[photo courtesy of Ken Hymes]
by Arielle Robinson
Smyrna mayoral candidate Ken Hymes spoke with the Courier over the phone recently. He discussed his background, his campaign, and issues within the city that he thinks are important.
Hymes has lived in Smyrna for 23 years and is one of two challengers to incumbent Mayor Derek Norton, who was first elected in 2019. The other challenger is Alex Backry, who has run several times.
Hymes is new to politics, and this is his first time running for mayor. He kicked off his campaign earlier this month.
The race is nonpartisan, meaning candidates do not run under political parties.
Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 7.
Read below to learn more about Hymes and his campaign.
Can you start off by discussing your background? Who are you?
Hymes: “I am Ken Hymes, candidate for mayor and I am a son of the South. And I say that because I was born in Mississippi, but primarily grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
“I was raised as a Baptist, and I really identify now as a Christian man of God. I’ve worked a number of part-time jobs in my youth, and that’s really where I developed my strong work ethic. And out of that, I learned at an early age to set goals for myself, and to just generally try to focus and work hard to achieve them.
“So while I had part-time jobs in high school, I also played football, I was also a Boy Scout. And so I became very active in the community through all of those various activities.
“I attended Morehouse College here in Atlanta, Georgia, where I studied computer science. While there as a student, I pledged the service organization Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated.
“I started my IT career in Birmingham, Alabama, at IBM, and that’s where I got introduced to project management and found that I had a natural affinity for it. So through several different jobs, I became a subject matter expert in product and program management and I’ve held that role at various companies such as Coca-Cola, Caesars Entertainment, InterContinental Hotels, and the Weather Channel.
“Today, I am currently the Director of Program Management at Warner Brothers Discovery [in Atlanta], which is formerly Turner Sports, and I work in the data analytics space there.
“So when I think about my professional career, one of the key rules I’ve learned is that proper planning prevents poor performance. Some people in the trades language would say, that’s equivalent to saying, ‘measure twice, cut once.’ But it’s a rule that I really have learned to live by in my personal and professional life.
“Personally, I’m passionate about community service, but I also enjoy travel, sports, and sporting events. I ride motorcycles for leisure in the north Georgia mountains and I love music, I try to catch as many concerts and music presentations as I can. I also have one daughter, Ashley, who resides in New York.”
What do you love most about Smyrna?
“I really do love Smyrna. I love so many things about it, its vibrancy, there’s just a certain energy here, there’s wonderful diversity which I love and enjoy. And there’s a community feeling that I get pretty much no matter where I am in Smyrna, whether that’s the downtown Village Green area or any of its many suburbs.
“It’s just a wonderful place to be. It’s clean, the people here are friendly, and I just love that it’s a city with unlimited potential and it has residents who are passionate about its continued growth. And that’s why it feels very much like home for me.”
Why are you running for mayor of Smyrna?
“I decided to run for mayor because I became increasingly concerned about the general direction, the decision making, and the lack of transparency that I observed myself, from city government, going to the city council meetings, and listening to the conversations that were had.
“I’m running because I believe that integrity in our city government is absolutely non-negotiable. Smyrna can do better. And I really do believe the citizens here deserve better.
“I want to be mayor so I can restore a lot of what I believe the city needs. That is, they need someone that will listen to the citizens and actually understand their needs. They also need someone who can restore a lot of the transparency that’s missing so that the citizens will know what’s going on, and what direction we’re moving in.
“The city also needs someone who will treat the citizens’ money as if it’s their own, and manage it accordingly, and be fiscally responsible. The city also needs someone who will take input from all of our residents, and craft and create a strategic vision that will prosper all of us.
“So for all these reasons, I really feel that I’m qualified to be the mayor because I can bring my collective experience running large-scale projects, being able to collaborate with a number of people, and making sound, common-sense decisions. So this is a choice that I’m making to run for mayor, and as mayor, I will always put the citizens first. That is something I believe in with my whole heart.”
On your campaign website, you list your four key tenets, which are: fiscal responsibility, transparency, strategic vision, and servant-leadership mindset. Can you take some time to explain in more detail why these are your tenets? What do these tenets tangibly look like if you were to become mayor of Smyrna?
“These are very, very important to me, and really, are values that I leverage in my own life. I’ll start with servant leadership. This is one that I learned early in my career in college and later on in business. And it’s important because certain leadership really means remembering that we—or I—we serve to meet the needs and concerns of our citizens.
“That means that in all that we would do, if we are making sure that we’re addressing those needs and concerns, then we should be doing everything that’s aligned with the best interests of Smyrna. And if you really think about it, it’s like a contract of accountability between myself and the citizens. That’s a contract that should never, ever be broken. That’s why servant leadership is important to have in a leader of any organization, but particularly, of the mayor of Smyrna.
“Second, we can talk about transparency. What that means to me is that the business we conduct on behalf of the citizens should never be hidden. Folks have a right to know about what the major opportunities are in the city, key decisions, or large expenditures, and they have a right to know all those details before decisions about them are made or terms are negotiated. It’s rather backward to do things in the opposite direction. So I think this is part of how we can certainly start to rebuild trust with our residents, once they understand that we’re going to be very transparent and very truthful with them and we aim to keep them informed of how the city operations are going.
“My third tenet is fiscal responsibility—and this one is super critical. Residents should feel confident and comfortable that we will be good stewards of their money, and that we are spending it in a wise and common sense fashion. For example, we should not be entering any deals that don’t serve the interests of the citizens. We should also ensure that each contract we enter into with third parties or vendors has sufficient remedies and incentives in it so that the interests of Smyrna are always protected.
