By CHARLES OWENS
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Twelve candidates are vying June 4 for five seats on the Bluefield Board of Directors.
Eleven of the 12 candidates met last week with members of the Daily Telegraph’s editorial board, and were asked about issues ranging from job creation and economic development to the city’s ban on pit bulls and the proposed Colonial Intermodal Center project.
In district one, incumbent board member Mary Frances Brammer is being challenged by former mayor Rev. Garry D. Moore Sr. and Barbara Thompson Smith. In district two, incumbent Mayor Linda Whalen is being challenged by Steven P. Coleman and Ellen Peters Light.
In district three, Michael Gibson is running unopposed — although David Smith’s name will still appear on the ballot. Smith, a public defender, has withdrawn from the race. However, it was too late for his name to be removed from the ballot, according to City Clerk Bobbi Kersey. Smith said he withdrew from the race after receiving an opinion that it would be a conflict of interest for him to serve as both a public defender and board member.
Five candidates are vying for the two at-large seats on the board. They include Thomas J. “Tom” Cole, Charles “Chuck” McGonagle, incumbent Pete Sternloff, Willie C. Hunt and Richard Lee Dillon. Hunt couldn’t attend the editorial board session due to a conflict of interest, but did provide biographical information and a photograph.
• The candidates were initially asked about communications between city hall and its citizens, and whether there is room for improvement.
“One of the first things I said is I think we need to have regular press conferences, press releases and more,” Sternloff, an incumbent board member and 25-year resident of Bluefield, said. “And as you know the mayor who is selected by the city board is a spokesman for the city. I think it is really important to communicate what we’ve done. I think in the last few months the city has done a much better job. I think communication is really important. I think the city between the administration and the board must do a much better job.”
“I think we have ordinances in place currently that will take care of a lot of the issues we have,” Cole, a Bluefield-area businessman whose interests include Cole Chevrolet-Cadillac Inc., Cole Truck Parts, Cole Auto Outlet, Hometown Service Center and Cole Collision Center, said. “Maybe with this new ordinance that got people very riled up — maybe we just needed to enforce what was already there. With that being said — with communications — I’m not for sure exactly what would be the best answer. I don’t think we do a very good job. I think there certainly needs to be more cooperation between the media and the city board.”
“I feel the city board and the mayor should get together and publish in the paper the ordinances they have in the city,” Dillon, a former police officer in McDowell and Greenbrier counties who has lived in the city for 20 years, said. “This may stop some of this confusion and stuff going on. Right now if I was on the city board, I would have voted against this pit bull ordinance. Communications — it’s pretty bad. Right now at election time it looks pretty bad on them (the incumbents). I ran eight years ago for the Bluefield City Board. I said then Bluefield is not dead, but they made a liar out of me. Bluefield has died 10 times since I said that. If I get elected, I would just like to get a shot to get Bluefield to come back.”
“As far as communication goes, I’ve heard for years and years business owners complain about poor communications with the city,” McGonagle, a 17-year business owner in Bluefield operating Mac Contractors (previously known as McGonagle Home Improvement, said.
McGonagle said the two complaints he frequently hears from existing business owners are — what are they getting in return for the city taxes they pay, and why the city government appears to be anti-business.
“So there is definitely a lack of communications, and that is something that can be improved upon,” McGonagle said.
“I would agree communications are a problem in our city,” Whalen, an eight-year member of the board who has served as mayor for six years, said. “As I just alluded to, there is so much good going on. Even though you guys publicize that for us and WVVA, it is still hard to get that information out. One of the main objectives of the Blueprints Communities is to look at ways that we can effectively engage the community.”
“By allowing people to openly discuss issues before decisions are made at the city board meetings,” Light, the current president of the Alliance for the Arts and a member of the Bluefield Area Arts Center, said. “That is where I think the communications should be — is at the board meetings.”
“I think the forms of communication have changed since 20 years ago,” Moore, who previously served on the board for 10 years, including two years as mayor, while also serving for 23 years as pastor of Scott Street Baptist Church, said. “We are not utilizing all of the virtual communication we can put together. I agree the information given out is problematic. But there are other ways we can work together and communicate together. I think now we have divided citizens — not necessarily divided by race, creed and color, but divided by age. How we communicate is two different ways. Twenty-three years ago if you gave me a legal pad and a pen I was good to go. Now I have an Ipad and phone.”
