The Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce held a candidate forum at the Virginia Museum of Natural History on Oct. 21. The forum was moderated by Phil Gardner of Gardner, Barrow, and Sharpe P.C. and sponsored by Appalachian Power.
Incumbents Jennifer Bowles and Danny Turner participated, along with challengers Aaron Rawls and LC Jones. Candidates gave opening statements before the questions began, and then were allowed four minutes to answer each question. Questions broached topics of council disorganization, funding, reversion, and more.
Regarding a perceived disorganization of council, Rawls said he is “tired of petty squabbling and really small, bitter bickering.” The city has “paralyzed partnerships” which causes many to not want to work with the city.
“Running for this position, and when people find out you are earnest, they will come to you and tell you things. And the things I have been told by people that I’ve been able to independently corroborate have horrified me. What is happening in our government is frankly unacceptable,” he said.
“If I’m elected, it won’t be immediate peace and tranquility. We’re going to need a disinfectant campaign. We have to get things out in the public that people should have known a long time ago,” he said, adding that he will work “to recruit the most professional, competent, visionary people that I can, to participate in our government” in the next council election.
Jones believes that to grow, Martinsville must repair its relationships, not just with outside parties, but also within the community.
“When we talk about growing Martinsville and getting people to come to Martinsville, new citizens, one of the biggest things that people look at is the dysfunctional situation we have going on with our local government,” he said. “One of the biggest things we are missing is putting our citizens first. I feel that our citizens and transparency and the level of information that we’ve given our citizens, especially when we bring up the reversion conversation, they’ve missed an essential part of that.”
Jones reiterated his call to create “a call line where (residents) can call in or we can call them and give them information in real time basis.”
Bowles said her relationship with other members of council allows her access to information about the viewpoints of residents she may not speak to one-on-one.
“I know there’s no way I can talk to every 13,000 citizens, but I do know that maybe Danny can talk to some citizens that I don’t talk to. Maybe Tammy (Pearson) talks to some other citizens that I don’t talk to,” she said. “So, I know by talking to her, talking to them, talking to the other council members, that’s how you learn things.”
According to Bowles, she only knows about her relationships with other council members and not about the disagreements referenced in the question.
“I can’t talk about all of the petty disputes. I can’t talk about non-essential squabbling. I can’t talk about personality clashes. That’s not about me,” she said. “I don’t do those things, I don’t have those issues with members of council. I just state my opinions. I ask what I want. And if it doesn’t go my way, guess what? I’ve got to move on and continue doing the work of the city. Let my record speak for me, let my professionalism speak for me.”
Turner said he is “not satisfied with what goes on in the city hall, but all you can do is fight. One of the responsibilities of city council I found out is sometimes you’ve got to protect the citizens from the government and the city has made a lot of mistakes.”
Turner questioned the status quo, which earned applause from some attendees.
“I think the current arrangement with the assistant city manager and the city attorney are the same person absolutely does not serve anybody’s purpose,” Turner said.
When fielding a question about the entities – Uptown Partnership, which was funded by Harvest for three years and unless the city funds it will cease to exist. The other entity known as Martinsville Uptown is part of the Chamber of Commerce’s partnership Economic Progress and it partially funded by the city – involved in promoting and developing the business district, Jones said that he is not well versed in the two entities, but he noted there have been a lot of accomplishments in Uptown.
Going forward, Jones said he believes the city must concentrate on making connections, branding, and continuing to grow to attract businesses.
“That making connections is what we talked about earlier. It’s rebuilding partnerships with our community partners, that being Henry County Board of Supervisors, our school systems in Henry County and Martinsville. That is the start,” he said.
“When we talk about branding, I’m not sure that other people look at Martinsville. When I go outside of Martinsville, Martinsville is race country. And I know that where Martinsville Speedway, and we generally only use the Speedway a couple times a year on the big races, but we do have several smaller races,” Jones said. ” I feel that we need something in Martinsville, my idea is a museum, something that when we have race fans come here, they have somewhere to go. Also, throughout the year, they also have another reason to come to Martinsville,” he said.
Growth “is really just revising and revitalizing. It’s kind of looking at growth from small perspectives. And when we talk about growth and having people look here and come here, we have to look at our businesses and the needs that they have,” he said.
Bowles said she understands the roles of each of the two entities, and added both are having conversations now, despite an adverse relationship that may have been present or portrayed in the past.
“I’m all about collaboration. One thing that I do believe is the more that we have people coming to the table, having conversations, bringing ideas, and just hashing it out, the better our community will be,” she said.
According to Bowles, the Harvest Foundation approached the city with the idea of the city funding half of the money to continue Uptown Partnership. She said she can’t rule out supporting the funding because Uptown Partnership could do something with the Chamber of Commerce.
“One idea that I have is maybe Uptown Partnership has an umbrella under the chamber. We know the chamber has proven leadership,” she said.
Turner supports the funding agreement for Uptown Partnership, which he tentatively said equates to $125,000 a year. However, he is against the notion of giving Uptown Partnership $5 million in ARPA funding, especially without the agency partnering with the chamber.
“I have met with this group, and I have elected that I would help fund the two years partnership with the Harvest Foundation. It ended up, it’s going to be result based. So, if we don’t get it, we’re not committing after that,” he said.
Turner said Uptown Martinsville is a vital part of both the city and the county.
“Uptown is very important to me. It’s actually the center of Henry County. It’s smack dab in the center of Henry County and going forward, whether we revert or not, it’s still a valuable part of both the City of Martinsville and Henry County,” he said.
