Gard, Hancock lay out platforms for city
By: Sarah Elmquist Squires
Last week, Riverton candidates vying for mayor shouldered questions on topics from public safety to the economy during a League of Women Voters’ candidate forum. Incumbent Riverton Mayor Richard Gard said he’s proven he has the time and experience to lead over the last four years, adding that he worked hard to keep the city open during Covid and to bring back jobs, rebuilt attitude and usage of city park, and helped work to raise funds for the planned new hospital. He’s circulated his personal cell phone number and always returns calls and text messages, Gard explained, and continued: “My door is always open.”
Challenger and current county prosecutor Tim Hancock said he moved back to Riverton 10 years ago for his position in the county prosecutor’s office and that he felt blessed to serve the community in that capacity. After serving on the city council from 2007 to 2020, he said he believes Riverton’s most important issue is public safety, and that as mayor he would focus on leading deliberately and with citizen involvement, and act proactively in terms of public safety from issues of overgrown weeds to the police department. “I am really blessed just in general to be here,” he shared.
When asked about what role or financial support they would provide to the regional airport, Hancock said the facility was essential and allows many to conduct business in Riverton and the broader community. While Lander and other municipalities contribute to its funding, up until recently it was a bigger drain on the city’s budget, and Hancock said it was important to build understanding among local governments about the airport’s importance and ensure they continue to contribute. He said while Gard does a good job in this area, the mayor must continue to “build on that understanding that the rising tide raises all ships, and we need to keep that afloat.”
Gard said the city has been trying to preserve the airport for years, through challenges such as pilot shortages and gas increases, and that the city had to help create Denver Air “out of nothing.” He said in the same way a farmer relies on his $300,000 tractor in the field to be functioning to do his job, a doctor who comes to Riverton with his wife may need the ability for air travel. Riverton has gone above and beyond to keep its airport healthy and functioning, he added.
What role, candidates were asked, should the city’s strategic planning play in guiding city staff? Gard said the city currently uses professional studies for parks and master plans, but they needed local adaptation. The last master plan, for instance, suggested planting hundreds more trees in city park, but in working with the police chief, Gard said the chief cautioned it would just give miscreants more places to hide. Plans need to be shaped by local voices and knowledge, he said. “We can use that strategic planning as a starting point.”
Hancock credited city staff on their capabilities, and said he felt the city could do a better job making sure plans are communicated to council. He called the city’s current master plan “incredible,” and stated that on the issue of tree planting in city park, they could simply be trimmed to a certain height. The city should take what it has and ensure it is used in a way that is intelligent and inviting. “When I was on the council we actually did very well at goal setting every year,” he shared, and said a lot of those goals have stayed the same over the years and should be evaluated to see what can be changed.
Candidates were asked what they would support and oppose when it comes to future city revenue and economic development. Hancock suggested the master plan included many keys and that Riverton should regain its status as the Rendezvous City. Being in a central location can help attract people, and city leaders should try to recruit conventions and sporting events for visitors to come and spend money. Riverton must investigate where the city is bleeding money, whether it be residents traveling to other locations to spend or buying on Amazon, and encourage new businesses that can meet those needs.
“Economic development is really a tough thing to sponsor, but we need to have that goal in mind,” said Gard. He said when he took office Riverton had a poor economic record, with people and businesses leaving the city, and that city leaders have tried to help, support and restore local businesses. We’ve brought in soccer tournaments, baseball tournaments, and other businesses, he shared, and said it was important for a city leader to do more than talk about ushering in economic development.
An audience question suggested that some have criticized that the economic development sales tax has been favored for bigger project developments at the expense of small businesses and projects, such as the hospital, and questioned whether Riverton leaders should weigh smaller projects and businesses more heavily.
Gard said the city typically takes in about $1.6 million from the sales tax, and when it comes to recruiting people to Riverton, having an airport, college, and hospital are important amenities. Do we favor larger businesses over smaller? The immediate answer is yes, he shared. The city used to have a functioning hospital, Gard said, and now it doesn’t, and with that project costing about $40 million, city leaders needed to focus on funding the major projects and would eventually get to the smaller ones.
Hancock said funding things such as the new hospital are essential and will help Riverton gain the things it’s lost, but said he recognized that while a funding request for $80,000 might not be much for a big development, think of what it could do for a small business. We need to make sure we have a functioning hospital, he said, “but also remember a lot of people in Riverton, their livelihood is small business.”
Are city parks and green space adequate? Hancock said he believes the city has a good number of parks, but how they are maintained could always be improved. I don’t play tennis, he said, but people have said the existing tennis courts are in ill repair and they’d like to see a workable court. There’s talk about adding a basketball court in place of the tennis courts in city park, Hancock added, along with a new skate park. Sidewalks in city park have buckled and are in need of improvement, too.
Gard said the city recently replaced playground equipment in Sunset Park and it’s been well loved. “If Riverton isn’t a pleasant place to live, then we’ve missed our mark,” he said, adding that it required a careful balance — infrastructure like potholes also need attention and funds. The city maintains thousands of acres of property, Gard said, and just bought a 70-foot mower to help maintain them. He highlighted city park, which he called his “pet project.” “We’ve worked really hard to make that a usable park again. Is it cured? No. We’re still working on those problems.” If we don’t use the parks, he continued, “someone else will.”
Developments like Kifaru International and the new medical facility require a skilled workforce — and somewhere for those new workers to live. Candidates were asked what they would do to address the need for more housing.
It’s the chicken and the egg, Gard explained, as developments actually materialize, the need for housing follows closely after it. “We cannot keep driving the cost of housing through the roof,” he said. A person needs to be able to buy a house and become a part of Riverton, but housing is not an easy issue, he explained. Right now, the city really needs to attract more jobs and employers, as Riverton has been about 10,600 people for as long as anyone can remember, he shared.
Hancock brought up the city’s master plan and its goals. Being able to purchase a single-family home is great, he said, “but we need to be receptive to also adding multifamily dwellings,” he added. The city’s housing fleet should include not just homes for people making $100,000 a year, but also apartments and lower-income options, and the city should make sure there is room for that.
Gard rebutted, stating it was good to see Hancock change his position on zoning that allows for multi-family housing after he opposed such a zone change in his own neighborhood. Hancock later stated that his opposition was not due to the higher density zoning in his part of the city, but that he feared multi-family homes on Sunset would compound traffic that already accommodates high school and ambulance vehicles.
When asked about tribal relations, both candidates stated that a good relationship was integral. Gard pointed to his administration that has gone to meetings with Shoshoni and Arapaho tribal leaders, adding that he knows of no prior mayoral administration that has met with them as often as his has. Hancock said the city has typically had a tribal liaison and city leaders needed to focus on reaching out to tribal leaders and not just waiting around for an invitation.
Is racism a problem in Riverton? As much as we’d like to say that we never deal with racism, Hancock said, “It’s not true. It’s a problem … Is it something that just causes absolutely terrible consequences? Yes. As a council, all we really can do is lead by example,” he stated. City leaders can tell people that they are all welcome, but if a person breaks the law, a person of any race, they will be punished. Leaders should show people that they truly appreciate diversity in the community, and ensure they are treated fairly.
Gard said it was a tough question. He said he’s meeting with the Riverton Peace Mission and doing his best to curb the tide of racism in the city, the “feeling that Riverton is a racist society.” He said when he does ride-alongs with the city’s police force, he’s always appreciative of the kindness they offer all they encounter. “We’re trying to do that on every level,” he said.