Local vote nears

Published 4:16 pm Thursday, August 9, 2012

With the economic status in the Atmore area still not up to par, and the unemployment rate not where it should be, it is no surprise that Larry Houck, Phil Johnson, and Susan Smith, municipal candidates running for the district 4 city council seat, are concerned about industry growth and job development in Atmore.  Focusing on the downtown area, the Rivercane development and Atmore’s industrial park, all three candidates have voiced opinions on what should be done to bring more jobs and industry to Atmore.

“Right now the opportunities in Atmore are endless.” Houck said. “We presently have interstate frontage within our city limits thanks to some vision and courage, but most of the credit for that goes to volunteers that gave freely of their time and efforts. I do think it has presented us with a unique opportunity pending the current financial situation of our country.”

Smith also notices the benefits of Rivercane and the potential that selling off lots in the development has for Atmore, but she said she realizes that businesses aren’t going to simply fall at the town’s feet.

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“Rivercane is owned by the city,” Smith said. “So what will happen there is when that property is sold, of course the city will benefit from that. I think we should be actively seeking businesses to come in, industries to come in. I think we’re just really going to have to get serious, and that’s not to say the present administration is not serious. If we want jobs, we’re going to have to go looking for them. I don’t feel like they’re going to come looking for us.”

Johnson said that Rivercane was an excellent move by the outgoing administration, because the Poarch Creek Indians (PCI) are making strides at the interstate, which, he said, shows that the city should prosper from that area, as well.

“If you look at the job growth in this county,” Johnson said, “right now it is centered in the west end of the county. Rivercane is what makes us a legitimate player in this situation. What the Creeks are doing is amazing. They are creating jobs on a weekly basis. Their economy is growing when everything around it is shrinking. For us to be located there with the infrastructure that can support industry and business in place is ideal.”

Johnson, however, said he is concerned about the lack of peace between PCI and city officials. He sees that as other companies are looking to Atmore and deciding whether or not they should expand to the area, they notice how the county is treating PCI.

“I think that Atmore needs to step into the fray and say, ‘Back off! Leave our friends alone,’” said Johnson.
Atmore’s downtown is also a concern for these candidates. Although there are new businesses popping up in that portion of town, the district 4 city council hopefuls would like to see more hustle and bustle in that area. Smith said the only way to keep downtown alive is to shop in the stores that are already open for business, as well as the ones yet to come.

“In order to keep downtown from drying up and dying, we’re going to have to get together as a group united to come up with a plan in order to revitalize,” Smith said. “You can want all the stores here, but unless you’re willing to support them, it’s not going to work.”

Houck said that success for downtown is in the presentation of storefronts, and this is the responsibility of the storeowners.

“The people who own the businesses and the buildings need to be held accountable for what they look like,” Houck said. “We need to make the downtown look like a business area. And most of the businesses understand that they need to compete for what they get.”

Johnson also sees the need for more activity in the city’s downtown center. He said that businesses should be pulling clientele from the string of out-of-towners that pull off I-65 at Exit 57.

“As far as downtown goes, I think that one mistake we’re making now is not tapping into that one to two thousand people a day that’s coming in off the interstate and spending tourism dollars at the interstate exit. We need to create something downtown that will make them want to come a few extra miles.”

The crime rate in Atmore is also a concern of city council candidates, as they know more industries will be interested in looking at Atmore to expand business if they know it is a safe place to live. The candidates touched on their views of what could be done to lessen the crime rate.

“Our challenge it to make sure citizens feel safe,” Houck said. “We need to reinstitute some discipline in our schools and in our homes, and I believe that’ll pay huge rewards. If it were necessary, I would support a curfew. If we’re spending all our resources at night policing kids and asking why they’re on the streets, then it’s a simple fix.”

Johnson, who has done ride-alongs with Atmore’s law enforcement agencies, noticed that the problem with crime could be that, because of the lack of job opportunities, some young adults feel they have little hope for the future.

“We have a lot of young people in this town that when they graduate from high school, they have no hope,” Johnson said. “Even when they are in high school, they have no hope. They don’t see job opportunities. If they have the means and the ability, they can leave town. That’s leading to the high crime rate. It’s the young people. We need to give them hope. We need to give them jobs. We need to help them find a way to channel that energy into something positive. That’s going to alleviate crime rate.”

Smith also wants to see people getting off the streets, and feels that the community can play a role in providing better activities for these young adults.
“We’ve got to get back to the fundamentals,” Smith said. “And that’s getting back into our community and getting help from our community. I think you’ll see a difference if we can bring something into our community that will benefit these kids and get them off the streets.”