“Our board — the new board we are trying to formulate now — should go over the documents and make sure we are abiding by those,” Smith, who has lived in Bluefield for 64 years and worked for more than 30 years in the educational system in McDowell County, said.
Smith pointed to the so-called trash wars of 2010 — when former city manager Andy Merriman refused to pick up the garbage of citizens who didn’t comply with specific trash can regulations — as an example of the disconnect between city hall and its citizens.
“We need to find out what is on the books if we are going to follow them,” Smith said of existing ordinances.
“I agree with everyone else that there has been a problem with communications between the city and the citizens,” Gibson, a resident of Bluefield for the past 39 years and a Mercer County attorney, said. “But I don’t believe the way to do that is through all of the different (technology) Garry is talking about through Facebook and these modern venues. The reason for that is the communication you see or are able to put off through those channels is often fractured, or abbreviated to the point that you don’t really understand. That’s why I think your newspaper plays an important role in this communication, and must continue to play a role by explaining, in detail, some of these concepts that are so important to the citizens, but can’t be effectively portrayed through one or two sentence fragments.”
“I’ll have to disagree with Mike a little bit in that those are very powerful forms of communications,” Coleman, owner of Steve Coleman Photography and general manager of JMC Real Estate Development, said. “I don’t think Twitter is a good place to put an ordinance out on. But with Facebook — the young people spend a lot of time on Facebook today. It’s just another form of communication, but it’s not replacing anything. You can take an ordinance, email it to the newspaper and the television station, and put it on a dynamic website for the city. That allows all of the citizens to have access to all of the information. I’m a technical guy. I love this sort of communication. I’m 51-years-old. I wouldn’t call myself the younger generation, but most of my friends do (utilize Facebook). That is how we communicate. I think the (city) Website definitely needs a lot of work. The last time it was updated was over a year ago.”
“Now we advertise a meeting before it happens,” Brammer, an incumbent board member, said. “It’s on Facebook. It’s on the (community access channel). We really advertise. I think our communications are getting better because we have a new city manager who is really communicating with the public and the citizens of Bluefield. That doesn’t mean we don’t need to work on it. We do need to work our webpage, and we do have people working on it as we speak. We are trying to do something better.”
• The candidates were then asked about their economic development, and job creation plan, for Bluefield.
“I think it is hard to think that the city board could impact bringing a manufacturing facility into the city limits of Bluefield,” Cole said. “We are very limited with space. I think more importantly, and I think what I can do, is create an environment — or help to create an environment — that would work to help bring people that are willing to make an investment in this area. And really if someone wanted to open up a manufacturing facility in Bluefield, Va., that is going to benefit us tremendously. Regardless of whether it is Bluefield or outside of the city limits, creating jobs no matter where they are is great. And I guess to give you a little background on myself, I employ somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 people in the city limits of Bluefield. Now all of those people don’t live in Bluefield. Some live in Virginia, and some 40 or 50 miles away. But those are jobs in the city limits.”
“I think the council and the city board members ought to vote to have vouchers made up,” Dillon said. “Send the vouchers to North Carolina. Look at all of this property we’ve got just sitting there with nothing on it. Let people know what we’ve got and what we can offer. They’ve got factories up there in North Carolina. We’ve got nothing. Send vouchers up there to bring businesses in and jobs to Bluefield.”
“To begin with we must become business friendly,” Coleman said. “We’ve been anti-business.”
Coleman said the current board has handled the Kroger closure, and K-VA-T Food Stores lease poorly. “Having city residents to be told to boycott a business is very anti-business,” Coleman said. “If you know Food City’s history, (company chief operating officer) Steve Smith will sit on properties, and then develop them later on. We should have had regular meetings with Steve Smith. We need to facility a plan with a very pro-business attitude. We’ve done so many things in the past that are anti-business.”
Coleman said the Boy Scout camp in neighboring Fayette County is another opportunity the city must seize upon. “All of those people will be traveling right by our door out here,” Coleman said. “We have all of that property on John Nash Boulevard that can be developed right now. We can develop all of the downtown with tourism on mind.”
Gibson said the city should work with small and existing businesses, and those who are wanting to start up new businesses. “The best way the city can improve the job situation is to enforce and create a business-friendly environment within the city,” Gibson said.
Gibson said the city also needs to work more closely with Bluefield State College, and attempt to attract the Hatfield-McCoy ATV traffic passing through the area.
