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Chairman candidates: Transportation, economic development are key

There is one fundamental thing the three candidates running for the Clayton County Board of Commissioners chairman seat can agree on: that the key issues the county needs to focus on right now are transportation and economic development.

This is a race that essentially features a virtual all-star lineup of candidates, including incumbent Chairman Eldrin Bell, State Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam (D-Riverdale) and former Clayton County Police Chief Jeff Turner. The key to winning the election will come down to which candidate can convince the public that he, or she, will bring new businesses into the county, create new jobs and fill Clayton’s mass-transit void.

“We have to restore faith and hope to our citizens,” Abdul-Salaam said. “They need to have their voice heard.”

All three candidates in this race are high-profile figures in the county.

Bell, 76, a former City of Atlanta police chief, has been the commission chairman since January 2005. He was appointed last August to serve as one of five vice-chairpersons on the National Association of Counties’ Transportation Steering Committee. The chairman is also a member of the Atlanta Regional Commission Board, and served on its roundtable which developed the project list for this year’s transportation tax vote.

Abdul-Salaam, 56, has been in the state House of Representatives, representing District 74, since January 2005. She authored local legislation in 2010 that would allow Clayton County to hold a referendum on joining MARTA, although county leaders have not yet acted on it. She served as chairwoman of the Clayton County Legislative Delegation during the Georgia General Assembly’s 2011 and 2012 legislative sessions.

Turner, 48, was the county’s police chief from 2006 until 2009, when the county commission voted to reassign him to become the head of the Clayton Regional Law Enforcement Academy. The reassignment, which some saw as a political move against Turner, came after the release of a police department audit that was critical of the former chief’s leadership of the department.

The commission voted to shut down the academy in June 2010, six months after it reassigned Turner to be the training site’s leader. He is now an instructor at ITT Technical Institute.

Transportation will likely loom over local races because voters in a 10-county area, including Clayton County, are set to vote in a regional transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) referendum on the same day as the state’s primary election.

Bell has for years been a proponent of a multi-modal system of mass transportation system that includes buses and commuter rail. He opposed the county commission’s 2009 decision to do away with the county’s C-Tran bus service. He lobbied to ensure local bus service was on the ARC’s transportation sales tax project list, and successfully fought to get $20 million in commuter rail planning funds on the list.

“I, along with many others, fight for Clayton County all the time in our various little corners,” Bell said earlier this month, at the Clayton County Democratic Party candidates forum. Attempts this week to set up an interview with Bell for this story were unsuccessful.

Turner said bringing back mass transit would alleviate traffic congestion in the county, but he also said the local leaders need to fix the existing roads on which potential buses would travel. “The roadway system in this county needs work badly,” he said. “The roadways are deteriorating before our eyes and it doesn’t seem to be getting better.”

Abdul-Salaam said transportation improvements in the county go beyond mass transit and roads, however. While she is a proponent of bringing local bus service back to the county, she suggested other more simplistic ways the county could also improve transportation in the county, such as building sidewalks and bike trails.

“One of the things that the loss of C-Tran did was it highlighted how many pedestrians we have in the county, so we need things like sidewalks and bike paths to help address their needs,” she said.

Addressing the transportation issue may also be key, the candidates have said at various times, to addressing the economic development issue facing the county.

Abdul-Salaam wants to create “business incubators” and “enterprise zones” in the county, where extra efforts would be made to attract particular types of businesses. There also have to be more summer employment opportunities for teenagers, she said, since some youngsters count on summer jobs to provide some additional income for their families.

Turner has said, in candidates forums, that the county has to be “aggressive” in pursuing new developments and businesses.

“We have to go out there and talk to our businesses that we already have, and find out what we could be doing better to attract new businesses to the area,” he explained on Friday.

One economic generator Abdul-Salaam, Turner and Bell have all said the county needs to look to is Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, since it sits in the northwest corner of the county. Turner said Clayton County’s unemployment figures are the third-highest in the state, but he added they should not be that high since the airport is one of the busiest in the world.

Bell argues on his campaign web site for using the airport area as an economic generator for the county, particularly by building an “aerotropolis” business development on the land that surrounds the airport.

“Aerotropolis will support economic development for cities and Clayton County, and would result in thousands of new jobs for our community,” Bell’s web site states. “The Aerotropolis project would economically develop the land mass around the airport.”

Along those same lines, Abdul-Salaam said “We definitely need to take advance of opportunities at the airport. We may even have to create some opportunities there, if necessary.”

Additional information about each candidate can be found on their campaign web sites. Bell’s web site is located at www.voteeldrinbell.com; Abdul-Salaam’s is located at www.robertaforchange.com, and Turner’s can be found at www.digimoprinting.com/jeffturner/.