Franklin candidates: Town is moving in the right direction
The tone of this year’s Franklin Town Council election is much different than it was four years ago, making for a quieter and more cooperative campaign season for the community.
Though five candidates are running to fill three seats, they all agree that the future of the town will be in good hands no matter who gets elected on Nov. 2. Incumbent Councilmember David Culpepper is running for a second term on the board while the other candidates are all hoping to join the board for the first time. Councilmember Jack Horton is leaving his seat on the board to run (unopposed) for mayor. Councilmember Barbara McRae’s seat has been vacant since her death in March after a long battle with cancer.
The three candidates with the most votes will claim the three seats on the board. In addition to new board members and a new mayor, Franklin recently hired a new town manager — Amie Owens — to replace Summer Woodard who left in June for a town manager opportunity in Reidsville.
- Age: NA
- Hometown: Franklin
- Professional background: Part-time director at Cowee School, founded a consultancy practice to help with economic development and planning projects throughout WNC
- Education: College in Puerto Rico, graduated from Southwestern Community College and Western Carolina University; Master’s in Public Administration from UNC-Chapel Hill
- Public service: Nikwasi Initiative Board of Directors, Rotary Club, Scottish Tartan Museum board
Stacy Guffey remembers as a kid taking trips with his granddaddy to Main Street in Franklin once a week.
“He’d go pay his bills and buy groceries at Mason’s, we’d eat breakfast and lunch, grab an ice cream at the drugstore and pick up prescriptions,” he recalled. “I just remember all the activity happening on Main Street. It was a time when people could open a business and make a living off of it.”
It’s that childhood fondness for the town he grew up in and his commitment to public service that made him want to serve on the town council.
“My family has been here for generations and instilled in me that it’s good to give back to the place that’s given so much to us and this seemed like the right opportunity,” he said.
It’s his first run for public office, but he’s been involved in many important projects in Macon County. Guffey served on the original Friends of the Greenway board that started the county greenway project and helped establish the Arts and Heritage Center at the old Cowee School. He served as a county planner for five years and did advocacy work for smart growth in Macon County and now he serves on the boards for Mainspring Conservation Trust and Nikwasi Initiative.
“I’ve been in public service for over 20 years now and have been involved with a lot of things in Franklin. A couple years ago I realized a long-term dream of purchasing a building in downtown Franklin,” he said.
He works in the upstairs portion of the building while the Scottish Tartan Museum is housed below. One of his goals, if elected, is to encourage more multi-use of the historic buildings on Main Street, which would be good for local businesses and create additional housing units above the shops.
Growth is going to be a major issue for Franklin, and a recent housing study found that already Franklin needs several hundred housing units to meet the current demand. Guffey said the shortage will have implications for people wanting to live in Franklin as well as businesses trying to hire labor.
“The number one issue is growth over the next few years. A lot of people are moving out of urban areas, especially Atlanta, and we need to be prepared for the good and bad that comes with it,” he said. “We need to look at ways to encourage our downtown development. A lot of people come here for that reason — they are looking for things to do in town and they look for walkability so we need to work on that.”
Guffey would also like to see a focus on promoting local small businesses that keep money in the community as opposed to working on recruiting big chains that send their revenue out of the community.
“I’ve heard complaints that we bend over backward trying to recruit big chains to Franklin, but I’d like to see us work hard for local businesses as well,” he said.
As a planner, Guffey is happy to see the town prioritizing improvements to its current infrastructure while also looking for opportunities to expand pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure in town limits.
“There’s an action plan within the pedestrian and bike plan — (Town Planner) Justin (Setser) has done a good job prioritizing those,” he said. “We need some money for certain projects and as a grant writer that’s something I would want to help with.”
- Age: 69
- Hometown: Franklin
- Education: Appalachian State, University of South Carolina
- Professional background: Worked for the Department of Public Health in S.C. and Georgia; owned and managed a consulting practice for 20 years focusing on rural health, primary care and maternal and child health; building, developing and evaluating systems of care and improving access to care.
- Public service: Perinatal health and rural health boards, Decatur Book Festival, active volunteer and board member with Mainspring Conservation Trust.
