've learned in the last 30 years. Larry has a whole career in management which would be really valuable too. Either way, I'm fine and I would probably be willing to go on the planning commission as a citizen."

Wilkening's family moved to the Crawford area from San Francisco when his father retired in 1958 after a 20-year career in the Marine Corps. Larry is a 1968 graduate of Hotchkiss High School; his wife Sherri is a 1967 HHS graduate.

He graduated from Colorado State University in 1972 with a degree in business administration, with an emphasis on accounting. After college he returned to Hotchkiss and went to work for Independent Lumber Company, the start of a 43-year career in the building products industry. His career took him away from the North Fork Valley, but he returned in 1996.

"The move not only gave us the chance to return to our hometown but it allowed us the opportunity to help our parents in their later years," he said.

He retired in 2015 and now feels he has the time to devote to community service.

He serves on the Hotchkiss Planning Commission and has been regularly attending town council meetings.

"I find the dynamics and diversity of small town government to be very interesting," he said.

"Everybody has told me all the mayor has to do is run the meetings.That's not true. Running the meetings is one thing, but you have to be able to deal with a lot of different personalities, a lot of different ideas. You have to be well-informed on the issues that are coming up before the council.

"You have to be able to handle employees. The town doesn't have a town manager at this point, so the mayor is involved in some of those employment issues," he said.

At this point, the town can't afford a town manager, and it doesn't really need one, he said. The staff is doing a great job and the three departments seem to work pretty well together.

A fiscal conservative, he said the town's limited revenue must be judiciously managed to provide adequate services. He gives kudos to the clerk's office, public works department and the police department for providing outstanding service to the citizens while keeping expenditures within budget.

"They have been able to save the town money in many ways which allows the town's surplus to grow," he said. "We now have an adequate budget surplus that will enable the town to pay for unexpected, expensive infrastructure emergencies if they occur. We must not let our budget surplus erode."

He said the town has been very fortunate to have current and past mayors (Koontz and Jakubiak, respectively) along with their boards of trustees that have kept the health, safety and welfare of the citizens as the town's main priority.

Like a number of other candidates, he would like to see more citizen participation. He encourages all citizens to attend the meetings so they can keep up with what's going on in town.

He hopes the Colorado Main Street Program takes off with collaborative effort from the town, Region 10, the chamber and local business owners.

In closing he said, "In the current economic climate of decreasing revenues it will be harder than ever for small towns to keep their heads above water. I believe that I can provide the leadership to not only help Hotchkiss survive but also to thrive in the years to come."

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