State College Mayor Q&A: Ezra Nanes talks COVID, businesses, plans

Ezra Nanes will be sworn in as State College’s mayor Monday, officially starting a four-year term and signaling the start of what could be a political shift toward more “progressive” policies.

The native New Yorker and father of two overwhelmingly won the Democratic primary by nearly a 2-to-1 margin before running unopposed in the general election. He takes over for Ron Filippelli, who served as the interim mayor when Donald Hahn resigned in late 2019 after being elected a magisterial district judge.

The soon-to-be mayor recently sat down with the Centre Daily Times to discuss his vision for the future, why he wanted to be mayor, and where he falls on key local issues. Responses have been edited for clarity and space. Here’s what he said:

Centre Daily Times: You’re coming in at a time where we’ve got a once-in-a-century pandemic, a housing crisis, recurring issues with racism and inequality, a slew of financial troubles (both individual- and business-related), etc. Why would anyone want to be mayor right now?

Ezra Nanes: It’s because we love the community. No second thoughts; love the community. And I believe that I can add value in this position. Mayor is a role in the community, and I see myself as part of a team that includes the borough council, the borough administration and staff, and the members of the community.

So this is a role that I’m well-suited for, and I think I made that case well enough during the election to win the election. So I think I can really make a difference in this job, and that’s why I sought the office.

CDT: The voters have spoken, and something they seemed to say was, “We want a more progressive State College.” You and the three new council members were all the most progressive candidates in 2021, and more than one official told us they thought this might be the most progressive mayor/council combination that State College has ever seen. So what does a more progressive State College look like to you?

Nanes: Yeah, there’s a few important areas where we need to take big steps or make a change. And, to be honest, the biggest changes are in our mindset and how we view things. So, the starting point — and I think this is really where the mandate comes from in the community — is around diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s around creating a truly welcoming and inclusive community for everyone.

And I will say, wonderful community — people love living here. But not everyone feels comfortable or welcome here, so that is the foundation of all the work we do. And, even when we talk about priorities, we have to focus on bringing people to the table, bringing voices to the table that are either not represented or have not been, so that we can have a more complete view of our community and where we can go forward. Diversity of perspective makes for better decision-making as well. And I could go on about the benefits of focusing on that, but there’ll be folks who want to focus on economic drivers and safety and all those things — all those are built on the foundation of inclusion.

So, our local businesses need talent and, more than anything, they need people to work for them. … When we create a place where people of all backgrounds — racial, ethnic, religious, gender expression — can find a home and feel that they’re supported and can thrive and feel valued, then businesses will have more talent to hire from and will have more people starting businesses and will have more people living here to patronize those businesses. So that’s just one example of how focusing on (diversity, equity and inclusion) is a benefit to us.

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Ezra Nanes will be sworn in as State College’s mayor on Monday. Abby Drey Centre Daily Times, file

CDT: You just alluded to staffing issues at businesses, a national trend that State College hasn’t been immune to. Well, it’s difficult to agree on solutions if you can’t agree on the root of the problem. So what is the current problem here — is it a people-aren’t-getting-paid-enough issue or a people-don’t-want-to-work issue?

Nanes: Really great question. I don’t know if there’s any definitive answer on why somebody might choose to not work. But I know that people work, one, because they need money. Two, because they want to have satisfaction that they are not only contributing to their community but are doing something that allows them to realize their potential and do the things they know they can do. It’s a sense of personal satisfaction to work.

So, if you have people sitting out job opportunities, those jobs either don’t pay enough or don’t offer those opportunities — or they carry with them increased stresses and risks and difficulties that maybe weren’t there before. I think we understand the pandemic is putting strain on anybody who is front-facing to the public. Anybody who’s in a service position now has to deal with COVID. … So the stress and strain that’s been placed on front-line workers — from health care to public services like the bus, where we see staffing shortages, to hospitality — I think you’re going to have to pay more and create more opportunities to find the balance they need in those jobs. Or it’s going to be hard to hire people.

You have child care — foundational stuff — and, personally, I believe businesses have to do their part. But, really, as a society, government, which is the representative of the people, has to take a key role. We have to play a role; we have to provide support financially for those businesses so that they can offer what their employees need to work. So I definitely will not be blaming any workers or anybody who is just not comfortable working in a job that is not benefiting their life.

CDT: Before we get deeper into some of these issues, I’d like to take a step back and ask about your priorities in office. I know there’s a lot you’d like to accomplish but, if you had to pick 2-3 priorities to focus on, what would those be? What is most important to you?

Nanes: I’m going to start with one that you may not expect. But I’m going to say that, for me, where I’m going to draw my line in the sand is on bike infrastructure because I believe that is one of those things that is so critical to our future. And not only is it so critical to our future for our business, for our families, for our well-being, but for our climate. There is an opportunity in front of us, with money coming from the federal government … and the one thing that bike infrastructure takes is money. Oh, and it takes political will. I believe we have that. …

We have some nice bike infrastructure, and we have some beautiful biking areas — but they’re not connected. They’re largely, where the connections lack, very unsafe and they’re not efficient or direct. And so we need efficient, direct routes that are safe for people of all ages and abilities to get from place to place by bike.

