The final candidate forum before Calhoun County's Aug. 28 municipal elections took place at Ohatchee High School Monday, as 12 town council candidates and four mayoral hopefuls outlined their hopes for industrial growth in the small municipality of around 1,000 residents.
John Blue, the chairman for the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce, which sponsored the forum, introduced which the candidates. He said the responses weren’t too different from what’s already been discussed around Calhoun County, he said
“From one end of the county to the other, it’s been pretty consistent,” Blue said, referring to themes of job growth, attracting businesses and development at local schools.
Ohatchee’s candidates directed their responses towards developing the industrial park in the town and possibly building a sewage system along Highway 77 to attract more restaurants and shops in the area.
“First and foremost, before we can even begin to grow, we need a sewage system,” said Jamie Harris, a candidate for Position 4 on the council. “Then we can build new businesses and grow from there.”
Harris’ comments found lots of supporters among the other candidates including her opponent, incumbent Teresa Lott and Position 1 incumbent Celesia Kilgore.
William Southard, running for Position 3 on the council, said that while a sewer system along the business corridor of the town could provide growth, it could just as easily be a sinkhole for the town as well.
“You branch if off Highway 77 and you start to have problems,” Southard said. “The upkeep alone would continue to drain our town.”
Other critics said a sewer system would cost too much.
“You start a sewer system, you’re talking several millions of dollars,” said James Emigh Sr., who is running for Position 3 on the council.
“A sewer system would be great, but can we even afford one?” said J.M. “Butch” Mitchell, a candidate for Position 2. “When people come to town they don’t look at a sewer system, they look at the roadsides and streets.”
Mitchell’s comments touched on the other big topic of the night for a lot of the candidates – the town’s appearance. Current councilman and mayoral candidate Willie B. Thomas said the future of Highway 77 would require expanding and building more lanes, potentially ruining any attempts to build a sewer system
“It would be a waste of money,” Thomas said. “You've got to work with what you got. We’ve got to improve our roads and keep our grass cut and start to look like a small town should.”
Thomas and mayoral candidate Joseph Roberson, who served as mayor from 1984 to 2008, said they would like the city to hire more maintenance people to take care of the town.
In his closing statements, however, Mayor Steve Baswell said it wasn’t the city’s job to keep up all property in the way people keep up their own lawns.
“We’re behind in grass cutting, but if that’s the worst thing people can come up with, I think we’re doing pretty all right,” Baswell said.
Baswell said the most important accomplishment of his administration had been keeping the city financially stable for the last four years despite a downturn in the economy. He said responsible spending on infrastructure would keep Ohatchee afloat.
Throughout the night, there was a push and pull between candidates expressing desire to spend in order to build and those who said the resources already available in the town could foster growth.
But at least one candidate said it wasn’t always about the money.
“I say let’s do away with our salaries,” Mitchell said. “Then we’ll see who really wants to be on the city council.”
Candidates also discussed the proper way to advertise the Janney Furnace as a tourist destination, and the possibility of returning to two council meetings per month.
Elections in Ohatchee for mayor and town council are scheduled for August 28.
Star staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546