In a first public forum together Tuesday, the five candidates seeking to be Augusta’s next mayor sparred gently over job creation, pushed a transit agenda and touted the skills and experience they’d bring to the mayor’s seat.
Less compelling than the fact that the next consolidated Augusta-Richmond County mayor will be black, candidate Helen Blocker-Adams said in opening remarks, is the detail that the next mayor will “get right to work with your current mayor, your current commissioners” and enjoy seven months of on-the-job training before taking office. The election is May 20.
Throughout the forum, retired restaurateur Charles Cummings stayed true to his platform of upgrading Augusta Public Transit, calling it an issue critical to the city’s disabled, elderly and less fortunate.
Sen. Hardie Davis, D-Augusta, attending his first forum with the other candidates, said he would be “a mayor that you can be proud of,” one who uses all available legislation to replace lost manufacturing jobs, accelerate licensing and permitting for incoming business, develop housing in south Augusta and expanding a southside industrial park to create Georgia’s second inland port.
Augusta Commission member Alvin Mason touted job growth that has taken place during his two terms on the commission, adding that he “absolutely” knows “what I can do, and what I can’t do” as mayor, a position defined in the city charter.
“We can’t wait,” recited language arts instructor Lori Myles. “None of the accolades mean a thing, if you can’t walk the walk and talk the talk,” she said.
In a nod to her opponents, “to run on your past experience may not be the best thing to do,” she said.
On the topic of job creation, Mason noted the incoming U.S. Army Cyber Command’s promise of about 3,500 jobs, but added “we’ve got to start in the school system” to prepare students.
Myles’ key jobs phrase was “trade and industrial magnification,” while Blocker-Adams’ was “entertainment,” including film and theater, to encourage the “Tyler Perrys of the world that are making a killing” in Atlanta.
Cummings said the workforce “has got to be able to get to work.”
Davis questioned Mason’s role in job creation, adding that current Mayor Deke Copenhaver “has done some significant things,” in spite of the current commission.
He said the cyber jobs actually include many transfers, but a new initiative at a former National Science Center property would enable workforce development.
On the issue of dilapidated properties, Blocker-Adams said she would “do the right thing, no matter who owns the property,” while Davis speculated “what if” T-Mobile had located in the Laney-Walker or Bethlehem communities using the Legislature-created development tool of a Tax Allocation District.
Mason, responding to Davis’ comment about cyber command, said its jobs were “nothing to scoff at,” but that as mayor, “the job is to enforce the laws and ordinances on the books,” including Augusta’s newly revised mothballed properties ordinance, to address blight.
Myles said Augusta presently was not implementing existing legislation or ordinances.
“We are sitting back,” she said, having “decided we have so many other things to bicker over.” She added that a “hierarchy of needs” was needed.
Concerning downtown, Myles said “money is being turned into the downtown area in many different ways” including sales tax allocations, while Mason said enforcement of ordinances, again, was the issue.
“Alvin Mason’s going to make that happen,” he said.
Mason also repeated one of his campaign promises, to lower the downtown levee that blocks visual access to the Savannah River. The massive demolition project would enable development where right now, “looking out the back door, there’s a wall,” he said.
Davis said the mayor must listen to downtown businesses to set priorities, including “the parking problem” that discourages development.
Tearing down the levee, he said, would send flood insurance rates “skyrocketing” while the key to development is the vacant former Golf Hall of Fame property, now owned by Georgia Regents University, he said.
Cummings said of Augusta’s thousands of hotel and motel rooms, many weren’t downtown.
“Transportation has got to be a part” of the downtown solution, he said.
Blocker-Adams said the city has not been “good stewards of what we already have” downtown, neglecting maintenance of what already exists.
Many people who attended the forum, held by Summerville Neighborhood Association at Trinity on the Hill United Methodist Church, came in support of a particular candidate, while others said afterward they hadn’t made up their minds.
“It’s still kind of an introduction,” said resident Ken Kitchen. The mayor is “kind of a mediator,” he said. “That requires talents not everyone has.”
Michael Anderson said the forum was “really interesting,” though he hadn’t made up his mind, either. “I think I was able to learn a lot about the candidates. I was impressed at how articulate all the candidates were.”
Dennis Williams, who is running for a seat on the Augusta Commission, said the forum, the first attended by all five candidates, had allowed him to make a decision, but he wouldn’t specify who.
Williams said the replies gave the audience “an opportunity to see the leadership skills” of each.