Helping Gwinnett’s small businesses recover from COVID-19 is a major topic that the candidates running for Gwinnett County Commission District 1 want to tackle in 2021.

Republican Laurie McClain and Democrat Kirkland Carden weighed in on the big issues facing District 1, including the looming issue of dealing with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. That will dominate the county commission’s agenda in 2021 as the county, state and nation recover from the pandemic.

Both candidates said helping small businesses will be key to recovering from the pandemic.

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“The biggest issue facing Gwinnett County is the response and economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Carden said. “County officials have been on the front lines responding to this pandemic by providing public health services, emergency management assistance and enforcing the many executive orders enacted while continuing to provide other essential services to our residents.”

McClain said she is concerned about the county’s economic standing going into 2021 because of the negative impact the pandemic has had on small businesses, such as restaurants and theaters that had to close or scale back services heavily to comply with public health guidelines during the pandemic.

“Once full capacity is restored, it will take months for us to return to business as usual,” McClain said. “Because of that, I am concerned about our economy going into 2021. I am concerned that owners of rental property will have difficulty paying their mortgages and their property taxes.”

McClain and Carden are running to fill the open seat that current District 1 Commissioner Jace Brooks is vacating at the end of this year.

Carden said he is running for the commission seat because he wants to give back tot he community. He spent two years serving on the Duluth City Council, but stepped down from that position earlier this year to run for the county commission.

“My love for Gwinnett motivates me to tackle the tough challenges facing our community; such as transportation, public safety, housing affordability and community development,” Carden said. “As your Commissioner, I will bring a zeal for positive change and a commitment to inclusion in county government. Together, we can keep our community strong and vibrant for years to come.”

Meanwhile, McClain said she is running for the seat because she has watched the county grow and transform from a more rural community to an “thriving economic powerhouse of the region” since she moved here in 1976 and feels it is currently at a crossroads.

“We must continue to grow Gwinnett in a common sense, balanced way,” McClain said. “I believe that will take leadership that can focus on core, critical issues while balancing the needs of residents while applying fiscally conservative values. With my education, my history and my experience, I believe I am that leader.”

As far as COVID-19 recovery goes, Carden said primary goal, if elected, will be to make sure Gwinnettians continue to receive essential government services at a level that is at least adequate to all residents of the county.

He cited “the Gwinnett standard,” a phrase local officials often use to describe the high standard of services residents expect from the county government.

“We also must make sure our first responders and essential workers have the protection and resources they need to do their job safely,” Carden said.

Carden said he believes federal grant funding will be needed to support those services and criticized county leaders for returning $3.6 million federal grant funding in February because of issues with meeting employment reporting requirements attached to the funds.

“The grants simply required Gwinnett to report and track basic employment information such as hiring and promotions by race and gender. This is something that governments and companies all across the state have no problem tracking, including the city of Duluth.

“By refusing to tap into these resources, the county significantly diminishes its ability to serve our residents. This money could have been used for our police department and court system. I will use my professional experience overseeing government budgets to better manage Gwinnett’s federal grant funds.”

McClain said federal assistance that has been made available through the county to small businesses and nonprofits has been beneficial, but she also said the county should “continue to apply for and judiciously grant additional funds” to help businesses that cannot yet fully re-open.

“I spoke recently with a restaurant owner in Duluth that is counting the number of days until she has to close because she cannot open at full capacity,” McClain said. “That is why I have already reached out to Gwinnett leadership to ask for deferrals or even abatements of 2021 occupational licenses. I have asked the tax commissioner to relax collection efforts of real estate taxes. I also support reductions in the cost of liquor licenses.

“These are the items that impact small businesses the most and is an area where Gwinnett has some flexibility. I believe it will show business owners that we support them.”

But, beyond COVID-19, McClain said there are several other issues that she sees as being important to address in District 1.

The long list of issues she said needs to be addressed includes improving the Gwinnett Place Mall area, promoting and improving early learning opportunities, strengthening the county’s fiscal health, making sure amenities and quality of life are protected, supporting and bolstering the county’s public safety departments , improving the county’s water and sewer infrastructure and “creating and implementing an adaptable and feasible transit plan.”

But, McClain said a major issue that county leaders need to address is that while the county’s water distribution is considered visionary for planning for future growth, it is becoming strained as the county’s population continues to swell.

“The materials are old and need to be replaced with current technology and increased capacity. We need to incorporate innovation and bold leadership to focus on our needs many years in the future.

“Our leaders are doing that with The Water Tower at Gwinnett. We need to ensure that this project is fully funded and implemented to provide a place for continuing research and innovation to help keep Gwinnett Great. As a former member of the Gwinnett County Water and Sewer Authority, I have an inside perspective on the challenges and rewards that surround the protection of this, our most vital resource.”

I'm a Crawford Long baby who grew up in Marietta and eventually wandered to the University of Southern Mississippi for college. Earned a BA in journalism (double minor in political science and history). Previously worked in Florida and Clayton County.

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