Steve Bailey has a front-row seat on the comings and goings of customers in downtown Phenix City.
Lately the owner of Don Bailey Auto Sales at 1106 Broad St. has noticed fewer comings and more goings, and he thinks he knows why: the sales tax that's 1¾ percent higher than Columbus'.
"It used to be people would come over at lunchtime and browse and look at cars," said the council District 1 candidate. "They were over here at B.W. Capps buying stuff; they were at Mike & Ed's Barbecue eating. I noticed a lot less people coming across the bridge once these taxes came up, so you're just not seeing them in the general area of downtown Phenix City, because they're not shopping here on their lunch hour."
So if elected Aug. 28, Bailey aims to target that tax increase that took Phenix City's sales tax from 8 percent to 8¾, nearly 2 pennies on the dollar more than Columbus' current 7 percent.
Automotive sales are taxed differently, so it hasn't hurt Bailey's sales directly, but he believes it has lessened the traffic, and that has affected his fellow merchants.
"Money is going to circulate from business to business," he said. "I want to see the taxes lowered to where people will spend money here in Phenix City."
Were Phenix City to drop its sales tax back to 8 percent as Columbus' increases by 1 percent with the imposition of a transportation sales tax in January, that would do the trick, he said:
"Right now you just need anything that levels the playing field or at least puts you where you feel more confident," he said.
Bailey also wants city leaders to host an annual "state of the city" gathering where the public can grade them on their progress, and they can update residents on the city's finances and projects.
The son of former Phenix City Mayor Don Bailey is one of five candidates vying for the seat to be vacated by Max Wilkes, who's running for mayor.
In alphabetical order, the next in line is Jim Cannon, who has worked in Phenix City drugstores for 50 years and manages the CVS Pharmacy at 5405 Summerville Road, where he maintains a collection of historic photographs and counts down the hours to his retirement.
Like Bailey, he's concerned about the sales tax. It would be different, he said, were Phenix City more isolated, without competing centers of commerce around it.
"We weren't afforded a vote on the thing," he adds of council's upping the tax.
The first thing he wants to do, if elected, is seek an audit of city finances: "I think the new council deserves and needs to know where the money is. I would like to go back for a minimum of two years and see where it is."
He questions council's buying the old Cobb Hospital property for a new municipal complex. He wonders what will happen to the city's current government buildings along Broad Street.
"I don't think that was well thought out," Cannon said. "I can't see moving from our present location when we don't have a buyer for it yet, or an intended buyer. All I see are vacant buildings when we do move."
His dream for Phenix City is a museum. A city with such a rich history should recognize and draw from it, he said: "We're just forgetting about our past."
He welcomes riverfront development, but worries it won't be well planned, and could ruin the Alabama riverbank's natural beauty.
"We've got the virgin side of the river," he said. "Let's not go in there and cut all the trees down."
Retired pharmaceutical salesman Norman Cook sees a riverbank ripe for development: "We've got property all along the river that can be developed sort like a riverwalk like San Antonio or maybe downtown Gatlinburg, We've got a riverbank on the west side that's not cluttered like Columbus' is."
He envisions restaurants, specialty shops and other commercial development that will refresh city coffers with revenue from tourism.
His immediate aim is to bring the council together and improve its communication with the public.
"I want to bring a little fit of harmony and cooperation back to the city council. I want everything to be open," he said.
Of improving public relations, he said: "I would hope that we could bring everything to the public either in a newsletter that goes out to the community or little forums maybe once a quarter or once every six months . We can maybe talk to the cable TV people to see if they would put a program on."
He believes that would cut down on the scuttlebutt that goes around, by correcting misinformation about what city leaders are planning.
"I think what it is, is people don't take the time to listen," he said. "It's inconvenient a lot of times. One of the problems I see is they have a council meeting at 9 o'clock in the morning that needs to be moved so more people could come, at 7 o'clock at night."
Keith Ingram is a builder who wants the city to build up its recreation facilities.
"There are three things that help make a city grow, and the three things are your parks and recreation department, your public school system and industry," he said.
He puts schools first.
"That's the number one priority is helping our school system," he said, lamenting city leaders seem more intent on running off Superintendent Larry DiChara.
"Here you are, you had the superintendent of the year in the state of Alabama, and we've got city officials wanting to fire him, and it's all thrown out in public," he said. "What does that do for somebody wanting to come to the city when you've got the city and the school system arguing with each other?"
He hears newcomers say they'd like their kids to go to school in Smiths Station. "How do they know what they like when they're just coming into town?" he asked. "We need to talk about the positive things that the school district does. We don't need to be bickering between the city and the school system."
Residents need recreation facilities the city didn't cut corners to build, he said.
"When we build a field, we need it to be state of the art. We don't need to build it halfway," he said.
The city needs industry and a more business-friendly attitude toward first-time entrepreneurs, he said, suggesting Phenix City follow the lead of cities that have recruited major employers, like Auburn and Opelika.
Billy Sims II
At 35, Billy Sims II is the youngest of the candidates, and the only one who's not a native. He grew up in Florida, but has lived in Phenix City for eight years.
He said the city has a valuable asset to draw manufacturers to town: water.
Phenix City has a surplus of 5 million to 8 million gallons a day, thanks partly to its loss of textile mills, he said.
"They were very, very, very big water users, and the city has a large, super-huge surplus of water that we do not advertise," he said. In many areas water resources now are "razor-thin," he said, "And a lot of manufacturing facilities cannot come to certain areas because of that."
City leaders should promote that to state officials who look for places to pitch to industrial prospects: "They're not going to stumble across Phenix City by accident."
Having water is one thing, getting it to consumers is another, and the latter is a problem in District 1, he said.
"From about 9 o'clock in the morning until about 10:30, it's not very uncommon to have your water running in our district, and it almost cut off and then cut back on," he said. It would cost about $500,000 to fix, he said, and that should be a priority.
"The pump system that's on that side of town is manual, and it needs to be changed to automated with kicker pumps, and that will actually fix it . That's a necessity for the city. They should spend money where they need it, not on fancy buildings," he said.
He wants to go right to work on issues, not just talk about them: "My whole entire platform is, just about every candidate talks about change, but there's only one constant about change, it won't happen without any action," he said.
The broker for Rose Ann Erikson Realty isn't worried about what will happen if one of his opponents wins.
"All five of us in our district, we're all great guys," he said. "Nobody's bashing anybody else, and I really like that. If any one of us gets into office, I think it will be great for District 1."