SMITHVILLE, Ga. — Doomsayers have been ounding the death knell in this tiny community ever since the Department of Transportation completed the section of U.S. Highway 19 that bypasses its downtown.
And while there’s no denying the road project, which diverted traffic away from Smithville’s small business district, did strike a blow that has further diminished the community’s tax base, you won’t find municipal leaders willing to throw in the towel as the Nov. 8 municipal election nears.
“Sure, the bypass hurt us, but we still have a couple of peanut mills, a few businesses and some restaurants in town, so we get by,” Smithville Mayor Jerry Myrick said. “When you go through a recession like the country has, it hurts small communities like ours, but we’re not alone. Most of our folks work out of town in places like Albany and Americus, so we see the effects all over the region.”
Myrick, who has been in office for almost nine years, is being challenged by retired contractor John Word, while one-term Ward 2 Councilwoman Willie Mae Davis faces off with former factory worker Juliette Bush for the second time in her efforts to retain her seat on the city government.
Ward I Councilman James Champion will return to office for a four-year term after drawing no opposition in his re-election bid.
Voters in Lee County’s other municipality, county seat Leesburg, will not go to the polls on election night because all three candidates whose terms are expiring — Sidney Johnson, Bobby Wilson and Rhonda Futch — qualified for re-election with no opposition.
Smithville’s four candidates say they’re campaigning hard in the final week-plus before the election, but their efforts have not generated in a whole lot of interest in the community. Lee Elections Supervisor Veronica Johnson said Wednesday only one person had taken advantage of the early voting period to cast a ballot in the city, while three others had asked for absentee ballots.
“Smithville has traditionally had a low voter turnout, but I’m hoping they’re just waiting until election day to make their decision,” Johnson said. “The voting precinct in Smithville has moved (to the newly completed community building on Main Street), but all voters have been mailed new voter registration cards.”
Smithville currently has 362 active registered voters.
Word, 64, is chairman of Smithville’s Downtown Development Authority. He said he challenged Myrick, who retired after a career at the Albany Procter & Gamble plant, because leadership was lacking in the community.
“I’ve knocked on about 85 percent of the doors in Smithville, and I’ll keep knocking until Nov. 8,” Word said. “I’ve talked with the people here about their concerns, and one of the biggest complaints I keep hearing is that people feel they’re not getting their money’s worth out of city employees.
“No one’s saying we have bad city employees; it’s just that employees are only as strong as their leader. There’s no strong leadership in the community, and thus you have employees riding around in trucks or just sitting under shade trees.”
Word said despite the hardships in the community, he remains “pro-growth.”
“I don’t buy into that ‘Smithville’s dying because of the bypass’ talk,” he said. “What’s killing this city is a lack of leadership. I would like to work with the City Council to make changes that are needed in Smithville.”
The first-time candidate said cleaning up the city, improving infrastructure and pushing for more law enforcement patrols within the city limits are among the key issues he wants to tackle.
Myrick, meanwhile, said he’s “holding his own” in the campaign despite issues that plague the city.
“We want to improve infrastructure, and we want to bring some kind of new business here, but those kinds of things are difficult when you’re working with a limited budget,” he said. “It’s like a lot of people chose not to hook up to city sewer when it was available a few years ago, and now they want on. Things like that we can’t just do unless we get some additional funding.
“I know there are some people complaining in the community, but I can’t do anything about that. The ones who cut the fool are going to cut the fool no matter what I do. I’m just going to use my experience to try and do the things I can to make our community better.”
Davis, 77, a retired government employee and nursery worker whose campaign platform includes a vow to insist that law enforcement clean up corruption in the community, also cites a lack of leadership as a concern in Smithville.
“I don’t like to talk against people, but things here are getting worse all the time,” she said. “I want to help deal with those problems, but it will be difficult until we get a new mayor. Our current mayor doesn’t care. He got his money at P&G, and he doesn’t care what happens to others in the community.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do to clean up this community, and it’s going to take people who care about it. We need better protection from our law enforcement, and we need improvements in our infrastructure. Those are things I will continue to try to make better.”
Bush, who lost a close race to Davis four years ago, said she wants to bring a number of vital programs to the community.
“I’m working with a gentleman right now who is trying to bring a GED program to the community,” Bush, 47, who worked at Cooper Tire in Albany before the plant closed, said. “There are so many people in this community who did not graduate high school who are being asked to help their children with their homework, and they can’t do it. People can’t survive without an education, and bringing a GED program here would help so many in the community.
“I’d also like to see some sort of Head Start program to help our young kids before they even enter kindergarten, and a program where at least once a month someone comes here to talk with our elderly citizens about issues that concern them. If I get on the council, I think I’ll have a better opportunity to work to bring programs like that here.”
Polls remain open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Election Day.