It came as a shock to local officials when Gainesville Councilman Bob Hamrick announced this summer that he would not seek re-election in November because of growing health concerns within his immediate family.
That decision opened the door for new blood to enter local government. But it also left big shoes to fill for the two candidates vying to replace Hamrick – local activist Emory Turner and business owner Zack Thompson.
Ward 2 includes residential neighborhoods from Green Street east to Limestone Parkway.
Affectionately called “Mr. Gainesville” by his fellow councilmembers, Hamrick, 86, is the longest serving member of the council, having taken the helm nearly five decades ago.
He served as mayor for 12 years, and worked with six city managers and 14 councilmembers, during that time.
The Times spoke with Turner and Thompson ahead of early voting next week about voter apathy, the need for affordable housing, taxes and how to grow the local economy, and what to do about the city’s growing traffic congestion.
Thompson said there is only so much government officials can do to interest residents in voting, such as early voting days and extended polling hours.
“It would be more beneficial for people connected to different groups in the community” to do this work, Thompson said. “I think that’s the only way you’re going to get any beneficial contact with the voters.”
Turner said that if elected he planned on hosting town halls and community forums, such as the monthly Saturday meetings held at the Fair Street Community Center by Councilwoman Myrtle Figueras.
“I’d like to try to build on them,” Turner said, adding that more outreach is needed. “I feel like voter apathy, basically, comes from misunderstanding.”
Thompson said voter apathy is not relegated to one demographic or voting bloc, which makes the problem even more challenging to overcome.
“It is community-wide.”
Turner, meanwhile, hopes voters will step up and go to the polls this year, no matter how they vote.
“This is something we as citizens need to do for our community,” he said.
Gainesville’s housing stock leaves many things to be desired.
Housing, in many ways, is the foundation of economic development, and with a shrinking inventory, the city faces challenges in meeting demand.
“Obviously, our supply is a lot lower than our demand, especially for affordable housing,” Thompson said.
Housing is an issue near and dear to Turner’s heart. He has served on the Gainesville Nonprofit Development board, as well as the Gainesville Housing Authority board.
But Turner said it’s not enough to provide more housing options.
“I have a passion for affordable housing,” he added. “Not only do I think we need affordable housing, but also job training.”
Without job training, local, state and federal governments will have to continue to subsidize housing in Gainesville at high rates.
Turner hopes city government can be a facilitator between industries and private developers interesting in building and supporting workforce housing.
Thompson said he agrees that housing is critical for economic development, particularly as the city tries to attract and recruit young professionals and young families to the area.
“Since we are becoming a city that is embracing education, I think that we’re going to need some mixed-use” housing to cater to students and young professionals within the urban, downtown core, Thompson said. “In general, it starts on the local level. It’s up to us …”
The Gainesville City Council approved a slight property tax increase this week, which will produce an additional $700,000 to pay down debt and support local parks.
The annual property tax increase would be an extra $35 for a home with a fair market value of $175,000, according to city officials.
The city owes $6.52 million on the jail, which it purchased for more than $7 million in 2012.
Turner said that while no one likes paying extra taxes, he believes the slight increase was necessary to protect the city’s finances over the long-term.
“We have to do this,” he said. “This is something we have to do to maintain our credit rating and pay off the debt that we have on the jail.”
Though the tax increase might not seem like a lot, for some budgets it certainly is, Thompson said.
“I would have to say that I would not support an increase in the millage rate” at this time, he said.
Thompson said he wishes city officials would have considered budget cuts and streamlining resources as a way to prevent a tax increase.
“Surely, with that size budget and that many departments, it’s not a large enough increase to pass onto the taxpayers at this point,” he said.
Turner said he has no doubt that traffic is the most pressing concern for residents of Ward 2.
“We have to figure out how to make the traffic flow in Ward 2 reasonable.”
