The question for Hamilton County primary voters: Too much debt or good economic growth?

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HAMILTON COUNTY (May 4, 2015) – Westfield’s Grand Park has attracted thousands of sports fans, spurring tens-of-millions of dollars in local spending in its short lifespan.

But sports, the past few weeks, appear to have been sidelined by a new arena of politics.

Indiana voters head to the polls Tuesday for the May primary election.

Some of the most closely-watched and consequential races take center stage in Hamilton County.

Incumbent mayors in Carmel and Westfield are facing heightened criticism about how the cities are using taxpayer money to spur economic growth.

Jeff Harpe, a Pike Township firefighter, wants to unseat Westfield Mayor Andy Cook.

Harpe said the tipping point was debate over the city-backed addition of an indoor sports complex at Grand Park.

“I also want to make sure it’s fiscally responsible as well,” Harpe said. “I think our debt could wind up putting us in a situation where we’d have to be reactionary to it and we can’t take time to really do due diligence and be fiscally responsible.”

Cook said the city’s theory is to build amenities that create a “profitable environment for the private sector to invest in,” and he insists the plan is working.

“Is it a risk? Yes,” he said. “But any risk also has a potential of great returns, and we’re over that period now, because we’ve been able to show great returns on our investment.”

The larger question for Republican primary voters in Hamilton county: Have two growing cities overspent, racking up too much debt trying to entice businesses and residents?

In Carmel, longtime Mayor Jim Brainard faces an opponent in City Council President Rick Sharp, who’s accusing Brainard of accumulating $1 billion in debt.

“If this kind of stuff continues, Carmel will be in some amount of trouble,” Sharp said at a recent event.

Brainard, who is looking to be elected to his sixth term as mayor, calls Sharp’s assertions “fuzzy facts.”

“We have a history,” Brainard said. “And people know we have a history of holding taxes down.”

The consequences of Tuesday’s primary will help shape the regional economy, with its lifeline increasingly linked to Hamilton County.

“The concern we hear over and over again is workforce,” Tom Monger said, president and CEO of the Hamilton County Economic Development Corporation. “As I view Hamilton County and the cities within, they’re all very interested in continuing economic development growth, interested in jobs, interested in investment. And so I think that’s really the focus of all our communities.”

Monger said a regional economic strategy is in the process of being drafted, a big part of that including Hamilton County.

Besides the mayoral races in Carmel, Westfield and Noblesville, business and community leaders will be looking to the makeup of each new city council as well.

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