Marlinton voters question candidates at forum
Candidates for Marlinton Mayor and Town Council discussed the local economy, flood protection and law enforcement during last Tuesday's question-and-answer forum at the Pocahontas County Opera House sponsored by GoMarlinton.
Not all candidates participated in the forum. Empty chairs on the Opera House were marked with place cards for incumbents Norris Long, Loretta Malcomb and Louise Barnisky, as well as challenger Bill McLaughlin. On stage were Marlinton Mayor Dennis Driscoll, mayor candidate and sitting councilman Joe Smith, councilman David Zorn and challengers Cris Weber, Natasha McMann and Ronald Freer.
Many chairs in the audience were empty as well. The forum drew about two dozen people; roughly half were town residents while the rest were those who owned businesses or worked in town or had other interests in the outcome of the June 14 municipal election.
Rachel Tompkins, of Douthards Creek and John Simmons, of Bartow, moderated the forum, reading the questions to the candidates that were written and submitted by audience members.
The first questionﾗwhich was echoed by several that followedﾗasked the mayoral candidates about their plans for economic development in Marlinton.
Both Driscoll and Smith said that economic development was not itself part of the mayor's job description, but each said more could be done to encourage economic growth in the town.
ﾓThere is no easy fix for economic development here,ﾔ said Driscoll. ﾓOur location does not jump out and say let's build something here so we can make somethingﾗlet's build something here so that we can make jobs. We're 40 miles from an Interstate highway.ﾔ
ﾓWhat we can doﾗand what I have doneﾗis to get local business people to reinvest in the Town of Marlinton,ﾔ Driscoll continued, ﾓand so far, it is working. We have seen a local insurance agency purchase other properties around it and open other businesses in those properties.ﾔ
Smith said he agreed there was no easy route to growing the town's economic base.
ﾓThe town's not in the business to create employment, jobs and whatnot,ﾔ Smith said, ﾓbut we can develop our community to entice people to come to our community.ﾔ
Smith disagreed with Driscoll about Marlinton's location being a hinderance to its development. Smith recently retired from his work with a local lumber mill.
ﾓWe had very little problem moving our product and getting it to the Interstates,ﾔ he said. ﾓI don't think our location is a big detriment to us.ﾔ
ﾓI feel that our main goal needs to be developing a community that will entice people and make them want to come here,ﾔ Smith added. ﾓThe workforce is in Pocahontas County, it's just that we need small industries. I don't think we'll ever see large industry, like Hanover Shoe, in Pocahontas County again, but small industries that employ 20 or 40 people would be a big boon to us.ﾔ
On a related note, candidates for town council were asked about the importance of tourism to the town's future.
ﾓIt shows that we're doing something in town,ﾔ responded Freer.
Freer said annual events like the Great Greenbrier River Race and the Autumn Harvest Festival and Roadkill Cook-off show the town's good side to a number of people, but he added that more could be done to attract a steadier stream of visitors. In particular, Freer said the town should consider adding more amenities for families with children.
Candidate Cris Weber agreed with Freer's points.
ﾓThere's not a lot that entices the younger generation to come into Marlinton.ﾔ
Weber said this applied to children on vacation, but also those who are growing up in Marlinton.
ﾓWe really need to get the kids off the streets and get them doing something, whether it's starting something at the old Hanover Shoe factory... just something to entice young people to come in,ﾔ she said.
Zorn said tourism wasn't an answer to all of Marlinton's economic troubles, but that ﾓit does help.ﾔ Zorn added that most businesses in Marlinton, and Pocahontas County, are indirectﾗif not directﾗbeneficiaries of tourism dollarsﾗfrom gas stations to restaurants and grocery stores.
ﾓIt's extremely important,ﾔ replied McMann. ﾓIt is the driving force behind the county at this point. What I would like to see are ways to balance tourism with economic development.ﾔ
Candidates for mayor and town council were also asked what they perceived as the greatest challenge facing Marlinton in the next four years and beyond.
Tighter state regulations on water and sewer systemsﾗand the resulting cost of to the town for necessary upgradesﾗtopped Driscoll's list of concerns.
ﾓInfrastructure is going to be our biggest problem, not just for the next four years,ﾔ Driscoll said, ﾓbut for the next 12 years. We have to look forward to that and make plans to do a little bit at a time.ﾔ
Smith agreed with Driscoll's assessment of the town's infrastructure. Smith said the town was fixing problems and replacing out-dated water and sewer lines as problems areas appeared, but added that the town needs ﾓmajor funding,ﾔ to completely overhaul its public utilities. The town also needs funding to put a water supply tank on cemetery hill back into service, according to Smith. The tank has been idle for three years, he said.
McMann, Freerﾠ and Weber also stressed the importance of improvements to its water and sewer infrastructure.
ﾓThese are the kinds of things that are going to keep Marlinton alive,ﾔ Weber said.
Weber also said she wants to see more family-owned businesses opening up in town.
Only one question posed to the candidates dealt with the issue of flood protection for the Town of Marlinton.
Given how long the planning process has dragged on and the current budget debates in the nation's capital, Driscoll said he didn't believe the levee system proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers would ever be built.
ﾓAt a cost of $200 million, I don't see the Federal government throwing that kind of money into building a flood wall for Marlinton,ﾔ he said.
That leaves the town in the uncomfortable position of simply hoping there won't be another flood, Driscoll said.
Smith disagreed with Driscoll, saying he felt real progress on the project was in the works.
ﾓI think we're closer now than we've ever been,ﾔ Smith said. ﾓThe Town of Marlinton has in place its matching fair share of the project, thanks to our state government.ﾔ
ﾓThe residents of the Town of Marlinton need to hold tight,ﾔ Smith added. ﾓWe cannot back down. If anybody pulls out of this project, it has to be the [Army Corps of Engineers].ﾔ
While the future and timing of flood protection may be up for debate, the date of the Town's municipal election is not. Town voters will cast their ballots on June 14.