The eight candidates for three Wilkes County commissioner seats in the Republican primary participated in a “Meet and Greet” forum Thursday night at the Wilkesboro Civic Center.
Candidates had five minutes apiece to introduce themselves and say whatever they wanted, followed by five minutes each to answer questions from the audience. Names were drawn from a hat to determine the order in which they spoke.
The Wilkes County Republican Party organized the event, with Wilkes GOP Chairman Blake Lovette as moderator. Dane Mastin, former Wilkes sheriff and now interim administrative police chief of Jonesville, was time keeper.
Bill Sexton, 67, of Hays, said the biggest issue is “jobs - job creation, jobs leaving the county. Everywhere I go, the first thing out of people’s mouths is what are you going to do about jobs.”
He added, “All of us know that LP (in Roaring River) is losing a lot of jobs…. We’ve lost a lot of jobs at Lowe’s and other companies that have moved out of the county and we don’t seem to be seeing these jobs getting replaced…. After losing all these jobs, we’re still doing quite well as a county. We have 3.5% unemployment, which mirrors what we have in the nation.”
Sexton said that if elected he would ask the Wilkes Economic Development Corp. (EDC) what it is doing to bring jobs to Wilkes, review this and see what the commissioners can do to help it be more effective. “Sometimes you’ve got to give people the resources to get things done.” Sexton said he won’t criticize the current commissioners because they’ve done a good job and are honorable men, as are the commissioner candidates.
He added, “If we had a big business that wanted to relocate here right now, we wouldn’t have the water for them…. We’ve got to get these towns back together” to address that. “I don’t know what caused all that to fall through, but that water intake is vital for the county. If we don’t get that water intake in here, we’re not going to see economic growth.”
He said many Wilkes residents commute to jobs outside the county, but would rather work in Wilkes. Sexton said family centers are needed to help draw people to Wilkes. “We also need to clean up the trash along the sides of the road.” He said opioid addiction is a big problem and educating young people is one way to address it.
When someone in the audience asked Sexton about how to attract more jobs, he said one way is better incentives. He said the climate hasn’t been good in Wilkes for years for businesses wanting to move here. “We need to change that and be a county that welcomes it…. We need our people working in Wilkes and not going out to other counties.”
When asked how he would address sinkholes along U.S. 421 in Wilkesboro, Sexton said there already appears to be a good plan being carried out to address this.
Casey Joe Johnson
Casey Joe Johnson, 28, of North Wilkesboro, said his theme in life has always been from Jude 22: “Some have compassion, making a difference.” Johnson said he became a teacher because he wanted to make a difference by helping young people. He has taught at Mountain View Elementary for six years. He said he appreciates the opportunities he had growing up in Wilkes. Johnson and his wife have a son.
Johnson said that as a commissioner he wants to strengthen schools. “We are very blessed with a wonderful superintendent, school board, teachers, administrators and students to teach. “We need to make sure our teachers have the resources they need…. We need to look into our school buildings. Some of them are out of date.”
He said he wants to support families, including by “increasing opportunities for clean family fun.” He said a mother told him recently, “We need something to do. If we want to do something as a family, we have to go to” other towns. She said Wilkes needs something like it used to have - a bowling alley or skating rink or arcade. Johnson said amenities like that would help draw businesses to Wilkes.
Johnson said he supports working for sustainable resources. “We need to encourage our towns and work together” to find the most cost effective way to provide water for the county. He said he agreed with statements of Larry Stone, former Lowe’s Companies Inc. president, in the Wilkes Journal-Patriot, about the need for unity.
He said supporting schools and families and natural resources will help add jobs. “I love seeing God’s blessings on Wilkes County through Samaritan’s Purse and what the Lord is doing on (N.C.) 268.”
When asked how he would encourage employers in Wilkes to offer more jobs, Johnson said collaboration with the Wilkes EDC and resources given to it hopefully will help employers grow here.
Concerning helping students academically, he said he supports hiring more teachers, teacher assistants, tutors “and whatever we can do to help our students be successful because they are not only our future, they are our today.”
