Have you ever had lunch with Greg Bennett? If you have, you’ll probably know this to be true: if he’s in town and a citizen sees him, they’re usually going to stop and ask, “Greg, are you going to run for mayor?” The Chronicle turned to Bennett this week to get an idea of where his head is and to get an on-the-record response to many in the community’s burning question. As it turns out, Bennett was strongly opposed to ever becoming involved in politics. Now, he’s closer than ever to throwing his hat in the ring.
First things first, The Chronicle sought to see if Bennett, from a qualifications standpoint, can even run. In order to campaign for mayor, an individual must be 25-years-old, have a residence in Swainsboro, own property in Swainsboro, and be registered to vote in Swainsboro.
Bennett checks all of those boxes. He has had an apartment above his gym, CPR Fitness, for the last five years; he owns several properties in town; and has been a Swainsboro voter on paper for the last five years.
The Chronicle then sat down with him for an interview. At his core, Bennett is a workaholic who is after the heart of the community, whatever that looks like. He says his thought process about being Swainsboro’s mayor is multifaceted.
“For a long time, it was a hard no, but now I’m considering it,” Bennett said. “I’ve tried for the last few years to fix things from the outside. For the last six months, I’ve tried even harder. I can’t do it from the outside, so yes, I’m thinking about running.”
While that’s not a concrete answer to many citizens’ question, it’s a step closer for Bennett. Those “things” he has tried to fix from the outside and still wants to fix today are what’s pushing him closer to paying his qualifying fee. Namely, he wants to address financials, city logistics, council relations, and property management.
Some people might refer to these as “campaign promises,” but because he’s undecided, that’s not how Bennett sees it. Regardless, these issues are important to him and are integral city elements he hopes to see fixed, no matter who Swainsboro’s mayor is.
The Chronicle asked Bennett for a little context about each of those points—financials, city logistics, and property management—and he obliged, starting with city taxes.
“We have some of the highest taxes in the state. I want us to be in line with other cities,” he explained. Recently, Bennett formed a committee that took a look at the city’s financial records and made suggestions at the August council meeting as to what changes could be implemented over time to make positive, effective change here. About that and how it effected his headspace about running for mayor, Bennett continued, “There didn’t seem to be any urgency or interest in fixing the millage rate, which, in turn, plays a part in determining how much taxes our city property owners pay. I just want it fixed.”
Other financial matters he is mulling over include: the high late fee on citizens’ water bills, city and county funding and how it can be more evenly spread across the various shared services offered by the two entities, and high business license fees.
“We want businesses to come here, right? Well, you have to give them an incentive to come to Swainsboro, not run them off before they even get here because of how high their business license fees would be. Our business licenses here cost three times what they would in Dublin or Statesboro.”
Bennett would also like to hire and train someone to seek grants so the city is certain not to miss any “free dollars” waiting in the wings.
Further, he would like to see a water department ran in-house as opposed to contracting the work to an outside company that makes a profit off Swainsboro. Similarly, Bennett wants to make sure the local workforce is used whenever possible for various services instead of utilizing third-party companies.
In the vein of property management, Bennett wants to see Swainsboro made prettier and more appealing. That, in turn, he says should grow the city, which is what he personally wants more than anything.
“These blighted properties, it hurts me to see them around town. Let’s clean them up, even if we have to give the properties away and the new owner cleans them. I know there’s more to it than that, but we have to start somewhere. Some towns have what’s called a ‘broken window policy,’ which basically hits property owners with a fine if their properties are eyesores. As much as you hate to use money to make change happen, maybe that’s what it’s going to take. We’ve got to improve Swainsboro’s look if we ever want better here.”
“Better” for Bennett means more industry, housing, and people. All of those things, he says, are must-haves—and they have to coexist.
“It’s sort of like the cart before the horse or the chicken before the egg. If you don’t have jobs, why would people come here? If you don’t have housing, why would they come here for a job? I’ve tried for two years to help get some apartments to Swainsboro, but it just isn’t happening because other things have to be in place. We have to act now to get Swainsboro back on the up-and-up.”
Part of that process (because, in Bennett’s mind, it won’t be a quick one) means bringing people to town to work and live. He also wants to create a Swainsboro that, in the long run, appeals to the younger generation and brings them back home. He specifically mentioned the I-16 park and new home builds as two improvement areas he believes could have a significant impact for Swainsboro’s future. If the City of Swainsboro’s water and wastewater operation is providing infrastructure for the park under development, the industries for which the service is provided could bring more dollars to Swainsboro’s tax base. Likewise, if more homeowners chose to build their new residences inside the city limits instead of elsewhere in the county, that could improve population numbers and make for a higher demographic of potential supporters to work at and patronize new businesses.
