Southside Gainesville residents took to the pews of St. John Baptist Church on Tuesday night to hear a different kind of message.
Candidates for countywide elections were seeking converts to cast ballots their way during a political forum aimed at minority voters who live off U.S. 129 South.
The event was co-sponsored by several African-American community organizations.
With no contested races on the Democratic ballot, organizers of the event reminded voters that to have a choice they would have to pick up a Republican ballot in this primary.
Most of the questions posed to candidates revolved around the concerns of the African-American community living in the southside of Gainesville.
While most candidates for Hall County Board of Commissioners chairman, sheriff, probate judge and tax commissioner turned out to introduce themselves to voters, it was the District 4 commissioner race that drew much of the attention.
Incumbent Commissioner Ashley Bell and Gainesville businessman Jeff Stowe are vying for the seat.
District 4’s boundary includes most of the city of Gainesville, areas east of Atlanta Highway down to Poplar Springs Road, neighborhoods along Gaines Mill Road and those from Riverside Drive to Black and Cooley drives.
The District 4 seat has traditionally been held by black, Democratic representatives.
With Bell switching parties and no Democrat entering the race, voters are choosing between two Republican candidates.
Bell, who was raised in the U.S. 129 South corridor, was on his home turf for the forum and appeared at ease with the questions addressing concerns about the area.
Meanwhile, Stowe struggled out of the gate to connect with the audience, but later hit a groove by focusing on promoting government partnerships with community organizations.
The first question to the District 4 candidates was how they would promote economic development down the U.S. 129 South corridor, where accessible retail stores are lacking for the residents.
Bell said the key to promoting business growth is infrastructure. Currently, sewer lines don’t reach much of the area.
“Where there is sewer, there you will see business,” Bell said. “You’re not going to see Walmart with a septic tank.”
Bell said the city of Gainesville, which offers sewer services for that area, has a long-term plan to address that.
In the meantime, Bell pointed to his recent work as a county commissioner in partnering with Gainesville to seek tax credits for businesses that relocate to that area.
Earlier this month, the commissioners approved a plan to seek “opportunity zones” in certain areas of Hall County. That effort, if approved by state officials, could give a $3,500 tax credit for each new job brought to designated zones, including Candler Road.
Stowe said a better relationship with the city of Gainesville would allow even more to be done in boosting growth.
“Our working relationship with the city is not the best right now,” he said.
But Stowe said the government could also back off to allow businesses to prosper.
“Government isn’t the answer. In fact, a lot of times when they stay out of the way, more development comes,” he said.
While Republican candidates rarely field questions these days about increasing services, moderator Qiana Keith asked the candidates what they would do to bring parks and recreational activities closer to minority populations.
Stowe, while acknowledging that recreational activities are a key to supporting young people, said now is a tough time to build.
“Everybody knows we’re in tough economic times,” Stowe said.
He noted that revenues from the special purpose local option sales tax were down and may not cover some of the projects that voters approved.
“Right now the funds are not in the budget to build more parks and recreation,” he said.
Instead, the candidate advocated county partnerships with nonprofits such as the YMCA and Boys & Girls Clubs of Hall County.
“We need to utilize our existing resources,” he said.
Bell agreed that money was tight, but he also said the community needs to take another stand the next time a SPLOST vote comes to the table.
“Don’t vote for another SPLOST unless there’s something there for you,” he told an applauding audience. “Don’t go to the polls and vote for it unless you see on the ballot a recreational opportunity in your community.”
Finally, the candidates were asked for specific goals they would accomplish if elected.
Bell proposed a Hall County youth commission be established as a way to bring together the region’s young people.
He said the commission, which would be structured like the county commission, could start a dialogue about the county’s problems “from a youth perspective.”
“They have the most to lose because they’re going to be here longer than you and I,” Bell said.
Stowe said rather than new government-sponsored programs, the community needed more volunteers and community involvement.
“That’s what I’ve done for 23 years,” he said.
“I’ve rolled up my sleeves. I don’t just sit on the board. I get out and work.”