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ETSU professor plans run for Johnson City Commission

David Floyd • Jan 26, 2020 at 8:27 PM

An early candidate for the Johnson City Commission, East Tennessee State University professor Debbie Harley-McClaskey hopes to be a voice for unheard city residents.

“Citizens have issues and concerns, and I feel like those voices aren’t being heard,” she said Thursday.

Harley-McClaskey, an associate professor in ETSU’s Clemmer College, is planning on running for a seat on the City Commission this year. Born and raised in Ohio but now a long-time resident of Johnson City, Harley-McClaskey has worked at ETSU for more than 30 years, the last several as a tenured faculty member teaching personal and community leadership.

Three seats on the five member commission are up grabs this year: Those belonging to Larry Calhoun, Todd Fowler and Vice Mayor Joe Wise. The first day to pick up petitions for the race is June 22. The qualifying deadline is noon, Aug. 20, and the deadline to withdraw is noon, Aug. 27.

The last day to register to vote in person or by mail is Oct. 5. Early voting runs from Oct. 14-29. Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 3.

On voices that aren’t being heard:

“The makeup of our boards and task forces and various things are filled with a lot of the same people that have been on boards and such for a number of years or come from the same kind of backgrounds, and so we need more diverse voices. ... I think we should look at the kinds of boards that we have and the purposes that are there, and I think we have need for a new focus on some issues that haven’t really been able to get much traction. Issues like environmental concerns. Issues like homelessness and to focus some energies and efforts into a permanent board or task force that would give us some traction and allow us to do things that other cities and communities have figured out already.”

On the importance of fresh perspectives on economic development:

“I get it that tourism is something that we can utilize because it’s beautiful here and it’s a wonderful place to live and to visit, but at the same time, tourism type jobs don’t bring the kinds of salaries and benefits that you can raise a family on, and so when we’re looking at development we have to look at the kinds of avenues that people can make a living and earn more than minimum wage or be dependent on tips.

“We talk about wanting to have and develop startups and engage entrepreneurs, particularly around technology ... But no one says, ‘Wow, how do you pay for health insurance as an entrepreneur when you’re getting started?’ How have we not had that conversation or made that a concern that we share with our state representatives? It’s one of those issues that never seems to make it into the conversation.”

On the West Walnut Street project:

“I’m excited to see that there will be some form of connectivity if you will between the location at ETSU and downtown and I think it’s a fabulous idea to start to consider what those possibilities could be. But, I don’t think enough people have been invited to the ‘what could be’ conversation. What could potentially fall into place there along Walnut Street and on the way we could benefit this community. ...

“The conversations I hear from the City Commission is, ‘Well, we’re hoping outside people will come in and be entrepreneurs here,’ but I want to say, ‘What happened to grow your own?’ What happened to encouraging people here to become those entrepreneurs? It isn’t just that we have to bring folks in from the outside, and I think we’ve lost sight of the fact that it could be both.”

On the Boones Creek incentive district:

“I think that it has the potential to be a driver and stream of funding for the city. It has that potential, but the kinds of businesses that they’re talking about, I mean we’re talking about restaurants, we’re talking about retail. Again, you have a few jobs. Restaurant managers, managers of retail businesses that make a salary that sustains a family, but the rest of those jobs don’t sustain families. We have some shopping districts, we’re competing against online shopping opportunities. it’s hard to imagine that we’re going to create another Pinnacle that doesn’t rob the Pinnacle of its stores to be there at that particular exit.

“Where was the town hall meeting that was supposed to happen with the people of Boones Creek to talk about what they think and what they see and what they would like or not like about this situation? If this legislation was passed in May, why didn’t that happen?”

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