All three candidates for mayor of Athens visited Cedar Shoals for an extended interview with News editor Daveon Montgomery and reporter Tristan Lankford. Each of those interviews has been transcribed and posted for voters’ consideration. See the other two interviews with Harry Sims and Kelly Girtz here on CedarBluePrints.com.
What’s the most enjoyable part about your job as a business owner?
“I run a marketing agency so my business is centered around helping other businesses grow, so the most enjoyable part is seeing my clients succeed.”
Where did you grow up and how did you wind up in Athens?
“I grew up in Covington which is about 45 minutes away and I started school elsewhere. I came to Athens to finish school at UGA and while I was in school, I started my business at 21 in 2010.”
What does your business actually do?
“We’re a marketing agency. We help our clients gain new customers and we do that through creating engaging content like blogs and videos, infographics, downloadable things like e-books, case studies, and white papers. And then we do some more interactive things like learning management tools. Most of our clients are software based, so only a handful of folks that we work with are in Athens. A lot of them are in Atlanta.”
What was your reason for running for mayor?
“A big piece of it I think was frustration. Growing a business here has not been extremely easy for a lot of reasons. One, we don’t have the workforce that’s really ready to do the kind of work that we do. There’s not a very large group of young professionals age 25-35. So as I did work in the community, really uncovering that, then I started to do work on economic mobility. So that’s looking at what does it take to get someone out of high school and into a career, and how do we remove the barriers in between? I serve as our chair of a task force that’s just focused on that in Athens. And in doing that, my eyes were just open to so many more workforce development issues, and I think one of the scariest things was seeing that our youth poverty rate was at 40%. That means that 1 of every 6 kids in Athens-Clarke County is living below the poverty line. It’s kind of a culmination of all of those things working in my head and then knowing what my skill set is in building businesses and working with people of all types. I saw an opportunity where I thought I can be best used, and so I made that announcement and a year later, here I am.”
What makes you different from all the other candidates?
“I’m the outsider. I don’t have any political experience. I think I bring a different view to the table. The other candidates have been on the commission for quite some time, so I’m coming in with a fresh perspective, and I have the ability to work with people both in the public and private sector. I think it’s time for Athens to bring in a newer generation of leadership. We have this kind of same, old style of government or leadership, and I’d love to see our government become more transparent and more engaged with our community.”
Can you go into detail of how being so young and already being so successful can help lead you to possibly winning the election?
“Getting to where I am today wasn’t easy by any means, and I don’t think this election is going to be easy. So I’ve certainly grown accustomed to working hard. I typically put in 80 to 100 hour work weeks. I’d love to take that same kind of drive, will power, hard work, and apply that towards building our city and getting us to a point where we are prepared for long term growth. Watching these poverty rates go down, and seeing more affordable housing options. Me going from 21 to where I am today wasn’t easy and required me to grow up really fast, working with a lot of people who are a lot older than me and a lot different. I made a lot of mistakes along the way, but no one is perfect. I had to learn how to calm my temper. I had to learn how to be patient, and I had to learn how to work with different generations and people of all different types. When you own your own business and you have clients, everyone is so different. I’ve served on probably 15 non-profit boards or authorities, so I’ve gotten to see a lot of Athens from different perspectives. Everything from serving adults with developmental disabilities to the homeless shelter to the United Way, which serves as a much larger footprint. I’ve seen an opportunity where there’s a lot going on in Athens that’s kind of spread out all over this table and there’s really an opportunity for someone with vision that could maybe help hone all of that stuff in and start to move it in one direction instead of it going outwards because that’s not really getting us too far.”
What is your stance on affordable housing?
“We certainly need more affordable housing options in Athens. We have a great Housing Authority that offers subsidized housing to low-income folks, but that’s only covering a small percentage of people. I’d love to see us start investing in that. As a city, we have an affordable housing fund that hasn’t really been funded in quite some time, so I think getting creative on how we do that, potentially partnering with the UGA lines of funds, go into that as well as growing our tax base. You know we are the smallest county in Georgia and then beyond that 45% or more of our county is non-taxable. That means UGA owns it, or it’s school systems, churches, government buildings: none of those folks pay taxes. What do you think makes us the majority of our budget as a city? Taxes. So we have to find a way instead of raising taxes to individuals or business, how do we grow that tax base by bringing in industry, by bringing in smarter development? So, I’m in full support of affordable housing.”
What is your plan to foster public engagement and to really get people involved in the government to better the city of Athens? Even if you are mayor, you can’t do it by yourself.