“In terms of using assets for classrooms and dormitories and projects that are done with a team of city and college people — I think the colleges are hungry to start this,” Gibson said. “And with some imagination and creativity that could be a big avenue. ... But I think you can do little things like the trail ways or the four wheelers. I see these trailers full of four-wheelers every weekend just going down Maryland Avenue to parts unknown. That would be a wonderful thing to do if I was living in North Carolina. I would like to do nothing better than to come up here, get on the trails and ride. But there just aren’t any real accommodations to make that grow as we could.”
“I chose a number of years ago to locate my business in Bluefield,” McGonagle said. “I chose not to go to the Virginia side. As of right now, I have 11 employees, and all of them live on the West Virginia side. If elected to the city board, I would like to work with the city manager, and any other board member to try to go out and approach some companies to locate here. I think it is doable. I think there are some opportunities out there right now of locating some businesses that could capitalize on this ATV traffic. What I want somewhere in the city limits are (additional) convenience stores, motels or something like that which the ATV traffic will be able to stop and utilize.”
“I think really as far as city government is concerned, we have really started an initiative in the last year to try to bring more jobs to Bluefield,” Sternloff said. “If I was to state specifically the work I’ve seen done by Blue Momentum, there have been some initiatives that haven’t been published that are going on. The area here is ideally located to be huge for the natural gas industry and for transportation with regards to certain type of goods going to the natural gas industry and other industries. I think we need to look at new opportunities. I think it is really important for the city manager and members of the board to focus on existing businesses. I think we need to spend more time working with the existing businesses owners and to identify what their needs are.
“We want the citizens to be a part of the solution, not the problem,” Brammer said. “And we’ve included Bluefield State. We’ve tried to talk to (Congressman Nick) Rahall about the intermodal, and about transportation funds. The city board and the economic development (director) have been doing things. It is hard to create jobs and find jobs and make someone open a grocery store here. But we’ve been working on all of those things. Yes we have a lot of young people moving out of town, but we’ve got a city manager and economic development director that are really working. They are really working to create a better Bluefield.”
Moore said he recently met with representatives of Columbus, Ohio, and asked how they successfully revitalized their downtown.
“The representatives of Columbus said you build coalitions,” Moore said. “We need to spend more time with Congressman Rahall and our senators to help build our city into a place that is conducive to growth. ... You can go anyplace around here — Walmart, McDonalds and you can find a job. That’s not a problem. What I’m looking for are jobs that provide a career.”
Smith said young people continue to leave both Mercer and McDowell counties at an alarming rate.
“I understand why they call it the hillbilly highway,” Smith said. “They are living in McDowell County and going to North Carolina and working all weekend and then coming back. We need something here to attract them.”
Smith said the city also must actively pursue new hotel and lodging accommodation’s for ATV traffic, and a new grocery store for its citizens.
“We need to step out of the box,” Smith said. “We need to go out and find a supermarket quietly — and bring them in. Somebody needs to come in and do a surprise attack. We don’t have to have that area (the old Kroger). We can do something else on John Nash Boulevard.”
• The candidates were asked if they supported the project formerly known as the Colonial Intermodal Center, and whether the intermodal center was still feasible. They were also asked how the city would get the additional millions in federal funds needed to develop the project.
“I guess I would have to say that I don’t support the intermodal project or whatever you want to call it,” McGonagle said. “Basically from my understanding and everything I’ve learned about it I don’t’ see where it will bring any revenue to the city. I also see it (the site of the proposed transit center) as a valuable piece of property that can be used to create revenue for the city.”
“This is one of those times where I think the city hasn’t communicated very well what the purpose of the intermodal center is,” Gibson said. “And with the cost of it — and their estimates I guess you’ve said they are up to $10 million — I just question whether it is necessary, and whether there are other things that could be done that would be less costly. It is my understanding that there is a feasibility study in process. I would really reserve my judgment as to whether I’m in favor or against it until the feasibility study comes out. But you would have to show me a lot of benefits to come from it.”
