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From left, Crossville City Council candidates Ralph Reagan; mayoral candidate Danny Wyatt; Rob Harrison, Art Gernt, Virgil Thompson; incumbent mayor James Mayberry; and Jesse Kerley, answer questions during last week’s Crossville City Council candidate forum at the Cumberland County Playhouse.

Last week the Crossville-Cumberland County Chamber of Commerce hosted a Crossville City Council forum for the upcoming Nov. 6 election. Five candidates running for two open city council seats were asked the same nine questions. The event was held at the Cumberland County Playhouse and the moderator was CCP’s John Fionte.

Candidates Art Gernt, Rob Harrison, Jesse Kerley, Ralph Reagan and Virgil Thompson answered the questions. City council candidate Sadie Hoover was unable to attend the forum.

The questions asked of the candidates included:

1. What knowledge and experience do you have of the operations and functions of city government that you feel would qualify you to be Crossville’s next elected official?

Ralph Reagan said, “I have been working with the community for over 30 years in the law enforcement agencies and the court systems. I’ve been working as a volunteer chaplain at the hospital and the prison system for over 30 years. I’ve been helping with housing and jobs and helping people get off the streets and into job positions who are now productive citizens …” He said he has worked with the health department’s advisory board for over 10 years. Reagan also cited his working with the court system with drug court and earning his Ph.D.

Rob Harrison said, “I’ve been attending city council meetings, regular meetings, special called, work sessions for 20 years, observing, trying to be a good citizen. I think I’m pretty familiar with the issues that they face. I have the business background that, I think, prepares me to be able to step right into this. I would have to read the charter, though, and that is an important document. I’ve also been, for about 20 years, on the city planning commission. And roughly 10 years I’ve been the secretary on the planning commission. So, I’m pretty familiar with a lot of the inner-workings of the city and feel ready to go on day one.”

Art Gernt said, “I, too, attend city meetings, work sessions those things and with the Chamber and in my roles with the Chamber of Commerce on the public policy committee, we work with elected officials a lot. And I’m a small business owner, too, and there’s a lot of decisions that need to be made on a daily basis … and also I feel being an insurance agent sets me up well for public service. Insurance agents, we deal with a wide variety of the public and people being from different walks of life … we work with small business people and help them protect their assets, solve their problems, and I really feel like my career has set me up for public service. I’m also a Rotarian and we finish every meeting with a test. It’s four tenets dealing with truth, fairness, building good will and seeking ways to benefit all, and that’s one way — that’s a guiding principal in my life.”

Virgil Thompson said, “My first job I started I made $4.81 an hour at the State Park and I’ve worked my way up and I know what it’s like to make under $5 an hour. There’s a lot of people in the city and the county, they’re not making good wages, and I feel that I can connect with them. I feel that I can talk to them. I think that city government is one of the most representable governments in the United States because you can see representatives in Walmart, at the gas station and you can call them on the phone. That is why I’m running for city council because I want to be able to represent the people of Crossville. I want them to be able to call me. I want them to be able to ask me and tell me what direction the county is going in.”

Jesse Kerley said, “I’ve previously served two terms as a Crossville City Council member … I’m ready to dedicate the time needed to be a successful city council member. It takes a lot of time studying budgets every year, and it takes a lot of time studying agenda items to make sure that you get your vote right or feel how your vote should be. I have a finance degree from Tennessee Tech University. I graduated from there in 2002. I’ve been in the job market for 17 years and have worked the last 15 years with a company called Swisher International out of Jacksonville, FL. I’ve always worked as a council member to influence the other members to make common-sense, conservative decisions and the same with spending the taxpayers’ dollars. Most importantly, I feel like what makes me ready to be the next elected official is I’ve always and will continue to take the time to listen to each and every taxpayer’s concerns. I think that’s very important. That’s why I’m back out knocking on doors again this year. And last, I feel like I’m the only candidate prepared to go to work on day one because of my experience both on the city and on the job market.

2. What do you feel is the greatest challenge facing Crossville and Cumberland County today?

Harrison said getting the “best and brightest” to come back and stay here after graduating. Work on economic development and raise the standard of living for everybody. Workforce development starting from elementary school starting with work ethics. Reducing the drug use.

