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MEET THE CANDIDATES, part two

South Boston NewsSouth Boston NewsSouth Boston News
Harriett Claiborne, Bob Hughes and Michael Byrd
SoVaNow.com / May 14, 2020
Editor’s note: The News & Record continues its profiles of candidates running for South Boston Town Council. Three contenders — Tina Wyatt-Younger, Joe Chandler and Tommy Elliott — were featured in Monday’s edition. The election is set for this coming Tuesday, May 19.

Harriett Claiborne


Harriett Jennings Claiborne, making her first run for public office, sees things she would continue if elected to South Boston Town Council — and things she would like to change.

Claiborne, who works at Halifax County High School as an administrative assistant, lists jobs, economic development and industrial recruitment as top priorities for the town’s future. “The projects that are currently being developed” — she cites as examples the John Randolph renovation, SOVA Innovation Hub and Poplar Creek Homes— “are significant for the growth of our town.”

“I feel South Boston is on the right path in terms of development and should continue in this manner,” she said.

But Claiborne also wants to be a voice for change in ways she believes will move South Boston forward. She is strongly in favor of construction of a new high school, to be paid for with revenue from the sales tax referendum that county voters approved overwhelmingly in November.

“Being at the high school, I know that a new school is needed,” she said. “It needs to be built from the ground up and not renovated because it will serve as a great economic development tool to attract new business and young professionals with children in schools.”

She calls the Community Strategic Plan, developed by the Chamber of Commerce and various other stakeholders that include the county, towns, SVHEC and hospital, “great” and believes it is being implemented “fairly well by the town.”

Claiborne expresses confidence that South Boston can bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic and “the town should just continue on the path it has undertaken so far.”

However, Claiborne finds other aspects of town operations to be troubling. “One of my primary reasons for running is to address the need concerning public safety in relation to the police and its interaction with our youth,” she said. “This especially concerned me in regard to the unreasonable stops and possible profiling which has occurred in recent months, not just of youth but of older citizens, too.

“If this profiling is occurring, it should be dealt with expeditiously as everyone has the right to move about without fear of being stopped because of what age, color or ethnic origin they are as long as they are abiding by the law,” she said.

Claiborne, wife of county supervisor William Bryant Claiborne, is a lifelong resident of South Boston, having graduated from Washington Coleman Elementary School and Mary Bethune High School in the era of racially segregated schools. She has a long record of involvement in community affairs, serving as a member of the South Boston Planning Commission for the past 18 years. She is a past member of the Vision 20/20 committee, predecessor of the Community Strategic Plan committee. She is also an active member of First Baptist Church on Ferry Street, where she serves in various church roles.

A graduate of Averett University with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, Claiborne advocates a diverse, inclusive approach for marketing South Boston as a community that welcomes and values newcomers. She believes that South Boston and Halifax County must step up its efforts to attract young professionals and their families and build a stronger foundation for the community’s future.

She does not see the need for any new taxes, although under “legitimate and necessary circumstances,” some revenue enhancements might need to be considered. “I would have to evaluate the situation on a case-by-case basis before I make my decision or whether or not to raise taxes. Then I would make an informed decision,” she said. Under current circumstances, she adds, the call is an easy one: “no.”

Claiborne said she values the importance of recreational opportunities for youths and families — “I think this will help reduce the time [youths] would have to get in trouble” — although she has not developed a specific plan for expanding parks or rec programs. On another quality-of-life issue, however, Claiborne is adamant that the Town needs to take stronger action: to rid neighborhoods of abandoned structures and enforce humane living conditions in low-income areas.

“The town needs to be more cognizant of the fact that there are parts of the town where property owners are operating public nuisances by failing to properly follow town codes and operating such businesses as trailer parks and not keeping them in sanitary and livable conditions,” she said.

“I support ordinances and yes —I strongly support more aggressive action by Council as some of these properties are in horrible and inhumane conditions,” she said. “I just visited a trailer park this weekend where such aggressive action should have been taken by the town against the property owner years ago.”

In the case of falling apart structures, “the town needs to utilize its code enforcement laws to condemn and raze these dilapidated public buildings and deserted homes by non-residents if they don’ t act in a timely fashion to remedy the problem,” Claiborne added.

At the Monday forum for candidates for Town Council, broadcast on WHLF 95.3 and streamed on Facebook Live, Claiborne offered a “short and simple” closing statement that could apply to her campaign as well: “I don’t feel that I have to sell myself to anyone. I feel like I just have to be me. I love all people, and believe it or not, some people love me. I’m a good listener, and I’m a unifier, not a divider. We must unite to move forward. And we need open dialogue and honesty … I’m a person of my word.”

