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Less is not more

Candidates for Johnson County Mayor on stage at Heritage Hall in Mountain City for the mayoral debate. Photo by Dan Cullinane

By Dan Cullinane
Freelance Writer

The five candidates vying to be the next mayor of Johnson County, Tate Davis, Eric Garland, Mark Gladden, Scott Mast, and Larry Potter, took the stage at Heritage Hall on Thursday, May 26, for a debate that was primarily noteworthy for what was not asked and what was not said.
Sponsored by the Johnson County Republican Party and moderated by Randy Dandurand, it kicked off with opening statements. Garland laid down his goal of making Johnson County like Banner Elk, and Potter hit his recurring theme of improving broadband in the county. Davis focused on economic development, Gladden zeroed in on mental health, and Mast spoke in support of a vocational training center.
Only the final question, which focused on the controversial Star LED distribution center, saw a bit of elbow throwing. As the project was initiated under Potter’s earlier stint as county mayor, most of the “we were fooled,” “we were taken in,” and “we need to be more careful” answers were directed at Potter, who simply responded by saying “We got burned. We didn’t do the research.”
Mast, a long-term member of the county commission, also took some blows, particularly from Davis, who called out the county commission over failure to address the issue of trash on people’s property. “If our commissioners just absolutely can not bring themselves to create an ordinance, then I think someone needs to take leadership,” he said. Mast responded by saying he was open to continuing to try to find a solution but felt that residents needed to take more pride in their community.
Mast was strong on the issue of Johnson County’s addiction issues, talking in specifics about the efforts by adjoining counties to use money from the Baby Doe opioid settlement to turn the former North East Correctional Annex in Roan Mountain into a residential drug treatment facility. He was the only one on stage who seemed aware of this development and its
importance to the county. Other candidates like Gladden and Garland zeroed in on law enforcement solutions which have traditionally been the least effective in dealing with addiction, while Potter bemoaned the growing acceptance of cannabis.
Davis’ answer to the complete lack of recovery resources in the county was to say that it was a social issue and there wasn’t much a mayor could do.
The majority of the questions had to do with improving the local economy, having more opportunities for young people, and finding a way to revitalize the community. Unfortunately, many of the answers were of the “I’d look into that” variety, with Davis being the primary exception. He spoke at length of various grants he would seek and promised to create an economic development board to work more closely with Nashville on funding issues.
The candidates still see Johnson County’s future as a recreational hub, with Johnson County’s young people serving as laborers in support of it, and while passing mention was made of the unprecedented number of new residents moving in because of the availability of land.
No mention was made of working with the state on Tennessee Main Street Grants and/or a Downtown Improvement Grant which are designed specifically for rural counties. Also not mentioned was the TN Placemakers Entrepreneurship Fund, another grant for rural communities which seeks to elevate people within the county by assisting them with starting small businesses. Also not covered was the issue of homelessness among the county’s working poor, or the fact that Johnson County is considered a “daycare desert,” because of the lack of childcare.
The candidates will have further opportunities to make their case before the August 4 election; first this weekend, at the Hometown Service Coalition’s Community Day at Ralph Stout Park, and then again on June 21, at an event sponsored by the ACTION Coalition. The critical issues facing Johnson County in this time of rapid transition are numerous and complex. A leader among the candidates will emerge based on their ability to understand these issues and provide actual ideas for solving them.