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VALPARAISO — The first candidate forum for Valparaiso's two at-large council seats Wednesday night centered on economic development, diversity, the opioid crisis and roundabouts.

The event, held at the Memorial Opera House and hosted by the League of Women Voters, featured Democrats Elizabeth Wuerffel and Todd Etzler and Republicans Evan Costas and George Douglas. Early voting begins Oct. 8 and election day is just over a month away. Watch the entire forum online filmed by Porter County TV, produced by the video production class at the Porter County Career and Tech Center.

The candidates each answered a variety of questions from residents that the league collected before the event. 

Republicans

Evan Costas, 32, is owner and operator with Costas Restaurant Group LLC, which operates the three Burgerhaus locations, Le Peep and Brick Street Burrito. He is the son of current Mayor Jon Costas and said he is "looking forward to continuing the proactive leadership Valparaiso has seen over the last 16 years."

“I think a big part of leadership is listening," Costas said, adding that as a small business owner he spends a lot of time listening to his employees.

Costas began his opening remarks by saying he would focus his term on council to "strengthen the neighborhoods" and to deal with the opioid crisis.

Each candidate was also asked about the relationship between council and the school board. Costas said the process is "tasteful" and allows for "open and public conversation".

“The government needs to focus on the core of what we do well," Costas said.

Current Councilman George Douglas, 49, is senior vice president of Indiana Beverage. Douglas worked for the city from 1995 to 2001, first as assistant planner and then as the city's first economic development director. He was chosen to replace John Bowker on the City Council in December 2017.

Douglas said promoting community engagement and collaboration with nonprofits is one of his goals.

“We can accomplish anything as long as we work together," Douglas said.

On the repeated topic of diversity, Douglas said northwest Indiana is becoming more diverse, and the same is true for Valparaiso.

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"We are a welcoming community," Douglas said. "We are all different ... we need to embrace independence and open-mindedness."

Democrats

Todd Etzler, 53, works as legal counsel for Horizon Bank and serves on the Center Township Board. He also has served on a number of other city boards and committees. In May, he ran for the nomination for one of the two at-large seats but lost to Heath Carter and Wuerffel in the primary. Carter dropped out of the race shortly after winning the primary, and Etzler was chosen to replace him on the ballot.

When asked about the relationship between economic development and social needs, Etzler replied that he wants to encourage education and businesses to help with citizen's needs.

"Not having to worry about the next paycheck can go a long way to help social needs," Etzler said.

Encouraging a budding art scene in Valparaiso will encourage the future diversity of the city, he said. When asked about running for at-large versus a district, Etzler said the council is there to help all the citizens.

"You’re there for the city of Valparaiso ... you’re there for the good of our community," Etzler said.

Elizabeth Wuerffel, 40, is an associate professor of digital media art at Valparaiso University and is a newcomer to running for office. Wuerffel, who came to Valparaiso for college and then returned in 2006 for work, also volunteered with the Peace Corps.

Wuerffel said she thinks economic development and social needs are "one and the same."

"If we’re not caring about the social needs ... then we’re shortchanging our community," Wuerffel said. “If we’re not accountable in ways ... then we’re going to be hurting our residents”

She also talked about thinking about streets "in terms of complete streets," where people are actively using the area in many ways and sharing the space. She said many of her students graduate and leave the city.

"I don't think we'll be able to create that vibrant art scene here," Wuerffel said, adding younger people struggle to find an apartment at a lower price point.

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Porter County General Assignment Reporter

Emily covers Porter County news and features for The Times. A transplant from NW Ohio to NWI, Emily loves talking to people and hearing their stories. She graduated from the University of Toledo in 2018 and believes all dogs are good dogs.