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First council forum focuses on Seventh Avenue

Mayoral candidate Steve Franks makes a point as council candidates Jeff Collis and Ralph Freeman listen. Mayoral candidate Steve Franks makes a point as council candidates Jeff Collis and Ralph Freeman listen.

Five candidates for the Hendersonville City Council and three for mayor expressed broad support for redevelopment of Seventh Avenue with the few differences in their approaches coming down to government versus private sector as the driver.

The Historic Seventh Avenue District, a group of businesses, residents and property owners, hosted the forum that attracted a standing room only crowd to the historic train depot that brought loads of passengers that made the street a lively lodging and retail center.
Candidates present were council members Jeff Collis and Jerry Smith and challengers Diane Caldwell, Ralph Freeman and Jeff Miller, and Mayor Barbara Volk and challengers Ron Stephens, a current council member, and Steve Franks, a retired District Court judge. The forum was a fast-paced Q&A in which candidates had one minute each to answer three questions, a format that Miller called "my first experience with speed dating."
The candidates were asked whether they supported the district's economic development plans and economic incentives, and were asked to express their views on crime prevention.

The few sparks in an otherwise amicable evening came when Stephens suggested that Franks favored bulldozing a lot of buildings on Seventh Avenue. "I didn't say that. I said selective," Franks fired back. "Well, you implied a lot," Stephens said.

Franks said the city should use the redevelopment incentives under state law to force the demolition of dilapidated buildings and pay for incentives through increased property taxes on higher valued replacements. "It's there, it's a win-win situation for the city and we should be pursuing it," Franks said.

Incumbents Collis and Smith both said they had supported Seventh Avenue while on the council.
"In 2005 one of our first goals in a budget retreat was what you see here," Collis said, "and the result was a lot of those programs. I really feel like it's you folks making the decisions down here" that should drive the council's action.

Smith said phasing in the development works well because "when people see what phases 1, 2 and 3 are going to look like they're more likely to come in and invest in it."
Freeman said he had supported the district's plans in the past and still does. "I would go a little bit further with individual property owners," he said. "We have properties that are stagnated and we need to do what we can to get the property off dead center."
A founder of the Boys and Girls Club in Green Meadows off Seventh Avenue, Miller said, "I know where it's come from. I like the fact that you're not forgetting the people that got you here. The only thing I would add is a timeline."
As for economic development in the district, Franks said "it won't take a minute (to answer) because part of my platform dovetails with what you folks want to do."
Stephens said he had attended a daylong conference on downtown revitalization where a team of experts presented a detailed program on the topic. "They said this is extremely important because it creates jobs, it brings in private investment, it extends the tax base and it improves the quality of life," he said.
Volk said the city council does not have "a real direct impact on economic development" because it does not have a recruiter focused specifically on that. But through infrastructure and other improvements it can help. "So we depend on all of you as the most involved citizens to work toward this and so far you've done a fantastic job," she said.

In closing statements, council candidates expressed their views more generally. Here's what they said:
Mayor Barbara Volk: "I've enjoyed being mayor. I have used it as an opportunity to get around the community, heard about what's going on, as well as the interworkings of the council; There's a lot more to being mayor than just sitting at the meeting and rapping the gavel, which we don't have, because everyone on the council works together."

Ron Stephens: "I think it's very appropriate that Tom Orr and the group had that play at the Courthouse, 'The Golden Age.' It came with the railroad, right here, in 1890, and I think we're at the beginning of another Golden Age. I think it's coming to Hendersonville and I think we need to be ready for it. And to be ready for it we've got to control our spending. We have spent entirely too much money the last year. We're spending $3½ million on a new fire station. It's examples like that, where we can control our spending, and prepare ourselves for what's coming in the new golden age."

Jerry Smith: "Seventh Avenue is a very important part of our town. This is a good example of my favorite part of being on the City Council. That's what I enjoy most about being on City Council. Unlike other levels of government, where you have to call Raleigh or call Washington, here you just call somebody that lives just down the street or works just down the road. Whenever Steve Caraker (who serves as Seventh Avenue liaison) comes to City Council and needs something for Seventh Avenue, I think I've voted for everything that he's asked for."

Jeff Miller: "This is my first experience with speed dating and I don't really know about it. I got into this because of a personal issue I had with the city and the water and sewer primarily. It was something that I thought was extremely unfair. But I do want to point out that I don't believe that any of the current members of the city council are antibusiness. I believe they don't understand the repercussions of some of the things that are brought to them for a vote. This is where I come in I feel like. I will force there to be real life examples of what they're voting on so it doesn't hurt a resident and doesn't hurt a business. ... This will be a very upfront cordial campaign. I just want to offer whatever skillset I have."

Ralph Freeman: "The last eight eight years I have been continuously involved with city government. I've served on numerous board and numerous committees, I've been on city council, I am for the small business, I am for all businesses that come to town. We need to do a better job trying to attract businesses and see where we can streamline the time it takes for a business to come on board and become a reality."

Steve Franks: Low voter turnout — 10 percent four years ago — is attributable to voters' belief that things are fine or that the council won't do anything anyway. "When I get on the council as mayor things are going to change because people are going to know that council listens to them, and the council responds to them and the council will take action."

Jeff Collis: "I can kind of sum it up (with) having family that votes for you and puts you in office. You know when your mama votes for you, you always try to do things that are right. When we have our moment of silence before we start the council meeting, my prayer most of the time is, 'Lord, please don't let me screw this up.' I'm very proud of the work we've done for the last 7½ years but the thing about it is, there were people long before us that came to Hendersonville and made this the great place that it is. I think it's our responsibility to try and be the best stewards of what you folks have tried to do."

Diane Caldwell: "I have three degrees, in computer programing, in business administration and one in business management. I have been on City Council so I'm very familiar with the things they have to deal with. Taxes, zoning, you name it, it comes before the city council. I have loved and enjoyed when I was on the city council."