Johnson was asked how he would support vocational education in the Wilkes schools. He said college isn’t for everybody and some students prefer learning a trade. He supports involving Wilkes Community College trade instructors in the Wilkes schools and said young people should be able to earn a living in their home county.
Miranda Gray Pruitt
Miranda Gray Pruitt, 25, of North Wilkesboro, has owned a salon in North Wilkesboro for six years and said she is losing customers as they leave Wilkes. “The young people who are graduating are leaving the county. They have no incentive to come back here.”
She said her family has been impacted in multiple ways by jobs leaving Wilkes in recent years and coming up. She said a close relative lost a Lowe’s job when it was moved to Mooresville and her husband doesn’t know if he’ll have his job at LP in Roaring River at the end of 2020.
Pruitt said someone asked her how she can be a commissioner considering that she works 40-50 hours a week. “If you’re willing to work for it, you can add that hat and you can get it done.” She said local officials need to work with the EDC to determine what is needed to bring jobs to Wilkes. “There is no reason we can’t stand as strong as we once did…. There has to be an issue as to why it’s not happening now.”
Pruitt said she is a candidate because people are needed who will stand up and say, “Not everything is hunky-dory the way it’s been for years. We need jobs brought in here and things our young people can come back to.”
Pruitt is a member and her husband is assistant chief of the McGrady Fire Department. She was born and raised in Mulberry and graduated from North Wilkes High in 2012. “I’m young, driven and willing to do what is needed to make things happen.”
She said having a child who will grow up in the Wilkes schools makes her passionate about the school system. Pruitt graduated from a trade program and said it gave her the means to make a living for her family at little cost. She said many Wilkes youths need this also.
When a woman asked Pruitt about types of jobs needed in Wilkes, she said more that require a two-year degree, provide a livable wage and allow people to buy a house and have a mortgage. She said college is great for some, but it’s not for everyone.
In response to a question about county government pay, Pruitt said higher pay for people in these positions – especially emergency services – is needed if funding can be worked out.
When asked how she would help farmers and agriculture in Wilkes, Pruitt said farmers “are the backbone of what we have in this county.”
Keith Elmore, 66, of Roaring River, is seeking re-election after 16 years on the board. “I’m not always easy to get along with, but I do ty to be up front with my fellow commissioners. I take a stand. I study the subjects we’re involved with….”
Elmore said accomplishments during his time on the board include moving Wilkes school administrative offices from a building on Main Street, Wilkesboro, to the current larger facility on Cherry Street, North Wilkesboro; enlarging the Wilkes Department of Social Services building when the state mandated more space; building a new county jail, with $9 million left on the debt; refurbishing the high schools; expanding the Wilkes County Airport; renovating former Northwestern Bank buildings into the Wilkes Agricultural Center and sheriff’s office building; establishing a Wilkes Senior Center in the former Fairplains Elementary; and establishing recycling centers. He noted that there is one more year of debt left from building four new middle schools.
A man asked Elmore what he would do to keep remaining Lowe’s Companies jobs in Wilkes. Elmore said Wilkes Chamber of Commerce President Linda Cheek and EDC President LeeAnn Nixon are in constant contact with the person who is in charge of the Lowe’s Customer Service Center in Wilkesboro, “but those are corporate decisions and it’s hard.” He said one thing is training young people to help them be good employees. Elmore said that from his work managing a car wash in Wilkesboro owned by Blake Lovette, he sees big improvements in values of local young people.
Elmore was asked what he thought about using several million dollars of the county fund balance to purchase land and building a complex there to recruit new employers. Elmore said he preferred county government buying land and establishing “pad ready sites.” He said the commissioners are discussing this and it will happen this year, but one issue is the difficulty of finding buildable land near U.S. 421. “I would hate to invest $10 million to $12 million and then have it sit there while we wait for someone to come along.”
Referring to him saying about $9 million is owed from building the jail, a man asked why not use part of the county’s $26 million fund balance to pay off the debt. Elmore said it’s important to keep a certain amount in the fund balance to have a good credit rating.
