KINGSPORT - Candidates vying for the three open seats on the Board of Mayor and Aldermen fielded questions Thursday night on educational funding, a higher education center in downtown Kingsport, and their vision for the city's future.
The Kingsport Area Chamber of Commerce held a candidate forum Thursday night at City Hall with all six candidates in attendance. The candidates answered seven questions each during the 70-minute forum. Questions were about the higher education center, public funding for K-12 education, and the expansion of the Educate and Grow program.
Chamber officials developed the questions, which were not presented to candidates prior to the forum. The forum will be rebroadcast on Channel 16 all day today and beginning May 7 four times a day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. until election day.
Vice Mayor Larry Munsey and Alderman Ken Marsh - who have both served eight years on the BMA - are seeking re-election. Challenging the incumbents are three political newcomers - Ray Cain, Bill Hillman and Richard Samples. The fourth challenger, Jantry Shupe, ran for alderman in 2003.
During Thursday's forum, the candidates offered similar opinions on many of the questions, and few new ideas were put forth. All of the candidates support the creation of a higher education center and expanding the Educate and Grow initiative to four years. Differences did come out when asked about their vision for Kingsport and ideas for diversifying Kingsport's business base.
Marsh touted his eight years of experience on the BMA, particularly with the details of the city's budget. Marsh said the higher education center and economic development were two of the "high nails" in the community.
"Education is the key to the future for all of us, at every age level," Marsh said.
Over the years Marsh has been a strong advocate of attracting people to the Model City. He reiterated that sentiment Thursday night.
"The way we're going to move Kingsport forward is not with money, not with all the things we've talked about. It's with people," Marsh said. "People make the community or unmake the community. Attracting people is one of the best and most reliable ways to drive an economy forward, and the idea is to share the secret of the great life in East Tennessee with people who have never heard of Kingsport."
Munsey too cited his experience and knowledge with the BMA, adding he wants to continue and be a part of the momentum within the city. Munsey said the key to diversifying Kingsport's business base is to approach the issue from several different angles, including supporting the Kingsport Office of Small Business Development and Entrepreneurship and NETWORKS – Sullivan Partnership.
"I think that in order to attract business, we've got to keep up our infrastructure, offer as much incentive as we can to businesses, use tax abatements to level the field," Munsey said. "We need all these things at same time to be successful."
In the next five years, Munsey believes there will be ancillary benefits from the Gray Fossil Site.
"That is going to be huge. In conjunction with that, we've allocated money to expand the planetarium, and it will be synergistic with that program," Munsey said. "This area will all benefit from the fossil site and all of the things that go with that."
Cain, who worked 22 years with Oakwood Markets and now works at Downtown Flowers, said he wants to be a voice for the people who feel left out of government.
"In the next five years I see downtown Kingsport not rolling up the carpet at 5 o'clock. I see it being vibrant at 9, 10, 11 o'clock at night," Cain said. "I think it will be good for the residents to see Broad, Market, Main ... everything be alive at 10 o'clock as much as you are in the daytime."
Cain also believes the number one thing happening in Kingsport is the higher education center.
"We're seeing it come to life right now," he said. "In the next few years we're going to see the fruits of your labor. But we're going to have to build it with room to expand."
Hillman has worked at Kingsport's paper plant - recently purchased by Domtar - for 34 years. Hillman said he grew up community oriented and a firm believer citizens owe a debt of service to their community.
"I think we all need to give something back. Six months ago I never thought I would be standing here, but it's something I feel I need to do and make a positive contribution," Hillman said. "I have common sense, I'm honest, and our dad taught us the Hillman name is not to be tarnished."
Hillman spoke several times of his past, his family and with working for a company that has had four different owners.
"When I was hired at the Mead factory it had 1,400 employees. Now we're on the fourth owner, and we have 350 employees. The Kingsport Press, JP Stevens ... those are gone and will never be back. What we did 30 years ago won't work today," Hillman said. "That's why the higher education center is so important. We have to diversify ... form alliances with the county and sister cities to help with recruitment.
"We can't survive on strip malls and shopping centers."
Samples is a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force and former high school teacher. Samples said his organizational, planning and teaching skills would be an asset to the BMA.
"I think we need to start looking at more high-tech industries. I think that's the future," Samples said, adding he supports the expansion of the Educate and Grow program. "We can't have enough education. If we do not have an educated work force, we can't get businesses to come here. If it takes giving them free education, I say do it. That's a no-brainer."
Though he supports the creation of a higher education center is Kingsport, Samples said not particularly in the downtown area.
"Because it would take up too much retail space and parking space, unless we build a parking garage," Samples said. "We don't have that much parking downtown to start. If it's outside of town, there would be more room to expand and make it eventually a university. Let it be its own entity."
Shupe, a Kingsport native, manages Oak Hill Funerals and Cremations in Kingsport. Shupe said he wants to serve on the BMA because he genuinely cares about the city.
"I promise you that I care about Kingsport. I went away to Nashville to college, and I'm one of the folks who moved back home to invest my time and skills right here in my hometown," Shupe said. "We need to make sure we have employers so when people graduate, they can come back home and bring their families."
Shupe said higher education has been a concern voiced by Kingsport's major employers, and he does not see a bright future for the Model City without it.
"Many communities would beg for those opportunities," he said. "I think it's wonderful (the Educate and Grow program) provides an education, but it would be horrible if they left and worked elsewhere. We need to work with regional efforts to bring businesses here to make sure we have jobs waiting for them in Kingsport."