The nine candidates running for the three Winder City Council seats on next month’s election ballot agreed last week that there have been positive changes in the city’s downtown district in recent years, but that hurdles remain to help improve the future economic development outlook in the city.

During an Oct. 11 candidate forum, the Barrow County Chamber of Commerce governmental affairs committee focused its questions heavily on what it described as a “renaissance” in downtown Winder and a surge of residents in the Old Town area and probed the candidates for their thoughts on how to best continue that progress.

“I see a lot of room for growth,” said Matthew Redfern, one of four candidates vying for the Ward 1 seat. “There are many buildings that are vacant and have been vacant a long time and lots that are vacant and have been vacant a long time. We need to do our best to attract businesses here.”

While Redfern acknowledged the addition of several local downtown restaurants, he pointed out that the bulk of the redevelopment so far has been limited to one or two blocks.

“We have many more blocks in this city that need help and need to be able to attract businesses,” he said, while also calling for more biking and walking paths that would directly connect the heart of downtown with nearby neighborhoods.

Another Ward 1 candidate, Yvonne Greenway, said the city has the potential to make better use of existing spaces through historic building revitalization efforts that would include transforming vacant upstairs space into downtown apartments.

Greenway, a former city planning department employee, said the city should consider more code flexibility on historic building projects and taking advantage of state and federal tax credits and programs available for revitalization efforts. She suggested the city could use funds from the prospective renewal of the countywide 1-cent special-purpose local-option sales tax, a portion of which would be earmarked for “special projects.”

Downtown apartments and living quarters “would encourage more pedestrians downtown where the residents could live, shop and eat,” Greenway said.

“I believe the city needs to look at what is presently available and see if it can be salvaged or used in any way,” Ward 1 candidate Melissa Baughcum added. “The impact on current businesses needs to be considered before any changes are made. This progress and growth needs to be planned for now.”

Incumbent councilmen Sonny Morris (Ward 1), Jimmy Terrell (Ward 3) and Chris Akins (at-large) noted that the city has for over a year worked with a private company on development of a downtown-area master plan, a final report on which is due back to the council in the coming weeks, and which, they said, should address several concerns.

“This will give our city a plan and a vision,” Morris said.

Chief among the issues hindering further downtown progress, several of the candidates said, is traffic. Danny Darby, who is running against Terrell, said he considers traffic congestion the No. 1 deterrent to people coming to the downtown area to patronize businesses. Darby and Terrell agreed on the need to work with the Georgia Department of Transportation on additional improvements through the center of town along with the coming West Winder Bypass. Terrell said another north-south corridor, additional lanes of traffic on Highway 11/81 and a railroad overpass similar to the Center Street underpass would be necessary to alleviate traffic woes long-term.

Akins, a major proponent of an additional 1-cent sales tax for transportation-specific projects, said a TSPLOST referendum, if placed on a future ballot by the Barrow County Board of Commissioners and approved by voters, could generate upwards of $125 million over a six-year period in revenues for road repairs and enhancements throughout the county.

“We can pave every street from one end of the city to the other,” Akins said. “That would free up tremendous amounts of money (for the city to accomplish other projects).”

Terrell said the transportation improvements would play an important role in helping attract more businesses to Winder, along with the city analyzing its taxes, rates and fees to make sure they’re not driving companies away.

“If we have a weakness, I think we need to improve our pro-business environment,” he said.

Darby said the city should have a more streamlined permitting process for developers, noting the city’s unveiling of a new online platform aimed at addressing concerns in that area.

“I don’t think the city will grow unless (the permitting and plan approval process) can be shortened,” he said.

But is there such a thing as too much progress too soon?

While Akins and Morris were proponents of a large increase in budget appropriations for downtown development efforts this fiscal year — a spike from $8,000 to $500,000 — Stephanie Britt, one of the two challengers to Akins and one of the strongest critics among the candidates of the council’s vote in August to double the city’s millage rate, said those larger investments “shouldn’t be put on the backs of” residents through higher property taxes.

“I think progress is something people embrace or they shut down. It is important to obviously always have growth, but there is a point where we outgrow ourselves and we can’t afford the progress we’re attempting,” Britt said. “There are some things in the works that are progress for the sake of progress that I think we need to cut out.”

Better communication between the city government and residents was another issue several of the candidates touched on, while Jerry Martin, the other at-large challenger to Akins, said the city, county and chamber should be collaborating more closely on growth and creating a better environment for it while adding that the county and city should quickly resolve their service-delivery dispute that is still tied up in litigation.

“If we’re not working together, we’re not going to accomplish anything,” Martin said. “How do we get on the same page?”

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