By Joel Hall
Members of the Clayton County business community engaged candidates seeking Board of Commissioner posts during a forum on Thursday morning at Clayton State University. The forum, hosted by the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce, gave concerned business people a chance to find out what plans candidates have for making Clayton's economy more competitive in the region, and branding the county with a better public image.
BOC Chairman candidates, Virginia Gray, Phaedra Graham, and incumbent chairman, Eldrin Bell, were present, as well as BOC District 2 candidates Gail Hambrick and Danny Hayes, and BOC District 3 candidates Michael Bryant, Angela Redding, and Ronald Ringer.
BOC chair candidates Lee Scott and Earl Randall; BOC District 2 candidates Lawrence Ethridge and Charles Meadows;and BOC District 3 incumbent commissioner, Wole Ralph, were not present.
The forum addressed "retention, expansion and attraction" of businesses in the county, said Ron Shipman, a member of the chamber's board of directors and the forum's emcee. "This brought the candidates a chance to answer business-type questions from the business community."
Candidates for chairman led the discussion.
"My plan for recruiting new businesses is somewhat to continue doing ... what we're done," said BOC chairman, Eldrin Bell. "We plan to continue to use our office of economic development to reach out. We're now advertising in various magazines across the state, and indeed, around the country to bring attention to Clayton County."
Bell said because the county has been protected from recent droughts by the effort of the Clayton County Water Authority, "three times as many businesses" have been coming to Clayton County than in the past. He said the county is currently in discussion with several major businesses seeking to relocate within the county.
Phaedra Graham, former mayor of Riverdale and also a candidate for BOC chair, said she would like to emphasis relocating corporate businesses to the county, but in order to do so, the BOC must assist the school system in the accreditation crisis and market its success stories.
"I feel like we can highlight the positiveness of our school system and use that to attract companies to our county," said Graham. She said she would pursue an "aggressive marketing and promotions plan," which would highlight "the jewels" of Clayton County, such as the State Farmers Market, Clayton State University, and its close proximity to most of metro Atlanta's major interstate highways.
Virginia Gray, the current District 2 commissioner and a BOC chair candidate, said she is presently pushing for two Tax Allocation District (TAD) projects in the northwest corridor of the county to spur development. She would like to see the county "capitalize" on its current amenities.
"We have so many resources," said Gray. "We need to really capitalize on those. We need a strong economic development department to aggressively recruit new businesses and devise programs to retain those that we have."
Candidates for District 2 and District 3 commission seats urged better marketing of the county, and emphasized erasing the county's negatives.
Gail Hambrick, chair of the Clayton County Tax Assessor's board and a candidate for District 2 commissioner, emphasized the need for the municipalities of Clayton County to work together as a cohesive unit.
"We can't be separate and try to be a great Clayton County," said Hambrick. "I would love to see more people working together to make Clayton County what it should be." She also proposed providing tax incentives to incoming businesses.
Danny Hayes, former third vice president of the Clayton County Branch NAACP and candidate for District 2 commissioner; and Ronald Ringer, a Delta employee and candidate for District 3 commissioner; both focused on improving the school system as a way to attract new businesses.
"We have to build a foundation, and first off, we have to get our schools together," said Hayes. "That is one thing we have to think about before bringing any new businesses to the county."
"When I went to school in Clayton County back in the 1970s, Clayton County was ranked number four [out of 159 counties in the state]," said Ringer. "Right now, I think they're dead last. We need to bring the education system back to where it should be."
Hayes believes the county should also improve it's transit system and create more mixed development, while Ringer believes crime needs to be addressed before businesses will move in.
Angela Redding, a candidate for District 3 commissioner, who has an 11-year old daughter in the school system, said the schools are "not as bad as people say" and that the county would be served well by its elected officials sharing a "united front."
"In order to market this county, we have to work out our problems behind closed doors, so that when we appear in public, we appear in a united front to move this county forward. That to me, will have businesses interested in staying in Clayton County."
Michael Bryant, a candidate for District 3 commissioner, believes the county is in "deep need of renovation and remodification." He said he would use his experience as a general contractor to "build up" potential economic generators, such as Tara Field, and to better leverage revenue coming from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
"If [Hartsfield-Jackson is] 80 percent in Clayton County ... the world's busiest airport, then Clayton County should be the world's busiest county," said Bryant.
Candidates from the District 3 race addressed the fact that past commissioners with backgrounds in construction, or in ownership of large portions of county land, have run into visible conflicts of interest. Bryant, who is a general contractor, and Ringer, who comes from one of the oldest African-American families in Clayton County, and is a major land owner, addressed how they would remove themselves from any potential conflicts.
"I have a belief that when you have a perception of impropriety, then you should walk away from the deal," said Bryant, who lives in the Rivers Edge subdivision.
"[Neighbors] have come to me a few times and asked me if I can work on their houses and do a project for them. I would kindly and respectfully refuse to work on any residents' homes in my community, because I have to evaluate their architectural control memos."
Ringer addressed possible conflicts in regard to construction, but not to land ownership. However, he said, "I would completely keep myself away from" any potential conflicts of interest.
"If you are going to be a commissioner, you shouldn't be able to take bids to develop buildings and construction outfits like [past commissioners] did," said Ringer. "That's the reason why Clayton County looks like it does now. That's been a problem in the county for the last 25 years."
District 3 candidate Redding is neither in construction, nor is a large property owner in the county, but said a commissioner should follow the "legal, moral, and ethical guidelines" outlined in the position.
"If a person is on the board and they own land or a construction company ... they should abstain, or at least state upfront, that they are not involved in the project and that they have not accepted any kind of kickbacks."
The forum allowed chamber members to not only ask candidates to identify problems, but also to identify solutions.
Candidates agreed that ideas such as positive billboards and a quarterly highlights magazine would be effective ways to market the county.
Grant Wainscott, executive director of the National Museum of Commercial Aviation, said the forum was "useful" and "to the point."
"Public relations is important and it is something we have to do now, rather than later," said Wainscott. "Collectively, we can say as a business community, these are the things that we care about."