As voters in Clayton, Henry and Fayette go to the polls later this month, top of mind will be selecting leaders who can address problems that have festered for years and some that are new.
While the three counties differ greatly in demographics and personality, they share concerns, namely growing traffic congestion brought by the boom in e-commerce distribution centers and the increasing number of Hollywood productions; job growth heavily titled toward low-paying sectors such as retail; and a continuing frustration that metro Atlanta’s tech boom has not spread as fluidly south of I-20 as it has on the area’s north side.
“Investment has always lagged on the southside, with the notable exception of the (Hartsfield-Jackson International) airport area” said Harvey Newman, professor emeritus at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University. “Once you move away from the airport bubble, economic development has always had challenges.”
Also uniting residents in the three counties is the need to offer more vocational programs for students who don’t plan to go to college and to offer a more diverse job portfolio to lure students who do leave for higher education back after they have received their degrees.
“A lot of plumbers and electricians make a lot more money than some PhD’s,” said Brenda Harrison: a retired U.S. Postal Service worker running for the District 8 Board of Education seat in Clayton County against incumbent Alieka Anderson and Joy Tellis Cooper. “Some of our children who maybe don’t make those college grades, they have talents that we need to tap into.”
Here’s a look at some of the issues facing the counties as the voters make their decisions Tuesday.
Clayton is focused on its rebound from the dark days of the 2008 recession.
The county, which was hit hard by the highest unemployment in the metro area and was ground zero in the region’s foreclosure crisis, has seen home prices march upward and unemployment fall to 5.2 percent (it was as high as 10 percent as recently as February 2014). The county’s school system, which has regained much of the accreditation it lost in 2008, has new leadership and many say is flourishing.
But there are still challenges. Clayton faces the possibility of losing as much as $18 million annually from a fuel tax levied at Hartsfield that is split between the county and the school system. Some Clayton County Commissioners have criticized the lack of an economic development director at the Clayton Development Authority as keeping the county from enjoying the economic boom happening across the rest of metro Atlanta.
Several candidates at a recent NAACP forum placed economic development and vocational training for students as top priorities. The county, they said, needs to do more to improve the county’s infrastructure, invest more in public safety and simply pick up the litter.
“We have to clean it up,” said DeMont Davis, who is running in crowded race for Clayton County Commissioner District 4 against incumbent Michael Edmondson, Derwin Davis and Timothy Kenney. “You can have the nicest restaurant you want, but if you bring out dinner on a trashcan lid, you’re not going to want it.”
Fayette, one of metro Atlanta’s wealthiest counties, is at a turning point, many of its leaders say.
Long known as the bedroom of Delta Air Lines pilots, the county is in a battle between those who say Fayette needs to change — they want new industries that will attract millennials to keep Fayette from becoming a retirement haven — and those who resist — they say Fayette is fine as it is.
The county’s school system, often considered one of the state’s best, has seen enrollment fall in the past few years, a result of slow population growth, though there was an uptick in 2017-18.
Former Peachtree City Mayor Don Haddix, who is running against Edward “Edge” Gibbons and Eric F. Imker for the District 3 seat on the Fayette Commission, said he wants the county to take economic development seriously.
“More retail and homes are not economic development,” he said. “Jobs are economic development.”
Voters in Henry County will hear a lot about infrastructure from candidates as they crisscross one of metro Atlanta’s fastest-growing counties.
Henry has become a dominant player in metro Atlanta’s e-commerce distribution business and that growth has led to thousands of jobs in the county and millions in tax revenue. But it also has contributed to crumbling roads because of massive numbers of trucks transporting goods and wages that many say are marginal at best.
Leaders and residents also say the county needs to invest more in economic development that brings a range of jobs to the community, including more tech, business and medical positions that pay higher salaries.
And like Clayton and Fayette, candidates also say Henry County needs to provide better options for students who are not college bound through vocational or other training.
Sophe Cook Pope, a Henry native who is running for District 4 Board of Education against incumbent Donna McBride and Bridgette Freeman, said imbedding a sense of accomplishments in students, no matter what their pursuits after high school, is imperative to helping a community to thrive.
“I received what I see as a world class education in Henry,” she said.
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