Rita Salain grew up within the Franklin town limits. Her grandfather was once mayor of Franklin and also served as a Macon County commissioner.
“I love Franklin. It was a great place to grow up and now to age. I believe public service is the highest form of service,” she said. “I thought with my experience working all over the rural South — in many southern rural towns — that I had seen a lot about how places do very well by working together. I wanted to serve, there was an opportunity to serve so I threw my hat in the ring.”
After graduating from Franklin High School, she attended App State and graduated from University of South Carolina with a degree in public health. Salain spent most of her career working in public health in S.C. and Georgia, but always kept a close eye on her hometown of Franklin.
“I was never more than three or four hours away and I came home as much as possible. We’ve owned a house here for 20 years,” she said. “In March 2020, just as the pandemic was hitting, we came home to Franklin for good and I couldn’t be happier to be here.”
Salain said she thinks the town is doing well in many aspects but that there is always room for more improvement. She’d like to see a closer working relationship between the town government and the small business community, including Main Street merchants as well as businesses throughout the town limits.
If elected, she said she’d like to help the town look for more resources and opportunities that would help retain and grow small businesses. She’d also like to see a plan in place for recruiting specific businesses on Main Street when a building becomes available.
“I want to see us focus on growing small businesses. These businesses are the heart of any community,” she said.
Salain would also like to see the town to keep focused on keeping up its appearance. The town has struggled with getting abandoned and dilapidated structures cleaned up through a lengthy legal process. The town has a minimum housing standard ordinance, but the enforcement process takes time, which is why the town council added a new code enforcement officer position to this year’s budget.
“I want us to invest in making the place look better. We have ordinances that need to be used to take care of some of the junk issues. It’s a hazard,” she said. “I want to see us work on things like infrastructure like better sidewalks. There are grants for that but we’ve got to be looking for the money and actively engaged in the process.”
Salain said she’s glad to see the town council focusing on improving recreational opportunities for residents and visitors, including the disc golf course and the future skatepark to be located at the old Whitmire property. If elected, she wants to find more ways for the town to implement priorities listed in the bike and pedestrian plan, which will also take looking for funding sources.
“We have a lot of good plans in Franklin, we just need the execution of our plans,” she said.
Just like many others in Franklin, Salain has an eye on the current Angel Medical Center facility that will soon be replaced by a new hospital on U.S. 441. No one knows what HCA Healthcare plans to do with the old hospital building, but no one wants to see it remain empty.
“Someone said we didn’t have a role in what happens to the building, but I think we do. It’s a big part of the town and has a big footprint in town. Maybe if we have a plan that has some legs to it, HCA would be interested in listening,” she said. “Waynesville is turning their old hospital into housing units. We need to identify our needs and figure out how that building can meet our needs. Health care is an economic engine — we don’t want to lose our providers and we need more mental health resources.”
- Age: 43
- Hometown: Franklin
- Education: Franklin High School; bachelor’s degree in public relations/communications from WCU
- Professional background: Owner of Culpepper’s Otto Depot
- Public service: One term as Franklin Town Councilmember
As a local business owner and family man, Culpepper came into his first term on the town council with a lot of big ideas for how to improve the aesthetic and infrastructure in Franklin.
He saw these goals as a way to attract more families to live in Franklin, entice more entrepreneurs to start businesses and improve outdoor recreation opportunities for everyone.
“Before I got elected, I was involved in the bike and pedestrian project and was a cheerleader for new sidewalks and greenway connectivity and we’ve advanced that,” he said. “I wanted to see the Whitmire property used as a park and somehow that has magically happened. It’s been a wild ride.”
Though these were goals, at times Culpepper wondered if he’d ever see movement on the projects. He wanted to see the Whitmire property at least be accessible to residents instead of having a no trespassing sign on it, but now as he gets ready to run for a second term, the property has a public disc golf course and the town is in the process of planning a skatepark on the property.
Greenway connectivity was also a big priority for Culpepper and now there is a connection under the bridge from the river over to the Macon County Greenway. While the town originally considered doing the project, the county took over and completed it last year. In the end, Culpepper said he was just happy to see it get done whether it was the town or the county getting credit.
“The county did a great job on the greenway connection, and I hope we continue to have future collaborations with the county,” he said. “Our relationship has been better with the county, and I think that will continue.”