Turner said he is constantly looking for opportunities to get businesses to move to Martinsville.
“I overheard a conversation in Rocky Mount where an international company was looking for a place in Virginia to locate. They talked about another place. I kind of butted into the conversation. After it was over with, I got their people to come here,” he said. “We had people from two foreign countries here in Martinsville, and I hope pretty soon we’re going to have an economic development announcement.”
Rawls is firmly against funding Uptown Partnership, and added the way the entity was introduced “led to a number of issues. A lot of businesses felt like they were omitted from the process. I read the plan the consultants made for them and was made to understand, and kind of got some input from people in the city, as to what that thing should say. What I’m going to say about that is it’s one of the most reprehensible documents I’ve ever read in my entire life,” he said.
Rawls said he could have gotten behind the ARPA funding if it wasn’t a strange notion with the reversion argument of financial instability and the fact that ARPA money was meant for businesses strongly impacted by COVID that were already established in the city.
Rawls said whether both entities should exist “depends. We need an actual thorough plan and then we can look at what the chamber’s done, what Uptown Partnership has done, and be like, ‘Ah, they’ve made strides in that direction.” I know the chamber has a plan, but I don’t know where it measures up to what the city’s expectations are, is what I’m trying to say. And I would need to see the same for Uptown Partnership,” he said.
On the reversion process, Bowles said she too is frustrated. She added that residents should vote on the issue.
“For years, the city council has spared the citizens the pain of increased taxation, service cuts, by doing budget cuts. Had we not done that, I do believe it would be more clear to our citizens why we need reversion,” she said.
Bowles said the city used ARPA funding to avoid raising taxes, but that it was a “once in a lifetime gift.”
“Honestly, letting the citizens vote, letting them decide, it’s a sigh of relief to me. Because that way, you can move forward in the path of whatever the citizens want. But I do want to be extremely honest with our citizens. If we don’t revert, we will have to raise taxes or cut services,” she said.
Turner said that he was not a part of the negotiating committee, but he wishes he had been.
“I think we could have negotiated a better agreement. I’m still hopeful that the three judge panel, when they meet December 5, will be able to figure out that this is something that’s got to take place and tweak it a little bit,” he said. “I think if we had spent our time with the county at the General Assembly session, instead of fighting for a referendum, fighting for a better solution … we could have come out really good on that.”
He also said the city was ready to revert six years ago after a study was done, but the mayor changed her vote, causing the city to have to wait five years before another vote could be held.
“That put us in a very bad position. I think that Mr. Jones and Mr. Rawls solution, we can’t afford the five more years,” he said.
Rawls said there is a laundry list of cases where the city has not made good use of its resources, and the city needs professionals who can negotiate deals.
“This is what happens when you don’t do your homework, you don’t have professionals running very serious processes like this. We got caught trying to push this through. The playbook has been out there for reversion. Other cities have done this, there’s a lot of documentation,” he said.
Rawls wants to grow Martinsville, with a focus on baby boomers and young professionals.
“I really want to see us focus on growth and I also want to focus on getting some of our wayward, crazy expenses under control. I also think, in terms of reorganizing administration, there’ a lot of opportunity there,” he said.
Rawls said he tries to look at a realistic five year plan the way the average citizen would.
“A couple things we can all agree on is that the city is broke. We have had new citizens come here. The city is making money. Over the past years, we have made money. How much, and the significance of that growth, is really (neither) here nor there because there is the growth,” he said,
He also questioned whether the city would be in its current situation had administration not made some of the decisions of the past.
“With the growth that we have, just right now, and the bad decisions that we’ve made over the years, had we not made those decisions, had we not been spending money for lawyers, had we not been fighting against our own school system, forcing them to go get lawyers, had we not been fighting Henry County Board of Supervisors, would we be in the same situation right now,” he asked rhetorically.
“What is the single most important issue, other than reversion, facing city council right now and how would you deal with it?”
Bowles said, “One thing that I frequently hear from citizens is that they want to continue to be advocated for and they want to have more communication and transparency.”
She said she pushed for the city to post meeting information on social media and for the hiring of a public information officer. She is continuing to pursue methods for communication.
“I had the city administration look into putting things in our electric bills. Another thing the city administration is looking into is direct text messages to our citizens. That way, they’ll know it’s the city, they’ll know they can vote,” Bowles said.
Jones’ issue was the “trifecta” of mental health, homelessness, and drug addiction.
“If you look up and down your streets right now, no matter what time of day it is, you’re dealing with one of those three things and it’s going to have an impact on the community,” he said. “When we talk about bringing new people to this community, they come into this community, they walk these streets, and they see these things.”
Jones said the city needs a place for their homeless to go where they can rehabilitate and receive 24 hour help.
Rawls said the issue can be addressed by new leadership and rebuilding Martinsville’s brand and reputation.
“What you see in the news is not who we are. That is not our character, that is not our spirit. We have to rebrand ourselves and start telling our story better,” he said, adding that he wants to create a council that is “professional and earnest.
“I promise you, I will go to the max for this. I’ve probably walked 40 miles going door to door for myself, I will do that for any other candidate who is sincere and experienced in doing this,” he said.
Turner said economic development “cures a lot of ails. We need to continue on that route, partnering with the chamber. Making sure that we have the resources, and we also need to be advocates. Each member of the city council needs to be an advocate for the city.”