“Of course, it’s all bundled up together, so we’ve got to work them all at the same time, I think. It will take a while,” Harrison said.

Gernt said, the first is opioid drug use and its impact on families and workforce. He said there is a start with the anti-drug coalition Cumberland County Rising. He said develop a job-ready workforce is important and that it will take more than the city council and the entire community has to work on the problem. He citied the great work of many volunteers in the county.

Thompson said he felt the greatest challenge is fighting and that they needed to come together and work together.

“We need to bring the city, county and school board together and start working together. I differ with these fellas a little bit. I think we have a wonderful workforce. I think the reason our workforce is not up to snuff is because the jobs aren’t ready … In Roane County when the jobs left, the people stayed and got addicted to opioids. Cumberland County is not the only problem. It’s not the only city and county with opioid problems. Roane County’s pretty bad. Cookeville has the same problem. It’s just that they have more jobs so the workforce is ready. So, when they turn 18 they can jump in the workforce instead of having to be bored. And with that boredom, idle time is the devil’s handiwork. If people get bored, they’re going to get into trouble and get addicted to opioids, I believe.”

Kerley said, “Water supply. We’re not only responsible for tax dollars, we’re also responsible for water and sewer fund … We supply about 70 percent of drinkable water to Cumberland County.”

He said since around the year 2000 the council has been discussing raising the dam at Meadow Park Lake. 

“I believe it’s very crucial that we focus on getting this dam built. Without adequate drinking water we can’t market to these other companies like Flowers Bakery and such because we don’t have the supply to meet that demand. I believe it will also help us grow some recreational opportunities and quality of life.”

He said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had held the city up, and the No. 1 focus should be on getting the water supply built up.

Reagan said opioid and meth are the root of the problems. He said he believed the city needs to take some time to increase the police department so they can take some of the drug dealers off the streets. Taking care of one problem would help take care of a lot of the others with the court system and the health department.

3. Assuming the cost of local government continues to increase, what would be a good strategy for finding new revenues?

Harrison said, work cooperatively with the city, county chamber and schools, including Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) and Roane State Community College (RSCC) to grow the economy. Help bring in better-paying jobs and help existing businesses. Attract other businesses from high-tax states to Tennessee as a low tax state. Bring in more tourism in an organized, more cooperative kind of way.

“Growing our economy and brining more tourism would be my approach to this,” Harrisaon said.

Gernt said economic growth, expanding the tax base, creating better-paying jobs and getting people shopping at home. Promote tourism and be smart with spending.

Thompson said, “… It doesn’t always have to increase. Maybe you can move money from one section to another. But with teamwork and strong industry that will bring in sales tax revenue enough to offset any cost that is increasing.”

Kerley said, “We need to be conservative to prepare for the increased cost of government.”

He said the city needs to continue to drive tourism, which is what it does best.

“We need to evaluate and determine the difference between wants and needs on budget items,” he said. If the city overspends on wants, then they wont be ready to spend on needs when they have to.

He suggested applying for every grant available but determine its quality. He said in the past the city had received grants it may have been better off without.

Reagan said, the community needed to work together with the resources they have.

“We have wonderful resources here, and if we could just pull those resources together and we work together, then I know we can come up with some ideals …,” he said.

Reagan suggested looking at other towns and what they have and following some of their ideas and bring those ideas to Crossville to help build the city’s revenue.

4. What is your plan to promote economic development and tourism in our community?

Gernt said the Cumberland County Playhouse, Cumberland Mountain State Park and championship golf courses are a big draw to Cumberland County. 

“We need to just build on that. I’d like to see more outdoor opportunities like more hiking and biking trails,” Gernt said.

As for economic development Gernt cited the new industrial pad that was a combined effort between the city, county and Chamber. He said they need to continue to work on more projects such as the industrial-pad-ready site.

Thompson said, “Crossville has a good product. I believe a good product will sell itself. I think the reason it has not grown as well as Cookeville is the lack of teamwork. My theme is teamwork. With jobs, growth and industry, with teamwork, and if we’ll get out of the way, Crossville will grow. We need to quit tearing each other down, build each other up. Speak positively about our workforce. Yes, there are some problems with our workforce, but our children hear that as well. And when we talk about our workforce, we’re talking about their parents. And we kind of need to be careful when we talk about that. I believe that a government that governs best, governs least. I believe Thomas Jefferson said that. I believe Crossville will organically grow if we’ll just get out of the way. We have a good product.”

