By Marty Gordon
Three incumbents and two newcomers are vying for council seats in Christiansburg. Thursday evening, they had a chance to address the public during a Montgomery County League of Women’s Voters candidates’ forum held at town hall.
Sam Bishop served 21 years in the military and 36 years in law enforcement before joining the council in 2014. Harry Collins is completing his first term on the council; Henry Showalter is in his second term.
Johanna Hicks and Deveron Milne are two newbies to the political world. Hicks is a local realtor, while Milne is an IT specialist who has spent more than 12 years with the Christiansburg Rescue Squad.
Questions tossed at the candidates addressed topics from the Truman Wilson recreation park and how to revitalize the town’s downtown area to finding affordable housing and jumpstarting the farmer’s market.
Incumbent Sam Bishop said the community must address the issue of affordable housing. This means, he said, working with developers when they bring their projects to the town. Showalter agreed but admitted it’s not just an issue for Christiansburg, but also the surrounding area, Blacksburg and Montgomery County.
Their comments came after a question on the future growth being projected (10,000 over the next five years) for both the town and the county.
Collins felt the infrastructure is in place to handle the so-called boom, but Hicks disagreed. She was worried that the population increase will put a strain on services and the infrastructure itself. “It has and will put a strain on the town’s budget,” she said. “We need to increase services as the population does.”
Milne pointed to the fact that residential projects will now have to begin to build vertically. He said the town is slowly running out of land that can be built upon, and with this comes more demands on the infrastructure. “I think we need to start looking at that as the residential areas become more dense. This includes the roads that carry the traffic from those new projects,” he said.
Two major residential developments have recently been announced for the Route 114/Peppers Ferry Road section of the town, thus raising the question about density and the strain on infrastructure such as roadways.
Thursday’s event was co-sponsored by the Montgomery County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the League of Women Voters. The audience was asked to submit questions, and each candidate was given one minute to answer.
One of the biggest differences of the night came when a question was asked about a new proposed recreation park near Home Depot and Walmart.
Hicks said she loved the idea but had concerns about the cost. She felt the town had not been honest about the budget for the project. “I’m afraid we will have to see a tax increase to pay for this,” she said.
Collins, who headed up a committee considering a private-public funding source for the park, called the planned park a “shining star” for Christiansburg and said he would not vote for a tax increase. “When first elected, I said I would not vote for an increase, and I stand by that now,” he said.
Bishop called the park a great idea, but he also had concerns about where the money will come from.
Hicks responded that the town’s current aquatic center has also been labeled a “shining star,” but it continues to show a deficit and that causes concern from citizens.
Milne called it ambitious to even consider such a project but would like the town to continue to study it and how the park might affect neighboring homeowners.
Collins said the key here is to remember what else the park will and the aquatics center bring in to town: meals and lodging taxes and money being spent at retailers. “This helps our tax base,” he said.
The hottest topic of the night seemed to center on the current location and demand for a farmers market in downtown Christiansburg.
Hicks called it a failure. “Right now it is a failure and we need to find a new location. The closure of Hickok Street is bad, and we need to talk to the current vendors as a whole and see where they want to be.”
But Showalter reminded everyone that a new location could cost a lot of money. “When we first started discussing the farmers market, we knew we couldn’t have it on Saturday because of the large number of other area markets on that day,” he said. “So we chose a secondary day, knowing we wouldn’t be anything like the other ones. We are a smaller secondary market.”
Collins and Bishop agreed a new location might need to be considered.
Hicks asked why more money should be put into a market that no one attends.
Milne called for the town to help subsidize the vendors at the farmers market to help establish a regular vendor base there.
This led to a discussion about the downtown area becoming a ghost town over the past few years.
Showalter said he would like to encourage tax breaks for businesses to come to that part of the town. But Hicks, who has a real estate office near downtown, said the problem lies in the fact that currently the town in general is working against businesses that might come to the downtown.
“They (the businesses) are not encouraged to locate in the downtown area,” she said.
Milne said his plan would be to look to locating more residential offerings to the downtown and maybe a few more restaurants and build on examples already there, using the current successes to draw others there.
Collins cited the town’s current façade grant program as one way the town is currently helping smaller businesses succeed. “This is something new (upgrading their storefronts), and in the future, I think it can be expanded to provide more help,” he said.
The forum was videotaped by the Town of Christiansburg and will be reshown on the Montgomery County local access television state, 190, on its YouTube Channel and accessible from the League of Women Voters’ website, LWVMCVA.org.