Culpepper said his biggest challenge during his first term was learning the processes and learning that government work can be slow — patience and cooperation are key to moving anything forward.
“I would get stressed and want to get stuff hammered through, but I had to adopt a zen attitude and that has helped a lot. Now if we’re in opposition or have differing opinions, I automatically assume they have that opinion for good reasons and that makes the job a whole lot easier when I assume everyone’s doing their best,” he said.
If elected to a second term, Culpepper said he will continue to push for “more livability” for residents of Franklin to ensure they get their money’s worth for living in town.
“When you pay taxes, you may not be happy about it but if you feel like you get some value on the double taxation of living in town — sidewalk connectivity, extra recreation right outside the door, something to point to where you know where your tax money is being spent — that’s important,” he said.
Coming out of the pandemic, Culpepper has seen more families moving out of the cities and into towns like Franklin, which means the town needs to be ready to accommodate the needs of these families and not just tourists and retirees. Thinking of Franklin as a retirement community hasn’t helped younger families who’ve seen labor and delivery at Angel Medical Center close and medical providers moving out of the community.
“We don’t have enough demand to justify a labor and delivery unit but not having one makes it hard to attract younger families, so we have a chicken and egg situation,” he said.
Even if he doesn’t get elected to a second term, Culpepper said he feels comfortable with the way the town is going and feels good about all the candidates running for office this year.
“No one has their guns drawn and there’s nothing crazy going on,” he said. “I’m still motivated to run and do good things, but I feel like we are going in the right direction. If elected, I’ll continue to focus on livability and having a town that attracts younger folks.”
- Age: 45
- Education: Trade school for plumbing
- Hometown: From Oregon; has lived in Franklin for 18 years
- Professional background: Owner of Jimbo’s Plumbing, owner Altered Frequencies (music venue)
- Public service: Coaching youth soccer and softball, helping organize fundraisers for charities
When Jimbo Ledford ran for town council four years ago, his intentions may have been somewhat confrontational after butting heads with the board on a few issues. He wanted to plan a music and beer festival for the Whitmire property and got turned down. He wanted to facilitate more outdoor recreation plans for the Whitmire property and was denied. He felt like every idea he brought before the board was ultimately shot down.
Even though he didn’t win the 2017 election, Ledford stayed involved in the town meetings, working to facilitate different events in town and opening his own music venue. Four years later, he’s seen many of the projects he advocated for moving forward.
“Probably what’s changed is my understanding of the way things work and the complexity of local government. I’m also in a different place in my life — I don’t have any chips on my shoulder and my attitude toward life has changed,” he said. “Now I think I’m just excited about the way Franklin is heading. We’ve got some good people involved in leadership and I just want to be part of the team. The winds of change are finally happening and I want to try to help adjust our sails.”
Ledford said he’s thrilled the disc golf course was approved for the Whitmire property and supportive of the skatepark project being located on the same property. He’s excited about the beautification efforts being done near the Nikwasi Mound through a collaborative effort by the town, county, Nikwasi Initiative, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Mainspring Conservation Trust. And just like other candidates and residents, he’s pleased by the increased efforts to install new sidewalks and repair the old ones.
“I like that we’re talking more about the sidewalks on Main Street and put the protrusions out so pedestrians can be seen and cars know to slow down. These seem like basic things but for years it didn’t seem like anyone saw the crosswalk on Main Street at all,” he said.
If elected, Ledford said he would continue to push for more bike and pedestrian projects as outlined in the town’s bike/pedestrian plan. He knows finding the funding for these projects is always the challenge, but he’s willing to be part of the communication and collaborate with others in order to make it happen.
Ledford said he’d also like to see the town council discuss the River Overlay District zoning that was proposed a few years back. There was initial opposition to the plan to set some standards around the Little Tennessee River running through town, but Ledford thinks it’s still an idea worth pursuing.
“I’d love to see more sidewalks, greenway connections and some sort of riverwalk. I know people don’t like ordinances, but we have to decide what’s going to happen to our town and figure out how we want to get there,” he said.
He sees the role of a councilmember as a facilitator and wants to make town hall a more inviting place for people to come with their ideas and where they can be pointed in the right direction instead of being shot down.
