Challengers for Port Wentworth City Council went unchallenged, at least by incumbent candidates, in an election forum held Tuesday.
At-large candidate Jo Smith, District 3 candidates Janet Hester and Rufus Bright, and District 1 candidates Alfonso Ribot and Gabrielle Nelson answered questions submitted in advance by local residents.
Incumbents Linda Smith (at-large), Lynwood Griner (District 3) and mayor Gary Norton, who is unopposed, cited a conflict of interest in declining to attend the event.
Here are highlights from the forum. Responses were edited for clarity and organized by issue.
The most important issue facing Port Wentworth
Jo Smith (at-large): “We’ve doubled in population in less than 10 years. We have to look at the city as a whole. I would like to revitalize the downtown and also give the north side what it needs — recreation centers, parks and a lot for kids to do. If we revitalize downtown and allow the north side to grow, then we will be a very prosperous city.”
Gabrielle Nelson (District 1): “Infrastructure or our lack of infrastructure. They want to bring homes, they want to bring new dwellings, they want to grow establishments. Great, we need those to flourish, but we don’t want the city to be lost in all of the traffic. There’s absolutely nothing going on with GDOT, that I’ve been privy to, as far as when we’re going to reorganize our highway from a two-four lane highway to a three-six.”
Alfonso Ribot (District 1): “The lack of making a decision to get things done. A lot of the things that my opponent and the rest of the candidates say about what they need is already in an updated master plan that was put out there Aug. 26 of this year. What happens is that we don’t have people who actually have the knowledge and skills to go out there to seek ways to make it happen.”
Janet Hester (District 3): “Warehouse sprawl. We are facing the impact of goods coming into our ports in the next few years. If we want to have a viable place to live in 10 years, we must control, slow down or eliminate the sprawl of these warehouses coming into our residential areas. If we don’t stop this, they are going to be in your backyards.
Rufus Bright (District 3): “Traffic and traffic lights. In the next two or three years, they’re going to build 3,500 new houses and apartments. That’s 3,500 more cars, more traffic and the lights have not been updated. We need people who are going to go and fight the DOT to change that. What we have up there now, they don’t want to fight against the DOT, I will fight for you and get those things done.”
Plans for economic development
Smith: “We need to build bridges that have never been built. We need to build a better relationship with the Georgia Ports and have a seat at every development organization around town. We have the ports on one side, the airport on the other side and huge economic developments on the north and south, so we have to bring a business mind to the table.”
Nelson: “I was a part of (developing) the master plan. Not one council member showed up to master plan meetings. There were only two from the planning and zoning commission that showed up. I think what needs to happen is we need to begin issuing surveys through our (homeowners’ associations). We need to get them involved so we can get their suggestions or what projects they think need to be done”.
Ribot: “We need to improve in creating policies that actually foster economic development the right way. We have to have policies when those developments do not try to follow the rules. We need to fix all of these businesses and infrastructure so that we can bring more businesses. I do believe Port Wentworth should have it’s own economic development authority.”
Hester: “We want to encourage local entrepreneurship — for them to open up their businesses here in Port Wentworth instead of over in Rincon, down in Pooler and over in Savannah. We need to develop partnerships with these local entrepreneurs to keep them here and provide them a good place where people can live and where people can support their businesses.”
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Bright: “We have to have strong leaders to allow businesses to come in – the mom-and-pops and the different little businesses that will grow and bring in things. Tourists are going to come. They’ll stay at the motels, but they’re going to spend their money somewhere else. We want them to spend their money in Port Wentworth. We don’t want them to go to Rincon and Pooler.”
Growth and traffic issues
Smith: “We have to talk with cities around us to work on this issue. I think smart lights are important to coordinate the lights. I think definitely a stop light right outside of Rice Hope is definitely necessary because it’s very dangerous to turn left onto Georgia 21. I’d also like to do an impact study on widening Georgia 21 into six lanes. Rather than the council tell the citizens, I think the citizens should tell the council.”
Nelson: “I am 100% willing to face them (GDOT). I have absolutely no issue communicating or having those hard conversations. I am 100% willing to support traffic studies; it’s one of the running themes of my tenure on the Port Wentworth Planning and Zoning Commission. The first question I always ask is about infrastructure and what plans they have to fix things for us.”
Bright: “The report that DOT has is 15 years old. … I will fight for you at DOT and get those things done: widening roads, we need more traffic lights. I’ve talked to people that say, ‘I can’t get to work.’ Alright, let’s get to work.”
Hester: “We’ve got to have fire protection, substations further out. Everything is on the other side of I-95. If you have an emergency, an accident, or fire on this side of I-95, there’s such a bottleneck during rush hour traffic. Someone’s life is going to be hanging in the balance. We need units over here on the north side of north Port Wentworth so that you don’t have to go through all that bottleneck.”
Ribot: “We need to invest money in municipal road systems so that we can get from point A to point B, from one side of the city to the other side of the city without having to touch Georgia 21. If that happens, that’ll take a lot of cars out of the way.”
Smith: “I watched the last forum from 2019 and this (building of sports complex) has been an issue that has been long simmering. The north side needs it. They also need a police substation, a fire substation.”
Nelson: “I have small children who do not, right now, have very much of anything that they can participate in or, you know, enjoy the resources of. We even have to travel to Pooler just to go to the library, so I’m looking to make small changes that will have a tremendous impact on our children’s futures. “
Ribot: “I’ve been working to bring in that sportsplex, I’ve been working with the YMCA to bring entertainment and child care. One of the things I will implement is a district office. That way you get direct input from the community closer to home rather than having to go to city hall.”
Hester: “We could have doctor’s offices here, you could have corporate offices, shopping centers that bring things to our area that we currently have to go out of other areas to buy. Those businesses could be viable if we have enough people here to support them. We need people growth, not warehouse growth.”
Bright: “The services that we need in Port Wentworth are medical equipment. We need places where we can get our tires changed. We need restaurants, movie places to go to, shoe places, a dentistry – all kinds of things that can come and help the citizens instead of going to Pooler, Rincon or into Savannah. We have none of those amenities.”
Nancy Guan is the general assignment reporter covering Chatham County municipalities. Reach her at email@example.com or on Twitter @nancyguann.