“Only like 1% of the community are those people who are engaged, and 99% are that silent majority. I think what it takes is a leader with a vision and a leader with the ability to bring people to the table and to work across different groups within the community. I also think we have to find creative ways to get people involved, streaming more meetings online, posting meetings online whether that’s Facebook live or webinars or ways to get people in front of what’s happening in the government. I also think just an easy website portal where it’s like ‘how do I get involved?’ It’s our job as the local government to guide our citizens on all the opportunities that exist out there, because there are a ton of great things happening in Athens, It’s just hard to get people plugged in. What’s unfortunate is what you start to see are minority groups not getting represented, like the Latino community. There are very few active leaders who are engaging in community conversation so their voice is never heard. You have young professionals who are the same way. There’s not that many people my age group who are this active on things, so their voice goes unheard. So how do we start to get people on those pockets, a clear path for them to see this is how you can get involved? And we have to start getting the whole community involved in youth development. I’d love to see our mentor program triple or quadruple especially with African-American males getting involved back in school and to find a way to make that process easier. How can we work with our employers, for them to get some time off specifically for mentoring? These are all things that the government can’t enforce, but these are things that the government can lead conversation on.”
How would you lead the conversation on youth development and make it more of a priority?
“One of our big steps forward is workforce development. How do we start exposing kids in middle school and high school to the careers that exist in Athens? Did you know almost all the superchargers for every fast car in the world are made right here in Athens? There was a particular tractor that Caterpillar makes that’s only made here in Athens. You can keep going down the list of all the amazing things that are happening right here in our backyard that most most people have no idea about. So how do we start exposing those career paths at a younger age and at the same time teaching them those skills that are vital to being successful? Making eye contact, hand shaking, building a resume. If you come from a home where you have a strong parent whose willing to make sure you learn that, you get that. But if you don’t come from a home that has that opportunity, that maybe has mom or dad working two or three jobs, you miss out on those skills. How do we start that even in kindergarten? We have to take our focus off of college and focus a little more on the career field. College isn’t always everything, and especially with what we have available in Athens, how do we open that path? That’s gonna take work from the school, from employers, especially from parents.”
“What public safety issues do you think we have in Athens and how would you fix them?
“Our police force is very underfunded. We have several open positions that are very hard to fill. A big piece of that is because the salary is so low, one of the lowest salaries for police officers in the state. What that means is when we do get police officers, they might not be the greatest that we want. We’re trying to enforce community policing so our police officers are really engaged in the community and trying to prevent crime versus having to go back and investigate and fight crime later. It’s hard to do that when we don’t have good officers. We’re also not retaining our senior officers. They’re leaving and going to other counties because they get better benefits. We need to add about 20 new police officers to the police force in the next couple of years, but we haven’t done that in about 10 years. To accommodate our population growth, we need to grow our police department. I also think there are a lot of health and safety issues, and that we’re really bad at code enforcement. We’ve got an extreme littering problem. And I think the other piece to it is discrimination. Athens has historically had discrimination issues toward several different minority groups. We have to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance within the next few months of next year. It’s just time for us to step up and get that done and stop pushing that to a task force and delaying it. Other cities like Atlanta have done that. They’ve put together an enforcement body that’s able to review human rights violations and actually have authority. We don’t have any of that. Being a member of the LGBT community, we’ve seen way too many violent crimes over the past year, and that scares me. Especially being in a college town, we’ve got a lot of young kids who are new to the city and shouldn’t have to deal with that level of hate. I stand against hate in all fashions and forms, and I’d love to see us be a city government that speaks and really practices what we preach.”
Athens has a large youth population. With about 3,000 high school students, many want jobs, internships, and experiences to add to a resume. How would you help facilitate these types of jobs and opportunities to students?
“One of my large plans that I’m wanting to roll out and announce within the next month or so is putting together a workforce commission that would be solely focused on that. Bringing our large employers to the table, our education partners, as well as non-profit government sector folks and starting to really focus on how can we best start giving that exposure to our high school students. I think that one of the first steps is better apprenticeship programs, and there are other communities that are doing this on a much larger scale than we are. Unfortunately right now, the majority of the apprenticeship programs offered are through the Great Promise Partnership, and to qualify, you really have to be extremely low income, and that really leaves out the rest of the youth population. I’d love to see those opportunities offered across the board. I think [Superintendent] Dr. [Demond] Means has some bold ideas that need another year or two to get some things off the ground, but I think a great partnership can be formed between local government and the school system with the sole intention of how do we better develop our workforce. A big piece of that is exposing high school students to what’s out here in our backyard. I tested the waters last semester. We had three high school students that came to us at the marketing agency.”
Many students and teachers express a lack of student resources on the Eastside of Athens, for example a library. Students need a safe place close to home where they can simply study or get a book, but the library is on the other side of town and many students don’t have transportation. How would you address these issues?
