A conversation with Laura Mireles, candidate for Smyrna mayor

Laura Mireles seated at a table at Rev Coffee (photo by Larry Felton Johnson)Laura Mireles seated at a table at Rev Coffee (photo by Larry Felton Johnson)

The Courier had a conversation with Laura Mireles, who is challenging long-time Smyrna Mayor Max Bacon in this fall’s election. The conversation took place at Rev Coffee Roasters on Spring Road in Smyrna. The interview was lightly edited for length.

Tell a little about your background and qualifications.

Mireles said, “Some of the things that I think would help me prepare for this position would be: I am an Air Force veteran.  I was in law enforcement in the Air Force, even back during the time when women weren’t officially allowed to be in security.”

She said her supervisors recognized her ability to do the job, and to train supervisors.

“And that means guarding planes and guarding resources in addition to the law enforcement, which was regular patrol,” she said.

“The thing that really makes a military background beneficial is you’re thrown in with people from all kinds of backgrounds,” she said. “You know, you’ll have a kid from Nebraska, and a kid from the Bronx, and everybody in between and you’re focused on something larger than yourself.”

“So there’s not the pettiness that you see a lot of times in life where ‘this one’s a Republican, this one’s a Democrat, you’re from the city, you’re from the country, you’re black, you’re white’. All of those little differences, none of those things matter when you’re serving in the military,” she said.

“You’re focused on something really larger than yourself.  You’re focused on a mission.”

“And I carry that through the rest of my life. And I think you’ll notice also people who served in the military, have, I think, a different perspective just of life in general,” she said.

“Another area of my past life that will help me prepare for being mayor is I worked for the Atlanta Braves in ’91 and ’92,” she said.  “I was the second person in charge of stadium operations. It was myself and another woman, and we ran stadium operations at the old Fulton County Stadium down in Atlanta.”

“And we did everything from hire all the staff, get get their uniforms, give them training,” she said.  “I was responsible for getting the reports every day of ticket sales, and where the ticket sales were … It was up to me to determine which gates would be open, how many promotional items would be at each gate.  I had to establish staffing for the ticket takers, the ushers and usherettes, the hostesses, the matrons in the restrooms, the cleanup crews,  security, the nursing station, guest relations … pretty much ran the stadium during Braves games and events.”

“And in ’91 we went from worst to first,” she said.  “We were in last place and the only time anyone came out to the stadium was when a ‘good team’ was playing.  So we’d get a crowd when the Cincinnati Reds were playing or when the Dodgers were playing against the Braves.  No one ever came to see the Braves back then.”

“And then, I don’t know if you recall, John Smoltz got psychological help, and just really kind of turned things around, and they went to first place, and they went to the playoffs and they went to the World Series, which came here to Atlanta.”

“So I started out with staffing with a very small amount of staff.  And as things progressed we had to hire more people, train more people, get their uniforms, adjust the staffing, and at the end of the season I had over 500 people working for me in various levels.  They weren’t all directly reporting to me, but I spent my time during each game going around the stadium and talking to each of the employees. And I hired from that community where the stadium was: the Summerhill area,” she said.

“I gave a lot of kids jobs when they didn’t get jobs anywhere else.  I gave them training about why it’s important to wear your uniform as it’s supposed to be worn, and to follow rules, and how to conduct yourself in the job place.  Because this is training that they’re not getting anywhere else.  They don’t teach you in school how to interview well, how to conduct yourself in a job, what is the appropriate way of dialogue with a supervisor. So you’ve got kids coming in with none of that training,” she said.

“I was able to give them that training which I hope helped them springboard into other things, because of my military background and because of the way that I supervised and the way that I believe in training people in letting expectations be known.  I feel like I made a difference down in that community while I was working for the Braves, and it was just an incredible amount of responsibility. I was there from 8:30 in the morning, until sometimes 1:30 or 2:00 in the morning,” she said.

