Columbus residents hear from council candidates

Published 10:45 pm Monday, October 16, 2017

COLUMBUS – Last week, about 20 residents heard from Columbus council candidates on issues impacting the November election.


Candidates participated in a forum, sponsored by the Columbus Merchant’s Association and moderated by Ken Busch, at Columbus Town Hall on Oct. 12.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox


Busch began the forum by speaking of the importance of voting. There are about 1,100 Columbus residents and in the last election only 70 people voted, Busch said.


“Who we elect going forward is what is going to drive us for the next two to four years,” Busch said.


After giving all six council candidates the opportunity to introduce themselves, questions ranged from why do the candidates want to raise their families in Columbus; what can Columbus do to keep young people from going out of town for entertainment; what are the candidates’ best accomplishments to date; how do the candidates see council involved in community events; and how should Columbus prepare for the upcoming World Equestrian Games (WEG).


The Town of Columbus has three council seats available with six candidates. The office of mayor is also up for re-election, with current Columbus Mayor Eric McIntyre running unopposed.


Open council seats include incumbents Richard Hall and Mark Phillips as well as candidates Brent Jackson, Ernie Kan, Marshall “Buddy” Watkins and Robert Williamson. The seat of councilman Josh Denton is also up for re-election, but he chose not to run.


World Equestrian Games

On the WEG question at the Tryon International Equestrian Center (TIEC) in September 2018, all candidates agreed Columbus needs to clean up the town and be prepared for the visitors and traffic that is coming.


Mark Phillips said Columbus needs to clean up the downtown area and meet with business owners to see what they need to promote their business. Phillips said he has been proactive the last couple of weeks getting out and knocking on doors to see what people need and what the town can do.


“We’ve got to find more parking because with those numbers, I don’t know where we’re going to put everybody,” said Phillips. “We need to find more ways to get more parking and we need to work with our business owners, find out what they need, how we can help them, how we can promote their business out there to have people come in.”


Phillips also said TIEC’s restaurants aren’t going to be able to accommodate everyone and since Columbus is the closest town, it needs to clean up, market its businesses in that direction and get people to come to town.


Richard Hall said the current council has been working to accommodate the people who want to come to Columbus and he always keeps in mind that the crowd that is coming to TIEC is coming to Columbus because it is the closest town.


“Our chief of police, he meets with their committees often, so we’ll be ready from that standpoint too,” said Hall.


“We lived here first,” Hall said, adding that he always tries to keep in mind the questions of what direction do our citizens want to go? Do we want them to rule us or do we want to rule how they affect us?


“We don’t want them to rule how we live our lives.”


Ernie Kan said Columbus needs to keep in mind it has to stay clean. And to remember who Columbus people are. She said the businesses could be overwhelmed. Kan also said she’s spoken to Isothermal Community College about how to prepare small businesses for the WEG, including getting their business out there so people can find them.


Robert Williamson said other places that have held the WEG started planning 15 months-2 years ahead of time. He said 60,000 people are going to be at TIEC on a big day from 75-80 countries around the world.


“They won’t all speak our language or understand a word we say,” Williamson said, “and somehow we have to welcome them.”


Williamson said if 10 percent of the people want to see Columbus and Tryon that will be 6,000 people, which is six times the population of Columbus.


“First thing, we need to get the community together,” Williamson said. “Businesses, service providers, I know law enforcement’s been working heavily with the equestrian folks. We’ve got to get the businesses, and the municipalities and the county to sit down and have a planning event. How do you want to invite large numbers of people to our community? How do we position the businesses and service providers to do what they need to do?”


Williamson said some of the businesses may decide to close up and go away. Others may decide to have pop-up businesses in vacant lots along the street.


“There’s an entrepreneur opportunity that could really create jobs and make tens of thousands of dollars in two weeks,” said Williamson.


Brent Jackson said he’s worried about all of it.


“I really am just scared about all this coming in,” said Jackson. “It really scares me. I want to promote all our businesses. I want them to prosper from this. From the public safety standpoint, I think it’s going to be a nightmare.”


Jackson said he hopes the area can handle everything that’s coming in but he thinks it’s going to be a lot of people here jammed up at once.


Jackson added that many hotels have been built outside the county and that scares him, too, because that will take a lot of the people away from Columbus.

Marshall “Buddy” Watkins said, “It’s going to be a big deal. No doubt about that.”