“I worked on a project when I was in LEAD Athens on putting Athens transit on Google maps. So you can type in your destination, Athens Library, and hit directions, and then scroll over to where the bus is, and it will tell you every stop and routes you have to get on to get from here to the library. I think this is a big piece, we just have to educate people on what’s out there. You guys should definitely know that. Our local government is doing a poor job at teaching people. What would you think if we had a more direct route, maybe some routes in the afternoon that just go directly from Cedar Shoals to the library? Would the be helpful?”
Definitely. It doesn’t have to be as grand as the one on Alps Road, but maybe something as small as Cedar’s Library. Just a place to keep kids on track where they can meet tutors, mentors, or maybe even a community center such as the YMCA.
“It’s great to hear that. Thats certainly feedback I haven’t heard yet. I’d love to take some of these ideas back and do some research and maybe figure out ways to do these things. One, I think is the easiest thing would be getting some direct routes to the Athens Library, and two, in a long term plan, how do we get something here? It takes us a lot to build, but how do we get something here that’s able to accomplish those needs. Maybe that means some sort of public/private partnership with some non profits or some local businesses that may want to do something like that. I don’t have any specific other than that direct routes, but I’d love to take some time and think on this and get back to you guys.”
How will you work with the Athens Downtown Development Authority to continue the development of Athens businesses and for the people of Athens as a whole?
“I am currently on the Downtown Development Authority and I’ve done a lot of work on downtown over the past year. I live downtown and my office is downtown, so I spend the majority of my time there. We’ve got to diversify downtown. We have to keep adding different businesses, restaurants and bars, and we’ve got to add in some more family friendly activities and opportunities. So that means us going out and potentially seeking businesses to come move to Athens for that reason instead of sitting around always waiting on them to look at Athens. We have to be a little more proactive on that. One of the big things that we are missing as a community is a central gathering place. Seeing a spot downtown where we could have festivals, events, whether that’s closing that block at College Avenue, or finding a different spot downtown where we can have more public leisure type acts because none of that exists. We are about to have a big project. Clayton Street is about to be tore up for the next year and a half. We are going to widen the sidewalks and getting an additional six-ish feet and reducing the street from three lanes to two lanes and having designated loading zones on side streets. What that’s going to do is one, that street is all over the place. It really needs to be resurfaced. Second, a safety issue, is how narrow those sidewalks are. Now people are going to be able to walk back and forth in a much easier way, especially late at night where there are a lot of college students. And the third piece to that is installing all the proper drainage products. There is a stench to certain parts of downtown and that because of how old and poorly that drainage system works. That will be completely updated. Right now were not allowed to pressure wash sidewalks downtown unless we vacuum the dirty water up, because of EPA regulations. That water will go straight to our streams. With this proper filtration system in place, we’ll be able to pressure wash, so that stench will no longer be a problem. Those are projects that have been like ten years in the works that are finally happening. There are some other things that we need to get on the ball to see that happen within the next five to ten years similar to that. But, I think the biggest thing is attracting more diverse businesses, as far as the type of business and then the business owners. We have very few minority business owners downtown, hence the reason why we don’t have many minority groups who are downtown. At one point, the Hot Corner was the hub for African-American owned businesses for the whole North Georgia region. Now there are only about two or three businesses left in that area. So we certainly have a history of that, how can we get ourselves back to that place? One of the ideas that I’ve thrown out is maybe developing a minority owned business incubator that help people of minority groups to start their own business and apply for federal funding and other things.”
Can you elaborate more on bringing family friendly businesses to Athens? There are quite a few bars, so what kind of businesses do you have in mind?
“We’ve got a museum that’s been trying to get off the ground for a long time. I’d love to see a spot downtown for that. I’d love to see public park access downtown, you know more things for families to do. At the same time, we need things that you guys would want to do as high schoolers. I think of traditional arcades, but maybe there are other types of activities that are in that same sphere that would make sense. There’s things that you could go to, there are conferences and conventions where you go and you are shopping for businesses to come to your community. We have to be engaged in those types of events in seeing whats out there. Trends are changing constantly. Maybe that’s like a virtual reality center where you can go and put on goggles and do crazy things in there for high school students. I don’t necessarily know what the perfect solution is other than the fact that we need to be focussing on how do we get more families downtown, and a big piece of that is devoting your time to seeing what those trends are. My big focus areas are workforce development, affordable housing, public safety, as well as anti discrimination and really making this city for everyone. And a city that everyone feels proud of, and city that everyone feels welcome in. Whether that’s a visitor that’s coming for a football game or to visit campus, or just to visit our beautiful city, or for someone that is living here permanently or for a short period of time, they should all feel welcome.”