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 fourth and fifth questions of the night, both of which related to economic development and growth.

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.

Question: There has been a focus on growth in the City of Athens for several years. What can members of the Athens City Council do to encourage people to move to or remain in Athens?

Answers:

Curtis: “I think we have to market ourselves the right way. I think we have to present the right image of what Athens is. I used this example last week: My friend that was entertaining some people from out of town that had never been to Athens; weren’t kind of biased by perceptions of Athens from being from the area and said, ‘Hey, look, this is the Friendly City. This is a great place where people are helpful, they’re kind.’ So, I think we have to put our best foot forward, certainly, and we have to promote our town and be positive about it, but, of course, realize and identify the things we need to improve on as opportunities. And I also think we have to set the right kind of tone, like the work Frances and I do with the Planning Commission, the EDA. We have to set the right kind of tone that Athens is a good place to do business. But I think that, certainly, a great place to start is the City Council’s a team. All five members have to work together. And I think we have to just promote ourselves and talk about all the good things going on here. We have things we can improve upon, but there are certainly far more positive things going on in the Friendly City than there are opportunities for improving it day in and day out as I see it.”

Morrow: “It comes back to working as a team. We’ve got to work as a team together in regards to all this. Some of the things I’ve been talking to people about in the neighborhoods, as I’ve been going through neighborhood to neighborhood, and some on social media; we need to start looking at ordinances and our interstate exchanges. As Jordan said, we’ve got to promote the City of Athens. We’ve also got to do some clean up. There’s a lot there that needs to be looked at and taken care of. We’ve got a lot of dated ordinances on the books that kind of hurt Athens in my opinion. I’ve heard references on social media that Athens is called the ‘Footloose’ city because there’s an old ordinance on there about dancing late at night. It’s kind of humorous, but things like that need to be cleared up. It comes back to promoting the area and taking care of things that are dated and bringing it up to code, and promoting the city to the best of our ability. I feel, if we clean up our interstate exchanges and make them look more viable; I’m going to go down the road 30 miles to Cleveland and look at those interstate exchanges. They’re prospering, they’re very big, and when somebody pulls off an interstate exchange and looks, you’re going to see Chick-Fil-A or Target or something and think this is a nice neighborhood I’m going to try to bring my family to live in. When you pull off one of Athens’ interstate exchanges, you’re looking at some run down places that really need to be taken care of; some places that need to be closed. And some places, frankly, when you pull off and you see it, you’re like, ‘I don’t really trust what I’m seeing here, so I’m going to get back on the interstate and go a little bit further down the road.’ That’s the mindset you have to take, really, if you’re pulling off. We’ve got a great Downtown Athens. Love it, perfect; we’re in a great environment down here under Market Park, but when you come off that interstate exchange, if you stop at Mt. Verd or Highway 30 and you’re seeing run down buildings, run down motels, places that look like they need to be boarded up, are you really going to take that extra drive to come further into Downtown Athens or in Athens, period? Me personally, I’m going to get back on the interstate and drive on down the road and look for the next place. That’s just my take. We need to work on our ordinances and interstate exchanges to promote our area.”

Witt-McMahan: “One of the things that I think is important is to ensure that we have a cohesive governing body working together for the people and on behalf of the people. By doing so, I would look at better housing or housing that would make people want to come into the city. We’ve got some really great subdivisions in our county line, but there’s not a whole lot within the city and I think that’s something that’s important to people who are part of big industry — bringing in those industries that we’ve had an opportunity in the past that moved on to other places. I’d like to look at more job opportunities that pay a good living wage so that people can afford the amenities; so that they can enjoy the arts and entertainment that are offered here. We’ve got great things to do in Athens, but some people just aren’t able to do those things because they’re driving into Athens and working and going home to another community at night. We need to build Athens so that people who work here go to sleep here. I think something that’s really important is our school systems; making sure that the school is moving forward and we do complete that project because, if I were moving here with young children, the first thing I would look at is what are the schools, what are they going to offer my children? You want to be able to raise your children in good places. That would also include making sure that we continue to build our parks and recreation; making sure that all the communities are adequate, lawns are mowed, the medians, these side streets — making sure that they look good. Everybody may not want to live in a subdivision, but some of the streets that you pass on, you might not feel that comfortable moving into. Just making sure that we have an attractive city and making sure that we have opportunities for everyone to work.”

