Incumbent Sherman Guyton will face Etowah County Commissioner Carolyn Parker on Tuesday in a runoff election for Gadsden mayor. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Guyton led Parker in the municipal election on Aug. 28, but didn’t receive a majority of the votes cast, gathering 46.9 percent to her 26.8 percent.
The Times asked the candidates to respond to 10 questions on Gadsden’s present and its future. Their responses have been edited only to ensure clarity and for grammar, punctuation and spelling.
What is the No. 1 problem facing Gadsden, and how would you solve it?
GUYTON: Every day we have to make hard decisions about what programs and projects we should undertake, and where we should focus our resources. We don’t think of these as problems in our community, but as opportunities for improvement. The City of Gadsden doesn’t have a money tree, despite what some may think. Gadsden’s roads, bridges, parks and schools are beginning to show their age, and we are repairing them as quickly as funds allow. During my time as mayor, we’ve worked to do more with less while improving infrastructure, facilities and services.
PARKER: The No. 1 problem facing Gadsden from my perspective is the lack of a dedicated comprehensive plan. The city has not had a plan since 1977. As mayor, I will organize a qualified team to develop a comprehensive strategic plan. The planning team will include a citizens’ advisory board.
What are Gadsden’s strengths?
GUYTON: We are fortunate that Gadsden has many strengths. The people of Gadsden, with their strong work ethic and diverse backgrounds, are at the top of the list. Of course, we are centrally located in the heart of Etowah County, with the Coosa River flowing right through downtown, and Noccalula Falls Park here at the foot of Lookout Mountain. Last but certainly not least are our educational institutions; I’d rank Gadsden City High School, Gadsden State Community College, the University of Alabama-Gadsden and the Alabama Technology Network/Bevill Center as some of the best in Alabama.
PARKER: Location, location, location. Gadsden sits in a valley with the benefit of a waterway running through the downtown, and has natural, lush vegetation and hilly terrain to complement the untapped resources.
Gadsden was at one time Alabama’s second-most center of commerce and industry, second only to Mobile. It’s time to end the status quo and rekindle the flames of industry, commerce and economic development on the banks of the Coosa again. The alternative “status quo” is not an option. We are a strong and resilient community, ready to take Gadsden progressively into the 21st century.
What can be done to reduce crime and opioid abuse in Gadsden?
GUYTON: Everyone should feel safe in their homes and their community, and we are constantly working to make that happen. Based on the numbers I’ve gotten from the Gadsden Police Department, we are definitely making some positive headway. Over the past couple of years, the number of criminal cases in Alabama City, Walnut Park and East Gadsden has dropped slightly. Now I’m not saying we’ve won the war on crime, but we are headed in the right direction.
The opioid crisis is a real and serious issue, and we are tackling it by partnering with other agencies in our region to get drugs and criminals off our streets. The Drug Task Force, which is a cooperative effort of the Gadsden Police Department, the Etowah County Sheriff and other municipalities, has been highly effective in combatting this epidemic. We do everything in our power to support our law enforcement agencies and keep Gadsden safe.
PARKER: First, we as a community must come to terms with the challenges of the crisis. A clear and common-sense understanding is needed to challenge the enormous, deadly problem that encompasses the illegal street market for selling drugs and the misuse of prescriptions. It is reported that more than 115 people a day die from opioids. We as a community clearly should be alarmed. However, we should be just as alarmed and ashamed of the lack of attention to feeder drugs. The broader picture and concentration should include a comprehensive approach that includes feeder drugs. The neglect of crack, crystal meth and even marijuana abuse beg for attention through education and advocacy across the greater community. A serious community policing program dedicated to mitigation and interdiction could be the first line of defense for safer communities and a reduction in crime. I personally serve on The CED Mental Health board. I’ve supported day-treatment programs as well as work-release programs as a county commissioner.
Gadsden seems to be a divided city on many levels, not just economically or by race. How would you unify the city?
GUYTON: Anyone who knows me recognizes that I’ve always tried to be a unifier, not a divider. Going back to my days as a coach/teacher and a small business owner, to my time serving as Chamber president, and especially during my time as mayor, I’ve had success bringing people together. I’m proud to say I’ve worked with three different city councils, and despite sometimes having differences of opinion, we’ve always worked together to do what we thought was best for Gadsden. If you’re out in the community attending any of the hundreds of events that I’m invited to each year all over town, you’ll see the real Gadsden, a community that pulls together and embraces what it has in common.