Kerley said the city needs to do what it has done successfully for the past 20 years and promote the Playhouse, Palace Theatre, golf, state parks, softball tournaments, the new shooting park and others.

He said economic development needs to be a joint effort between the county, city, TCAT and school board.

“Our No. 1 job problem today with industrial recruiting is lack of workforce. The facts are we currently have numerous jobs that employers cannot fill today in our town. I believe we need to invest in all avenues like the Highland Initiative and Roane Alliance to bring the most exposure to our town … We need to push our marketing director to work efficiently with TVA and other resources,” Kerley said.

He said the city and county also need to have funds ready to invest if a company is ready and willing to locate or expand in Cumberland County.

“We need to invest more, I believe, than the minimum in our students to get closer to preparing a workforce. Also, I believe we need to fund and support our airport properly. The airport is a huge tool in recruitment of industrial businesses,” Kerley said.

Reagan said the city needs to advertise what the county has and what the city and county do. He used Crab Orchard building stone, or sandstone as an example. He said the “city needs to advertise more about what we have and do in Crossville.”

Harrison said the county, city, Chamber and school board working together with Roane State, TCAT and the state. He said promoting the location and supporting the engines of tourism such as sports, theater, parks, golf and timeshares. He mentioned working with the convention and visitors bureau about naming Crossville the Golf Capital of Tennessee.

5. What would you do to promote cooperation between the city of Crossville and Cumberland County government and Chamber of Commerce?

Thompson said communication, cooperation, teamwork and learning the different personalities of those groups and figuring out how to word the best ideas. 

“I think my training as a psychologist and a mediator and being able to point those out and getting us all to work together … I think that it would help the council be able to come up with a solution that is best for the people.”

Kerley said working with the city and county government officials and the Chamber to bring more and better-paying jobs to the area is a subject he has campaigned on since 2006. Working together is the only way. He said he will make himself available to all city taxpayers and meet with city and county officials to work together. He said he will also work to protect the city and make sure it does not get taken advantage of.

Reagan said if the city, county, Chamber and education leaders could get together and work together more often there could be much more done for the community.

Harrison said promote cooperation between the city, county and Chamber and have strategic planning meetings and regular meetings together.

“Just getting together would help build good will and better friendships,” Harrison said.

Gernt said, “Well, we have to work together.”

He mentioned serving on the Joint Economic and Community Development Board and the board working together for the Three Star Grant Award.

“It’s amazing what you can get done when nobody cares who gets the credit,” Gernt said.

6. What do you consider to be the top three capital projects that need to be addressed in the next few years?

Kerley said water expansion, sewer expansion and road and sidewalk improvements. He suggested a push on the state to get the city’s fair share of gas tax for road improvements.

Reagan said water expansion, sewer expansion and building and supporting the city police department.

Harrison said the biggest thing is the regional water supply solution. He said he would like to see fire station 3 completed to offer better fire protection for the Holiday Hills area and western portion of the city. He said he thinks the city and county need to work on much better and faster internet speeds. 

“It’s one of the new technologies that could help us boost our economic growth,” Harrison said.

Gernt said better roads, adequate water and sewer and core infrastructure.

“Once this is done, our economy will continue to grow,” Gernt said.

Thompson said increase water supply, sidewalks and improve signage in the city and make the downtown area look pretty.

7. Crossville’s Main St. is the heart of our community. What would you like to see happen to our central business district?

Kerley said, “First off, I believe all of Crossville is the heart of our community and we need to evaluate all of Crossville’s needs equally.

He said city officials need to ask if they are willing to spend $14 million on a downtown project. He said he is not and it would require a tax increase. In knocking on a lot of doors, he said he discovered many of the residents do not support the project, either.

He said, “The facts show the downtown beautification project will never bring growth, jobs, chain restaurants or improve our workforce. This should have been placed on a referendum 10 years ago, just like the revitalization of the Palace Theatre…”

He said he supports downtown, but as equally as the rest of Crossville. He mentioned the amphitheater project that he spearheaded and it had improved the downtown area and foot traffic there.