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Soon-to-be State College Mayor Ezra Nanes, who counts building bike infrastructure as one of his priorities, unchains his bicycle after a Q&A downtown with the Centre Daily Times. Josh Moyer [email protected]

CDT: And your other priority, or priorities?

Nanes: I will pick more, if you don’t mind. I’ve been on the campaign trail for a year, and I’ve been actively involved for a number of years. But when I go to a door, knock on someone’s door, or go to an event, I say this to people all the time without fail: What’s your No. 1? And I will say we’ve talked about diversity, equity and inclusion so I’m considering that a foundation we’re building. But, when I ask people what do they care about? Downtown.

And it’s really true. I mean, I continue to engage with people: What’s your No. 1? (And they’ll say,) “I really want to make sure we don’t lose our feeling of downtown.” I hear that all the time. No. 1 issue that people said to me throughout the entire year. So let’s frame it as an opportunity. We have zoning that is in the process of being rewritten, and zoning creates what we want to create. The zoning should reflect our priorities. …

And, along with that, I just want to flag two other pieces of this. Calder Walkway is a big infrastructure project plan because we need to fix the plumbing, the sewers, right? And so we’re going to have to tear up blocks and blocks of ground. We’re tearing it up. So how are we going to rebuild it? So that could be a pedestrian and bike corridor; we could sink the utilities underground. And then there’s another thing that is the State College Town Centre Project, which has been a little under the radar for a couple of years but it’s moving ahead steadily. … We have a chance to build what the community really wants. We’re going to invest.

It’s a public-private partnership, so the borough is going to provide resources and invite — it already has invited — private developments to build something. So we all need to make sure what gets built is something everyone really wants: common spaces, places to shop in, local businesses, small businesses, places to eat, places for children and teens to go, affordable housing. And it should be built in a way that reflects the state of the art of energy efficiency and sustainability. We’re building it — it’s us — so let’s make it an example for how we want things to be built. So those projects tie in with all of this, so I’d like to put those on the radar because downtown is the center of our life here. So let’s make it what we all want it to be.

CDT: Speaking of that, we have seen fewer mom-and-pop stores and a lot more luxury student housing over the years. You mentioned rezoning. How might that help solve the issue, or how else could you see the borough tackling that unwanted trend of seeing small businesses go? How does State College move on and move forward here?

Nanes: The only choice is to move forward, so let’s do it. But I mean, with zoning, we can’t look back and say, “This is terrible.” What we’ve had happen has happened, and we have development. And there are positive benefits to density, so we do want development to happen in the borough. It’s better that people are closer to the centers of infrastructure … however, zoning was put in place to encourage and allow greater (building) height, and I think we’ve seen that certain choices had unanticipated consequences — which can happen with any zoning. So there’s no blame here; good choices were made, but things that were not expected happened. So we need to adjust the zoning so we are not encouraging — either directly or indirectly — luxury student housing to be built downtown. Period.

And that’s something that’s going to take a lot of work. And it’s complex. What incentives do you put in to build housing that is workforce housing, for example? And that’s one of the reasons I talked about the Town Centre Project and other redevelopment because, if we’re doing a project and we care about affordable housing, shouldn’t we make sure those projects include some as a model of how it can be? So having these large developments, they have a fee-in-lieu they can pay or they can put in some affordable housing into a development, and the point of that zoning — which allowed extra height — was to encourage affordable housing. However, there are times where units have been built in luxury student housing developments and they didn’t rent. It recently came before council that two developments had a number of units that simply did not rent. And you think, “Wow, we need affordable housing.” And yet affordable units in downtown did not rent.

So, in those situations, we didn’t even get what we — in quotes — “paid for.” So I think we’ve got to change the zoning and, again, prioritize affordable housing but make sure we’re not inadvertently incentivizing the tearing down of whole blocks of smaller structures to build luxury student housing. Because I hear this constantly: People are scared. They feel like they’re losing, or some people feel they’ve lost, their downtown or tourism business from athletic events and arts. People have been coming here for decades, and their favorite restaurant or even shop, their favorite block, is gone. And what’s replaced those things is not necessarily something they want. … And students have as much trouble finding affordable housing as anybody. I hear that from students all the time, that rent’s sort of out of control.

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Ezra Nanes speaks during an Earth Day strike in front of Old Main on Thursday, April 22, 2021. Abby Drey [email protected]

CDT: Another topic I’d be remiss if we didn’t cover is policing, which has been one of the borough’s biggest issues the last few years. The police department was recently approved to add a social worker without reducing the force. Your soon-to-be colleague, incoming Councilman Gopal Balachandran, asked the police chief if it’d be best to add even more social workers while leaving open officer positions unfilled — but the chief wasn’t a fan of that. So let me ask you: How would you guide the borough on this issue, and could State College see fewer police under a Mayor Nanes administration?