PARKER: I will admit there are two Gadsdens divided along economic and racial lines. However, my approach to unify would flow out of an intense education model designed to reduce fear. The better educated a community becomes, the more engaged and motivated it becomes to resolve its own challenges. I would make it my priority to unite working-class citizens across racial lines, underscoring the need to unite for the good of the community. When the community is engaged in connecting dialogue about positive and productive issues, the emphasis is moved from the negative conflict of the racial divide to the positive, constructive movement of living well together, better in all ways. Eating well, living in good and decent housing plus having more than enough to make ends meet is a formula for the release of the pent-up frustrations that harbor bias and racial resentment.
What are your plans for future development along the Coosa River?
GUYTON: The City of Gadsden is fortunate to have the Coosa River running through town. During my time as mayor, we’ve made tremendous strides to make the riverfront more attractive for business, recreation and quality of life. We’re excited about the newly opened Venue at Coosa Landing; it complements the enormously successful boat launch that brings national fishing tournaments, and their outside dollars, to our community. These investments are already paying off with Buffalo Wild Wings coming to the riverfront, and others call every day to express interest in locating here. Our next phase of riverfront development is focusing on the west side of the Coosa, tying the new Moragne Park, Splash Pad and City Hall complex into a mixed-use development befitting the Queen City of the Coosa.
PARKER: I would undertake planning possibilities by first holding community meetings in all seven districts for the valuable input of the citizens. I favor the establishment of a citizen review board, with members coming from all seven districts. This mix would include professionals such as design specialists, engineers and riverfront developers, to name a few. The scope and vision would be laid out in every respect to ensure the vision and reality are compatible. A comprehensive plan with a preservation component will always precede any development activity.
What would you do to promote future industrial development in Gadsden?
GUYTON: During my time as mayor of Gadsden, we’ve worked closely with local industry, and it’s paid off. We’ve been successful in retaining and creating over 10,000 jobs, and those same companies have reinvested over $500 million in their plants and equipment. One of the biggest issues that industry is facing right now is finding quality personnel to fill the jobs. We led the way statewide with the creation and implementation of the Workforce Development Partnership, which brought the Gadsden City Schools and Gadsden State Community College together with local government and industry to facilitate the development of a trained workforce.
As mayor I will continue to support the Gadsden-Etowah Industrial Development Authority while at the same time encouraging them to ramp up their staff in order to better promote Gadsden and service existing industry. I’d also continue to partner with the Gadsden Airport Authority and the Water Works & Sewer Board to help support and grow existing industry. We’re always working to attract new companies to Gadsden, but we will not forget about those existing businesses, like Fehrer Automotive, Decatur Plastics, Goodyear, Narmco, Inteva, Koch Foods, Keystone, Southern Cold Storage, Stamped Products and others, that are the foundation of our industrial sector and provide thousands of good jobs for both the residents of Gadsden and Etowah County.
PARKER: In the hope of not sounding redundant, industrial development would flow from the plan for growth and economic development. A real industrial development program would exist, with goals and expectations. I would sit down with the State of Alabama and promote Gadsden as open for business. Gadsden has not had a seat at the table. I will ensure that we not only have a seat at the table, but a voice. I will also look outside the traditional box and look at trending industries such as technology, educational and recreational projects.
How will you work with Etowah County and other municipalities on development projects that could benefit the entire area, such as Little Canoe Creek and the Etowah County Mega Sports Complex?
GUYTON: We are all better off when we work together, so I will continue to ask the County Commission to get on board with the Gadsden-Etowah Industrial Development Authority so that we can present a unified effort when we are pursuing new industry. The current commission has chosen to go their own way, creating a new position and hiring an economic development person whose sole job is to market Little Canoe Creek. We have multiple industrial sites in Gadsden and the neighboring cities, ranging from 5 acres to 160 acres, that are ready to be developed. I think that’s why all the mayors of Etowah County have voted to support the IDA. Right now, we don’t have that cohesive effort that puts us over the top. With the current setup, we could potentially be competing with Etowah County for the same project, which is no good for anyone. I’m excited about the prospect of working with the new commission.
As for the Mega Sports Complex, I’ve met with members of their board to express support for the project when the project gets going. I don’t think it’d be wise to make open-ended commitments with taxpayer dollars until their plan is fully fleshed out. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great project, but it’s just a little premature to promise anything until they know what they need. In the meantime, we’ve partnered with Gadsden State Community College to lease and manage the soccer, baseball and softball fields, which will supplement, not compete with, the mega complex. We’re putting our money in new lighting for soccer fields, upgrades to the other fields and general improvements to the overall complex. We want the children of Gadsden to have quality facilities they can use on an everyday basis.
