Urban Circulator, jobs and regional competition mark fault lines between candidates

Joines (right) jokes with Montgomery. Also pictured (l-r): Besse, Elliot, Reynolds, MacIntosh and Johnson.   
Candidates for Winston-Salem City Council addressed a capacity crowd at the Milton Rhodes Arts Center last night, articulating a range of viewpoints on matters ranging from a proposed light-rail transit system to how the city can compete more effectively with its neighbors and attract jobs.

The candidate forum featured a slate of seven Republicans, followed by 18 Democrats, who took questions from Winston-Salem Journal Editorial Page Editor John Railey and WGHP Fox 8 reporter Bob Buckley.

Democrat Dan Besse, who is running for reelection in the Southeast Ward, took the strongest position in support of the light rail project, known as the Urban Circulator.

"We can learn from Charlotte's developing an aggressively balanced transportation system," he said. "They have the interstates serving them. They also have a rail system. We can do that here locally, and we can draw billions of additional and redevelopment to our city."

Noah Reynolds, a Democrat running for the open seat in the Northwest Ward, took a different position.

"I believe I can offer a more efficient and less costly alternative to the streetcar idea by reworking and making more efficient our existing bus network," Reynolds said, adding that he favors park-and-ride centers to get people in and out of the city.

Besse also said Winston-Salem should emulate the Triangle's focus on education and research to drive economic development.

Some candidates said past city councils missed opportunities to enhance Winston-Salem's growth.

"We let Greensboro outfox us by getting the airport there instead of Winston-Salem," said Donald T. Shaw, who is contesting Robert Bultman in the Republican primary for a shot at Besse in November. "They were a little bit smarter than us. We did nothing and sat on our hands."

Democrat Joycelyn Johnson, who is attempting to reclaim her seat as East Ward representative from incumbent Derwin Montgomery, said past city leaders missed the mark on annexation.

"We were not as aggressive as other communities," she said. "Charlotte would annex Concord if they had the opportunity. There's only one other city in Durham County outside of Durham. Raleigh adopts RTP, as does Durham. We did not do the kinds of things, right or wrong, that other communities did."

But most candidates said Winston-Salem has no significant deficiencies compared to other cities in the state.

Mayoral candidates Gardenia Henley and Allen Joines
"There's nothing about Winston-Salem that cannot be fixed," said Gardenia Henley, a retired auditor with the US Agency for International Development who is challenging Mayor Allen Joines in the Democratic primary. "We just need someone, like myself, who's got the knowledge and the experience to do that. Now, I want to say that having traveled around the world and seen many different economies and having turned around many different economies, I know what Winston-Salem can be again."

Joines said Winston-Salem is a model while acknowledging it can borrow ideas from other cities.

"The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston selected Winston-Salem as a 'resurgent city' and sent about 40 individuals down from Springfield, Massachusetts to study how we had turned our economy around," Joines countered. "That being said, however, we can always learn from our other cities and other colleagues. Greenville, South Carolina is a good example of the things they've done with their downtown. I was down there yesterday actually recruiting a company that I think would be a nice fit for our new knowledge-based economy here in Winston-Salem."

A question about whether candidates should be forced to retire after a certain number of years through term limits drew the most pointed responses from candidates for the Northeast Ward seat.

"When we have a city council representative that holds the position for an extremely long time a lot of people lose interest," said Jemmise Bowen, a Democratic challenger, who said she does support term limits. "And I think some of what has happened in the Northeast Ward is that interest has been lost in local politics. I think that comes from assuming that everything will be okay, will be okay, will be okay.... If you see things that aren't relevant to you, it's time to either run or vote that person out."

Brenda Diggs, another Democratic challenger, said she does not support term limits.

Democrat Vivian Burke, who has represented the Northeast Ward since 1977, said she does not support term limits.

"I have been progressive, and I think I have been very, very good at what I do," she said. "You can check the record: I have not missed meetings.... When people get older it does not mean that there is something wrong as long as you can be active and productive, I don't think you need term limits."

Democratic and Republican candidates concurred that the city's most glaring need is for jobs.