Nanes: I’m trying to think of where to start with this one, but I want to give you an example, something that is here in the community. The killing of Osaze Osagie is an open wound in the community, and we need to heal that wound. And whatever money is required from the borough to properly heal with the Osagie family, we should view as an investment. Anytime we invest in the well-being of a family in the community, we’re investing in the interests of all. The interests of the Osagie family are the interests of the borough.

This isn’t about putting somebody in jail or blaming or pointing a finger. It’s about transforming our system in a way that makes sure that every single family is protected and supported in the same way. I know we have a good partner in Chief (John) Gardner. I know he wants to be a part of this transformation. And, as somebody who’s running an organization, I also know he’s thinking, “I’ve been mandated to do all of these things. And if I don’t have enough people, the people I do have are going to struggle to do their jobs.” They’re going to have their own issues we talked about with employment, and they’re going to leave.

So all of these issues are interlinked, but we do need to move things. We do need to support mental health better than we’ve done it. We do need to shift the way we think about policing; police cannot go and pull a gun and shoot people and kill them. We should not be thinking that’s OK in our society, and that’s a shift of mind that’s going to take some work to accomplish. So, yeah, the budget is something we should look at. Absolutely.

I’m not going to say I have the plan for how we’re going to change the police. I have a team of seven incredibly smart people in the council that I will work with, who will all bring ideas to the table that will take input from the community on how we can make this transformation.

CDT: We’re hitting on some of the most pressing issues in the borough, so let’s keep it up with a pandemic-related question. Recently, both the borough and county have taken up a feasibility study on potentially trying to start an Act 315 Health Department, something that could make the area more responsive to COVID-like situations but something which will also cost time and resources. Where do you stand on that department, either on the borough or county level?

Nanes: If we were to do something — and I say “if” because it’s not a certainty — there are no guarantees we would be able to achieve this or be approved for it. It will require tremendous focus, resources, time, money, investment, and that will come out of necessity at the focus of other things.

So this choice is not an easy one. And I personally am not yet convinced that it is something we should do, because we do have a state Department of Health. Now, I would say a county department — if we do it — would be the way to go because it would allow us the efficiency of having multiple municipalities aligned under it. And that’s important. To do it as a borough would be expensive, difficult and probably inefficient. But these health departments will have no authority; they are data collection and analysis organizations to understand the dynamics of health and to make recommendations on policies.

And, in a pandemic, having that visibility is a value. And I think having a health department that had a voice of authority, if not actual authority, may have been helpful in setting policy. I believe we should have a countywide, statewide mask mandate for all businesses, unless you’re eating a sandwich or drinking coffee. You go into any business, you should be wearing a mask so we protect other people. And I would like to see vaccine requirements for entering public spaces, or public facilities, as well because we have a pandemic that is not going away. It is spreading like wildfire; it is shutting down our hospital. … But I am personally worried that investing such a large amount of our time and focus into a body that will not have formal authority to set policy may not be the wisest choice.

CDT: Let me shift gears a little bit and ask about you working with council. This will be your first term as mayor, and three more people will be coming in as first-time council members. How do you hit the ground running and make sure there isn’t a let-up between the outgoing council/mayor and the incoming council/mayor?

Nanes: A lot of conversations amongst all members of council — and that’s what I’ve been doing since I was elected. Even before that, because I was unopposed in the general election. So, for a long time, we’ve been having conversations and determining where those priorities are. I believe we have a lot of alignment between members of council, between both continuing members and incoming members. And I think we have the makings of what could be a high-performing team. And my job, partly, is going to be ensuring that we perform as a team — and, if we perform, that means we’ll take effective action for the community.

It does take time for teams to learn how to work together. So there will be a breaking-in period where we just see how it goes, see how it feels to work together. In ways that we can’t do once all of us are sworn in, we’ve been getting together and talking and understanding, “What matters to you?” It’s a lot of listening. Everybody has to share what they care about and say, “OK, here are the common themes.” So the biggest challenge we face as a council is focus and picking the things to act on because there are 1,000 different choices.

CDT: During the primary, I remember you telling residents that, whether they voted for you or not, you’re here to listen to them. So, for the State College residents still getting to know you, what would you like them to know about the soon-to-be mayor?

Nanes: Well, I view the borough as a team. And together we take action to benefit everybody who lives and works and visits here. And an essential ingredient of that team is the public, so I really encourage everyone in the community to please come and engage. Come to council; we have a public hour at every regular council meeting — that’s two Mondays a month — where you can come and speak for four minutes and tell us what you care about. And it’s in the public record.

You can email us. You can call us. You can meet us at events. So please engage with council; engage with the mayor. Let us know what matters to you.

Josh Moyer earned his B.A. in journalism from Penn State and his M.S. from Columbia. He’s been involved in sports and news writing for nearly 20 years. He counts the best athlete he’s ever seen as Tecmo Super Bowl’s Bo Jackson.

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