A forum was held Thursday night for the three candidates running for Walker County’s Sole Commissioner. The question and answer session was sponsored by the Wilson Road Neighborhood Group whose mission is to revitalize north Walker County, Ga. The group is concerned with property values, codes enforcement, trash on roads and support for existing businesses as well as bringing in new businesses. The area has many houses that have been abandoned or burned and property that is considered a public nuisance.
In an effort to make change happen, the WRNG has created “Helping Hands,” a group of volunteers who are helping to clean up the area hoping to promote a sense of pride.
The questions given to each candidate prior to the meeting reflected the issues of greatest concern.
What is the shape and condition of North Walker County and the communities in the area?
Commissioner Bebe Heiskell said that the only control county government has involves the unincorporated areas of Walker County that are not within a city limit. The condition of the county, she said is that there is a lot of disrepair and that she has remedies to help.
Perry Lamb also recognized the large amount of rundown and dangerous properties in the area which need the help of local government.
Shannon Whitfield said that things look in disrepair, but said he sees a lot of great people and opportunities to move forward.
What is the greatest asset of this area and what is the greatest liability?
Perry Lamb answered “the people.” When people stop caring, things fall apart, he said. This asset is also the greatest liability, he believes. Because North Walker County is so close to Chattanooga it offers a place to live with less tax burden, but this often contributes to the wrong type of people moving in. He said that he would work with Sheriff Steve Wilson’s department to assure they do not have a safe haven for drugs or violence.
Shannon Whitfield said the greatest asset is location, being close to Chattanooga, an interstate and rail system. He said people see run-down buildings. That appearance is only on the surface, he said, but appearance does need to change.
Bebe Heiskell told the crowd that if people want change, they must ask for help. The biggest asset in her view is the location being close to Chattanooga, but those who live in N. Georgia still have lower taxes and less traffic to deal with. Often when revitalization displaces people in Chattanooga, many end up in North Walker County, but that is not always a good thing, she said. However, she added, the sheriff’s department can take care of that.
Do you believe the current codes department is adequately handling the problems in North Walker County?
Shannon Whitfield said there is one codes enforcer and there is no way one person can tackle all the issues that have become rampant. He believes the county should hire more. He also said the county itself owns properties in the area that are not in compliance with codes, and that the county should set an example. He said a lot of people just need help or encouragement and some do not know they are out of compliance, while others just need a good kick.
Bebe Heiskell replied that some buildings the county has acquired just to tear down. Others owned by Walker County are targeted for renovation to be put back on the tax rolls. She feels that the codes enforcement is off balance because some businesses do not have to comply with codes since they were in existence before there were ever codes in Rossville and so are grandfathered in.
Perry Lamb said codes enforcement will be given the equipment and manpower that is needed if he is elected and that it is important to have the buildings in compliance because run-down properties pull down property values all around them.
How will you attract new home owners and businesses to relocate?
Bebe Heiskell said people do not want to pay the six percent income tax and she would try to work with the state to, at least, reduce it. She would also work with the Walker County Development Authority to build a new shopping area. Ms. Heiskell also suggested having an owner’s covenant for property, which would not allow rentals.
Perry Lamb said to rid the city of dilapidated buildings and eyesores to make it more inviting.
Shannon Whitfield said, “We have to get our values back up by cleaning up and creating an environment that is pleasing, which should bring in businesses that would do the developing."
What can be done to help improve local, existing businesses?
They need to have nice store fronts, said Perry Lamb. Any help given in Rossville would have to be available all over the county, he said.
Shannon Whitfield said more gets done with less government interference.
Bebe Heiskell said the Development Authority is a tool and very fair. She said if all shopping was together, more people would likely use the stores.
The WRNG is working to help clean up the area, can the county help?
Shannon Whitfield said it is not the county’s role to take the lead, but it could help if the community is leading the project.
Bebe Heiskell said the county could help but, if its equipment was used, county employees would have to operate it because of liability.
Perry Lamb would buy a brush truck that would pick up brush and trash curbside and take to a landfill.
In the future how would you stay in touch and communicate with this group?
Bebe Heiskell said she would set up community meetings but they would only be beneficial if people come.
Perry Lamb said his job would be to listen
Shannon Whitfield said he would commit to be at the meetings that are held by the WRNG or any community group.
What is your plan to encourage economic growth?
Shannon Whitfield said first this community has to be an inviting place and that the county government could encourage compliance with codes. Then the government should get out of the way. Business development and projects such as tourist attractions should not be done with tax money, he said.
Bebe Heiskell said the first thing needed is to bring the median income up. People with good paying jobs, such as the ones provided at the county’s new industrial park, is the result of investing in the county. She said that retail businesses will come only when they believe people can pay for what the stores sell.
Perry Lamb again emphasized that an inviting environment is needed. He would also work with the Walker County Development Authority. He said housing prices need to rise to encourage companies to invest in the area.