Bob Hughes

Robert “Bob” Hughes is running for a third term on South Boston Town Council to follow through on the work he and others have done to promote the town’s quality of life and growth.

As a Council member, Hughes has played a key role in the conversion of the Washington Coleman Early Learning and Community Center and the rehabilitation of some dozen homes in the surrounding neighborhood. He has advocated on behalf of The Prizery, the SVHEC, Dixie Youth baseball, the recreational department and the “SoBo Start-Up!” grant program that has resulted in a half-dozen minority owned businesses opening up in downtown.

Away from Council, Hughes serves as executive director of Tri-River Habitat for Humanity. He recently has overseen and volunteered in the construction of the program’s 16th home — “for a deserving family,” he added.

“I want to be the voice you choose for the growth and changes we need as we move forward together,” said Hughes of his candidacy. “I trust that I have earned the right for your vote to be for me.

“South Boston matters too much for you not to vote.”

Hughes first became part of the community when his parents moved to South Boston from West Virginia coal country. He went off to college, served in the U.S. Army and returned to South Boston in 1967 to work for J.P. Stevens. He was later transferred by the textile manufacturer to locations in North Carolina and South Carolina. He retired in 1998 as corporate vice president of organizational development.

While he acknowledges South Boston’s challenges, Hughes prefers to dwell on the positives. As an example, he cites the collaborative efforts of Town Hall, Destination Downtown South Boston and Council members in working to promote economic growth, which he describes as an “ongoing process that will result in even more ‘business ready’ buildings.”

He applauds Council’s recent move to create an emergency loan fund for small businesses. The $250,000 borrowing pool, available to small firms with town business licenses and 30 or fewer employees, offers zero interest loans of up to $5,000 for companies that have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I certainly do not have all the answers [with the pandemic] and don’t think anyone else does,” Hughes noted. “However, one thing is certainly true — it still ‘takes a village’ to deal with issues of this magnitude, knowing that together we will survive and grow. I’m thankful that, at our last council work session, a fund was agreed to … to aid those in need of funds specifically for operation, when they are allowed to open their businesses again.

“This could never be accomplished without our town being in great shape financially.”

South Boston is on “the brink of significant growth,” Hughes said, pointing to “near-term opportunities/goals” — a possible downtown microbrewery, the John Randolph boutique hotel renovation, a downtown paddle boat launch on the Dan River, expansion of the Tobacco Heritage Trail and the building addition to the South Boston fire station.

He also hails the development of the SOVA Innovation Hub and projects that were completed years ago: the housing restorations of the New Brick Exchange Lofts and Imperial Lofts at the old Tultex factory building.

“I want to continue to be a part of those things that make us proud of South Boston. After all, it’s a big part of who we are,” he said.

Looking forward, Hughes said he wants to work on solidifying the prospects of small shops and ventures that opened downtown through the SoBo Start-Up! Program. While “rejoicing” these successes, Hughes acknowledged, “We now are forced to deal with the resulting negative impact they will experience [from COVID-19] and how we the town might help.”

He also concedes that South Boston, like many small towns, as a derelict building problem, but says the answers lie in persistent work to prod building owners to upgrade their substandard properties.

“It is my opinion that both the ‘carrot and stick’ and ordinances and programs to accelerate repairs/teardowns can work together simultaneously,” he said. “This provides the opportunity for our people to have the valued input for this positive change and needed growth.”

As a two-term member of Council, Hughes has served as its representative on the South Boston Planning Commission. He has also chaired the Current Issues committee for the past eight years.

Hughes is a seven-year board member of Destination Downtown South Boston. He has been a member of the Chamber of Commerce for three years and is active in First Presbyterian Church on North Main Street.

For all of South Boston’s work to bring old buildings back to life and attract new businesses and population, Hughes said he believes the town’s greatest asset is evident in the people who already live here.

“Yes, taxes and real estate are very reasonable. Rolling hills and proximity to larger towns and cities as well as mountains and beaches is a real benefit,” he said. But, “people here, for the most part, will still look you in the eye and speak to you. People are also very helpful in reaching out to those in need.

“What makes South Boston special is our people,” he said.

“I would like the opportunity to follow through in representing our citizens, accomplishing the goals we have set moving forward,” he said of the May 19 election.