Eddie Settle, 60, of Pleasant Hill, is seeking re-election and said the first thing in his life is Jesus Christ. He continued, “I was raised in eastern Wilkes by Harvey and Millie Settle. We were taught to work, love our neighbors, serve our county and serve our community to the best of our ability.” Settle is married and has children. He said he has made a payroll for 30 years with his business and has seven cattle farms in Wilkes.
He chairs the N.C. Association of County Commissioners Agricultural Steering Group. Settle said he was a guest at the White House when President Trump signed a U.S.-Japan trade agreement last year.
He said that in his seven years as a commissioner, the county built a jail, renovated buildings to establish an ag center and new sheriff’s office building without a loan and built a Wilkes Emergency Medical Services substation in Mountain View.
Settle said the commissioners rescinded a ban on concealed carry weapons from county property and approved a resolution declaring Wilkes a “Second Amendment Constitutional Rights Protection County.” Settle said he’s proud of Samaritan Purse’s growth in Wilkes and his board’s involvement with it.
He said his quest if re-elected is to have the North Wilkesboro Speedway “in the county’s hands… or somebody buy that race track. I’ve tried numerous times.” When asked if he thinks it could have races again, Settle said, he hopes so. “I think we could have music events… or motocross there. County government needs to step up and do something…. I think there has been a change in leadership in the Bruton Smith family (speedway owners) and they’re going to be more welcoming…. I’m going to find out what we can do with that race track between now and November.”
Settle was asked about plans for helping small businesses and insulating Wilkes for “life after Lowe’s,” referencing loss of more Lowe’s jobs. He said the EDC leads such efforts and gets $150,000 from county government and $50,000 each from Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro annually.
“We need infrastructure and buildings and probably down this road (N.C. 268 West) is where it needs to be…. But there are a lot of challenges there with soil…. There are going to be some things coming. Probably if we have pad ready sites, and that’s what they look for when they call the EDC, or a building with tall ceilings, we could get companies in here with 100 or 200 jobs apiece.” The EDC has asked the commissioners to pay for land near Lowe’s Park at River’s Edge for use in economic development efforts.
Dale Pierce, 73, of Roaring River, said, “I started in business 40 years ago. I borrowed $50,000. I paid it off and been in business the last 30 years and never borrowed a dime…. That’s how you’ve got to operate – don’t pay the interest.”
He has been in the Roaring River Fire Department 44 years, chief for 25 years and in first responders for 17 years. “I’ve worked for EMS, drove the ambulance…. worked for sheriff’s department.” He said he worked for the state clearing 300 miles of road every snow.
“I know about everybody in Wilkes and know what it needs and what it doesn’t. I know all the county commissioners. They all trade with me” at Roaring River Milling Co. He said the response, including people visiting to shake his hand, has been tremendous since he filed for office.
“Talking about jobs. I’ve heard that everywhere I go. There’s plenty of jobs out here. Tyson would hire 100 people tomorrow. I could go around the county and get 100 people jobs at these businesses. Big companies in Greensboro and Charlotte aren’t coming to Wilkes County because we don’t have an interstate highway. We don’t have a big airport. I’m sure the commissioners have tried to get them in here.”
Pierce said the biggest issue “is that nobody wants to work. They have gotten on Food Stamps and welfare and they’re making more” from that. “We’ve got places that pay $7.35 an hour. The minimum wage needs to be raised to $15. They might decide they want to work then.”
He said that if he constructed a building for manufacturing, no one would work there. “I need two or three workers right now at Roaring River Feed Mill right now – truck drivers and someone to bag feed” and can’t find anyone. He said it’s the same for other local companies. “I don’t know what the solution is.”
A man asked Pierce what should be done when the church providing space for the Catherine Barber Homeless Shelter gets tired of this. Pierce said, “If you go down there and talk to them (homeless people) and say, ‘Hey buddy, I need some help getting up straw and hay,’ they’re not going to work either…. That’s how they want to live, in tents and under the bridges.”
