Lowering North Platte property owners’ tax burdens is vital, Lonnie Parsons says, but so is providing a high quality of life for all residents.
The 55-year-old businessman, homebuilder and former city firefighter emphasized both equally Tuesday in becoming the third declared candidate for mayor in this year’s elections.
“I tell all my managers to step on the customer’s side of the counter and look at what they see,” Parsons, 4105 W. Philip Ave., said in opening his campaign at Godfather’s Pizza inside Wild Bill’s Fun Center.
“Is it appealing? Is it clean? Are we customer-friendly? Do we have the attractions to keep them coming back? Is quality good? If not, what can we do to make it better?
“I believe that’s what we need to do as citizens of North Platte.”
Parsons, who moved to North Platte to join the Fire Department in January 1988, joins the mayor’s race alongside Great Plains Health Chief Information Officer Brandon Kelliher and two-term City Councilman Andrew Lee.
Mayor Dwight Livingston, whose second four-year term expires in December, has yet to announce whether he’ll run again. Incumbents have until Feb. 18 and challengers until March 2 to file.
Like Kelliher, Parsons — who has built more than 60 homes in North Platte — is making his first bid for public office. He and his wife, Kelly, have nine grown children, 12 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
In a separate Telegraph interview, Parsons said he set his sights on being a firefighter and paramedic before he graduated from Cozad High School in 1982.
He earned his initial emergency medical technician certificate from Arapahoe Community College in Littleton, Colorado, while also learning homebuilding on the job for Richmond American Homes.
He returned in 1984 to Cozad, where he became a volunteer firefighter, but eventually “figured North Platte was the closest (place) to become a paid firefighter.”
Parsons continued his EMT training on North Platte’s professional force, then completed paramedic training at McCook Community College. In 1996, he became one of the city’s first two official paramedics.
Four years later, Parsons left the Fire Department and bought into Palmer Brothers Granite Co. in Holdrege. He and partner Stan Ham started L&S Homes in 2001, eventually buying out each other’s interests in the homebuilding firm and granite company.
Parsons has built homes and invested in residential and business properties ever since, he said, though the Great Recession of 2008-09 led him to cut back on homebuilding for several years.
He began construction last year on the Dancer Subdivision, a 37-home development at West Philip and Dixie avenues that won City Council approval in October 2018 after energetic community debate.
His 2006 purchase of the former Gibson’s Discount Center building on East Fourth Street led to his non-homebuilding association with former Hershey grocer Gary Suhr, who opened his first Gary’s Super Foods store there.
When the Cedar Bowl closed in May 2014, he said, Suhr “called me and said we need to keep something open for the kids to have” for entertainment. They bought and renovated it, opening Wild Bill’s that August.
“It became something very dear to me” as a way to provide cheaper entertainment for children, said Parsons, who also has coached girls club softball teams since 1993.
Parsons said he knows North Platte city government both as a former employee and as a business customer working with city departments.
He began thinking about running for mayor when Livingston was first elected in 2012, but he didn’t feel he could give the job enough attention, he said.
“I just now have the time to do it,” Parsons told The Telegraph. “It could be a part-time job, but I think the city deserves to have more time spent on it.”
He said he wants to emulate the late Jim Whitaker, mayor from 1996 to 2004, in bringing a strong business sense to the operation of city government.
Parsons joined Lee and Kelliher in stressing the need to diversify North Platte’s economy and improve the quality and quantity of its housing stock as indicated in a 2018 city-county housing study.
That said, “job creation and quality of life go hand in hand,” he told about 40 people at his mayoral announcement. “City services go a long way toward enhancing the quality of life for our residents and those considering North Platte as their home.”
In his comments to The Telegraph, Parsons echoed recent comments by some community leaders that North Platte’s codes on housing conditions aren’t being well enforced.
“I think the city has the authority to mandate the living conditions a bit better than we are,” he said.
In his mayoral announcement, Parsons said he would “focus on producing the desired outcomes from all city departments with the minimal amount of resources, including equipment, people, facilities and money.”
But North Platte could better enlist visitors to lower property taxes, Parsons told The Telegraph, by enacting a restaurant tax and adding a city hotel-motel “occupation tax” alongside the lodging tax collected by Lincoln County.
A half-cent city sales tax devoted to infrastructure, previously rejected by city voters in 2018, would make sense “if it was totally used for that and not moved around within other parts of the budget,” he said.
Parsons admitted to “mixed feelings” about whether the city should remain the owner and operator of Iron Eagle Golf Course, long plagued by red ink and periodic river flooding since its 1994 opening.
Though he’s open to a variety of ideas to close the course’s funding gap, he said, the city ultimately should hand the question back to the voters who approved the course’s construction in 1992.
“In the world, they say if you’re in a hole, stop digging,” he said.