“I’m a good team player and work well with others. I’ve always been a good problem solver and a good No. 2 guy,” he said. “I want to be hands on, I can listen and bring new ideas to the table and I’m not coming in with an agenda. I’m coming in with an open mind.”
One priority that hasn’t changed for Ledford is his passion for encouraging more high school graduates to pursue a trade career instead of a traditional four-year degree. As a plumber, he has seen the severe shortage of tradespeople and the impact it’s having on the local economy.
When asked how the town could help facilitate that goal, he said Grainger — a major trades supplier — has a step-by-step plan aimed at local governments, public school systems and community colleges working together to implement more trade programs locally.
“I’d still like to get trades back in the schools. It should be a priority in our country and state because there’s no generation to follow behind us,” he said.
- Age: N/A
- Hometown: Franklin
- Education: Franklin High School, Western Carolina University
- Professional background: Kindergarten teacher for 33 years at Macon County Schools
- Public service: Coaching youth sports, served on Macon County Academic Foundation; coordinated local benefits, active church member.
Losing Barbara McRae in March was a major loss for the community and the Franklin Town Council. Wanting to ensure her influence would carry on in town leadership, Francis Seay said a group of women who worked closely with McRae reached out to her to encourage her to run for town council.
“The group talked about who might be good to take her place and they thought of me. Barbara was so dedicated and intelligent. I don’t think I have that, but I appreciated the thought and I prayed about it,” Seay said. “When I filed to run no one else had signed up yet so I started reading the board minutes and looking over the budget and thought I’d give it a try.”
Seay grew up in Franklin, graduated from Western Carolina University and was immediately hired as a kindergarten teacher with Macon County Schools — a position she still holds 33 years later. She has a vested interest in the town as well as the future generations of the county.
“I’ve had a few things I’ve thought need some improvement, and one of the words I’ve been using a lot is proactive — I want to be proactive,” she said.
As she drives around the outskirts of Franklin, Seay sees a lot of empty storefronts in the shopping plazas, and she’d like to see those areas of town get as much attention as the downtown Franklin businesses.
“I’m hoping to help recruit businesses to come to Franklin and use the resources we have and the federal recovery money coming to the town and decide the best ways to use it,” she said.
Improving the “social climate” in Franklin is another goal Seay has if elected. While COVID brought many activities to a standstill, she wants to ensure families have things to do in town whether it’s the many festivals put on by the town, movie nights and live music. She said the progress being made on the Whitmire property — a disc golf course and skatepark — is promising and she’d like to see a playground and picnic tables added to the outdoor space.
Seay’s other top priority is crime and safety. While she thinks the Franklin Police Department is run well, she thinks there are certain ordinances that could be better enforced to clean up some well-known empty houses that have turned into hotspots for drug activity. With the rising number of people experiencing homelessness and suffering from addiction, Seay said the town needs to start working on creating more options for people to get help.
On the safety front, Seay agrees with other candidates that more sidewalk connections are needed, and old sidewalks need to be replaced for safety and liability reasons.
“Our sidewalks need some work and I want to have a conversation about it. Do we need new money to get it done? Is our maintenance department stretched too thin? It’s a liability for the town if someone gets hurt but new sidewalks would also add to our curb appeal,” she said.
As a public school teacher for over 30 years, Seay said she thinks she has a good perspective of what young families in Franklin are dealing with and can be a voice for them on the town board. Tourism is an important part of the economy, but Seay said it shouldn’t be the only industry Franklin focuses on.
“And also, I want to see another woman on the board to bring a female perspective,” she said. “I have a 6-year-old niece and I want her to have something to stay in Franklin for. There’s not a lot of job opportunity here right now.”
From her research of the budget, Seay said the town’s finances appear to be well-managed and she believes that will continue with the new town manager in place. She understands the money needed to maintain the town’s infrastructure, including the water and sewer system. She also knows personnel, fire and law enforcement are expensive line items, but they are crucial services.
“Some people are always against taxes, and I’m against raising taxes for no reason, but if you can raise taxes in increments — small increases over time and for a purpose — raising taxes isn’t a bad thing to better the town and the services.”