Portage council race captures citywide interest because of young candidates

March 26, 2019

One might say that the race for the city of Portage’s sixth-district Common Council seat is a battle of millennial proportions.

Two men of the millennial generation, 36-year-old Kyle Little and 26-year-old Eric Shimpach, are on the April 2 election ballot to represent a district in the city’s western sector. Incumbent Bill Kutzke is not seeking re-election.

Yard signs for both candidates have cropped up all over the city, requested and displayed even by residents who don’t live in District 6 and therefore can’t vote for either candidate.

Shimpach (pronounced SHIM-pa) said he thinks the youth of both candidates — either of whom would become the youngest Common Council member — has many in the city unusually excited about the race.

“Most people are tired of seeing only old people serving on the council,” Shimpach said.

Little, who handles marketing for Papa Murphy’s Pizza, said he gets calls from Portage residents seeking his help with city-related issues like streets, sidewalks and sewers, and not all of them live in District 6 — an area bounded on the north by West Wisconsin and Charles streets, which includes parts of West Conant and West Pleasant streets, including Pauquette Park.

Shimpach, who operates an online employee recruiting business from his home, said he would focus on the needs and wishes of the people of his district, and would try to make decisions based on their views instead of his own, if he should be seated on the council.

“The default for an elected official should be to rely on the opinion of your neighbors,” he said.

If he’s elected, Little said, he would make his decisions and cast his votes based on what he sees as what’s best for the city as a whole.

“I’m here to work for District 6, but also to work for Portage, for generations to come,” he said.

One example of that is the issue of sidewalks, Little said.

Little lives on River Street, where the city three years ago added new sidewalks as part of a street improvement project. One of the sidewalks abutted his house.

As apprehensive as he and many of his neighbors were — about sidewalks running just a few feet from front doors, about lost trees, about the cost of special assessments to help pay for the sidewalks — Little said he now appreciates the sidewalks, and sees pedestrians, joggers and dog-walkers enjoying them, too.

But another street project in District 6, involving West Carroll Street, is planned for later this year, and Shimpach said residents who live on the street’s north side are adamantly opposed to sidewalks because they’ll run close to front doors, because old trees will be lost, because the sidewalk-related assessment runs to four figures for some residents, and because residents (including Shimpach) say the sidewalks will exacerbate flooding in an already flood-prone area.

“It’s not just the price of the sidewalks,” Shimpach said. “A lot of people say they’re very, very concerned about the flooding issue.”

Another issue that directly affects District 6 is the performing arts pavilion planned for Pauquette Park, to be paid for by the Portage Service Club Association. The Portage Plan Commission recently approved revised plans for the structure, and city officials plan to seek Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources grant money to help pay for multi-use trails to be built in conjunction with the pavilion project.

As president of the Portage Family Skate Park, Little said he has worked closely with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department on the skate facility in Goodyear Park, and on its planned expansion.

He said he thinks the service club organization should have communicated more closely with city officials on the pavilion, and perhaps should have been more flexible in the facility’s location.

Shimpach said he, too, has heard concerns from people who live near Pauquette Park about traffic congestion and parking problems, especially if the pavilion should be used more frequently than the once-a-year Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra concerts.

Both Shimpach and Little say infrastructure is the key issue facing Portage Common Council.

From Little’s perspective, updated infrastructure, including a connective system of sidewalks, is vital to attracting and keeping young households in Portage.

Shimpach said, however, that he also cares about keeping Portage “affordable,” including holding the line on property taxes and limiting the city’s debt. In addition to living under a state-imposed levy limit, the city also has self-imposed annual debt limits.

Both Shimpach and Little grew up in the district they now seek to represent.

Both use the word “neighbors” in almost every sentence they speak, and both say they have knocked on doors in their district multiple times since they filed their candidacy papers in January.

“I’ve talked to nearly every single one of my neighbors, multiple times,” Shimpach said.

“Spring elections rock,” Little said. “But there were plenty of days when I was doing this in subzero temperatures.”