In Johnston County this year, the most-contested mayoral race is in Selma, where two challengers are running against first-term incumbent Cheryl Oliver. Her opponents are two-time councilman Dennis Davis and former downtown business owner Jeffrey Watson.
Davis has been a fixture in Selma for almost 50 years. He has been a manager at two newspapers – The Selma News and The Johnstonian Sun – and has served on several town boards.
Davis has 10 years of experience as a Selma councilman. He was elected to his first four-year term in 1968 and then re-elected in 1972. In 1990, the council tapped him to fill a vacancy created when a councilman moved out of town with two years remaining in his term.
Davis is frank in his assessment of Oliver. “I’m a little disappointed,” he said “She hasn’t really, in my opinion, been a leader.”
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Davis said the council, under Oliver’s leadership, hasn’t focused on the larger issues affecting Selma. He thinks the town needs to improve its water infrastructure, spruce up its entrances and confront absentee landlords who refuse to repair or demolish their rundown properties.
“We’re worried about the little things and not the big things,” Davis said of the town’s current leadership.
Watson, a former schoolteacher and administrator, is a big advocate of after-school programs. He’d like to see the town drop the $60 hourly fee to use the Richard B. Harrison gym. Watson sees the fee as a barrier for people trying to organize basketball games and practices for kids.
“I’d rather know where my kids are in the afternoon – in the gymnasium – than have them out roaming the streets,” he said.
Oliver said she’s proud of the things she’s accomplished in her first term. Her biggest achievement, she says, is the formation of the county mayors’ group, which now meets monthly. Among other things, the mayors have been discussing ways to save money and lower electricity rates.
Oliver said the group has also opened a dialogue with other elected leaders. “These meetings have also been the springboard for sessions with our county commissioners and national and state representatives,” she said.
During her term, the town has launched two promotions: the Endless Yard Sale and a series of holiday events and sales titled “It’s a Wonderful Life,” both designed to get people downtown. Oliver was a driving forces behind both events – especially the yard sale, which organizers hope to expand outside Johnston County.
But her opponents say those efforts are not enough. Watson, who once owned a soul food restaurant in downtown Selma, said he’s sad to see the many vacant storefronts there.
Watson said the town has relied too much on antiques stores, ignoring chain stores and restaurants that could bring more people downtown. Antiques simply don’t bring that much traffic, he said.
“A lot of money is going out of Selma into surrounding areas like Smithfield,” Watson said. “We need anything that makes the town money.”
Davis said he’d also like to revitalize Selma’s main business district. “We’ve got 18 empty buildings in Selma,” he said. “We need someone to get downtown rocking again.”
Davis also wants to focus on the entrances to the town. The first impression many people get of Selma, he said, is the scrap wood surrounding the old railroad station. “If I was a tourist off of I-95 coming into Selma, by the time I got to the railway, I’d be turning around,” Davis said.
Oliver said she’s aggressively pushed Selma’s downtown and state-certified industrial sites. In May, the town hired a development director, Jack Newman, with more than 20 years of experience.
Again, her opponents say it’s not enough.
“Personally, I don’t see anything changing,” Davis said. “I just see the same monotonous things going on.”