When asked for his views on merging Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro, Pierce said it won’t happen because Wilkesboro is dominated by Republicans and North Wilkesboro by Democrats.
Ralph Broyhill, 70, of Millers Creek, said he was “very blessed for 39 years (as Wilkes veterans’ service officer) “and I think I have some ideas that could work.”
Broyhill said there is a great need for a better water system in Wilkes because one day it’s going to be a high demand commodity. “If we could take a look at (establishing) a countywide water system” that would help recruit new businesses to Wilkes. “I know that would be a big undertaking but there are grants. We could look to see what is there and apply.”
A man asked Broyhill what would have to be done for Wilkes to get a countywide water system.
Broyhill said, “I know studies would have to be done.” He said there are people in Wilkes who have to change the filters on their well pumps every week due to iron. “I think it would be the best thing that could happen to this county. We would just have to pursue it.” Another man asked if countywide sewer lines would have to be installed if water lines were installed. Broyhill said he wasn’t sure.
He continued, “We could very easily, with the right leadership in D.C., get a veterans’ clinic here. We’ve got something over 5,000 veterans in this county and travel is becoming an impairment for a lot of them. I would say the average age of our veterans now is 60-plus.”
When asked what the commissioners would need to do to make a veterans’ clinic a reality, Broyhill said it was attempted before. Broyhill said he and County Manager John Yates went to Washington, D.C., but couldn’t find anyone interested in introducing the necessary legislation. He said the director of the Veterans Administration Clinic supported establishing the clinic in Wilkes.
Broyhill said he believes that with current leadership, “we could try it again and hopefully something positive will come of it.”
When asked about his views on the merger of Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro, Broyhill said, “This has been going on for years and years, but it would probably be one of the best things that could ever happen for our county as far as drawing people. Whether it will ever happen? I don’t know.”
When Broyhill was asked about his views on the Wilkes schools, he said he believes, “Our school system has got to provide the education to keep our kids here instead of them leaving.”
Rachel Carr Jarvis
Rachel Carr Jarvis, 45, of North Wilkesboro, said she thinks it’s wonderful that the current county commissioners passed a resolution making Wilkes a 2nd Amendment Constitutional Rights Protection County. “We’ve got to support the 2nd Amendment. If we’re not careful what has happened to our neighbors in Virginia will happen here. Government has got to operate within its constitutional boundaries. Those boundaries protect our freedoms that we have loved and enjoyed in this country for over 200 years. I want to work to protect those rights.”
Jarvis added, “I’ve never been in political office or had aspirations to be in political office, but there have been a lot of concerns through the years and I decided to step out from my so-called private life living and working on the farm and want to make a difference. I’m hearing everybody say we need change. I want to be more specific. What kind of changes do we need? As a pastor’s daughter, I want us to retain that sense of caring that we’ve always had in this county.”
Jarvis, a wife and mother of three daughters, said she was born and raised in Wilkes and loves living here. “I want my kids and my future grandkids to enjoy the same kind of life that I’ve enjoyed living in Wilkes.”
She said too many people have to drive to jobs in industries outside Wilkes, so they’re spending their money outside the county. Jarvis said it’s sad that local businesses aren’t given enough opportunity to bid on local jobs. “I think that’s something that we, as commissioners, we need to look at.” Jarvis said her goal is to work with others for better job opportunities and solutions in Wilkes.
Jarvis cited the importance of supporting extra-curricular activities in the Wilkes schools and said her daughters have participated in high school band. She also said unity is needed.
When a man mentioned a problem with trash blowing out of private trash trucks and asked Jarvis what she thought about county government providing countywide trash collection, she said she favors having state prison inmates picking up trash along the roads. She said she hasn’t seen inmates doing this in a long time. Jarvis said roadside trash is a serious problem all over Wilkes.
When asked for her views on career technical education, Jarvis said she supports helping “connect the dots” between students pursuing training for these types of careers and companies needing employees.