Editor’s note: This is one of a series of stories from the Thursday night candidates’ forum held at North Surry High School. A second story, focusing on the Pilot Mountain board of commissioners candidates, appears in today’s paper on page 1A. The remaining stories, focusing on state and county races, will be published in the Sunday, Oct. 2 edition of The Mount Airy News
Thursday’s political forum at North Surry High School included four men running for Elkin town commissioner and one running for the Elkin school board.
Wendy Byerly Wood, editor of The Elkin Tribune, moderated the Elkin sessions, asking questions pertinent to the county’s southernmost municipality.
Vying for two spots on the town board are Jeff Eidson, Tommy Wheeler, incumbent Skip Whitman and John Wiles.
In introducing himself, Eidson said he is an Elkin native and loves the town’s energy. The community has given much to his family, so with the town board losing a great deal of experience, he wants to take the chance to give back. Elkin is in the process of reinventing itself and he wants to be a part.
Wheeler said he served the town for 40 years, including 20 as the head of a department, which gave him experience in budget meetings and town retreats. He wants to continue his service to the town in a leadership role.
Whitman said he has served five years on the board and was considering not running for reelection. But, with the town already losing 30 years of experience off the board, he reconsidered. He said he supported tax and water/sewer rate increases so that Elkin could reinvest in itself and its infrastructure.
Wiles said his work as a computer programmer means he could live anywhere and still work, but he chose to stay in Elkin. He knows what it’s like to work for himself and to work for corporations. He said he once put together a coalition of small businesses for rural internet service.
• When it comes to bringing new money into the town, what are the candidates’ views on manufacturing and tourism? What would they like to see come to the area?
Whitman said he would love for manufacturing to return to Surry County, but it isn’t going to happen. Rather, Elkin is rebranding itself as a destination town. This is the epicenter of wine country, and the trails program can draw people.
Wiles said he agreed with Whitman on the need for rebranding. Still, he cautioned that tourism could be volatile, and the town needs solutions that can weather economic downturns. He believes in preparing a labor force that can draw new businesses here.
Eidson said Elkin has lost a lot of manufacturing and needs to continue trying to attract small manufacturers to fill a void. He believes Elkin is well positioned to attract people to the area.
Wheeler said Elkin is never going to see another company employing 3,500 people again. What the town does have is an ideal position along the Yadkin River and a trails program to attract visitors. The town needs to focus on ways to bring in new people while maintaining the quality of life that it currently provides to citizens.
• Is there an area where Elkin is lacking or needs improving?
Eidson answered economic opportunities for young adults. It is critical that Elkin find ways to address this.
Wheeler agreed that it goes back to jobs, especially some that can attract young people to come back home after college.
Wiles said Elkin needs to do more to attract small entrepreneurs.
Whitman said he considers this a tough question because he loves his town and doesn’t think it is lacking. He said the town board often lacks money to fund everything it would like to do, such as lucrative incentives for new businesses. Town leadership has to make Elkin the place where everyone wants to live, and that takes investments. He pointed to the trail system as a private/public partnership that created something the town couldn’t do on its own.
• Once the trail projects are done, what comes next?
Wheeler said the town needs to address the aging water lines, street conditions and other infrastructure; look for ways to improve the quality of life for residents.
Eidson said he agreed with Wheeler on infrastructure, but he understands there are limited funds available to take on large projects. He likes some of the creative ways the town brings in visitors such as the recent craft beer BrewFest, which he called a huge success. He said a second brewer is ready to open, and there is a new music venue; these things were private ventures, but with town support, which is key.
Whitman agreed on town infrastructure. He said the water/sewer account is healthy enough now that it could support repaying loans if the town needs to make some major repairs. There are some good things creating positive momentum, and a lot of people want to get involve, he said. Sometimes commissioners have hard decisions to make, but that’s what they have to do.
Wiles said the town must make certain features more attractive to young adults. More sidewalks would attract young people who like to get out and walk. And there could be more mixed-use buildings where residences are close to businesses and activities.
• In closing statements, Wiles said he is a service-oriented person and he would certainly bring that to the board if elected.
Whitman said it doesn’t take anyone special to be a commissioner. You simply need to love where you live, have an open mind, communicate and be willing to listen, and find ways to compromise, he explained. No politics here — it’s about people, about the town.
Wheeler said he has a long history of service to the town; he loves Elkin and want to continue to serve.
Eidson said he believes he brings a unique experience element to the town. He also has a long history of working with Chamber of Commerce.
Judy Walker was unable to attend Thursday, leaving just Haley Sullivan, the incumbent member of the Elkin City Schools Board of Education, as the only candidate to take part in the forum.
Sullivan said she was born and raised in Elkin and after graduating from Western Carolina, she returned home to live and raise a family.
• The school board has been dipping into the fund balance. Are there places to make cuts or other ways to balance the budget annually without the fund balance?
Sullivan said the school board has been knowingly reducing its fund balance. There are places where the money was needed, and the district needed to reduce the amount in the account for strategic reasons. With too much in reserve, the schools weren’t eligible for certain state and federal monies.
As for cuts, she said the district doesn’t want to cut any positions. If a person leaves, then a spot could be left vacant if necessary. Also, schools, community leaders and the Academic Foundation have been using fundraisers to help meet student and staff needs.
• What are the biggest concerns for the district?
The biggest currently is that a lot of the school structures are older and aren’t handicap accessible, she said. The high school gym isn’t handicap accessible at all, and much of the elementary isn’t. The district is trying to find ways to address that. The school board is doing a lot of things right, but there is plenty more work to do.
• What about Elkin’s big push to integrate STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math)?
Right now Elkin City Schools are on track to be the first school nationally to integrate STEAM for kindergarten to 12th grade. Kids don’t just need to regurgitate facts, but understand how to use that knowledge. STEAM can do that, but the first step was getting the parents and staff members on board.
• In closing, Sullivan said she has four years on the board now. She has learned a great deal about school funding and built relationships throughout the district. The schools are working to improve math scores, which are lower than the board would like, but the schools are doing plenty right, like finishing second in the state in ACT scores. She also wants to see the high school continue to have high graduation rates.
Jeff is the associate editor at The Mount Airy News and can be reached at 415-4692.