Reagan said more parking needs to be worked out for the citizens of Crossville and people who visit. He said taking care of the old handle mill property could help the situation. He said he’d like to see a parking center or garage.

Harrison said he wants to encourage businesses to move into downtown and is happy to see new business in the downtown district. He also said he will work on the parking issue in the downtown area and supports looking at the handle mill and other areas that could support more parking downtown.

Gernt said he would to see the revitalization efforts continue downtown. He said having a vibrant downtown is important to the community and with the hospital and recruiting doctors to the area. He credited Downtown Crossville Inc. for their revitalization work downtown and he encourages the city to find ways to support them and those who are volunteering to make the downtown area improve.

Thompson said he thinks the downtown business district has expanded and he would like to see business increase and tax revenue from those businesses increase. He said he thinks the city needs to focus on facade grants for all areas of Crossville, not just the downtown business district.

8. What would you like to see done to address the needs of the youth in our community including their education and workforce development needs?

Reagan said he would like a center for youth combined with education and tutoring. A place for the youth to go in the city. He said there are a lot of single-parent families and youth who are walking the streets with nothing to do. He said the large volunteer base in the community would work with the youth.

Harrison said he also supports a chemistry and science lab at RSCC. He said it will help the community and greatly help the hospital.

Gernt said he would like to see more partnerships between community groups and schools in the school system. He mentioned one partnership between the Crossville First United Methodist Church and Martin Elementary.

“Volunteers work in the school. They tutor, they mentor, they just provide teachers aid and support and provide resources for teachers,” Gernt said.

He said he would like to see more programs similar throughout the area and more churches and businesses get involved.

Thompson said the youth must have something to do.

“We have to drive to Knoxville to entertain our children, and I hate that. I want to be able to stay here and be able to have fun with them here … and also, we have to stop talking about our workforce and how we have just an opioid-riddled workforce we have, cause we’re talking about their parents and they hear that and they hear these forums. And they don’t need to be put down; they need to be lifted up. The youth, they don’t just listen to what we do. They watch what we do, and we need to be good examples. We need to be good family men, or women … and we need to go forward and use teamwork and be good examples.

Kerley said he would like the city to sit down with the county and re-evaluate a recreation center in the city. He said he thinks the city needs to invest more in students to help them to get ready to enter the workforce. He repeated there are jobs in Crossville that need to be filled and can’t be filled. He said until those jobs are filled it’s going to be hard to sell Crossville as a destination for new businesses to locate. He also said he’d like to see more emphasis put on vocational trade jobs and training.

9. What would Crossville look like in 10 years if you were to be elected?

Harrison said he wants current business to be bigger, new technologies brought here that haven’t even been thought about, internet-type businesses, ceramic subspecialties and other kinds of opportunities for a more diversified economy.

Gernt said if he had anything to do with it, it would be “achieving our potential.”

He said he’d like to see more jobs created and more opportunities for graduates to stay home and work in Crossville.

Thompson said, “I’d just like to reiterate we have a wonderful workforce and I’m tired of people putting it down. And I’m ready for industry to come in.”

He said he will not put down the people of Crossville or Cumberland County. 

He said in 10 years Crossville will have a beautiful downtown, more industry, more growth and teamwork.

Kerley said Crossville is thriving with a low unemployment rate and it recently collected the most sales tax revenue in its history.

“With common sense, conservative spending and decision making after 10 years, Crossville will have grown jobs, retail area on North Main St. and the area of Interstate Dr. Our city will have new neighbors we can build lasting relationships with, and youth will not be paying for the plain wasteful spending of the other candidates,” Kerley said.

Reagan said he would like to see the homeless to have a house to live in and the resources in Crossville be those that help the homeless in a lot of ways.

“I’d like to see safe streets and that you could go downtown on a Saturday night and it would just be flowing with people … Happy and joyful people, like we used to see long ago,” Reagan said.

He said he’d like to see the economy grow and more jobs offered and better parking and lighting downtown with safer streets.

•••

Early voting runs through Nov. 1. Election Day is Nov. 6.

Gary Nelson may be reached at gnelson@crossville-chronicle.com

Crossville Chronicle senior staff writer