Question: Part of the growth of a community is recruiting new businesses. What role can Council members play in encouraging businesses to come to this community?

Answers:

Morrow: “Again, we come back to ordinances. We need to look at some ordinances and start cleaning up the books and making it more friendly for businesses to want to come into Athens. I think some conversations need to be had. I know the McMinn County EDA has a standing monthly meeting. She comes in and talks on a quarterly meeting with the Athens City Council to talk about the recruitment for the area. I think, personally, we need to start having some of the Athens Chamber of Commerce — Rob Preston and his team — coming into some of these meetings to talk about how we can help our current businesses in here or what to do to try to make it more attractive for businesses that want to come into this area. That’s some of the conversations that need to happen. I just don’t think there’s been much of that conversation in the past few years. We’ve relied on an EDA to help us with this, to market this area, and there’s very little land for factories to come in from what I remember of the conversations from some of the study session meetings that have taken place over the years. Again, I’m going to reiterate. We need to look at ordinances. We’ve got to clean up our ordinances and make it more friendly for businesses wanting to come in here and sit down and have those conversations with the people with the EDA’s office and from the Chamber of Commerce to try to see what we need to do to improve or maintain or make our businesses better in the City of Athens.”

Witt-McMahan: “One of the things that I would definitely want to do is to make sure that we continue to build a thriving downtown. Our Main Street has done a lot over the last few years. I think that helps to bring in industry. But also working with the EDA and the Chamber of Commerce and going out and working in other communities — not necessarily working in them, but working with them to find out what worked for them. Cleveland has grown. In my lifetime, I’ve seen a lot of change in Cleveland. I’d like to know what made things work for them. How have they been able to experience the growth they’ve had? Working with our county government to partner with them to make sure that Athens is thriving and growing. As Eric mentioned before, I do think it’s important to have a better interstate exchange. I wouldn’t pull off at Athens if I were a traveler. I always judge a city by what it looks like when I get to that exit and there have been plenty of times that I thought, ‘I’m going to pull off at this next exit’ and when I get to it I think, ‘Oh no, I’m going on down because I don’t like the way it looks there.’ Athens is a great city, it’s beautiful, but people who don’t know Athens would not be able to tell that by the way our interstates look. So, we need to clean up some things and change things, and I think we’re heading in that direction. I’d like to be part of making those decisions to make that happen.”

Curtis: “Certainly, I think that the point of looking at our ordinances — there’s always ones that are probably archaic and could be cleaned up, but I can’t really point my finger to an example that is disincenting businesses or continued retail investment in our area. We look over the past few years, we can site numerous examples of new establishments that have come to the Friendly City. We have the Athens Marketplace retail development that’s in the pipeline right behind where I work that’s going to be huge, and we’ve seen this through organic growth in property tax revenues over the past several years. But I want to take just a little bit of a different spin on this question. There’s a new way of doing business that we’re going to experience, and we’re experiencing it right now, and we’re going to continue to see it post-COVID. There are people that are looking to find a good, quality place to live that can live anywhere because they can work mobily. We need to capture those folks. I was having a conversation with somebody at one of our organizations in town and she told me that she picked up the phone and had a couple from New York on the phone looking for a nice, small town to move to. They’re tired of the hub-bub of living in a big city, the threat of rioting, so on and so forth, and they wanted to find a nice, Southern small town with a low cost of living. We need to be creative to find ways to capture those folks. One way I think we do it is one of the things we talked about with our housing task force with the EDA is we get the county and the city together and we get public people to the table and we build an RFP process to get development for a nice market-rate apartment complex. So, that’s one tangible way that we can do something proactive to try to bring these people in here. That’s business recruitment — people that are good wage earners that can be nice contributors to our community.”

Email: andy.brusseau

@dailypostathenian.com

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