Candidates answer questions at forum

Published 10:35 am Monday, October 16, 2017

By Beth Alston

Part 3
AMERICUS — At the recent candidates’ forum sponsored by the Sumter County Chamber of Commerce, candidates for the District 5 seat on the Americus City Council, and the two mayoral candidates had the opportunity to speak.
Moderator Len Hicks also introduced other candidates such as Scotty Barnes who is running for Andersonville City Council Post 1 unopposed. Barnes was not present. For the Post 3 seat, Hicks introduced Velma Coley and Chris Wooden. Wooden was not present so Coley, who is the incumbent, spoke.
Coley, who said she was born and raised in Andersonville, calls the town home. She has four children and 10 grandchildren. A graduate of Sumter County Comprehensive High School, who did further study at Spelman College in Atlanta, she later came to Americus where she lived for a few years, but Andersonville “called her to come back” because it is her home, her father’s home and her grandfather’s home. She also said she wouldn’t think of living anywhere else.
“I am running for reelection … Some of you probably didn’t know we have a [city] council in Andersonville … I’ve been on the council in Andersonville for the past eight years. I love Andersonville …
“We are a quaint little town; everybody knows everybody on a first-name basis … We have our problems … but we don’t have these major problems. Things we can talk about, we talk about. … I would love to be the council lady for Post 5 … Come to see us and find out about Andersonville … ”
Also recognized were Linda Palmer, running for Post 6 in Andersonville; Lou Chase, running unopposed for District 3 in Americus; and Charles Christmas running unopposed for District 4 in Americus.

Laura Lee Bernstein

Questions were written on cards by audience members. Some were directed to specific candidates while others were general. Each candidate had three minutes to respond.

Barry Blount

Question: The City has renewed focus on economic development, downtown revitalization and tourism. If you could add one thing to the city’s toolbar for economic growth, what would it be?

Kelvin Pless

Barry Blount, incumbent mayor: “There’s no doubt that I would like to have every storefront filled and we’re working toward that goal. Patrick Kay is our downtown development director and he’s been every active since he’s come to Americus. We went

