KINGSPORT — Election day is less than a month away and early voting begins this week. In Kingsport, two incumbents and three challengers are vying for three seats on the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.
The candidates include Linda Buckles, John Clark, Colette George, Eric Kerney and Tom Parham. Mayor Dennis Phillips is facing Gary Lane for a fifth term in office. Election day is May 21; early voting begins in Blountville on May 1 and in Kingsport on May 9. Early voting ends May 16.
The Times-News recently asked all of the candidates a series of questions on some the major issues facing the city, including annexation, debt and education. Here are their answers.
Q. When it comes to cost, the largest quality of life projects Kingsport has undertaken in recent years have been the aquatic center, the Kingsport Center for Higher Education and the Regional Center for Health Professions. Do you believe Kingsport has done enough in recent years to improve the quality of life for its citizens? What other quality of life projects would you propose?
• Phillips: During my term as mayor we have devoted much attention to quality of life issues: renovation of the Riverview community, V.O. Dobbins Sr. Complex, the nonprofit center, Farmers Market complex, Aquatic Center, Higher Education Center, downtown parking garage, downtown concerts and revitalization, two new fire stations, Splash Pad, city parks and renovation of the Lynn View ball fields, to name a few. As for the quality of life issues that I feel we need to address would be to continue our emphasis on the downtown area, renovation to our library, new and improved sidewalks and completion of the Veterans Memorial. Additionally, the Carousel Project will be a major quality of life project when completed next spring.
• Lane: The best quality of life project which would benefit ALL of Kingsport would be providing ALL city services to ALL city residents, such as street repair, street lighting, utility upgrades, sewer service, and probably most of all, funding for desperately needed equipment and upgrades for our city firefighters. Fire department needs have been pushed aside for several years to use monies for other projects. Safety and security of the people of Kingsport is of the utmost importance, and this is something that should never be an item for cuts.
Education needs to remain top priority for our city, plus outlying areas of the county. Annexation in the manner that is currently being done by the BMA is disrupting our neighbors in the county, which is causing decreased county school population, and is forcing some tough decisions to be made by the Sullivan County Board of Education. Kingsport is called the Model City. Peace and harmony with our neighbors and within ourselves is what makes Kingsport the Model City and creates the desire for people to live here. Running roughshod over people to annex, not fulfilling city needs, and not listening to the people does not make you a model city.
• Buckles: Spending over $20 million for the Aquatic Center, which was originally budgeted for $13.8 million, is no way to treat taxpayers. What’s important is the big picture. We must distinguish between priorities and necessities. In a rapidly changing world, education must always be Kingsport’s top quality of life priority. Having a well-trained and highly educated work force is essential to attracting the kind of 21st century jobs that will draw new young professionals to the area and keep our best and brightest young people here at home. I heartily support recent initiatives like the Higher Education Center and the Regional Center for Health Professions. These projects will attract new jobs and investment to Kingsport that will improve everyone’s quality of life.
• Clark: Quality of life improvements are essential for Kingsport to achieve two goals. 1) Retain residents and businesses and 2) attract new residents and businesses to Kingsport for job creation. I believe Kingsport has done an excellent job in recent years to improve the quality of life for our citizens, but more affordable projects will be needed in the future to continue successfully competing with other local cities for residents and businesses. Special focus should be to our continued downtown revitalization, retail shops and restaurants.
• George: There are always good quality of life projects that we would like to have in Kingsport. The city of Kingsport is in the business of providing services to it citizens. That’s our job. These quality of life issues make us who we are. Cities are not in the business of making a profit, but providing for the people who live there. That includes good schools, excellent public safety, and the extra events that make us unique and special. Cities are the reflection of their citizens. It’s what binds us together as a city, a state, and a nation. To come together for the common good and do as a community what we cannot do as individuals. I believe in Kingsport, its citizens and our future. However, it becomes a balancing act of what we can afford and what the priorities are. Smart and planned growth is the key to ensuring that Kingsport’s quality of life continues to increase.
• Kerney: Over the years Kingsport has done many wonderful things to improve our quality of life. That’s one of the reasons I’m proud to live here, to raise my family here and go to church here. We have great parks, walking trails, the Greenbelt, the Kingsport Symphony and Ballet, the Renaissance Center, Bays Mountain, art and culture centers and I could go on and on. But as I stated earlier, the BMA needs to make decisions based on a true need to improve the quality of life in Kingsport rather than on just a want that’s the flavor of the day.
• Parham: Kingsport now offers multiple opportunities in sports programs and facilities, enhanced and vibrant arts and theater efforts, and new choices in shopping and dining. To me, all quality of life projects have three primary goals: to provide our citizens access to activities that can make them happier and/or healthier, to help retain our youth, and to attract businesses. I think we are doing a good job, and have the chance to do even better.
The Aquatic Center will provide great opportunities for our citizens of all ages to access year-round swimming for fun, exercise and improved health. In addition, it will give more of our youth the motivation, and the chance, to learn to swim. This is an important skill to have in an area with so many lakes and rivers.
The Academic Village is a project close to my heart. So many of our young people get a great K-12 education here, then leave the area for college never to return. Also, too many young adults miss out on the opportunity to continue their education due to high cost, lack of accessibility, and the jobs and responsibilities they already have. The Academic Village makes it possible to get a college education and/or education for a career transition, or work-force development, right here in the city, at a reasonable cost and on a flexible schedule. Having better educated citizens improves our chances to attract more and better jobs, since we will have a better qualified work force.
In addition to these two projects, the Greenbelt’s continued expansion gives our citizens opportunities for convenient walking and biking in a beautiful environment. Because of it, we have received recognition as one of the country’s best cities for walking and biking.
The Riverfront Redevelopment project, already begun at Netherland Inn, will offer still more opportunities to access the outdoors, preserve and highlight a part of our heritage, and provide new options for housing and small business development.
The cultural arts are being well supported, also. We have a first-class symphony and ballet, excellent opportunities to view outdoor sculptures, and the redevelopment of our downtown area continues to improve its appearance and give a venue for concerts and small, arts-related businesses.
The Healthy Kingsport initiative has as its goal for Kingsport to be recognized as a pedestrian and bike friendly, healthy city. New areas are being designed with walkways and green spaces, to encourage people to enjoy the outdoors and also get exercise.
I believe we must continue to push hard as a Board of Mayor and Aldermen to embrace our heritage along the Riverfront, which I believe can be a future centerpiece of visitation to Kingsport. Together with education, jobs and work-force development, a more pedestrian friendly community, our awesome parks and green spaces, and the new Aquatic Center, you can see we are making Kingsport a better place to live, and a destination city.