At the same time, Bennett realizes the shortage of property that exists inside the city limits for new builds to even be built upon. To fix this, he’d like to change property owners’ mindsets from clinging to undeveloped property in exchange for considering it for sale for development, all in the name of a better tomorrow.
He would also like to see Swainsboro take a modern approach to simple tasks. Ideally, the city ordinances would be made available online, and information packets for interested developers would be readily available online as well as in-person. Those ideas, Bennett says, were just two off the top of his head during the interview; he has other ideas of that nature as well.
While all of these aspirations are reasons enough for him to run, Bennett says the decision isn’t one he’s taking lightly. Instead, he’s trying to think it through and decide what’s best overall.
“At the end of the day, I’m still a businessman. I know you can’t make everyone happy. That’s something I’m struggling with. I’ve been really fortunate that all my businesses are in good shape, but if I’m being honest, I don’t want to jeopardize what I’ve worked so hard to build over time just because I’m trying to do the right thing for Swainsboro and my customers might not agree with it. Will I lose customers? Who knows. And it’s not just about the money… I’m just trying to think it all through because in the end, if I provide a dozen jobs at one of my businesses but God forbid I have to shut it down because I’ve lost support over a city matter, what good did I really do? Those people are now out of a job.”
He continued about his reservations, the other side of the potential mayoral candidacy equation, referencing his time and the manner in which he commits to endeavors. Between his spirits store, the gym, the care home, the laundromat, the car wash, starting a second Mojo’s Xpress Wash, his farming, developing property in Florida, getting a new subdivision, Crossroads Landing, started, and The Crossroads Chronicle, Bennett says he has a full plate already—but the literal time, the hours in a day, aren’t directly atop the list of cons to being mayor. He said, “I’m not so much worried about having the time to be mayor really because, like I said, my businesses are good, but I do have some concerns about smaller things, like pothole complains, things that are still important yet smaller in the grand scheme of things, that I know the mayor is tasked with. I know that if you put the right people in the right place, things will come together. That’s my motto, and I think my businesses are proof of that. At the same time, anyone who knows me will tell you I don’t halfway do anything. If I’m mayor, I won’t dismiss anything, no matter what I’m met with by citizens. I’ll take everything, big or small, seriously. It’s just a lot to commit to and I know that, so I’m trying to make up my mind if this is something I really want to do, if it’s something I really should do.”
Additionally, he’s considering the stark difference that will be working with a group like city council in comparison to just working alone like he has become accustomed to doing in his entrepreneurial undertakings.
“If I do run and win, I want citizens to call their representatives and tell them to listen to Greg,” Bennett said with a laugh, half-serious, half-joking. “No, but seriously… Some of the people in our city government now have been involved in the running of our city for 25 to 30 years. We’ve tried it their way. It hasn’t worked. What’s the definition of insanity? ‘Trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result?’ We can’t do that any more.”
I love Swainsboro. I’m tired of seeing the top percentage of our people leave because they don’t have a reason to say. These are things we can change if we have the right people in office, if we want to. Swainsboro is the hub of our community. No matter where in Emanuel you live, you have a vested interest in Swainsboro because if our county seat doesn’t grow, neither does the county. Improving this place, making it the best it can be, can’t be just a ‘want’ any more. It’s a ‘need,’ and we have to treat it like such.”
In closing, Bennett says if he does run for mayor, he will not solicit campaign funds and he’ll do his best to connect with all voters, although it may not be a traditional, door-knocking method (partly because of his schedule and partly due to the pandemic). If he wins, he won’t take a salary or the insurance stipend available to city officials and employees.
In the meantime, he’ll spend the next week doing exactly what he’s been doing the last two: figuring out whether or not he’ll be paying Elections Director Kerry Curry a visit. He has until August 18 to do so. In the meantime, he’s grateful for all the support and encouragement he has received from the public, even without a final decision or formal announcement.
“It makes me really proud to know people have my back, want me in office even though I haven’t expressed any interest in public service before this story, and believe that I can make change. The goal, if I decide to run, is really simple. It’s not about my ego; it’s just about making Swainsboro a nice little town,” Bennett said. “If I decide to run, you’ll know next Wednesday. There will be an official announcement not on Facebook, not by me in person anywhere but right here in The Chronicle. Until then, I promise, I’m going to keep thinking it over and make the best decision. Your continued support up until then, and after, no matter what decision I come to, will be greatly appreciated.”