| The Gainesville Sun
The Gainesville City Commission District 1 race pits two people who grew up in the historically African-American east side of town who have ideas for improving the area.
Incumbent Gigi Simmons and challenger Desmon Duncan-Walker both say East Gainesville hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves from city leaders over the years.
Simmons, elected to the commission in 2018, grew up in the Porters community.
Simmons said that area sorely needs health care facilities, affordable housing, new companies that diversify the economy and community policing.
If reelected, she said she would continue to push the city to provide better infrastructure to East Gainesville — including things like wastewater service, road improvements, sidewalks and street lighting.
She said the paucity of adequate internet service in East Gainesville is a real problem, especially with some families and students homebound with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Most of East Gainesville is older,” she said. “It’s the original structures. It’s the original infrastructure. And I think we need to really start putting an emphasis on how we make our infrastructure better.”
Simmons said she played a role in recent new programs to bring internet access to community centers in East Gainesville.
Simmons said the city needs to play a pivotal role in reeling in new health care facilities into East Gainesville, possibly offering incentives for a company to open there such as building space at the Gainesville Technology Entrepreneurship Center.
“We have to have health care opportunities in East Gainesville,” she said. “It is a high priority of mine, and COVID has elevated the reason.”
Affordable housing for residents is also a priority, and the city is working toward this on several fronts.
City land for affordable housing could be offered up to a community land trust, which is a nonprofit corporation that holds land on a long-term basis for affordable housing, she said. Simmons said this makes homes and apartments more affordable because the land is taken out of the price.
East Gainesville already has a FedEx distribution center and Amazon delivery center in the industrial park, but needs more, she said.
Simmons said she wants a resilient economy that could withstand an economic downturn, which means a diversification of industries.
“I’m looking at more like manufacturing and heavy industrial,” she said. “We currently don’t have that. What we do is not a big scale.”
Duncan-Walker’s family has deep roots in Gainesville. Her grandfather, Collins Duncan, founded Duncan Brothers Funeral Home in the Fifth Avenue neighborhood.
“I did grow up here,” she said. “My family has been here since pretty much the beginnings of Gainesville.”
She graduated from Buchholz High School in 1998, and then attended Bethune-Cookman University.
She then moved to Miami, where she worked for Miami-Dade County Department of Parks and Recreation’s African Heritage Cultural Arts Center.
“I moved in there teaching theater and building the arts program,” she said. “I had a chance to get governmental experience in terms of creating cultural programs and initiatives.”
She left Miami in 2007, then lived in Atlanta and Orlando before moving home in 2014. She was vice president of the Fifth Avenue/Pleasant Street Advisory Board and the city’s coordinator at its A. Quinn Jones Museum and Cultural Center.
She worked at the museum until 2019 and now works for the family funeral home business.
Last year, Duncan-Walker founded the Gainesville Alliance for Equitable Development, an organization fighting against the gentrification of Black communities in Alachua County, after a developer announced plans to develop a high-rise student housing complex on Seminary Lane. She said affordable housing was promised in that historically black neighborhood. In December, a state judge approved most of a proposal to build the high-rise luxury apartments.
Duncan-Walker said she favors a moratorium on building that was brought forth by City Commissioner Gail Johnson, but not approved. She said the moratorium would have given residents “a chance to stop the bleeding at the moment.”
“It would give us a chance to just stop development in historically black communities so that we could take a look at a way to best develop them that would be equitable, where existing residents would be allowed or able to stay in these communities where they had been for generations,” she said.
Like Simmons, Duncan-Walker said finding ways to bring affordable housing and medical facilities to East Gainesville is also a priority. Community partnerships are key, she said.
Duncan-Walker said economic development in East Gainesville is also critical.
“It needs to remain a priority, but specifically, I’d like to address ‘equitable development,’ because that takes us deeper into impacting the people in terms of making sure that their specific needs are addressed kind of more holistically,” she said.
She said the Marian Cheek Jackson Center in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina advocates for this type of equitable development.
“They have just taken a different approach to involving the community in how the community is developed and how it evolves,” she said. “And that’s something that I think community residents and cities can benefit from. It becomes a much more inclusive space, but it also helps the rest of us who have been historically ignored to be empowered.”
Simmons has raised $7,722 and Duncan-Walker has raised $3,815 in the campaign so far, according to the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Office.
District races may be voted on by all registered voters living within that district. Early voting runs from March 5-13, and election day is March 16.