“There is a yes and a no (answer) to this (question),” Moore said. “Right now where we have the Greyhound bus we really don’t have anything to offer them — no place to get a cup of coffee and sit down. There is a lot of infrastructure we don’t have in place now. However, if we had such support systems of an intermodal center available, we could connect with other things. Once you have a docking space like that you need to have some things around it to support it for years. But at the same time with our buildings being as old as they are and falling down, and that space being available now, I’m looking at more business. And the one thing we don’t have downtown is a hotel. “
“We’ve now had over a hundred names suggested for that piece of property,” Sternloff said of the ongoing contest to rename the project formerly known as the Colonial Intermodal Center. “A lot of work and effort went into developing the plan. Right now we are in the second phase to take the initial concept into a fully developed plan so it could go to the Department of Transportation for funding. It is still wide open for what can happen. Going forward you will have a piece of property that will be developed to a point where businesses could be build there or additional businesses could be built in that area. As far as funding is concerned, that is really up to the DOT and the Congress. Because anything that would be done with that property — and the funding from those sources — would have to be a part of a new highway bill passed by the Congress.”
“I would not support that project,” Cole said. “I guess there is a number of things. One, I don’t see the significant economic impact that would have. And I guess when talking about that money and where it will come from — just from a standpoint of fiscal responsibility — I have a problem with how my tax dollars — $10 million or $12 million — are being spent. But obviously with that being said I would fight for every opportunity to bring those dollars to the community if they are available. But from what I’ve seen and heard and read, it (the intermodal center) seems more like a pipe dream. It is way down the road and may not happen. I would be very surprised if that money become available.”
“I’m against the intermodal concept,” Coleman said. “That feasibility study is $600,000 — $600,000 for a feasibility study? That is a beautiful piece of property we have down there. You could look at putting a hotel down there geared toward railroad enthusiasts. You could put together a beautiful presentation on what could be done down there. You go after these businesses and try to bring them in.”
Coleman said waiting on millions in additional funds — that may not come — is a bad idea.
“I don’t think we have time to wait on a project like this,” Coleman said. “I think we need to put our plans together and go after businesses to come here. ... I’m against it. I just don’t see it happening. I think it is one of those pie in the sky things that we’ve looked at for a long time.”
“No I sure don’t — I don’t support what they did,” Dillon said of the plans for the Colonial Intermodal Center project.
Dillon also questioned the current board’s decision to purchase land on U.S. Route 52, adding the property is now just a “swamp land.”
“I actually think it is very feasible for Bluefield,” Whalen said of the intermodal center. “I think it is a very bright spot for our downtown. The circumstances that led to a vacant spot is very unfortunate. But it is a positive for Bluefield that we have a place now for new businesses to be developed. We have been very fortunate that Congressman Rahall did secure $600,000 to plan the design, engineering and footprint for that area. It really affords us a great opportunity to come together with the public and private (partners) to bring economic development to that area of Bluefield.”
Whalen said the city will apply for a $10 million federal transportation grant once a new federal highway bill is passed by Congress.
Light said the intermodal center is another example of bad communications of city projects that many citizens in Bluefield are confused about.
“I would just like for the public to have some sort of clarification,” Light said. “I think that is a part of the problem. The citizens are not at all clear as to what’s going on.”
Smith said she would support a proposal that would improve transportation in the city.
“We really need transportation,” Smith said. “That little bus that goes around the city is fantastic. So we need to work on that. We have no airport. We have no airport and no train. And we need to focus on that and make it more welcoming. We have no taxi service. We need something to bring all of that into one circle — accommodation’s that are easy to get to.”
• The candidates were then asked about the controversial ban on pit bulls in Bluefield.
“I think everyone in the city knows how I feel about it,” Coleman said. “I’m against the ban on breed pit bulls. We had a breed specific ordinance in place. It was never enforced. We have a full-time animal control officer in Bluefield. Bluefield is not that big. These ordinances could have been followed since 2008. But to my knowledge there have never been any citations on this (the original 2008 ordinance). Now why would you go in and ban the whole breed when you aren’t following the legislation you have in place.”
“I don’t support the existing ban,” McGonagle said. “I think there were ordinances that were in effect that should have handled the situation.”
“My son has two pit bulls — so this is very personal to me,” Moore said. “I think that any dog — and that is what it is, is a dog — and any dog can turn on you. But I still think it is a problem of ownership, not necessarily of the dog itself. I served on the board of directors for 10 years, and I remember the major cases and issues we dealt with. I remember the one meeting we had that was larger than any other we had. The first one was the spay and neutering. And the second was this one. I had never seen that kind of passion for animals before. They (pit bulls) are children friendly. They love kids. I’m in favor of the 2008 (ordinance) we already had in the books.”
