The needs of a growing city and City Council’s role in economic development were among several topics addressed during a Saturday morning political forum at the civic center in Gainesville.
The event was held by The Citizens Information & Advisory Roundtable.
Candidates for Gainesville’s two school board and council seats are uncontested, but four candidates are seeking the newly elected mayor position.
At the forum, and on the Nov. 5 ballot, were Ward 1 City Council candidate Sam Couvillon, Ward 4 council incumbent George Wangemann and Ward 1 school board candidate Brett Mercer, and mayoral hopefuls Danny Dunagan, Debra Harkrider, Rose Johnson and Charles Alvarez.
Ward 4 school board candidate Delores Diaz was out of town, organizer and Councilwoman Myrtle Figueras said.
Harkrider, who was the volunteer director of the Mainstreet Association, said the council should work to make Gainesville more business-friendly.
“We have a terrible reputation outside the city of Gainesville for not being business-friendly, and certainly not being mom-and-pop business-friendly,” she said, adding that business owners complain it’s “too hard” and “too expensive” to grow businesses in Gainesville.
“I think Gainesville is a very business friendly community. If this were not the truth, you wouldn’t see so many businesses, industries out there, many looking into coming into Gainesville,” he said.
Johnson, former council candidate and community activist, said she felt the city could do more to encourage certain business niches.
“I think that there has to be a focus on developing new programs to support the work of small, disadvantaged businesses, service-related veteran business, women-owned businesses, and there needs to be a program for minority business development,” she said. “Across the board those are some things there should be a focus on.”
Election newcomer Alvarez said that “gateways” of entry into the community need to be improved to attract business.
“If someone is interested in doing business in Gainesville, and they get off on Exit 17 and they start driving up Atlanta Highway, once they reach that point where Memorial Park is and they start moving forward from there, they’ve lost a good percentage of chance of doing business in Gainesville because of what they see,” he said.
Traffic was another highly discussed topic.
“I would support the continuing of working with the state (Department of Transportation) and the Vision 2030, and our citizens, to see what best serves them,” Harkrider said. “I actually live in side the city limits, right near Brenau (University), so I see the traffic problems that we have right downtown. I would try to get our city to apply and win as many grants as we possibly can to improve the flow of traffic at our peak times.”
Alvarez said addressing traffic head-on will mean hard decisions.
“There are really no easy solutions, due to the fact that there’s a lot of people don’t want improvements done in front of their homes, their neighborhoods, but it’s something that must be done,” he said. “The comprehensive plan of what’s been presented, to the DOT and to the planning committee, shows that there are neighborhoods that will be affected in a negative way, but it will be for the betterment of Gainesville.”
Dunagan, a former councilman and mayor who resigned his seat to seek the new elected post, said traffic is so severe it will outpace utility concerns.
“The city has been very active, very progressive, in our public utilities, so we’re ready for growth in that area. Traffic, we’re not ready for, and that’s something we’ve got to address. And it’s not going to always be easy going,” he said.
Growth in general was a major theme of the forum.
Ward 1 candidate Sam Couvillon echoed concerns about controlling growth.
“I’d be careful to use the word crisis, in that, I do think that as a couple others have mentioned, growth is a concern,” he said. “I think when you have that growth, your infrastructure is going to be stressed. You have to keep up with that.”
Dunagan focused in on housing, touting home revitalizations in the city’s south side.
“We’ve got more renters in the city of Gainesville than homeowners, and we’d like to see that turned around,” he said. “That’s an area that concerns me.”
Johnson said that the voice of communities should be considered in addressing recommendations from traffic studies.
“I think the metropolitan planning organization should begin to hold community meetings with all of the places where projects impact neighborhoods, so that the people can have direct impact in understanding what it is that is being proposed, how it’s going to impact their communities, and have a voice in saying whether or not they support it,” she said.