Business of Elizabethton is business says Smalling

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   Without a stronger push for economic development, Elizabethton City Council candidate Robert Smalling believes local tax rates could be affected in the coming years.
   "I think the present council has done an excellent job in taxes and the credit rating the city has," said Smalling. "However ... we are losing businesses rapidly it seems, lately, and there does not appear to be any push by the city to obtain new businesses or industry.
   "Bedroom communities are nice, but usually if there is not something coming from an industrial base, taxes will go up."
   One of eight candidates seeking a seat on the Council, Smalling, 41, was born and raised in Johnson City. He graduated from East Tennessee State University with a B.S. degree in Chemistry. He is married with four children, ages two to 11.
   He is president of the Doe River Express, Inc., trucking company.
   While giving the city administration kudos for maintaining services and undertaking capital projects, Smalling expressed concern about the potential of stagnated growth in the industrial and commercial sectors of the local economy.
   Exiting local businesses, a drop in contributions to the United Way and the future of the Siemens Energy and Automation plant were warning signs in future economic conditions by Smalling.
   "They need to take a more professional industrial recruitment, more business-friendly," said Smalling, who is making his first run for public office. "What you have lately is the exit of business, not the entrance of business. We have land in the industrial park that is not being used."
   He also cited that state school systems of Oak Ridge, Maryville, Farragut and Kingsport -- highly ranked in student achievement and teacher salary -- were backed with revenue from an abundant industrial environment.
   The city of Elizabethton and North American Corporation are presently embroiled in a lawsuit regarding a city sewer line. Smalling nixed any notion that his past affiliation with the company would have influence on his decisions as a city council member.
   Smalling stated that Doe River Express was formerly a subsidiary of North American until the company spun off into a separate company two years ago. The company continued to lease space on the North American campus to park the trailers and rent office space, he said.
   "If I am elected by the people of the city of Elizabethton my responsibility is to the people of the city of Elizabethton -- each and every one, not just a few," said Smalling. "When I looked at this, I knew that would be a major drawback for me, but (my) message will be fresh, new ideas."
   He also felt the city was "behind the 8-ball" in terms of planning around the Interstate 26 tentatively scheduled for completion by the state of North Carolina in 2004. Johnson City and Washington County officials were already working to court businesses along that corridor, said Smalling.
   A task force of city, county and private sector leaders should already be established devising ways to take advantage of increased traffic through the area, he said.
   "We must take immediate action, but it can be developed," said Smalling.
   At a public auction held in September, the city and county purchased the old hospital building, which has incurred delinquent property taxes. The owner has a one-year grace period to pay off the property taxes plus a 10 percent penalty to reclaim the property.
   While Smalling felt the property had development potential, he felt the presence of asbestos in the building could make it cost-prohibitive to the city and the county to demolish the building.
   Tennessee Department of Transportation officials conducted a public hearing earlier this month on the Northern Connector -- the 4.1 mile, $28 million five-lane highway project that will divert traffic from West Elk Avenue to the north side of the Watauga River.
   Smalling said the Northern Connector project should ease traffic troubles on West Elk Avenue. He also felt potential negative impact to the city's downtown area in terms of lost business would be negligible.
   "Jonesborough is off of (Highway) 11E, but people go to it," he said. "It goes back to advertisement. If people are going to go downtown to shop, they are going to go downtown."
   The city's recent annexations of property in west Carter County brought in new properties and hundreds of county residents into Elizabethton's corporate boundaries.
   Annexation again came down to funding, said Smalling. The city's existing tax base had to cover its ambition to grow and provide city services to citizens paying city property taxes, he added.
   "You also have to ask, 'will the school board have to hire more teachers?'" Smalling said. "The schools are nice in this area but they are starting to show their age. Where is the money going to come from to improve the schools?"
   Making his first run for public office, Smalling said he was motivated by improving the city. He added his interest in seeing his own children educated in Elizabethton City Schools cemented his desire to make the community the best it could be.
   "With everything going on I know it will be an uphill battle," he said, "but the battle is worth it to secure a bright future for this city."