Some the city’s busiest thoroughfares, including Green Street, South Enota Drive and parts of Jesse Jewell Parkway, all three presenting congestion problems with no quick fix, are located in Ward 2.
“The people in this area are due reasonable traffic flow,” Turner said, adding that it’s become a challenge for some residents to even get in and out of their own neighborhoods.
Thompson said he’s heard the same complaints from residents and voters.
“It falls back on traffic,” he added. That’s what I keep hearing.”
Thompson said it is critical that city officials do a better job reaching out to residents and educating them about proposed solutions to traffic congestion.
For example, many residents along Enota were surprised to hear of plans this month to construct a new road in the area directing traffic from Thompson Bridge to Downey Boulevard, skirting Green Street entirely.
“I can feel the frustration of the community,” Thompson said.
Family: Three children and five grandchildren, attends St. Paul United Methodist Church
Experience: Housing Authority, Non-profit development board
Occupation: Restaurant management, construction/carpentry
Education: Associate Degree in applied science and paralegal studies from the University of North Georgia, and currently completing a Bachelor of Science degree in technology management from the same university.
What makes you qualified to serve on the City Council?
I have spent most of my adult life as a volunteer citizen serving on boards for the city of Gainesville. The position of council member calls for one’s undivided attention. Gainesville has grown through the years and the issues now call for council members that can set aside all distractions and hear the call of the citizens.
While serving on various boards, Emory showed his leadership skills and ability to accomplish the goals of various organizations. He has worked with citizens and businesses alike to solve issues and create a better working relationship in the community.
What are your goals if elected?
My No. 1 goal is to spend time listening, and my No. 2 goal is to search for solutions.
I have a great interest in the quality of the water in Lake Lanier, increasing the job skills of our citizens both the youth as they enter the workforce and the adults that are providing for their families.
How can we as citizens assist in increasing the number of affordable housing in Gainesville, finding suitable entertainment, create reasonable traffic flow, and safe neighborhoods?
All are goals that should be addressed and in no special order.
Education, education, and education from the cradle to the grave — it never ends.
I want to be a voice that echoes your concerns. A voice that matters. A voice that cares.
Family: Wife and two daughters
Occupation: Landscape contractor
Experience: Small business owner since 1997, Gainesville Planning and Appeals Board member
Education: 1995 Graduate of the University of Georgia with BSA in horticulture
What makes you qualified to serve on the City Council?
Born in 1973, I’ve lived in Gainesville nearly all of my life. I’m a graduate of Gainesville High School, the University of Georgia, and Leadership Hall. In 1997, I opened my first business.
I’ve been an associate director for the Hall County Chamber of Commerce and I currently serve as a board director for Challenged Child and Friends.
Since then I have continued to build relationships within our community based on understanding the relevance of integrity and responsible leadership.
I have a unique perspective because my background of qualifications is honest and transparent. These are “must have” qualities for an individual whom our citizens will trust to make the complicated decisions that will face our community.
What are your goals if elected?
I see a livable, walkable, sustainable Gainesville that will attract new, vibrant businesses, people and ultimately families young and old. Let’s market our city as the premier destination for tourism, business and community in North Georgia.
I’m not here running on a specific agenda and I don’t have a pet project to push. I’m here because I’m a listener. I’ve listened to my friends, family, customers and most recently, you the citizens. The message is clear and not wavering. It’s time for a fresh look, a new approach, a passing of the torch, a better Gainesville. I’m here to help propel Gainesville into the future.
Whether in business or government, transparency and communication are the keys to success. I am ready and willing to communicate with our businesses and citizens in order to move our community forward together in a positive direction.
Where: Hall County Elections Office, lower level, Hall County Government Center, 2875 Browns Bridge Road, Gainesville
When: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday beginning Oct. 12 and ending Oct. 30.
Also: Voters may cast ballots 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 24 at at the North Hall Community Center, 4175 Nopone Road, or Spout Springs Library, 6488 Spout Springs Road, Flowery Branch.