The Daily Post-Athenian hosted its 2020 Athens City Council Candidate Forum on Oct. 13.
The event featured the three candidates for two seats on the Council — Jordan Curtis, Eric Morrow, and Frances Witt-McMahan — on the eve of the start of early voting for the Nov. 3 election. The candidates were asked a series of 10 questions and concluded with closing statements.
The DPA is featuring a five-part series during the early voting period, which continues until Thursday, Oct. 29. The series will include each candidate’s answer to all questions posed by DPA Editor Dewey Morgan during the forum.
The following is the third part of the series and includes the sixth, seventh and eighth questions of the night — two of which emphasized the future development of Downtown Athens.
The entire forum is available to view any time on The Daily Post-Athenian’s Facebook page.
The candidates’ responses are listed in the order they were asked during the forum.
Witt-McMahan: “I would have to say that the biggest strength is the fact that we are the Friendly City. I’ve gone all over Athens and I’ve always felt like I was embraced and it makes you want to embrace everyone. I think that we work very well together. I think that we are very supportive. So, community, for me, is the biggest strength of Athens. Ways that Athens could improve would be to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard and that everyone has a seat at the table. When I say that, I mean we have a much larger homeless community than most people care to think about. We have victims, we have children victims, we have female. There are so many other things that need the attention of our government. I think that we do a good job helping the feeding programs. I know that a lot of things are put into those areas, but I would like to see us make sure that the least of the least are taken care of. We can help to give a hand up to people and by supporting our non-profit organizations, I think that’s something very important. If you’ve never worked for a non-profit, you’ll never understand how difficult these times are and we are extending our services to people who don’t have another way. So, I would like to see our city come together and work on behalf of the ones who really need us the most.”
Curtis: “I truly believe our greatest asset is our citizens. Our citizens care deeply. And I think about the level of citizen involvement with local government. I don’t know of another small town where we can have three or four opportunities like this to share about ourselves and share about our vision. So, I think that just speaks to the level of commitment and attention paid by our citizens to all that goes on here and the level of buy-in that we all have to make the Friendly City a better place. An area of improvement: I want to go back to this because I think this is another really tangible area that could be focused on in a four-year term on the Council. This was a point of conversation when I ran four years ago that maybe I wasn’t as attuned to as I have been or should have been, but the number of properties that we need to kind of tidy up around town. We have a lot of absentee property owners that are frankly dragging all of our other property values down. I know that’s been a point of emphasis, but we need to keep pushing forward with that to the point that we have areas of town that, hopefully, with that kind of continued effort … we can generate some redevelopment in areas of town that could greatly benefit from it, especially from a residential housing standpoint — single-family and perhaps even multi-family. That would be my one point of tangible improvement that we could have.”
Morrow: “It’s the community. Working with the radio station, WJSQ/WLAR, for the past several years, I’ve gotten to work behind the scenes at many different community events. I’ve actually had to put on several community events with the radio station. I’m always surprised at how easily our community turns out and helps. They honestly want to be there for their neighbors and that’s what it’s about. All three of us sitting up here, I don’t think there would be anything we wouldn’t do for a neighbor in the City of Athens. We’ve all showed up for special events to promote this area and make it better. I’ve helped Frances with CASA. Jordan’s come out and we’ve done some funny videos together in the past to promote Athens as a great place to live; come live with us and be in this community. As for improvement, I go with Jordan. There are some areas we need to improve on around the city to make it better; I’m sure the city’s got a backlog of it. We need to make sure we are working openly with taking care of these properties as a whole and not solely picking out certain properties in the area. We see so much of this right now on social media going across and I’ve been hesitant to touch base on it a little bit, but I will. The three of us are aware of the City of Athens being in a federal lawsuit right now. There’s a gentleman that’s not happy with how his property is being handled by the City of Athens. From what I’ve read in some of the paperwork involved with it, it could be handled a lot differently than what’s being handled right now when it comes to the city. Again, that comes back to all of us working together as a team and promoting this area. The community is just the biggest part; I can’t hit on that enough. If it wasn’t for the community, Athens wouldn’t exist.”
Curtis: “I know there’s a conversation right now about looking at a beautification program that entails traffic flow. I think we need to see that dream become a reality. I envision a place with even more places to dine, shop. If I would have had anything to say about it at the time, as much as I appreciate Regional Park, I would have loved to have seen the Splash Pad here at Market Park in Downtown. I think whatever we do, we need to do something that’s going to continue to bring young families down here. That would be something that, you know, if you build it, they will come. I think if you do something like that that draws in people in warm weather, then you can kind of see maybe some dining places may stay open later in the evening. So, those are the kinds of things I would like to see. I also think more housing within walking distance of Downtown would help that, as well. And one personal dream of mine is I would love to see rooftop dining. I like rooftop dining. So, that’s one thing I would like to see. We have just an incredible asset in our Downtown. I’ve talked about when Ronald Reagan came in 1985 — whether this is local lore, the truth or not; some people here can probably correct me, but one of the main reasons he came here was it was identified as a beautiful backdrop of a columned courthouse. So, we need to appreciate what we have and build around those great assets. I’m biased, of course, but I think we’ve got the prettiest downtown square in the South, if not the country.”
