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Incumbent, two challengers vie for spots on China Grove Town council

CHINA GROVE — In this year’s three-man town council race, only two spots are up for grabs.

The race includes one incumbent and two challengers. The race includes retired mechanic and Food Lion employee Donnie Herring, businessman and planning board member Rodney Phillips and businessman Steve Stroud, the lone incumbent in the race. Phillips, however, served a term on the town board in the 1990s.

Councilman Lee Withers — the current mayor pro tem — decided not to run for another term on the town board. Instead, Withers is running unopposed for mayor.

In advance of municipal elections on Nov. 3, the Salisbury Post asked each candidate about three specific topics — a fire department merger, economic growth in China Grove and the most important issue in town.

Conversations about a fire department merger began years ago. The idea again surfaced following the October 2014 resignation of former Fire Chief Jeff Gledhill. After Gledhill’s resignation, the town picked Bostian Heights Fire Chief Mike Zimmerman to oversee China Grove’s department on an interim basis. Bostian Heights has been mentioned as a potential merger candidate. During budget discussions this summer, however, Zimmerman said he’d rather wait to seriously start merger talk.

A fire department merger is seen by current town officials as a way to improve service.

Economic growth is always a topic during political campaigns. However, it’s become a topic in China Grove because of a land use plan that designates areas for certain kinds of growth. The plan also sets goals for the town to become a more attractive community.

Citing lackluster road conditions in some areas of town, Herring picked maintaining roads and curbing as the most important issue. Phillips spoke about the need for town officials to foster a community that’s attractive for people to live in, work in and play in. Stroud said he was most interested in making sure the town’s future growth involves ordinances specific to China Grove instead of using ideas from other cities.

Donnie Herring

Herring said he sees several benefits to the town merging its fire department with Bostian Heights or any other department. He said Zimmerman is a good chief and could serve well as the head of a combined department.

The most likely and significant benefit Herring mentioned was the potential t0 attract more volunteer firefighters with a merged department.

“People just don’t have the time or ability to be volunteer firefighters like they used to,” Herring said. “I feel like if we merge with Bostian Heights we’ll see more manpower. We’ll be able to attract volunteers from Bostian Heights and China Grove.”

When asked about China Grove’s potential future growth, Herring said the town could use a few more businesses. Residential growth isn’t a significant possibility, he said.

Herring said China Grove doesn’t have a significant amount of open land for residential developments. People also don’t like being annexed into a municipality because of taxes, Herring said.

When asked for the most significant issue in China Grove, he listed road maintenance. Herring specifically mentioned streets in southern China Grove as being in poor condition.

“People like to ride on good roads,” he said. “Poor, bumpy roads can mess up the tires and alignments of cars.”

Herring said he is also opposed to the town building a sidewalk extending to South Rowan High School on Patterson Street.

Rodney Phillips

When asked about a potential merger between China Grove and Bostian Heights, Phillips started out by saying the town board has handled turmoil within the fire department well.

“The fire department is in the best shape its been in years,” Phillips said.

He said combining departments could be a good idea if a larger department means saving money on equipment purchases. A merger might result in a more efficient department.

Questions about growth, tied in directly to what Phillips sees as most important for the town. Multiple times, Phillips stressed the need for China Grove to become a well-rounded community.

Phillips, who is a current member of the planning board, had a key role in drafting the town’s land use plan. He said China Grove needs to follow its land use plan and use it as a guide for future growth.

“We can’t just put it on a shelf and let it gather dust,” he said.

Phillips sees three specific initiatives as being critical to China Grove’s growth.

“But it’s got to be smart growth,” he said.

Citing the land use plan’s recommendations, Phillips said the town needs to become a place for people choose to live in, work in and visit. He said China Grove officials should encourage development of neighborhood centers to attract small businesses near residences. Greenways and trails are also important, he said.

Phillips’ second initiative is to encourage the development of a vibrant downtown.

His third initiative is to maintain and grow the tax base through partnering with local economic development officials to attract business.

Steve Stroud

When asked about a fire department merger, he said the current arrangement — sharing Zimmerman as fire chief with Bostian Heights — is working well.

“Quite frankly, I think we’re all pretty happy with the situation we’ve got,” Stroud said. “I don’t know that it’s a long-term solution through.”

A merger with Bostian Heights could be beneficial, Stroud said. However, hiring a quality, full-time fire chief might also work well, he said.

If a merger is in order, Stroud said China Grove should ensure it still maintains some sort of say in the fire department’s operations.

Stroud said he has a different opinion than most on economic growth.

“Everybody talks about growth increasing the tax base, but when you see more growth you also have to increase expenses,” Stroud said, referencing police, fire and trash services. “I’ve never seen a decrease in taxes with growth.”

He said the town could focus on economic development by allowing moderate amount of residential growth while trying to attract businesses that don’t significant contribute to increased expenses.

Half jokingly, Stroud said China Grove needs a Freightliner plant.

Stroud referenced the town’s land use development plan when asked about the most significant issue in China Grove. Stroud said the plan will result in changes to the town’s unified development code. As the town makes changes to its code, Stroud said it should ensure it makes alterations that are specific to China Grove. Some towns copy nearby or similar sized cities when making changes, he said.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246

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