Rossville residents got a closer look at the candidates for Walker County commissioner last Thursday when Bebe Heiskell, Perry Lamb and Shannon Whitfield visited the Wilson Road Neighborhood Group to discuss issues specific to the northern part of the county.
The candidates were given a wide array of questions prior to the meeting, ranging from what they think the greatest assets and liability of Rossville is to whether they think the codes enforcement office for the county is adequately handling code violations in the area.
"We set this up not as a debate, but more of a conversation and a presentation of the issues that are concerns of this group," said Jim Hill, who moderated the event.
When asked what the assets of Rossville are, Heiskell said the citizens working to make change in their community are a huge boon for the area, but the relative closeness to Chattanooga is a blessing and a curse — sometimes, people that "you might rather not have" move to Rossville from Chattanooga.
Another question posed was how, as commissioner, the candidates would attract new homeowners and businesses to the Rossville area. Heiskell hammered home the importance of working with the state Legislature to reduce the income tax to make living in Georgia more appealing than Tennessee. She also made reference to the county's Development Authority, and how it could provide assistance in the creation of subdivisions, strip malls and industrial parks that would bring more economic prosperity.
"They're a good tool to work with to help re-establish this community," Heiskell said.
A major theme of the evening was cleaning up Rossville, both visually and literally. Heiskell said she believes the codes enforcement office balances enforcement with fairness, and many of the businesses and homes currently dealing with code violations were built before the codes existed.
"We do want to help get their property in compliance," she said.
Heiskell invited any member of the community to give her a call if there is an issue he or she wants to bring up, and discussed the possibility of a county employee that would closely follow what Rossville and other communities need and to "maneuver at the state and local level on your behalf."
Lamb characterized Rossville and the surrounding area in his opening statements as a community with lots of room for improvement. However, he said the issues plaguing the town wouldn't be fixed by a single person or by "throwing money" at them.
"We've got a large group that cares enough to get involved," Lamb said of the local community. "Most everyone knows when people stop caring, things fall apart."
While the proximity to Chattanooga provides job opportunities to local residents, he said, that same proximity causes issues, too. The "wrong type of people" are given the opportunity to come into Rossville to live, he said, and by working with the Sheriff's Office to give them all the necessary resources, Walker County could ensure that no area is overrun by drugs or crime.
When asked about economic development, Lamb said getting rid of the "eyesores" in the community would raise property values, which would in turn bring business into the area.
"We have to work together to make this place inviting," said Lamb, "make it look like a place where people want to live. When someone comes into the community, they want to see curb appeal. It's going to take work."
However, when it comes to assisting established businesses in the area, Lamb said there is only so much the government could do before overstepping its bounds. This is where the local community should step up and boost local businesses, he said.
When asked about codes enforcement, Lamb said the office is making significant gains, but there is always room for improvement. He promised to give the office the tools its employees need to stay on top of cited properties without falling behind.
When answering questions regarding the economic state of Rossville, Whitfield stressed that as commissioner, his office would stay removed from any sort of intervention into the affairs of local business owners. The county accumulating debt to construct strip malls, he continued, isn't a solution.
"We need to leave that to private business," said Whitfield. "But we can create an environment that's pleasing to the eye."
Whitfield said Rossville's biggest asset is its location. Citizens have everything they need to be successful, he said, however, Rossville has been "extremely underutilized." Coming together with a vision and a plan could make it very successful, he said.
The area's liability, said Whitfield, are surface-level issues such as abandoned properties and decrepit buildings. Answering a question about how he would attract new homeowners to Rossville, Whitfield cited statistics that from 2007 to 2016, Rossville had 632 home sales under $50,000 each. Meanwhile, nearby Fort Oglethorpe had only 42 sales under $50,000 during the same time frame.
By cleaning up those surface problems, he said, property values would begin to climb, and economic growth would naturally follow. At that stage, Whitfield's commissioner's office would step aside and minimize intervention into local business.
In regards to codes enforcement, Whitfield praised the county's current codes enforcement officer, Becky Beason, but said there "are not enough boots on the ground." He called for more officers in the department so that property owners who are out of compliance could see the county is serious about the issue.