“Especially during post-season it became a circus. And we were responsible for everyone’s safety, which is a lot, when you’re dealing with crowds of people coming in and drinking,” she said.

“And I also worked the Falcons games as well,” she said.  “They’d come in at nine in the morning tailgating, and by the time they’d even get into the stadium, half of them were already inebriated (laughs).  And of course there’s fights and there’s this and that.  There was actually a police precinct in the stadium,” she said.

“The stadium was like its own little world.  There was actually a fallout shelter. Let’s say if the President was in Atlanta, and there was some sort of crisis, they would put him in a bunker in the stadium,” she said. “There were provisions for emergencies, there was water and food.  It was just a really neat system that they had under there.   It was a cool job.  I loved it.”

Why are you running for Mayor?

“Well, Smyrna has made a lot of progress over the years, especially over the past 20 years, with the construction of the Market Village, and the library, and the community center, and all of these things,” she said. “Those were great advances.  And we’ve also grown a lot with a lot of new housing developments, and we’ve brought a lot of new residents to Smyrna.”

“One thing I’d like to see is, I’d like to have something for those people to do here in Smyrna. The Market Village now is about one third empty. There are some good restaurants in there, and there are some good businesses in there, but there could be more.  I would like for people who live in Smyrna, to spend their money in Smyrna,” she said. 

“I’d like for them to have a place to go at night. To have maybe some live music. To have some dancing. To have some other restaurants. And other activities where they can enjoy themselves in Smyrna, instead of getting in the car and driving off to the Marietta Square, or heading to other areas of town, or going downtown.”

“They have bought homes here in this community. Let’s open up the community with activities for them,” she said. “When we have festivals in Smyrna, it’s great. It’s so cool.  Everyone comes out, people talk to each other, there’s that sense of community. But in between festivals, there’s really not a whole lot going on here that’s a draw.”

How do you think you would attract the businesses?

“Well I think we need to really rethink the whole Market Square model,” she said.

“One thing I’d like to do is perhaps close down those first couple of blocks where the fountain is, and make that kind of like a piazza, like they have in Italy. Some other cities around the country have been doing that, closing off an area to vehicles, and setting up tables and chairs outside, having stands with art.”

 “You see how everyone is sitting here (at Rev’s) on their computers? Let’s bring them out to the central square, over in the Market Village, and have them sit there … have large umbrellas for shade,” she said.

 “They could get coffee, soft drinks. I’d like to get rid of that dated-looking fountain, and actually get the kind of fountains they have at Centennial Park, that come up out of the ground, so that kids can splash in the fountain while people are talking and drinking their coffee and working from their laptop, and maybe have somebody playing the guitar or a jazz group or something, live music. And just make it more where the community has fellowship with one another.  Get them out of their cars.”

“And we could have things there all the time, like they have over in Marietta Square, like they have up in Roswell,” she said.

“My business is up in Roswell.  That area is constantly busy.  There are always people sitting outside at tables, and talking and walking dogs. It’s a very active community.  I want to see that here in Smyrna.”

At a town hall for a corridor study of South Cobb Drive a few years ago you were advocating for the neighbors and businesses along Windy Hill Road. Are you still active in that issue?

“Absolutely,” she said. “In fact I spoke at the last City Hall meeting which was quite long. I was advocating for affordable housing because that is the last section of Smyrna that has houses under $250,000.” 

She said, “And in my neighborhood they just added a second story to a home.  I live over in that area.  I live in a small bungalow home, and they just added a second layer to a home, and they’re selling it for $450,000, in the middle of a neighborhood of homes that are valued at about $150,000 to $250,000.”

“That’s called ‘infill housing,’ where … rather than assembling an area, and just building a development, one other way of what they consider upgrading a community is doing infill housing. So a house will become available, and they say ‘Let’s upgrade the house, or let’s tear it down and build a big house’,” she said.