PARKER: As a county commissioner for the past eight years, I have worked with numerous municipalities in and outside of Etowah County; for example, partnering with the cities of Attalla and Gadsden on numerous paving and drainage projects. I’ve also assisted Ridgeville with school bus routes. I’ve worked closely with the other five commissioners to get the Little Canoe Creek industrial site certified as an Advantage Site, and most recently we formed an Economic Development Alliance, which will function as an independent entity separate from the County Commission. I served on the search committee for our new director, who is revered around the state in the economic development arena. I also contributed $150,000 to Rainbow City to assist with an access road for the Mega Sports Complex, which will benefit our entire county and all the kids. These are just a few examples of my ability to work collaboratively to move our city forward.
What can the city do to promote education in Gadsden, both in public and post-secondary schools?
GUYTON: Supporting education is at the top of my list as mayor. When you look at students, from the littlest pre-K students to the shining stars at Gadsden City High School, to the incredible young men and women at Gadsden State Community College, you are seeing the future of Gadsden. As mayor, I, with the council’s support, have invested more than $31 million into Gadsden City Schools, which includes the construction of the new Automotive Technology Center at Gadsden City High. Our education focus stretches beyond the Gadsden City Schools, with hundreds of thousands of dollars to support job readiness and workforce training. Recently, Gadsden was named as the 40th best place out of 386 for wage and job growth, so we’ve just got to keep the progress going.
PARKER: As a city, we must engage in strategic planning with all educational entities to address and meet the needs of industrial development and growth. We should explore the possibility of a comprehensive skills development center dedicated to an innovative strategy from the human capital view, because education increases knowledge and skills, which more often than not result in higher incomes and thus greater tax revenues — the engine of a well-run city. Human capital education must be a part of every industrial development opportunity. I would start by meeting with our school superintendent, Tony Reddick, and President Martha Lavender of our premier institute, Gadsden State Community College, both of whom I already have working relationships with. Secondly, I would want to make sure that vocational education is open to all students. I would ensure that our K-12 educators, teachers and administrators have the resources they need to be successful. I hope to lure additional satellite sites or mini-campuses such as Auburn University or Alabama A&M. I’ve already laid the groundwork with Auburn while on the commission.
What would you do to promote infrastructure improvements in Gadsden, such as street and sewer repair, the extension of Interstate 759 and traffic relief on Meighan Boulevard and Rainbow Drive?
GUYTON: We fight to improve our infrastructure every day. Thanks to strong financial management, we’ve brought the city back from near bankruptcy and built a solid savings account, which allows us to make the necessary investments in all our infrastructure, not just street and sewer repair. This past year, we undertook more than $3 million in street paving projects, along with another $400,000 in drainage improvements. We’ve also taken full advantage of federal funding through the Metropolitan Planning Organization; that means that the federal government contributes 80 percent of the money, while the city only contributes 20 percent. That allows us to stretch our dollars a whole lot farther, which means we can pave more streets. Take a look at the road detours and orange construction signs all over town; these are concrete examples of our commitment to improve Gadsden.
One of the keys to eliminating traffic congestion on Meighan Boulevard, which is a state highway, is the extension of I-759. We have a good relationship with the governor, the state highway director and, of course, Reps. Ford and Nordgren, who have all really supported this project. These connections are vital to getting any support from the state highway department. It’s the same way with Rainbow Drive; the highway department has a plan to replace bridges and add lanes, but it takes time and money. I will continue to push to make those a priority with the state and will continue to go above and beyond to cut through the red tape and expedite these needed improvements.
PARKER: I would make it a top priority to sit down with the city engineer to prioritize street and sewage projects. The roads are in severe disrepair and we have terrible drainage issues all over Gadsden. The citizens deserve better than what they are currently getting. I would like to ensure that we invest in our neighborhoods and citizens moving forward. Our citizens are certainly our most important asset. The extension of 759 is not currently on the list of ALDOT projects to be funded so as mayor I will look at alternate traffic routes to alleviate some of the traffic congestion and gridlock.
In 25 words or less, tell why voters should choose you to be mayor of Gadsden.
GUYTON: Nothing compares to on-the-job experience. Our budget is over $65 million. I’ve managed it well so we could create jobs and grow our city.
PARKER: I will work for all the people. Nobody will work harder than Carolyn Parker to unite the City of Gadsden and move us forward as One Gadsden.