Watkins said the town needs to meet with law enforcement and service providers to figure out the best way to handle such a large influx of people. He said since Columbus wasn’t able to get accommodations before any of the people get here, the town is going to lose a lot of the tourism. He said until recently he worked catering at TIEC every weekend and what he understands is that people will be staying from Charlotte to Atlanta.


“But they are all going to be going to that location so there’s going to be traffic,” Watkins said.

Watkis said the town needs to be welcoming for both pop-up and local businesses and see what the town can do to help them. He also said the town needs to beautified.


“That’s something we all want anyway,” Watkins said, “is the dressing up of our town.”


Why raise a family in Columbus?

On why candidates chose to raise their families in Columbus, Watkins said it is the sense of community. He grew up here, feels safe here and never worries about his kids walking up the street.


Jackson said he lives in Columbus because Columbus is a safe place and has a good education system with Polk being one of the state’s top ranked schools. Jackson said neighbors watch out for each other as well.


Williamson said we live in “a piece of heaven.” Williamson said people have heard the saying that “we live in the middle of nowhere but the center of everything.” He mentioned the school system, saying that Polk is second only to Chapel Hill in the state.

Kan said she grew up in Raleigh and wanted her son to grow up in a small town.

She said she came here for the education at home and at school.


Hall said he raised five children here and it’s safe. He mentioned he sees Columbus police officers all over town and they are doing their job. Hall said he works at the high school and his wife at Sunny View School and that is a good place to be, too.

Hall said he grew up in Greenville and feels like in Columbus you can leave your doors unlocked. The council, Hall said, has stopped annexation because the people didn’t want it.


“It’s just a good place to be and we want to keep it that way,” said Hall.


Phillips said he’s here for the safety. He said he has three children and doesn’t worry about them being outside.


“The beauty, the safety, the history around here is just unparalleled,” Phillips said.

He said there was a time when he thought he would want to go back to Spartanburg but after being in Columbus there’s a “zero percent chance” he’d go back there.


Options for youth in Columbus

Another question regarded young people going to Spartanburg, Hendersonville and Greenville for entertainment because they say there is nothing here to do. Busch asked candidates what the town can do to keep the kids from leaving.

Phillips said he’d ask the kids where they are going and his guess would be bowling alleys, putt-putt and movie theaters.


He said the town needs to do something to try and attract the kids to stay here and spend their parents’ money here. Phillips said the town wants to keep them here but they need something to do.


Hall said he’s thought about that question a lot, saying Columbus is within an hour and a half of major cities. Hall said there does need to be things for young people to do. He said the town needs to be open to businesses that may want to come in and provide those services.


Kan said one of the things she and her husband did was to try to teach her son the value of home. She said if you have a good home, other kids will want to come to your house to hang out. She said when she was a council member before, the town talked to people to open businesses for young people but there was no interest.


“Town council can’t really do anything about that,” Kan said.


Williamson said he went to a conference in Phoenix a few years ago and part of it was listening to your people, your businesses, your churches and your youth. He said when he and his wife started Scoops ‘n More they looked at starting a putt-putt course for young people but once kids get their driver’s license they are off.


Jackson said there’s just not the interest here and it’s hard to compete with other areas. Jackson said it falls back on the parents and their upbringing. He said he saw it all too much in law enforcement that kids go off and get into mischief and bring the mischief back here.


Watkins said adults need to get involved with kids. He said people need to find out what the kids want to do. He said he doesn’t necessarily think it’s the town council’s job to entertain kids, but the town could welcome a business that might do that.


On individual accomplishments

On the candidates’ biggest accomplishment, Phillips said he helped spearhead the police department’s expansion, and helped with employee retention and in adding officers.


Hall said he’s been part of keeping taxes and water rates the lowest in the county.

Kan said one of her biggest accomplishments is getting Columbus into the Handmade in America program. She said she goes and finds artists and promotes the artists in Columbus and the surrounding area.


Williamson said he worked with over 500 companies and businesses and when he was the Polk County economic development director he published a document called “Understanding Polk County.” Williamson said that work made him see who we are. There are families living in poverty, Williamson said, and the county has a full spectrum of people and the focus tends to be on the ones who are most outspoken.


Jackson said this is his first go in politics and he’s most proud of his service in firefighting and law enforcement. Jackson said he looks forward to helping people.


Watkins said his biggest accomplishment in life is helping several young men obtain the rank of Eagle Scout and helping them grow their own moral compass. One young man who didn’t have a father took Watkins out for lunch on Father’s Day. That, to him, was his greatest accomplishment.