By Mindy Ragan Wood, Staff Writer – Piedmont City Manager Jason Orr didn’t pull any punches Monday night with the city council.
During discussion about rehiring retail recruitment specialist Rickey Hayes, Orr made some blunt comments about Piedmont’s status as a city.
“We need to make up our mind in the direction we want to go,” he said. “We either chase sales tax because we want to be a city, or we don’t.”
Orr said Piedmont is in dire need of more sales tax revenue as the population increases.
Piedmont hired Hayes to begin recruiting retail business inside city limits 10 months ago, but as yet no business has signed a deal with the city. Hayes said at the time it would take about two years before the city could attract a large-scale restaurant or retail store to Piedmont.
Hayes was not present at Monday night’s council meeting due to a medical procedure. The council agreed to table Hayes contract renewal until the next meeting.
Councilman John Brown was the first to speak up in favor of continuing Hayes’ services.
“The problem I have with getting rid of this guy is we will have no one out there advocating for Piedmont.”
Orr addressed the council emphatically with an ultimatum that left the room quiet. Keep a recruiter, or call it quits as a city.
“The council has asked me before to be honest with the council,” he said firmly. “I’m not going to get political, but I am going to be brutally honest. If we want to continue being a viable city government, we either need to keep Ricky Hayes or we need to have another alternative in place. If we don’t want to be a viable city government in the future then we need to look at either de-annexing about half of this city or we need to look at the Deer Creek model which is a totally unincorporated community…because we are not going to be able to be a viable city government if we’re not trying to get sales tax. That’s our number one priority right now.”
Deer Creek is an unincorporated town that uses property tax to fund services.
Orr pointed that the city of Piedmont already struggles to maintain roads and other services. He asked the question, “What’s going to happen if our population doubles but we have the same amount of sales tax revenue?”
He did not offer an optimistic answer.
“We have a problem that’s going to continue to get worse. If you guys aren’t out there seeking sales revenue for the community, we can’t be a viable city. We can be a viable community, but not a viable city.”
Brown pointed that when Cindy Cheatwood, a real estate agent, drew Dollar General and Sonic to Piedmont it took “three or four years. Nothing happens overnight. You can’t hire somebody to go get businesses and have them here the next month. It’s not going to happen…there’s nobody else out there promoting Piedmont…they’re not just going to call up and say, ‘I want to come to town.’”
Orr told the council that Piedmont is a community that struggles to attract retail due to the location being north of the busy Northwest Highway commerce and residential area.
“As councilmen have said this past week, ‘Trying to sell Piedmont is like trying to sell a car without an engine’,” he said. “I think we have to look at the hard reality…Piedmont is a great community, don’t get me wrong. I love it here, but economically, no business wants to come here because…what they want right now is the expressway (NW Highway).”
Council members suggested the possibility of finding a better replacement for Hayes, but Brown said, “there just aren’t that many people out there who do what he does.”
Councilman Al Gleichmann seemed opposed to keeping Hayes.
“Have we got anything?” he asked.
Orr brought the council back to a point regarding their responsibility.
“If Walmart wanted to come in here tomorrow and said, ‘we want to be in Piedmont,’ would it be approved by the people sitting up here? So, we’re sort of at that pivotal time. We need to decide what kind of community we want to be. If we want to be a viable city government, we need to be out there chasing sales tax. But if we don’t, let’s just go to an unincorporated community,” he said.
Orr then put the crisis in another perspective.
“We are doing the people of this community a disservice by operating as a city government…if we want to do a better service to the people of this community, and we want to be a small rural community, then let’s be a small rural community.”
Mayor Valarie Thomerson agreed that Hayes has not had “a lot of time,” to produce results.
Orr said Hayes told him in a previous discussion that it took him 30 months to get a business located in another city that had hired him. “It takes a long time, but once you get one it takes off,” Orr said.