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City candidates speak at forum ahead of Nov. 5 election
city forum
The Dawsonville city candidates on the ballot for Nov. 5 are: Mike Eason, Durant Wright, Caleb Phillips and John Walden. - photo by Jessica Taylor

The Dawson County Chamber of Commerce hosted a forum for the upcoming Dawsonville city election on Monday night where both mayoral and council candidates were given opportunities to discuss issues they would address in the next term.

Incumbent Mike Eason is seeking reelection for mayor against political newcomer Durant Wright. Incumbent council member Caleb Phillips is running unopposed in Post 1, and John Walden is running unopposed for city council Post 3.

During the Sept. 30 forum, candidates were given three minutes for opening statements, two minutes to answer each of the six questions posed by the moderators and two minutes for closing statements.

Eason moved to Dawsonville in 2012, having previously lived in Forsyth County since 1975. He worked in the Georgia Bureau of Investigations for more than 30 years and afterwards served as the Police Chief in Cumming for four years.

“During the 40 years in public administration and business I learned a lot about government, a lot about managing people, a lot about managing budgets and operations, and I feel like I’ve brought a lot of that success to the city of Dawsonville,” Eason said.

Wright is the son of two small business owners from Tennessee. He received his bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Tennessee and lives in Dawsonville with his wife, Sarah Beth, and two cats. He works managing family businesses in Dahlonega which includes an event space, a hotel and villas, a storage rental business and several convenience stores.

“I want to bring my business acumen and my business experience to Dawsonville and use that to propel us into the future,” Wright said.

Both Eason and Wright advocated for open and honest government with transparency and open communication as a key factor.

“We have an obligation to communicate with our citizens, and that’s what I try to do,” Eason said. “I try to talk to people. I try to hear what the person, the people in the city want to say and make sure they understand why things are done.”

One of the ways in which Eason reaches citizens is by hosting Coffee with the Mayor at city hall on the first Saturday of each month, something he plans to resume after the election cycle.

If elected as mayor, Wright sees his role as working with businesses and the DDA to make Dawsonville a safe place for everyone to live and work, as well as overseeing an open and transparent government and advocating for the city both in city hall and on the streets.

“You want to be able to see what government does and why they do it,” Wright said.


Fiscal responsibility

Dawsonville is currently sitting on a reserve fund balance of over 100 percent, with approximately $2.8 million in reserves.

According to Eason, the city is required to sit on six months’ worth of reserve funds, which is about $1.2 million. The number was alarming for Wright who stated that Georgia recommends only 20 percent of reserve funds.

“It is taxpayer money that is sitting dormant there,” Wright said. “We can use that to better infrastructure systems such as our water. The residential rate in Dawsonville is growing tremendously and we need to make sure that the infrastructure and commercial aspects grow as our residential grows.”

Wright said he would like to see some of those reserve funds being allocated to upgrade and expand the city’s water systems, improve services and grow infrastructure to improve the lives of city residents.

Eason said that the city currently maintains three operating funds, two of which cannot be allocated elsewhere: the enterprise system for water and sewer and SPLOST. The rest of the city’s budget is maintained in the general operating fund.

“The other monies will be utilized to finish up some of the things that the SPLOST money can’t do at the park and other operations around town whether it be sidewalks, paving roads, purchasing property for right of way,” Eason said. “We’re just trying to make sure that we use that money properly.”

Eason said the city is trying to be fiscally responsible with what they have as well as working hard to “keep those budgets as flexible and as fluid as we can.”


Consolidated government

The question of consolidating the city and county government was posed during the Sept. 30 forum.

Eason said consolidated governments can work well in some places where the city holds the majority of the population, but he doesn’t believe it’s a system that could work in Dawsonville.

“If you take the city and place it inside the county, you have to talk to your council, your commissioner. You could be on that back row up there and not be heard, but if you’re in the city council you’re talking to the city council member, you’re right here on these front rows and you could be heard,” Eason said.

The city currently works with the county in a system that Eason said works really well, but he would consider consolidation if it’s something the community wanted.

“If the public wanted it, we could do a forum for them and put it on the agenda if they wanted to,” Eason said.