“So now I’m seeing the expensive infill housing come into my neighborhood, I have some serious concerns about the availability of affordable housing in Ward 5, in this area, and in Smyrna.  None of my kids’ teachers live in Smyrna.  They come in from Acworth, Mableton, and other areas,” she said. 

“Very few police and firefighters can afford to live in Smyrna on what we pay them.  And to me, I’d like to see police cars parked in driveways in neighborhoods. I would love to see that.  I think that lends to a sense of security in the community. If people who work in Smyrna can’t afford to live here, that’s a huge problem, because we don’t have mass transit here.”

“And you’ve got people who work at McDonalds, people who work at Wendy’s, people that work at Publix.  How are those people getting work?  They’re having to commute from somewhere else.  So I’d definitely like to see some sort of provision made, to maintain some of the older houses and apartment buildings, so that you have affordable housing for people,” she said.

“I know that the tendency is to want to redevelop everything, and have everything bright and shiny, and new.  But you can’t develop new property and charge $800 rent. You can’t. “

“So you have to maintain the older apartment buildings, and you have to start looking at new creative ways of housing, which means perhaps building smaller houses, or building community housing, where for example, some seniors don’t want to necessarily want to be in an assisted living or senior living condo,” she said.  “They’d like to have a house, they’d like to be able to garden.  Well let’s be able to have two, or three, or four seniors in a house with maybe a community kitchen, but then a separate bedroom and bathroom and TV area.” 

“But now with the laws about non-related people living together, that creates an extra roadblock in housing, as far as roommates go.”

“We need to rethink our ideas on living together. That’s a huge problem in Cobb County, the law about unrelated people living together. And  we need to rethink that.  Housing’s getting more expensive, everything’s getting more expensive, while wages remain stagnant,” she said.

What are some of your other priorities?

“The Windy Hill Road issue, that woke me up.  Closing down a hundred small businesses, and having them relocate from a road with major frontage,” she said. “When you’re a business owner what do they tell you?  Location, location, location. If you can set your business up in a location where you’re on a major thoroughfare, that’s big,” she said.

“And when you’ve established a business for years and years and years, and then all of a sudden you have to pick up and move and relocate, that’s disruptive. And then there are those that didn’t relocate.  They just retired or close down or relocated to areas outside Smyrna.” 

“That really aggravated me,” she said. “It also aggravated me that they didn’t come to our community for input at all on that.  It was a decision that was made without any type of public hearings, without any type of communication whatsoever.  No mailers, no email, nothing.  Nothing posted, And once I started looking into it, and once I started looking into the city’s relationship with Croy Engineering, that really sent up some red flags.”

“Croy Engineering is managing all of the SPLOST projects,” she said. “So everything has to go through them.  If you want to bid on a SPLOST project, you have to submit a check to Croy Engineering and they get a part of that and I guess the city gets a part of that.”

“Every day when I’m driving around, I see surveyors from Croy Engineering out surveying in all these different areas, and I’m like, I’m guessing the city’s paying for all of that,” she said.

“We’re covering a lot of their overhead,” she said. “and operations on city projects when other cities are doing it in-house. We do have a city engineer, but perhaps we need to build up our engineer staff in the City of Smyrna, so that instead of outsourcing that to a big company, we can hire people through the city, and pay them through the city, and save the money that we’re paying to Croy Engineering.”

“Now I know that we’ve got an agreement with them,” she said. “I’m going to be taking a look at that agreement, and seeing just how convoluted that agreement is.”

“That is a huge issue to me.  And I’ve heard other people complaining about the amount of waste, and the amount that they charge for smaller projects that they do,” she said.

“The other thing is all the money that’s spent for surveys.  Not the kind of surveys that engineers do, but surveys as far as finding out public opinion,” she said.

“At the last meeting they voted to spend $30,000 on a study of ways to improve the Market Village.  So they’re always spending thousands of dollars on studies and surveys and research, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘that’s money that could be spent elsewhere.”