Michael Byrd

South Boston Town Council member Michael Byrd says he entered local politics so he could involve others in community decision-making — an inclusive approach that he hopes will be rewarded when town voters head to the polls on May 19.

Byrd is one of six candidates running for three Council seats on Tuesday’s ballot. Byrd is vying for his first full term after winning a special election to Council in 2018. Prior to that vote, Byrd was appointed to fill a vacancy following the death of Council member Billy Clarke.

Byrd’s philosophy for local governance is to seek out diverse views within the community and get people involved in decision-making, rather than conducting town business with a top-down approach. Through “useful dialogue,” said Byrd, Town Council “will begin to see that there are many citizens who have phenomenal ideas as it relates to business entrepreneur development, corporate business development and other initiatives that come from within.

“There must be a willingness to embrace change. The town of South Boston must be willing to open itself up to three areas,” Byrd added.

Those areas are the “three V’s” — being vital, valuable and virtual, he says. By that, Byrd believes South Boston should be open to new ways of doing things, whether it’s swapping out traditional workplaces for digital platforms, or developing a more welcoming approach to “individuals from all areas and all cultures.

“We must look at our colleges and universities and offer competitive wages that will draw qualified people to serve our Town and make it a place where all people, all cultures see South Boston as a place to live, work and grow,” he said.

Byrd praises “the great leadership and team members that diligently and successfully serve our Town” but also wants to see “cultural diversification” of town administration and departments. “This is not to say that there have not been efforts in this area, but we must begin to recruit individuals from all areas and all cultures,” he said.

To grow and attract businesses, he wants to Town Council to look inward — by asking if South Boston is doing everything it can to provide citizens with the education and training to “understand this virtual world.”

To be seen as “vital” and “valuable,” Byrd suggested — without providing specifics — that South Boston must be open to development, and committed to understanding the needs of businesses, especially in their start-up phase.

“Let’s face it, people go in business to succeed and they need a place where they feel that resources and help is given to create a atmosphere of success,” he said “They must see a place where people are open to new ideas, innovative concepts and community support.”

Growing up in Washington, D.C. and graduating from high school there, Byrd continued his education at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., where he studied business and economics. After college, he joined Comcast Cable, traveling extensively in the Blue Ridge region and managing a team of 42 technicians. He moved to South Boston in 2010 from Hammond, Louisiana.

He currently works as child care supervisor with Pathways Youth Services in Scottsburg. He is perhaps best known in the community as senior pastor and bishop at Mount Oliver Baptist Church, which he has pastored since 2018.

He has been married to his wife, Alesha, for seven years, and has five children, four grandchildren and one great grandchild.

Byrd said he has been deeply impressed by the “tireless efforts” of health care workers and other individuals “to keep this [COVID-19] pandemic from overwhelming our town … I applaud all who strive to make our town, our state, our country and our world a safe and healthy place to live. I am a believer that we have lived through this pandemic and we as a people of God will live after it has passed.

“The Town of South Boston is a place where we understand struggle but we also understand victory. Will life as we knew it in the past change? Yes. Will it change for the better? Yes … We will survive.”

He wants the community to “rally around all of our institutions of higher education, Halifax County Public Schools, SVHEC, and various other entities” that educate young people and prepare them for leadership roles. “We must get our younger generation involved with the vision of our town and allow them to share ideas and innovative thoughts as to what they see as a community that they want to be a part of,” Byrd said. “We must embrace all areas of development for our younger generation.

“If we don’t, our town will face a decline without new ideas and new initiatives by our young people. We must get them involved.”

Byrd said that same spirit, of drawing people into the civic life of South Boston, should extend to the provision of quality public services to everyone in town.

“Recently there have been citizens in our town who have expressed their concerns for the Sinai community and its needs,” he said, a reference to Monday night’s meeting of Town Council, which saw a discussion of inadequate infrastructure at the majority black neighborhood. “We must insure that all citizens who pay taxes in our town are never left out of the basic needs that each of our communities hold near and dear.

“We must as a Town have strict code enforcements that are in place and guidelines that must be met in all communities in our town. We must all be a part of keeping our town attractive and safe.”

Byrd said he has been “honored, humbled and deeply appreciative to serve the Town of South Boston as a part of a great team of councilpersons and area leaders” and pledges to work for unity moving forward.

“It is my belief that we are on our way to becoming a vital, valuable and virtual community for all cultures and we are on the move,” he said.







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