Our Communities of Northwest Stokes hosted Meet the Candidates for Stokes County Commissioner Sunday afternoon and around 100 people packed into the Lawsonville Community building.
Six of the 10 Republican candidates vying for three seats on the board of commissioners attended: Devin Parrish, Andy Nickelston, Rick Morris, Jamie Yontz, Allen Brown and incumbent Ernest Lankford. Noticeably absent were Andy Stevens, Boh Mabe, Jamie East and Wayne Barneycastle.
Our Communities also invited Democrat candidates Greg Collins and Steven Hewett to join the panel and share their thoughts, although the two will be part of the general election and not the May 8 primary.
Moderator Paul Blue said the forum was about getting acquainted with the candidates running for commissioner and emphasized it was not a debate.
“Your presence here tells us that you’re interested and you want to know these folks. I haven’t met anyone that knows all of the candidates,” Blue said and he encouraged attendees to enjoy the meet and greet held afterwards along with refreshments.
Blue explained with eight participants, each segment would last around 20 minutes and candidates would be timed and given two and a half minutes to speak.
The moderator began by asking candidates their reason for running for county commissioner.
Rick Morris explained he’s a pro-life, fiscal and social conservative. As a retired Army colonel with 26 years of active duty, he’s also worked in the private sector. He served as the Stokes County Manager for the past nine years until recently retiring and believes he is uniquely qualified to serve as a county commissioner.
“The reason I’m running is because I’ve worked in Stokes County government and I have lots of ideas that would require policy changes by the commissioners,” he said. “I need to be in a position to set policy to affect these changes. All of the areas that would be impacted by my policy changes are personnel turnover in the county, government and school system, EMS staffing, animal control operations and staffing, economic development and the county and school system budget preparations.”
Morris used an example of animal control.
“My policy would never ask the sheriff to operate the animal shelter,” he said.
Morris said he would promote spay and neuter and investigate private partnerships with organizations such as FOSS (Friends of the Stokes Shelter) and rescue groups.
Andy Nickelston is a fourth generation Stokes County resident and a business owner. He said one of the biggest problems he sees in the county, and the reason he’s running for commissioner, is his concern of the future.
“For the young ones coming up. I want them to live and grow up here, but unfortunately there aren’t many opportunities in the area. That’s one thing I want to see changed.”
He’s also a father of five, four of which are girls.
“Needless to say I am a huge supporter of the second amendment because anybody that has daughters knows one day you’re going to need a shotgun,” he said as many in the room chuckled.
On a more serious note, he said he’d recently attended a high school career day and told students his company provides training.
“A lot of these kids don’t know how to read a tape measurer,” he said. “I find that a very sad point. That’s basic stuff I learned in high school. I see a lot of these classes have left the schools and I’d like to see it back. There’s a lot of good paying jobs for kids out there. Tablets and all, they’re great, but a tablet ain’t going to put a roof on a house. That’s something we need to train these kids to be prepared for.”
Nickelston also shared that his children attend Patrick County Schools in Virginia.
He explained his kids were not in the Stokes County school district because when they were young, childcare in the northern part of the county wasn’t available.
“We sought out childcare in the area in Danbury at the time. The next closest place was in Stuart, Virginia,” he said. “That is something we need to take care of in this county. There are no daycares on this side of the county. That is something I’d like to see because there are a lot of young adults here who need that childcare.”
As a father to two, Devin Parrish shared he was also concerned about the future of Stokes County.
“You need to have vision, foresight and you need to be able to multitask. I can do all three very well. I have a clean slate. This is my first time running in politics. I don’t hold any allegiances to any one person or group. I am not influenced by anyone other than God, and sometimes my wife,” he said.
Jamie Yontz is an advocate for the school system and has spent the past eight years on the school board, two years as the chair and another two as the vice chair. He has a reputation for common sense leadership and said he plans to bring a balanced, conservative approach to the board of commissioners.
“When I say that, fiscally speaking, we spend money when it makes sense to spend money,” Yontz said.
He compared it to when you have a roof leaking on a building.
“You repair the roof, you don’t wait until the building is deteriorating to the point that you have to rebuild the building. That makes no sense.”
Yontz would also like to see the county’s natural resources being utilized.
“It all comes down to economic development, dollars in this county, tourism that’s here. It’s time to take advantage of it.”
Allen Brown grew up in Walnut Cove and moved to King when he was 19. He said he struggled living paycheck to paycheck and now owns two successful businesses.
“I feel like I need to give back to county and that’s why I decided to run for commissioner.”
He also wants to see school safety amped up.
“If you have to go through a metal detector at the courthouse, you should have to do the same at our children’s schools. One of our biggest problems facing the nation is our children’s safety in their hometown schools. The second biggest issue is the lack of jobs in the county.”
Incumbent Ernest Lankford, who’s served on the board for the past 11 years, said in his opinion, good things have been done during his tenure as a commissioner.
“We’ve built an early college, we’ve built a community college and we’ve had a lot of economic development in the county,” he said.
Grumbling could be heard from the audience when Lankford compared economic development to moving in nine Dollar Generals and a Walmart.
“We’ve done things like clean up the river, made the community more family friendly and we’ve done things I feel good about from a community standpoint,” he added. “Economic development has been part of our plan for a long time. We started out with a full-time economic development director. He retired and we hired another. Now we have for the last couple of years had a part-time economic development director and we’ve just hired a new one.”
Democrats Collins and Hewett joined the Republicans on the panel, in spite of breezing through the primary election.
Collins is from the Francisco community and said it’s been a great place to live, that’s why he’s never left. He’s the son of lifelong educators in the county and they’ve been involved in community projects and organizations. His grandfather was on the board of education in the 1960s.
Collins began working in Stokes County in 1982 with the sheriff’s department and spent 37 years with EMS before recently retiring.
“I’ve been throughout the county for 37 years taking care of your health care needs. I treated you fairly because you had a need that was medical, now I’m asking that you let me help take care of you politically. I want to promote our county. A resistance to change is costly.”
Steven Hewett lives in King and retired from the Department of Defense. He served in the United States Army and the National Guard and spent time in Afghanistan. He opened a karate studio in 1983 and his students have gone on to win national and international titles.
“What I bring to the table is business success.”
Hewett said he’s debt free and fiscally responsible and hopes to help the board allocate funds equally to areas in the county.
“That status quo isn’t working anymore. If you look around here, there were 12 people invited and only eight showed up. These eight really want your vote. I just want somebody voted in who is going to change things for every single one of us. I don’t care if you’re Democrat, Republican, your religion, non-religion; I could care less. I just want somebody who is going to do the job and I feel that I can do that job for you as well as work with other commissioners.”
After the forum, Wayne Ray, who owns Dalton’s Crossing in King along with his wife, said he saw the candidates in a different light.
“It’s one thing to read about them or see their ads, but it’s another thing to see candidates answering questions in that format. It definitely helped us make up our mind. I hope in the general election, we’ll hear more from them and see how they respond to questions asked from the community.”
Ray said he also hopes to hear more about economic development and how it can be specifically utilized in Stokes County.
“It was very informative. We were also impressed with the OC group and what they’re doing in the northern part of the county. It looks like they’re coming together and making some positive things happen.”
Amanda Dodson may be reached at 336-813-2426.