“With the internet now, and with things like Survey Monkey, and with the amount of people that want to be involved in the City of Smyrna, there are people that go to these committee meetings, and go to a lot of meetings to make Smyrna better,” she said.  “And they’re invested, and they’re willing to dedicate their time. Why not use these resources? Use people from our own community, and have them come together.  Which they are.  They’ve been working on this study group on ways to improve Smyrna.”

“So why are we now spending another $30,000 on this latest study?  And it’s always a study.  And sometimes they’re funded by grants,” she said.  “And sometimes not.”

“But even grant money is tax money. It’s not manna from heaven, when you’re talking about $30,000 like it’s nothing. Like it’s just a small amount out of a $93 million budget, yeah, when you look at it from that perspective it is a small part of that budget, but when you look at $30,000, and you realize a lot of that is coming from people who are making seven or eight dollars an hour, and their rent money pays property taxes that go to the city, you can’t just be dismissive about spending $30,000 here, $100,000 there, and $90,000 here for different studies and surveys. That’s a big thing,” she said.

“Transportation is the other thing.  They’ve got a big transportation study that they’re going to do,” she said. “And as you know this whole area has been reluctant to move forward on any advances in public transportation.”

“It doesn’t have to be a huge project.  We could do something as simple as have companies come in who have shuttle services, and can run little shuttles, passenger vans around in the neighborhoods, and bring people to the main bus arteries, and to the Market Square, Cumberland Mall, Battery Park, and those areas.  And it would not cost a fortune.”

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist. Smyrna’s not huge. You just go around these little neighborhoods with these little vans, and scoop people up drop ’em off, scoop ’em up, drop ’em off. I think we can do it, and I think we can do it in a public-private manner, where you have perhaps someone … you know, there are a lot of little bus companies all over the country, and if you say to them, ‘come and give us your thoughts on establishing your business here,” she said.

“Let them do the transportation study. Let them look at the road map and where the people live and where the people work and figure out the best way to do that, and bring a proposal to us, and say ‘here’s what we’d like to do, and here’s some help that we’d like from the city to help get it off the ground, and publicize it’,” she said.

“There’s ways of doing things that don’t always involve writing a check.”

“I remember when my grandma was alive,” she said. “My grandma couldn’t go anywhere unless someone drove her.  Why not give older people some independence by letting them walk half a block, or walk two blocks to a shuttle, or have a shuttle pick them up in front of their house? I mean, there’s a way to do things now with technology, you could send a text. You know, ‘the shuttle’s going to be in your neighborhood between one and one fifteen.’ ‘Yeah, pick me up, over here.’  Get out on the curb, or blow the horn and out you come,” she said.

Do you have any closing thoughts?

“There are ways to do things that people really aren’t even thinking of.  They’re in an old mindset.  And now with technology, there are ways of doing things so much more simply, that we really need to consider. Every day I see ways that we can improve the quality of life for this community here, and I felt compelled to run for Mayor, because I know that I have the skill-set to do it.”

“And then people misunderstand,” she said. “They think the mayor is actually running the city.  The mayor doesn’t.  It’s the city administrator who’s actually running the city. So she’s doing all the heavy lifting. The mayor is responsible for zoning, setting policy, working with the city council.  It’s not the job that people think it is.  It’s more of providing leadership and direction for the city, and that’s what I’d like to do.” 

“The position sets the tone for the community, and I really feel like the focus has been more on a certain socio-economic level of people that are catered to. And the people who come from the working class are not being catered to or heard. And I just feel it’s so important that every voice is heard.   It doesn’t matter if you’re a CEO and you’re living in a million dollar home, or if you’re working at Wendy’s, and you’re renting an apartment for $750 a month,” she said.

“If you reside in Smyrna, and I mean if you stay in a hotel in Smyrna, you’re one of us.  If you are living and breathing in Smyrna, you’re one of us, collectively, and that’s the approach that we need to have,” she said.