Improvement hot topic at Spencer candidate forum

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Steve Huffman
SPENCER ó There was no mudslinging, not a lot of controversy, but enough of a bite Monday in Spencer’s candidates forum to keep things interesting.
Nine candidates for six seats on the Board of Aldermen attended the forum sponsored by the Spencer Business Alliance, the Salisbury Post and the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce.
Jody Everhart and Jon Palmer, the two candidates for mayor, were also on hand.
Everhart, the incumbent, reminded an-almost-packed-house at Town Hall that there was always more work that needed to be done.
“You never get all your goals accomplished,” Everhart said during a two-minute opening comment period. “There’s always something you’re striving for.”
Palmer, the challenger, cut more to the chase. He said Spencer faces numerous problems, then said blaming everything on the sad state of the economy is “a cop-out.”
“Our very own museum advertises itself as being in Salisbury,” Palmer said, referring to the N.C. Transportation Museum. “There’s an exodus from town. We need to reverse this.”
Then Palmer addressed the situation with rundown rental houses, a problem that many residents have complained about. Palmer said rental properties are a for-profit business that “should require business licenses, which can be revoked.”
The forum lasted a bit more than an hour. Candidates gave opening and closing statements. Each also answered questions submitted by townspeople. The questions pertained to the town’s budget, means of bringing newcomers to town and the adoption of ordinances to make owners more diligent about their properties.
For the most part, incumbents seemed more satisfied with the way the town was progressing than challengers.
Incumbents included Scott Benfield, Jeff Morris, David Smith and C.E. Spear. Incumbent Donnie Hinson, who is seeking re-election, was not at Monday’s forum.
Challengers for seats on the Board of Aldermen included Tracy Aitken, Delaine Fowler, Jeff Kiker and Reid Walters.
Fowler, a physical therapist, noted that she treats ill and injured people in her job. She then compared Spencer to her patients.
“I see a town that’s ill or injured,” Fowler said. “I feel I need to reach out and help.”
She said she’s been disheartened by the lack of efforts she’s witnessed by town leaders during her five years in Spencer.
“The conservative mindset means taking no action at all,” Fowler said.
Kiker, a lifelong Spencer resident who said he employs more than 100 in his private investigation firm, said he’s seen a steady deterioration of the town over the years.
“I’ve watched the neighborhoods go down,” Kiker said. “We need to focus on getting the homes back where they started from. We need new businesses so our taxes can be brought down.”
Walters owns a house where he lives as well as rental property in Spencer and also teaches at East Rowan High School. He said the town needs to figure a way to market itself outside Rowan County. He noted that while most people tie Spencer in with Charlotte, Greensboro is just as close and Winston-Salem is only a 35-minute drive away.
Walters said many people don’t want to live in cities as big as those and Spencer should market itself as a small-town alternative.
But Aitken, a nine-year Spencer resident who owns two businesses in town, said many of the complaints about the municipality are ill-founded. Aitken is also president of the Spencer Business Association.
“I think the perception of Spencer is wrong,” she said.
That was more the line of comment from several of the incumbents. Benfield, a long-time board member and local plumber, said, “I love Spencer. Everything I’ve done is about Spencer.”
And Spear, who is in his 80s and who has been serving the town longer than most of its residents have been breathing, said much the same. He referred to himself as “the old man,” but saved breath to praise his longtime home.
“You’re living in the garden spot of the world, right here in Spencer,” Spear said.
Then he turned and motioned to all the candidates who sat around him. “These people ought to be commended for taking their time and making an effort,” Spear said.
Smith, who is retired from the military and works as an Army contractor, said he’d like to see Spencer return to the place it was not too many years ago. “Somewhere, the train jumped the track,” he said. “I want to help. I can’t do it all by myself.”
Mayor Pro Tem Morris, a Salisbury attorney, said he was proud of the Transportation Museum and the fact that Spencer has the largest contiguous historic district of any municipality in the state.
“I think we’re on the right track,” he said.
When questioned about their top budget priorities, Palmer, the challenger for mayor, said mandatory recycling and curbside garbage collection were two areas that Spencer needed to return to.
He said Spencer needs to look at “ways to make the town more efficient and still provide a high level of service.”
Everhart said the budget involves plenty of work and is “not a one-day workshop.”
Questioned about the option of adopting ordinances to make property owners more diligent, Morris noted the problem is not about absentee landlords, but “negligent landlords.
“We need to hold tenants to the same standards as landlords,” he said.
Kiker said he had problems with landlords who lived elsewhere in half-million-dollar houses while renting rundown properties that they paid $20,000 or less for.
“Apparently I live beside 80 percent of those,” Kiker said, his comments drawing a round of chuckles. “If they can’t live in them, they shouldn’t rent them.”
In closing statements, Walters said he’d like to lobby members of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education to make sure North Rowan’s high school, middle school and elementary school had the essentials they need to provide children quality education.
Fowler reminded those attending the forum that Spencer was founded by a forward-looking bunch who built Spencer Shops. She said a return to such thinking was necessary. “Progressiveness is what we had when the town was formed,” Fowler said. “We need that now.”
Palmer suggested that voters seek out candidates and demand answers.
“If you have questions of us, come find us,” he said. “Make sure you get details.”
Everhart said that regardless of the outcome of next month’s election, Spencer will endure.
“As long as citizens work together, we’ll have our hometown,” he said.