Morrow: “I’ve seen many plans discussed over the years at the study sessions. I’ve seen talk of an amphitheater over here in Downtown Athens. That would be something great for the families down here. I’m kind of like Jordan; I’m going to have to agree with you with this. I would like to see some rooftop places in Downtown Athens. I take vacations and I go to South Carolina or Florida. You kind of look for those odd places like that where you can come, just sit back and enjoy the scenery and enjoy yourself with your family. I think we need more of that in Downtown Athens. I think we need more family-friendly events in Downtown Athens. We’ve got a lot of that going on with Sounds of Summer. I know Lisa Dotson back there — she’s watching with us here. She does a great job with the Main Street program. She does a fantastic job. There’s a lot of things Lisa’s worked on making this Downtown area better with and I think with the City Council, with some of the ideas that she’s got, we can definitely make this area a lot better. I’ve seen some of the grants that’s she proposed to the City of Athens on how to redesign Downtown Athens and I do believe the model she put up is a very good model and will definitely make Downtown Athens a more friendly environment for family and slow down some of the traffic that we see coming day in and day out down here into Downtown Athens with all the open lanes. I do hope that the City Council members — two of us who are elected and the current Council members — that they do continue to work with Miss Dotson on that. I would love to see that program come to fruition in Downtown Athens.”
Witt-McMahan: “I have to agree with both of them. I love to go out for an evening of entertainment. I would definitely like to see the continuation of the Arts Center being remodeled and revived. I’ve enjoyed seeing the work they’ve done at Pocket Park, so I’d like to see more of that. I think there was a time that there was going to be some additions to this particular park, so I’d like to see that completed. But one of things I would really like to see is more culture brought to the Downtown area, more opportunities for some walking historical tours. There’s a lot of things that have happened in this city downtown that I think a lot of people don’t know about. So, I think we could be really intentional about drawing crowds to the Downtown area and getting some walking tours in. But one of the things that I’ve always enjoyed whenever I’m traveling to Middle and West Tennessee is, when I’m in their downtown areas, they have the roundabouts and I really think that makes the downtown area look more beautiful. It makes it so cohesive and I would like to see us consider doing something like that with some of our streets Downtown. One other thing that I think would really be important is to continue to bring more entertainment, Sounds of Summer; maybe even doing something different than that. I’m not sure if they’re going to continue the way they have, but I would like to be able to continue to see some good live music and dancing … I think entertainment and things we can bring our children and grandchildren to so that they can enjoy themselves. I miss the festivals and so, I would definitely like to see us be able to continue to bring those festivals Downtown.”
Morrow: “Like I said earlier, as I mentioned about the Downtown, Lisa’s done a phenomenal job with her team in Main Street and I believe Thrive … has been involved with that, as well. Absolutely a great job. I’ve seen the diagrams that they’ve put up to the Athens City Council and how they want to do the roadways down here and how to redesign it and make it more family friendly. And also, from what I remember of it, they actually slow down traffic so you’re not worrying about pedestrians walking around and enjoying Downtown. Right now, we have five roadways that come down through there with the diagram that they put up to the Athens City Council and in their model, they actually slim those down and allow for more parking in Downtown Athens, which everybody wants more parking. So, that would be a great thing in Downtown Athens. It also provides for a better walkway into the area. You can come around, you can walk and shop in Downtown Athens, enjoy some of the restaurants down here. We’ve got the Open Door that’s back behind us; Big Belly Deli there; and a few other ones that are back on the other side, Mexiwing and Maddi Más. Just all kinds of great restaurants and revamping that is a great plan. Again, I give kudos to Lisa. I hope, If I’m not elected and these two are elected, that they most definitely will carry on and help Lisa in any way possible, and the current City Council members do help, as well. They have that discussion to see how to revamp Downtown Athens and make that better overall for the community.”
Witt-McMahan: “I agree with Eric. I was able to see those plans and it was really exciting to know that just in the few years that Lisa’s been working with Main Street that she’s been able to bring in as many different things for our city. One of the things that I thought was really important is the parking. I’ve had several people since I’ve been campaigning talk to me about parking Downtown and so I think that, with the plans that Main Street has, it’s going to make a lot of the Downtown businesses and business owners, the people that work in our courthouses and everything else; I think it’s going to make them a lot happier. But I also think what’s important is it’s going to bring tourists to the city, and not necessarily the kind of tourists that would go out to a museum or something like that. But I do think it would make it so beautiful that people will want to come to Athens and see what’s going on, which is going to cause them to come here, spend their money, help us with our tax revenue. I really don’t want to repeat what Eric has said. I think it’s a great plan. I’m looking forward to it and, if I’m elected, I will definitely vote to move forward with those plans.”
Curtis: “I think the first time I saw that rendering was back in the winter at the Council Strategic Summit when I was there to talk about the Housing Task Force. That was put together by some folks with the University of Georgia, I believe, as much as it pains me to say that. I say that tongue-in-cheek. Just kidding. It is a beautiful design and look, in my day job, I’m in a results business, return on investment. I think it’s a great return for a minimal investment, so I’m very excited about that project moving forward, and I don’t believe it’s going to come at any cost to a loss of parking. I do want to make this one comment because Downtown parking is always a point of conversation. I think that we maybe need to look at longterm the viability of maybe some kind of partnership between the city and Tennessee Wesleyan; maybe even some private investment on a parking garage of some sort if we want Downtown to grow the way we want it to. Again, that’s a dream. I don’t have the details. I’m just saying that’s one of the kind of bold things that I’d be looking to discuss if I’m elected that I think is very important to the future revitalization in Downtown and that would really help maximize the beautification we’re going to be doing.”