Chattanooga mayoral candidates Tim Kelly and Kim White faced off in a debate Thursday, agreeing on many key issues but sparring about business, politics and community development as their April 13 runoff election approaches.
White and Kelly, the top vote-getters in a 15-candidate general election on March 2, addressed top issues in Chattanooga during a virtual debate hosted by the Chattanooga Times Free Press and WRCB.
Kelly, a business owner and co-founder of the Chattanooga Football Club, and White, former CEO and president of River City Co. and the Corker Group, both said afterwards that the debate went well.
"I'm amazed by the support we've had from the very beginning and the confidence of new voters who are just joining us tonight," White said in a written statement late Thursday. "It's clear that Chattanooga residents value integrity, loyalty and the ability to work together. That's exactly what I bring to the table. I am grateful for this opportunity to uphold the values of our city and its people."
Kelly told the Times Free Press that, while the two squabbled at times, he was happy with the outcome.
"I thought it was good. You know, it was a good format, and I appreciate the opportunity," he said. "It got a little chippy, but I thought, overall, it went great. I was very happy."
While the pair shared nearly all of the same end goals and many of the same approaches to the issues, they took swipes at one another on certain issues through the hour.
One recurring criticism came from Kelly who, on several occasions, claimed his own lack of partisan alignment or further political ambition but implied White may have future political plans, which he believes could cloud her leadership.
"It wasn't something I went in trying to do but look, I think it's hugely important for people to consider the concept of political caution. Someone with political ambitions for the future is going to be cautious about certain things," Kelly said after the debate. "They're going to oppose certain things, and promote certain things based on the party that they're affiliated with and a future in that party."
White never definitively said during the debate that she wouldn't pursue higher office after serving as mayor, but said she had never expressed any interest in doing so.
A spokesperson for White's campaign said "Kim is focused on becoming the next mayor of Chattanooga with no intention of pursuing higher office," when asked after the debate.
Another clash came from one of several submitted questions asked during the debate. A citizen addressed Kelly's plan to move his Southern Honda Powersports dealership from Chattanooga to East Ridge to benefit from the city's Border Region Retail Development District state sales tax incentive, asking Kelly "How can you be chief promoter of Chattanooga and try to lure business to Chattanooga when you move your business out?"
Kelly initially answered the question by defending the move as the right decision for his growing business, which is located on Workman Road in an area with little retail traffic.
"I began to consider moving that dealership long before I began to think about this mayor's race, and very frankly as a business person, I'm going to do what's best for the business," he said during the debate, adding that moving to the other Hamilton County municipality still kept business local. "The Border Region Development Act, which was created by the state of Tennessee, is there to help attract businesses to do battle really with other states."
In her response, White questioned Kelly's decision and ability to attract businesses to the city after remarks he made about the East Ridge program.
"We have to recruit against people that give incentives all the time. So I think it is very hard to sell your city when you yourself just moved a business across the line," White said. "I think the biggest issue I have — and that's a personal business decision that he made — is that just a month ago at the Hixson Kiwanis Mr. Kelly stood on the steps and said it was a great deal and he encouraged other people, if they generated sales tax, that they ought to look at that deal."
Asked after the debate about that remark, Kelly said he was not encouraging other businesses to go to East Ridge.
"I simply said that it was a great program, but it's specifically aimed at retail businesses. There are a lot of hoops to jump through. It's not some economic threat to Chattanooga in any way shape or form," Kelly told the Times Free Press. "And if we, you know, get a good economic development strategy going again, there's room for everybody. You know the Chamber [of Commerce] refers business out to neighboring municipalities on a regular basis. So it was, you know, the sort of shot that you'd expect from somebody behind in a political race."
The two also discussed other issues facing the city, including:
Racial and economic equity
Candidates were asked how they would extend opportunities to lower- and middle-class families.
White promised to drive development across the city's various neighborhoods and focus on creating affordable housing, while Kelly emphasized the importance of education and workforce development.
Kelly said every policy he's written has been done through an equity lens, but specifically touted his plan geared toward driving wealth and opportunity in the Black community when asked a question about social justice.
"I'm the only candidate in this race with a specific plan for the African American community called A Better Way Forward. And it's an extensive plan, which I encourage everybody to look at on our website, which has to do with not only healing this gap and trust between police department and the African American community here, but also building wealth in that community, and really getting, getting back to a healthy middle class and, again, bridging this gap to create one Chattanooga from, unfortunately, the two Chattanoogas we have today," he said.
White said she was "not arrogant enough to go into the Black community and say, 'I have a plan for your community.'" Rather, she said she has been collecting community feedback.
"What I've been doing is going into the community and what they've told me is they want me to bring tools," she said. "They want to see the city bring tools to actually help lift them up."
Both touted their respective experience on nonprofit and community boards that work with low-income and minority neighborhoods, and committed to promoting diversity in their hires if elected. Kelly, specifically, promised a "40% minority cabinet."
Both Kelly and White restated pledges to improve affordable housing, both promising to use the city's land and loosen development regulations to encourage more affordable housing units.
White doubled down on a promise to create 700 new affordable housing units in the city by the end of her first term as mayor, if elected.
"We have a plan to bring 700 units of affordable housing online. Part of that is we're going to use city properties. The city has over 400 back-tax, derelict properties that need to be back on the tax rolls. We're going to utilize those, we're going to look at some of the codes," she said, noting current restrictions on garage apartments and other housing options.
"I think there's a lot of things that we can do to make it easier to build good quality affordable housing. We also plan to put $2 million a year into an affordable housing fund."
Kelly offered similar solutions, saying it comes down to the lack of affordable housing stock.
"I think we have some tremendous opportunity here to do some amazing things with direct impact investment, with foundation endowment funds, partnering with the city, in creating pools of capital," Kelly said. "This is a supply and demand problem ultimately, Kim's right about that. It's too difficult to do housing in the city, and we have to increase the supply of housing in order for housing to be affordable."
Kelly and White differed when asked if they believed Chattanooga was facing overdevelopment.
"The simple answer to that is yes," Kelly said, warning of a development "bubble" forming downtown.
"Look, I mean we've had too much focus on downtown. Downtown's great, and downtown will always be our downtown, it's important to have downtown be healthy. But we've got to put more focus on the neighborhoods, and on the health and vitality of our neighborhoods," he said, later adding, "I understand business. I've started many small businesses on my own, which included the development of properties around them. I understand development, and we definitely do need development, but we don't need to be the stool pigeons for developers."
White disagreed with the idea that the city was overdeveloped, but said there should be more strategy in development.
"I have a totally different perspective. We do need more development," White said.
"So my plan is to make sure that we can increase investment in this community, in a smart way, and do it in a way that actually brings value to our city," she added. "But, we're going to be developing, and we need more development, and it's not a bad word."
See the video of the full debate at timesfreepress.com/mayordebate.