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Shannon Whitfield
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Bebe Heiskell
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Perry Lamb, left, poses for a picture after turning in a qualifying fee to run for Walker County commissioner. Lamb plans to compete as an independent candidate in the general election this November.

ROSSVILLE, Ga. — Two candidates for Walker County commissioner blamed Chattanooga residents for dragging down Rossville.

Perry Lamb, an independent candidate, said Thursday night that the city's proximity to Chattanooga can be helpful, attracting workers from a bigger city to an area with low property values. But, he added, some Chattanooga residents bring drugs and crime to north Georgia.

"Being so close to Chattanooga," he said, "it often offers the wrong type of people the opportunity to come into this area and reside. As commissioner, I will work with the sheriff's department and give them the resources to make sure that people who are bringing this area down will not have a safe haven."

Bebe Heiskell, the incumbent and also an independent in this year's election, said some Chattanooga residents were priced out as the city developed in the past decade, driving them to north Georgia. She also said those people bring crime to the area.

"When they improved Chattanooga, people [were] displaced," she said. "They have to move here. That might not be a good thing for us. Not everybody, but sometimes you get people you'd rather not have."

Heiskell, Lamb and Shannon Whitfield answered questions at a candidate forum hosted by the Wilson Road Neighborhood Group at Rossville's New Covenant Baptist Church, where residents sat in pews in front of the candidates, offering plates and thick, bright red carpet.

The candidates received the questions in advance in an effort by the neighborhood group to give them time for written-out, thoughtful answers. The event was not designed to be a debate.

One of the leading questions Thursday night was how to improve Rossville.

Whitfield, a Republican, called for an increase in the number of code enforcement employees in the county. Since the neighborhood group began in March, a key theme among its members has been a push to remove old, run-down buildings.

"There's not enough boots on the ground to tackle this problem," he said. " Those out of compliance will see we're serious about this problem."

He added that Rossville being close to Chattanooga and the interstate gives Rossville a lot of potential. He added that the community group can change the property values in the area. But, he added, he doesn't believe county government should be too involved.

"Many of you have probably watched HGTV," he said. "They can take old buildings, take old houses and rehab those. Next thing you know, you've got a wonderful piece of property."

Heiskell said the county's Development Authority can help bring in new business. In particular, she wants a new strip mall, which she believes will generate more sales tax revenue. Lamb and Whitfield both criticized this approach, saying the county should not be too involved in private business.

"They're a very good tool to get this community reestablished like you want to see," Heiskell said. "There's a lot of opportunities."

Heiskell added that people should not be in too big of a rush to put pressure on others whose buildings are out of code. These codes changed after people moved into the buildings. And in some cases, she said, the county struggles to find the owner of a building: it's listed in the name of a business or a trust.

"Our codes department tries to balance enforcement with fairness," she said.

Lamb said the key is to make Rossville look prettier. He said the county and its residents should focus on cleaning the area, replacing broken windows. Making the place look nicer, he argued, will attract more businesses and shoppers.

"Some of these businesses just need a facelift," he said. "They need to look inviting. It's amazing what a nice storefront will do."

Lamb advocated for purchasing a brush truck for the county to maintain the vegetaion in the area.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.