Competition for Smyrna city council seats is heating up as fall approaches and election day lingers about two months away. Along with the collection of candidates aiming to become Smyrna’s first new mayor in 35 years are at least two hopefuls to replace Ron Fennel, who isn’t seeking re-election, representing Ward 7.
Lewis Wheaton, who at age 42 is seeking political office for the first time, hopes to represent the city’s southernmost portion for the next four years with the same innovative approach he takes to his work as a scientist.
“My wife and I both really fell in love with this community,” said Wheaton, a Smyrna resident for nearly a decade. “This was the type of place we were both looking for, and we started getting active early on, particularly in the schools. I started to see the opportunity to think more about Smyrna in a broad vision, and to think about some cool and exciting things we can bring to the future.”
Wheaton is married with two children, ages 9 and 15, and attends Powers Ferry Church of Christ in Marietta. Raised in Virginia, he holds degrees from Radford University and the University of Maryland, College Park.
At Georgia Tech, Wheaton researches topics including cognitive motor control, motor physiology and clinical neurophysiology. He wants to apply some of those same skills toward leading the city of Smyrna through the end of 2023.
Wheaton is a past president of the school councils at Nickajack Elementary and Campbell Middle School, and has served as a Cub Scout den leader. Though the city council doesn’t run local schools, he acknowledges the crucial role schools play when people decide where to live and says the council should promote education as much as it possibly can.
“You can’t [talk about] growth and development and keep it separate from schools. It’s just impossible,” he said. “The story of excellent education in Smyrna needs to be told. People will say, ‘yea, Smyrna looks interesting,’ and then they’ll go to one of the school ratings websites and see what the numbers are. That can be make or break for people. We want to make sure it’s a make, not a break.”
Wheaton said he has known Fennel for more than a year and decided to run even before he learned the councilman is stepping down.
Smyrna continues to grow and Wheaton said he wants it to do so in a strategic way. He’s in favor of more development, but not to the point that it strains police and public services. Wheaton also hopes to bring in more retail and other attractions to give residents something to do without having to leave the city limits.
In recent years Smyrna has also become more dense, even boasting more residents per square mile (3,339) than the City of Atlanta (3,154). While Wheaton stressed the city needs to be very cautious when it comes to new housing, he said attitudes have changed over the last two decades and there are now more people who choose to rent because they like the flexibility. He isn’t necessarily opposed to adding apartments as long as they fit within carefully drawn growth plans.
“We need to be very careful about bringing in large-scale apartments without also considering opportunities within those communities to bring some exciting things in for residents,” he said. “I hear very clearly from residents that high-density housing is a concern. We need to find a balance there of what that actually means from a numbers point of view. What can the city actually manage? What can our police and fire actually manage here? But I’m not going to be in favor of developing as fast and as furious as possible.”
Smyrna is likely to be included in the area of Cobb County which will vote on joining MARTA during the next council term. Wheaton said transit is a “good option to look at.” However, while he still carries a Metro card from his time living in the Washington D.C. area, he didn’t commit either way.
“People who get to experience public transportation when they travel always come back saying, ‘wow, we need to have something like this here,’” he said. “Let’s look into it, figure out what the plans might be and how Smyrna fits into those plans. I’d be more than excited to understand more about what that could look like.”
Overall, Wheaton said his goal is to be an effective communicator, listening to what people have to say and bringing an innovative approach to the city’s future.
“You have to listen to what people have to say and incorporate that into what you put together as a vision,” he said. “I want to see where people are coming from and find ways to do innovative things for all players.”