Wright said that consolidated government is something to look into after a study were conducted to see the feasibility and potential structure of the new system.

“In principle, a consolidated government could be good for both city and county residents,” Wright said. “A unified government would of course equal unified goals, no going back and forth between the city and county governments.”

Wright believes a consolidated government would reduce regulations, bureaucracy and administrative costs, as well as make it easier to equitably distribute sales taxes generated in the county.


Local business

Both Wright and Eason want to support local businesses within the city as well as promote tourism.

For Wright, he believes Dawsonville should get its share of the tourism industry.

“With businesses downtown we need to make sure that we can promote tourism,” Wright said. “We can take the tourists from the county and find a way to get those people into the city because the city does not hold its own on tax dollars coming in.”

Wright said he would like to support tourism by providing tax incentives to bring more businesses to downtown and removing regulations that prevent businesses from thriving, all while maintaining that historic downtown feel.

“We have a historic district, but we also have to work with these businesses to help them thrive,” Wright said.

While Wright plans to bring more customers and businesses to the city, Eason says the biggest challenges businesses face is traffic congestion and parking.

“It’s tough for us right now with the traffic the way it is to get people to come downtown,” Eason said.

Building owners struggle with finding tenants because of the traffic and lack of parking, according to Eason.

Additional parking on Main Street as well as the front of city hall has been approved, and the Georgia Department of Transportation recently approved parking spots around the downtown square be moved from a 90 degree angle to a 60 degree angle to make parking easier, Eason said.

Eason also believes that once Main Street Park is completed, it will bring more people into downtown.

“When we get the park up and running and we start having events there, that’s going to bring a lot of people downtown,” Eason said. “As we see with our food truck nights on the first Friday night of every month how many hundreds of people come there, and I think that’s going to enhance our community is to keep working to bring people into downtown.”


Elliott Field airport

The city of Dawsonville is in the process of acquiring the Elliott Field airport located within the city limits. Both Eason and Wright said they would continue with the acquisition process if elected.

The city wants to acquire the currently private airport owned by NASCAR legend Bill Elliott and comply with the Federal Aviation Administration in order to turn it into a general aviation airport. There are currently 104 public use airports in Georgia, or about two thirds of the counties. They are used mainly for business, recreation and medical transport.

“Right now we have a 5,600 foot runway which is longer than Gainesville or Cherokee or almost any other airport in north Georgia,” Eason said. “So we’ve got the opportunity here to control it and make it a general aviation airport if we work with the Federal Aviation Administration.”

The airport has been in operation since 1984 and has about 20 planes in hangars. Eason said the plan with federal funding is to make the airport revenue neutral so that the operation of the airport is funded directly by those who pay to use it.

“The airport exists now. If we don’t control it, it could be bought by a private entity and then it could become something that we don’t want in our area,” Eason said.

“I think it would be a net benefit for our city for us to acquire the airport,” Wright said.

Acquiring the airport would help additional tourism and job opportunities in the city, according to Wright.


Council posts

Candidates for city council Post 1 and Post 3 also took part in the forum Monday night.

Incumbent Caleb Phillips is running unopposed for Post 1 and has served on the city council for five years. He wants to see the city continue to thrive by seeing infrastructure improve and new businesses coming to the city.

Newcomer John Walden is running unopposed for Post 3. He has lived in Dawson County for 34 years and moved into Dawsonville city limits five years ago. He has been married to Lisa for more than 18 years and has three daughters: Hannah, Gracie and Abigail.

Walden’s background includes more than 20 years of experience in design and civil engineering. He would like to see improvements to infrastructure, namely downtown parking, and wants to keep the hometown feel by being an approachable and helpful elected official.

The deadline to register to vote is Oct. 7. Voters can visit to check their voter status.

Advanced voting begins Oct. 14 at the Dawson County Board of Elections, at 96 Academy Avenue in Dawsonville. Early voting will take place from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday Oct. 14 to Nov. 1.

The election is Nov. 5. Also on the ballot is an ESPLOST referendum. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

The full video of the Sept. 30 city forum can be viewed on the Dawson County Chamber of Commerce Facebook and YouTube pages.