“I don’t support the current ban,” Cole said. “I think the previous ordinance — had it been enforced — would have taken care of the issues, and the reasons for the ban. I think there is tremendous liability that the city has opened itself up to with this current ban. I think there is a lot of money (liability), and there are advocates that would like to challenge that when they get the opportunity. Would I revoke the ban if I was on the city board? I don’t know what I would do. I just think we opened up a can of worms that didn’t need to be opened.”
“I don’t support it now, and if I was elected today I would vote abolish it because pit bulls are just like any other dogs,” Dillon said. “If you get them as pups, you can raise them right. I would vote to abolish it all ... It’s not the pit bulls. It’s the people who train them.”
“I’ve been here as I’ve said all of my life, and I can remember back when the Doberman was an issue in Bluefield, and all of a sudden the Dobermans are gone,” Smith said. “So when the pit bull came up, I said the ordinance should be on all dogs — all animals that have teeth. I really strongly feel it should have been on all dogs, not just pit bulls. And cats. The rules should be for all — not breed specific legislation.”
“I think the 2008 ordinance was largely ignored until recently,” Gibson said. “It’s also my impression that with the concentration of the 2008 ordinance there has been a tremendous increase in the registration of pit bulls and people that own pit bulls. There is basically an increase in responsible pet ownership in Bluefield. I would just like to see for the time being if the 2008 laws will cure the problem. As a lawyer, I can just imagine how problematic or impossible it is going to be when someone comes into your office and they say you are threatening to take away my dog and put it down, and they say it’s a pit bull and I say it’s poodle. I know there is some litigation in Clarksburg and other (areas) where the Supreme Court addressed that problem. I think in a short sentence, stick with what we have.”
“Perhaps we need two animal control officers,” Light said. “Of course you hear a lot of things. I hear the ban itself was illegal. However, I generally believe that it’s not the breed, it’s the owner. And I do believe if there had been a more diligent policing of the original ordinance we wouldn’t have needed to ban the breed.”
The three incumbents, Whalen, Brammer and Sternloff, all voted in support of the pit bull ban, and defended their vote during last week’s editorial board session.
“Of course I support it,” Whalen said. “Actually I’ve had a couple of threats on my life over this pit bull ordinance. So it isn’t a laughing matter to me, or something that I’ve taken lightly. I will agree that when we passed the (ordinance) a few years ago on pit bulls, we didn’t adequately enforce that ordinance. We have only one animal control officer. But since we’ve passed this ordinance we’ve had over 150 pit bulls registered. And this doesn’t have to be a forever ordinance. At a time when it looks like the situation is better under control (the ordinance can be revisited). There is not one legally registered breeder in the city of Bluefield, and certainly they didn’t have a state license. But since we passed this ban it is amazing how many people got (their dogs) spayed and neutered.”
“I support the current ban, and I support what was done in 2008,” Sternloff said. “I think the city could have done a far better job of enforcing the existing regulations we have. But a lot of people don’t understand what the ban really is.”
Brammer said she understands the city already had a 2008 ordinance in place, and that the 2008 ordinance could have been more strongly enforced. However, she points to continued problems involving pit bulls, including a recent attack by a pit bull on a city animal control officer, as a reason for the ban.
“I was on the board that banned them, and our board banned them,” Brammer said. “I rest my case.”
All of the candidates interviewed by the Daily Telegraph last week — with the exception of incumbents Whalen, Sternloff and Brammer — either disagreed with or questioned the decision to demolish the Scott Street Parking Garage. Most agreed with the decision to demolish the Princeton Avenue Parking Garage. However, several of the candidates, including incumbent Brammer, expressed concerns about the loss of the popular downtown flea market. The flea market was held at the former Princeton Avenue Parking Garage, and for years would draw big crowds into Bluefield each Saturday.
The candidates also expressed mixed opinions about the concept of regionalism, but most agreed there needed to be increased communications between Bluefield and Princeton and Bluefield and Bluefield, Va.
Hunt didn’t attend the editorial board session. He submitted the following biographical information for publication.
Hunt was educated in the public school system of Mercer County, and graduated from Bluefield High School. He is married to Tina V. Hunt and they have three daughters. Hunt also attended Bluefield State College graduating with a B.S. degree in business administration and associate degree in computer science. Working as an educator, Hunt retired from the city of Bluefield as a member of the Bluefield Fire Department for 19-and-a-half years. He also worked for the Bluefield Housing Authority for a number of years, and is a member and trustee of Scott Street Baptist Church.
— Contact Charles Owens at firstname.lastname@example.org