Jeff MacIntosh, one of three Democrats vying for the open Northwest Ward seat, said the city's investment in downtown represents its best strategy for overall growth.

"I don't think we can cut our way to prosperity," he said. "I think we need to make smart investments. And I think the investments we've made in downtown over the years have paid off and will continue to pay off. Downtown is a net revenue generator. Downtown throws off more money to the rest of the city than they consume in services. So when you increase the density of people living downtown, you increase the tax base with no additional infrastructure costs."

Bowen, one of three candidates running in the Northeast Ward said the city needs to leverage its evolving transportation infrastructure to develop an industrial food production economy.

"I'm talking like canned vegetables," she said. "We can now produce vegetables from our neighbors in Walkertown, the surrounding areas, down east. We can also secure vegetables and food products from South Carolina. We have the mountains where we have peaches."

Republican Patricia Kleinmaier, who is contending with Democrat Denise D. Adams for the North Ward seat in the November general election, took aim at the city's reliance on food service and medical jobs. A tea party activist, Kleinmaier argued that the city should reduce the tax burden and weed out regulations to encourage business growth.

Republican candidates prepare for the forum.
"I think the most glaring need of the city is for jobs, not just restaurant jobs and not just medical jobs," she said. "We need to find some more things to do for the kids that don't go to college.... I think we need to work on getting more businesses here but not by using incentives to get them here. We need to let them know that there's a workforce here that's willing and able to work."

Republican Michael Owens, who will face the Democratic victor in the general election contest for the Northeast Ward seat, said job creation is important to him because he is personally unemployed.

"I've taken lots of classes on lots of subjects, but I don't have that scrap of paper that tells the world that I've studied something for a certain number of years," Owens said. "That said, we need jobs for people like me — hard workers, but don't have that piece of paper."

Howard Hudson, one of two candidates challenging incumbent Robert Clark in the Republican primary for the West Ward, cited fiscal responsibility as the city's most urgent need. He argued that the city council failed to take bold action and make difficult decisions when it did not implement the recommendations of the Citizens Organizational Efficiency Review Committee to save $4.7 million through spending cuts and fee increases.

Lida Hayes Calvert, the Republican candidate for the Northwest Ward seat, served on the committee.

"Do you know that to get your trash picked up in the back of your yard you don't have to have an excuse?" she said. "$114,000 we spend to pick up trash in the back of someone's yard without an excuse. You can be Joe and you can call in and say, 'Hey, this is Joe. I'm calling to tell you that I can't push my cart to the curb.' You know what the city says? 'Okay Joe, we'll be over there and we'll pick up your trash. No doctor's note, no nothing. Joe gets his trash picked up."

Among the two Democratic candidates for the South Ward, challenger Carolyn Highsmith built on her argument that she will provide more responsive representation to constituents.

"I am running a campaign focusing on listening, connecting and celebrating the citizens of the South Ward one block at a time," Highsmith said.

Incumbent Molly Leight, who has represented the South Ward since 2005, said she is "pretty pleased and proud of what we've accomplished in the last eight years," citing new companies that have located in Winston-Salem to create new jobs and additional tax revenue.

Reeling off names of programs and progress benchmarks, Leight noted that her platform sounded strikingly similar to that of Mayor Allen Joines.

"Did we write the script together?" she asked.

Kleinmaier, the Republican challenger in the North Ward, assailed some of the programs used by the current Democratic council majority to stimulate investment.

"I don't think the city of Winston-Salem should be in the business of loaning money to small businesses; that's why we have banks," she said. "And I don't think we need to be supporting every nonprofit. If you're going to start a nonprofit, you need to figure out a way to earn your own money and take care of your nonprofit, and not go begging the city to pay for all your expenses."

The city council approved $2.2 million for arts and community-development nonprofits in the current fiscal year budget, including $247,540 for the Arts Council of Winston-Salem & Forsyth County, which operates the Milton Rhodes Arts Center.

The candidate forum attracted a capacity crowd.
Calvert acknowledged that her company was contracted to paint the arts center, but said she supports the arts through her own patronage.

Clark, the sitting West Ward representative and the sole incumbent on the Republican panel, said he is concerned that the number of nonprofits supported by the city has increased over the past three years.

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