The southernmost section of Chatham County is encompassed by District 6, covering a varied assortment of communities — including Savannah’s Southside and its somewhat-struggling commercial corridor — and stretching way to the wilds of Ossabaw Island.
After besting a fellow Republican candidate in Georgia’s June 9 primary, William Dyal is now facing Democrat Aaron “Adot” Whitely in the Nov. 3 Chatham County Commission race to represent District 6. Both are newcomers to public office; current District 6 Commissioner James “Jay” Jones chose to forgo a reelection run in favor of a failed bid to become the board’s chair.
In separate interviews with the Savannah Morning News, the District 6 candidates discussed some of their plans and spoke about what is motivating them to run for this County Commission seat.
Empty commercial spaces and job creation
While residential development is continuously ongoing in District 6, business growth is less dynamic there, and several prominent commercial spaces along the Abercorn Street corridor have remained unoccupied or near-empty for extended periods of time, particularly at the Savannah Mall.
Dyal believes that potential tenants are uninterested in the district’s vacant commercial facilities partly because some of them are not maintained well, and said that as a county commissioner he would pressure owners of vacant stores to improve the appearance of their properties.
“They need to make these places look presentable,” Dyal said, adding that with proper upkeep of vacant stores and creative approaches to attracting tenants, small-business owners will be more inclined to set up shop in District 6 and hire area residents. “We need to get some local businesses back in this area.”
Whitely is also interested in boosting business and jobs in District 6, but he plans to initially explore varied approaches to the issue by assembling a group of locals to propose ideas.
“One of the things I’d like to do is to create a coalition of community members from the district to create a business-creation coalition,” Whitely said, while suggesting that the district’s largely vacant mall could be revived with public-private partnerships that combine commercial space with indoor recreation areas. “The Savannah Mall is definitely a prime location for a community center of some sort.”
Low-income District 6 residents depend on Chatham Area Transit buses to reach their workplaces and for other essential transportation needs, but in this part of the county, bus service is infrequent — especially after CAT’s service schedule was reduced in response to the coronavirus pandemic — and many residences are located several blocks away from the nearest bus stop.
Whitely sees the expansion of Chatham’s public-transportation system as essential to the entire county’s future, and would like to explore the possibility of establishing a transportation special-purpose local-option sales tax to increase CAT funding.
“Chatham Area Transit is vital to the sustained growth of Chatham County,” Whitely said, while emphasizing that he would not support CAT’s expansion through increased property taxes. “Chatham County has to find additional revenue sources. … If we can’t, we have to go above and beyond in not raising taxes.”
Dyal agrees that public transit is crucial to the county’s long-term growth, but he believes part of the problem is that CAT managers have lost touch with the people who rely on the agency’s services, and he wants to “call every one of them out” by challenging them to ride a few miles in their passengers’ shoes.
“I want all the directors at CAT to take the bus for a week. And I’ll ride it with them,” Dyal proposes. “A lot of people complain about public transportation in District 6. … You ride the CAT bus for a week, and you tell them how happy you are.”
Motivation for running
Although he has never held public office, Dyal feels that this makes him better suited to represent ordinary District 6 residents.
“I consider myself and my family the ‘little guy’. … We know what it’s like to be on the bottom,” Dyal said, adding that he wants to take on the “good ol’ boy system” that he perceives in Chatham politics. “We want to make sure everybody has a voice, and that your voice is heard.”
Dyal plans to draw on his real-world knowledge as a self-employed electrician to improve District 6 infrastructure while looking out for taxpayers.
“A lot of things that I’ve seen on Chatham County’s budget are way out of line, in my opinion,” Dyal said. “I’ve been in construction my whole life, and you see it.”
Whitely is also a first-time candidate, but he says that his diverse experiences in many fields and organizations have provided ideal preparation to become a commissioner.
“I have served as a PTA president, a coach, a nonprofit board member, a business owner, and I’ve also worked with business owners in my capacity as an insurance agent,” Whitely said. “God has prepared me for this with my experiences.”
And though he serves as an active member of Chatham County’s Democratic leadership, Whitely emphasized that this would not detract from his ability to represent everyone in District 6 if he wins the election.
“You serve for the people. You serve for those who voted for you, and those who voted against you,” Whitely said.