LOWELL -- The two finalists for the city manager's position interviewed Wednesday night told the City Council that they would take an active role in trying to boost economic development in Lowell if they land the job.
George Ramirez, a former city councilor who is executive vice president of Devens operations for MassDevelopment, said the city could enhance its efforts to market itself to businesses. He also said he thinks all city officials from the top down should positively promote what Lowell has to offer.
"I would be a walking, talking public-relations person trying to recruit businesses," said Ramirez, a Lowell resident who served on the City Council in 2006-2007.
In Devens, Ramirez said he works to make sure the former Army base gets some positive publicity in the media at least once a month to create a positive buzz about the community.
Daniel Keyes, who has served as Blackstone's town administrator since March 2011, said he would want to work with the council and others to establish an economic-development vision for the city and then work to carry it out.
Keyes highlighted how when he got to Blackstone he worked with the Board of Selectmen to organize an Economic and Industrial Development Committee and secured funding of $15,000 to create a townwide economic-development program.
"The manager has to be the leader," Keyes said. "He can't sit on the sidelines."
One success story has been the town securing funding for a bike path that will connect the community with other communities in the Blackstone Valley and in Rhode Island, a project that is expected to be completed this summer, said Keyes.
The two candidates offered their visions to help revitalize the city's downtown.
Keyes said he would meet with the Chamber of Commerce, neighborhood leaders and business owners both in and outside the downtown to discuss how to bring growth to the city center.
Ramirez said there is "no magic bullet" to boosting the downtown, but he would like to get all the different stakeholders together to develop a strategic plan. He also said he has heard from people downtown that they want the city center to be clean and safe.
Both Ramirez and Keyes said communication is their strongest quality.
"I would be the communication manager," said Ramirez, 49.
Keyes highlighted that he values communication that prioritizes listening on his part.
"I learn more by sitting and listening than by talking," said Keyes, 61.
Both candidates were asked about the city's preliminary fiscal 2015 budget, which is level service and predicated on a 3.
Keyes told the council he believes he could provide a level-service budget without a tax increase. He also said he would want departments to provide three-year budgets so they could plan ahead, though he said afterward an annual budget would still be approved each year.
Blackstone's general government budget is $21 million, while Lowell's general fund budget is around $300 million, but Keyes said he would be up to the task of crafting a larger budget.
Ramirez said nothing stood out to him about the preliminary budget and he said it looked well prepared. He did say "everything is on the table" when looking at whether to raise revenue or achieve savings to balance the budget, and that cost containment should be examined on a daily basis.
Ramirez, who manages an operating budget of $50 million in Devens, said he would also look for savings through regionalization of services.
Blackstone has a population of 9,300 residents, while 4,000 live and work in Devens. Lowell's population is over 105,000.
Ramirez said he would prefer an employment contract, but he will keep an open mind. Keyes said he would like a contract, but the issue would not be a deal-breaker.
Keyes, who resides in Blackstone and Springfield, said he would move to Lowell if selected as city manager.
Ramirez is the brother-in-law of City Councilor John Leahy, who was advised by the Ethics Commission that he could participate in the manager-selection process if he felt he could be objective. Leahy has said he can be objective, and like the other councilors, asked Ramirez questions Wednesday night.
On Tuesday night, the council interviewed former East Providence City Manager Peter Graczykowski.
The council will interview North Reading Town Administrator Greg Balukonis at 6 p.m. tonight and state Rep. Kevin Murphy at 7:30 p.m. The council also voted Tuesday to hold a special meeting Monday at 6 p.m. to select a new city manager.
Follow Lyle Moran on Twitter and Tout @lylemoran.