By Pete Zamplas-Hendersonville Councilman Jerry A. Smith Jr. — one of three municipal incumbents up for reelection Nov. 5 — refuted challengers’ charges that those three are “anti-business” by saying their recent pro-business achievements include sprucing up Main Street.
First-term Councilman Smith describes himself broadly as “pro-Hendersonville,” with an “open mind” and “balanced approach to the job” rather than “bias for any point of view.” He said, “You’re weighing interests of residents, businesses, tourists and people who live in the county. What we do has an impact on their lives.”
He further told The Tribune “my qualm on this ‘pro-business’ label (for some candidates) is the implication others of us on Council are not pro-business. That’s completely wrong.” He cited upgrading Main Street infrastructure and beautifying sidewalk paths. “We just spent $3.7 million upgrading our number one (downtown) business district, which attracts tourists” and their spending. Also, “we hired someone whose sole job is to help market Main Street.”
Looking ahead, he said “it’s time to do more for Seventh Avenue” such as creating an economic development zone and freezing tax bills at pre-developed levels for years.
Further, Smith said “we passed every zoning change request” in his first four years. “Most of those are business-related. Such as putting a new type of business into an area where it was not allowed.” He pointed to Hunter Nissan, Fresh Market, CVS and McDonald’s expanding or relocating in the city. “They don’t feel Council will mess it up for them.”
Two Council seats are up, with incumbents Smith and Jeff Collis running again along with Mayor Barbara Volk. In the primary Oct. 8, four advanced in the Council race. Challenger Jeff Miller (36.7 percent) and Smith (19.9) got more votes than Collis (15.1 percent) and challenger Diane Caldwell (11.9 percent). Ralph Freeman (10.9) and Guri Andermann (5.4 percent) were eliminated; survivors scramble to pick up their support.
Smith’s potential voter base is unique. He has taught social studies (history, civics, economics) in Hendersonville High School, since 2000. He coached varsity baseball, and American Legion county-wide all-stars.
He espouses teamwork on Council, too. “We collaborate quite a lot, to reach (often unanimous) consensus and make good group decisions … We are able to talk like adults, and not make emotional barbs at one another nor take our differences personally.” He said votes are typically split on matters on which some feel strongest, and do not budge.
Smith often bats leadoff, so to speak, in Council discussion on recreation and school-related (i.e. resource officer) issues. He said he figures when to press a matter, and when to back off by knowing Council members’ core values and issues. “Certainly we all have a good idea on what’s most important to each other, and where we’re each willing to be persuaded. On some things, they won’t change their minds. I’m the same way.” He said on most issues, “I’m willing to listen” with view that “I’m not sure. Please let me know what you’re thoughts are.’”
Wilson native Smith, 45, was a catcher for UNC-Chapel Hill. He was academic all-ACC for three years, lastly in 1989-90. He earned his law degree from N.C. Central, and a master’s in education from George Mason. He practiced law in South Carolina for three years, and teaches mock trial at HHS. “In my heart,” he said, “I’m (still) an athlete and a competitor.”
Park: ‘Destination Playground’
On spending and taxation, Smith was all for enabling voters to make a pivotal decision this Nov. 5 on a referendum that would likely raise taxes. It permits the City to borrow up to $6 million, to develop Berkeley Mills Park that it owns. Collis and Smith stress the city will not borrow that much. It was too late to redo the referendum proposal, to reflect Council slashing the project price by one-fifth by removing an amphitheater. Plans are for two phases of $2.4 million, totaling $4.8 million.
Smith told The Tribune he supports the referendum, and sees the developed park as an attraction boosting area business. He emphasized at least some park work will happen, sooner or later and the state requires the road to be widened to two lanes for safety reasons. Better bathrooms and more parking are also essential. Now “they park on the hills by the baseball field,” Smith noted.
Further, it could cost more to do it “piecemeal,” he and Collis said. Smith said “it’d take five to 10 years to get it done. If we want to get it running as a first-class park, we have to make a major investment all at one time.” Yet he is for two phases, not one. “We can make any changes once the park shapes up” after phase one.
The initial key is installing a “destination playground” on par with that by the Greenville (S.C.) Zoo, better than others in Henderson County, Smith said. “I would argue you need a playground, if you’re serious about owning a real park. It has to be so nice, people are willing to drive there. Our goal is to get more people to come and stay a few hours in Hendersonville” and dine and shop. “A highly-developed park with great amenities can do that.” Picnic shelters and a memorial tree garden are planned.
Smith sees Berkeley Park varying from city-owned Patton Park which features an outdoor pool, tennis and a skateboard park. The city is getting a grant to pay to extend its greenway walking path nine blocks through the Berkeley Park perimeter. Through the park, “we need a serious walking trail,” Smith said. “People are not going to stroll through the woods.” He said the trail provides activity for adults, while their children play.
Physical activities boost youth fitness and teamwork. Competitive sports involve “dealing with success and adversity,” Smith added. He said they also develop self-esteem, self-reliance and maturity as a “right of passage,” that “you have to perform.” In such ways, park benefits go beyond fun and as a potential economic magnet.
Water-Sewer; Mill Site
Smith wants city officials to lobby to keep the city-owned water and sewer system “under our local control, and not be absorbed into the Metropolitan Sewer District. If so, our rates would definitely go up” toward Asheville’s higher rates to “equal it out.”
He added, “We have a well-funded system. Our rates are low, compared state-wide. The more we demonstrate we’re good stewards, the less it makes sense to be absorbed.
Taxpayers benefit if the City sells the historic Grey Hosiery Mill property, rather than give it for free to an apartment developer as requested, Smith said. “We cannot give it away, for a private development. They’ll have to pay something.”
Council at its monthly meeting Oct. 3 discussed putting the property up for auction, and will find legal details of three options when next meeting Nov. 7. In a public auction, the winning bid is binding and could be close to nothing. Smith instead prefers a sealed bit, as the City could turn down the high bid. Bidders do not have to state their use of the property, though Council can ask the winner about plans. Smith said, “I’m not opposed to apartments.”
The idea for a convention center “hasn’t worked out,” Smith said. “It’s time to let go, and let someone else develop the property. If they want historic easements for tax credits for developing the property, I’m for passing the necessary ordinance.”