Shirley Green Reese

to Douglas a couple of weeks ago on a recruiting trip and we have a new retail store that’s just opened up recently … We are recruiting new businesses to come to our downtown, not only retails shops, restaurants, we’re looking for professional offices to locate downtown. We want downtown to have a very robust atmosphere to attract jobs. I want college students to come downtown and enjoy themselves, to make downtown the envy of Southwest Georgia. We have a very beautiful downtown, the Rylander Theatre, the Windsor Hotel. We have a lot of assets already that downtowns in this part of the state don’t have. We’re trying to build upon that and … I look forward to great things happening downtown in the near future.
“Part of that also, Georgia Southwestern … I would like to see Georgia Southwestern have a presence in downtown … I’ve just seen what’s happened over in Columbus with Columbus State being in downtown Columbus. I think there’s a lot of potential for that that would increase and enhance our downtown.”
Laura Lee Bernstein, mayoral candidate, Americus: “I actually live in downtown Americus so I can certainly speak to what I see going on and what we might do to help that area. There are a lot of abandoned buildings and storefronts that have closed up. I think we need to work with the owners of those buildings to see if we can’t encourage them to maybe bring the buildings up to code and not put that responsibility on the person that might want to rent the space or be willing to negotiate the rent to a cost that people can afford so they can move their businesses … I think that we also need to support the businesses that are there. A lot of the storefronts are staying open longer which is nice, but I can tell you that on Sunday and late Saturday afternoon, downtown is dead and I know that because I live there. I see it. The music,  I can hear on Sundays when nobody’s down there and it’s a little odd, to say the least, but it’s certainly a nice change. I think we need to focus more on encouraging those people that own the buildings downtown that are available for possible stores or classroom space and we need to get them to work with us to make that available so people can afford to move their businesses in there.”
Question: For the city of Andersonville council, what do you see as the city greatest issue or challenge and if you are elected how would you work to address those issues?
Velma Coley answered. “The challenge I see is that we need more buildings that are occupied. We have two buildings that are open — our Welcome Center and a restaurant. Those are the only two buildings open downtown. I would like to see more people coming down … and stay awhile and you’ll get attached to Andersonville and you’ll want to rent one of the buildings …”
Question: For Kelvin Pless, candidate for District 5, Americus city council. What infrastructures have you been involved in and have you ever served on any committees or boards?
Pless: “Yes. I’ve served on a number of committees and boards. I served on the Rylander board before. I’ve also been a member of the Sumter County Board of Education where I was on the policy committee, property, as well as finance. I also am founder and president/CEO of AmeriGospel Inc. and I’ve been running that organization now for over 30 years. It is a 501c3 program that serves the humanities and arts.”
Incumbent District 5 representative Shirley Green Reese also answered the question.
“I have served on several local, state, regional and national committees and boards in higher education throughout about five universities where I have served effectively as a professor and an administrator. I was the first female athletic director in the state of Georgia. I was the first female who served on the NCAA Management Council which is the highest council you can serve on in athletics, that governs all the athletic programs … including UGA. I’m the former president of the Boys & Girls Club board of directors and I have served on that board for over 15 years and just received the medallion presented by President Carter at the last Steak & Stake dinner, among other educational boards all over the world, and to name them all would take a long time. If you’d like to talk about it after this meeting, I can share this.”
Question: specifically for Reese. What areas will you continue to focus on for the next four years, and why?
Reese: “I will continue to focus on transparency and economic development among the city council and administration of the city. I have a heart for fiscal accountability because I have been an administrator at the university level and I am a type person that budgets in terms of distributing money. I’m tight, especially when they’re not my dollars. They’re taxpayers’ dollars. I will also focus on customer service, good customer service, because the taxpayers are our CEOs. We’re just serving under your leadership. And transparency …”
Pless: “Some of the concerns I’ll have especially, talking about transparency. Uphold our Constitution for one thing. Freedom of speech is … the right thing to do. … One thing about communications, everybody should have that opportunity. Everybody’s different and we’re not always going to agree. Until we listen to each other and gain understanding, we’ll never get along. … The other thing I’m concerned about is our infrastructure, again, our sewage. A lot of the constituents have complained about …. There’s going to have to be some kind of study … done to address that. Just like most cities around the United States, Americus is not the only one having a problem … Other things — safety is always first. I want to see our security enhanced through our police department with whatever we have to do promote our local agencies. I know that there’s a lot of things going on in our community that you hide if you want. I see a lot of gang symbols and I’m familiar with what that’s all about because of where I work every day. That’s going to have to get addressed or we’ll all be in trouble. It’s just like a wild fire with a wind blowing against it. There’s another number of things that need to be considered especially for all of our citizens.”
Question, open to all candidates, even the uncontested ones. What do you think should be done to encourage and foster development of the empty buildings of the downtown or in residential streets?
Pless: “Downtown … is a little dead. We need to liven it up. What I think is going on, based on what I’ve read … I think there’s a lot of restrictions and concerns about the micromanagement of certain things that go on in the city. We’re a city as a manager, but not an HR for a person’s personal business. Of course, we want to keep it safe and oversee the operations. We don’t want to put so much restriction on them until they can’t operate either. That’s one of my concerns about the downtown development. Also, loosen it up a little bit so the college students can look forward to coming in … again we want to keep it safe. Keep enough control downtown so that people feel safe … We live in a crazy world. When you take something for granted, that’s when things go south.”
Blount: “ … The DDA has come up with a real good plan for buying properties downtown. They sold the Stein Center several months ago and bought the old Randy Jones service station on the corner of Cotton Avenue and Forsyth Street. The plan is there to develop that into something for somebody to come in and occupy, possibly a restaurant or something like that, to rent and possibly buy it. The DDA will take the proceeds from selling that and go out and buy another building downtown, renovate it and do something with it. There‘s a plan in place to address some of the empty buildings downtown. As far as residential structures around town, there are some empty houses around town. That’s what we have a land bank for. Some of these larger banks like Wells Fargo and Chase Mortgage, you know what they’ll do after a while? They’ll get tired of … paying taxes on these properties so they will give them to an entity like the land bank. The land bank can take them and they’re not constrained like local government is. They don’t have to take the highest bid. They can sell it to somebody else, maybe at a lower price but critique what the person buying it wants to do with it … if they say they’re going to fix it up and sell it, then that’s what the person is going to have to do. That’s the reason we have a land bank in place. We’re trying to address not only empty buildings downtown, but also empty structures in our residential areas around town as well.”
Reese: “Since I’ve been in the council for four years, I’ve seen downtown, because we’ve really got new leaders who are in charge of downtown, the tourism director and downtown person … they have done a magnificent job in doing some work downtown and it’s looking better than ever. I served on the land bank committee. We have torn down, given away and sold many, many homes trying to clean up this city. We have done a wonderful job and we continue to do a wonderful job and I enjoy being on that land bank committee because I got to help identify areas where we have these homes. I think we took a drive around the city. Because we are trying to attract jobs, businesses to come, we cannot help them without cleaning up the city and the homes are our first take on it. Our downtown area is the best I have seen it in a long time since my four years  …”
Bernstein: “I would ask the question, if we have land bank authorities and we have downtown development, who are the people benefiting from this? Who are on these committees? Who are on these boards? Who has the vested interest in this? Is it for the benefit of everyone in the community of just those that are on the boards? I can’t help but question that, especially when … the city is the one appointing those board members. Are we seeing the same people over and over serving again, just serving on different boards? We’re rotating them in and out of different boards and things are maintaining the same course. I would like to look at, start at the ground level, a strategic plan. What is our vision? What are our goals? And putting people in place to make those goals come to fruition, and become attainable. That’s exactly what we need to do first. And when we address that, we will be resolving some issues that are across the board, not just for downtown, for the entire city.”
Charles Christmas: “ … Downtown is our core … I’m glad to see so many people here tonight … It takes all of us to get involved to make our downtown great. … One of the things that I’ve seen since I’ve been in Americus is that we’ve started First Friday. I remember the first one we attended there were very few people. Now you go to First Friday and there’s more and more people, people I don’t even know. That’s a big deal, is people coming together in our downtown. That’s what attracts also businesses to come and open up shop and cater to the people, you and I, who spend our dollars downtown … and keep our money local. But one of the things we have to do is we have to get everyone involved. The committees that’s been talked about … a lot of times no one else wants to do it, so you do get the same people. It’s important that everyone takes an active role in their hometown. Americus is a tremendous town to live in. I fell in love with it a few years ago and moved here, bought a house. This is my hometown now. I encourage all of you to get involved in what’s going on in our hometown.”
See Part 4 in Wednesday’s edition for more questions and more answers.