“Unfortunately, we find ourselves today in a situation where we don’t have a lot of those remedies and incentives, and we see the end result is mismanaged projects, projects that are over budget and overdue. So the value proposition for any project that the city takes on should be well-known and understood by the citizens. That’s what fiscal responsibility and transparency means.
“And then lastly, let’s talk about strategic vision. All of the work that the city does on behalf of the citizens must be part of a strategic vision, again, that makes sense. Collaborating with citizens and the council, I propose that we craft a vision that includes community and business development, affordable housing, strong support for public safety and caregivers, a common sense approach to sustainability and environmental care, support for diversity, and investments in capital improvements that make Smyrna a premier work, live, and play community, and a community we could all be proud of.”
On your website, you also mention that you want to prioritize sustainable urban development. What do you mean by that?
“What I mean by sustainable urban development, I define that as really our ability to go and study other cities and municipalities to understand how they’re approaching sustainable urban development, and to use that information to collect some of the best practices for reducing consumption, waste, and harmful impacts on the community as you pursue to build out a development of affordable housing.
“It requires, though, responsible planned growth and strategies that can support the long-term and short-term goals for affordable and environmentally-friendly housing. In doing all that, you have to manage the economic impacts of how you’re approaching that development. So that’s what sustainable urban development means to me.”
The city’s downtown development redesign project has been met with much controversy and debate over the past few years. In particular, in January of 2022, you commented underneath the city’s Facebook post about city council’s approval of the sale of downtown land to StillFire Brewing, saying it was a “Shameful waste of taxpayer dollars and very poor execution of the process by the mayor and council.” Can you elaborate on your opposition to the brewery and/or land sale? Do you still feel this way? To be clear, are you against the land sale, the brewery, both, or something else not mentioned, and why?
“Conceptually, I have no issues with a brewery in Smyrna, having a presence in Smyrna—that’s not my issue, because I enjoy beer on occasion like many residents do. But what I take issue with is the plan, the cost, and the execution of that plan.
“So let me just start with the plan, first. I don’t believe the location on Atlanta Road, which is very close to our community center, and a church, is the right location. I’ve suggested that many times during the negotiations of this deal. It’s just not a good location, it doesn’t fit with the landscape of what’s already present. And when you consider that there are other alternatives where the brewery could go that weren’t really explored, it just lends more credence to that point.
“Second, in terms of the cost, I believe the sales price of this prime green space on Atlanta Road was suspiciously under market value. It’s definitely a bad deal for Smyrna, and I feel it was a sweetheart deal for StillFire and Market Village Realty, to whom the property was sold. So the question I have is then, whose interests are really being served here?
“Not only that, but we essentially gave the proceeds of the sale of that land back to StillFire after they indicated that there were additional costs associated with the proposed playground. And there were some discovered property survey issues. So as it stands right now, our $600,000 sale of that property has become a $1.5 million budget blowout.
“We are over our budget, and we really made no money on the deal. So this is an example of how disastrous the management and execution of this issue has become. I will tell you, as a program manager, I do this kind of deal every day managing projects, budgets, and people, and resources—this particularly hits home with me.
“As far as the execution, we all know the brewery is woefully behind schedule. So we’ve made no money, we’ve overspent our budget, and we failed to deliver on time. That is why I say this is a shameful waste of taxpayer dollars and poor execution, and you don’t have to be an accountant to see that.”
What are your views on the entire downtown redevelopment project? Is there anything you like about it? What do you not like about it? What would you like to see for the downtown?
“So in general, and like I think most residents feel, I’m in favor of downtown development, as long as it’s smart development and that we’re using our resources efficiently to deploy mixed-use development and designs that bring businesses, services, restaurants, and attractions that the citizens want. I’m all in favor of that.
“However, I’m not sure that there was enough citizen input collected for the current redesign effort. And if it was collected, I’m not sure that it was used as input into the current redesign. I’m also not certain that we had the right design team and safety experts on board to advise the current redesign.
“Personally, I’d like to have seen a greater commitment to preserving more of the tree canopy and existing trees so that there will be sufficient shade during the summer months. A great example was this past August, I was president of one of the summer concerts and I distinctly recall how little shade space there was to escape the heat of the day. This is something that should be addressed.
“Now naturally, in the downtown area, I would love to see more dining options. In particular, I’d love to see the return of Porch Light Latin Kitchen along with a mix of retail space and attractions. And I’ll give you another idea—a performing arts amphitheater is another thought that deserves some consideration as well.
“So the entire downtown area, if it’s smartly designed, should be a welcoming, walkable area and space that’s accessibility-friendly. That would be one of my goals for the city.”
What do you think is needed to make Smyrna, overall, more liveable and a fun place to visit?
“I think I could bring a strategic plan that shows how we can re-envision Smyrna and produce what I call a community tapestry. That is, projects and initiatives that fit together into a cohesive picture that will attract people to Smyrna, where they can live, work, and play without disruption to their lives.
“I see a city where business development and community development work together to create opportunities for everyone. I also see a connected city that’s walkable, bikeable, and we’re easily connected to our neighbors.
“This vision I have celebrates the best of our diverse, resourceful, and talented populations. So a strategic vision—that which is sorely missing from city hall—is what we need and what I can deliver.
“It’s just like when you use your GPS to get somewhere first, right? The first thing you do is you tell the GPS where you want to go, otherwise, it’s useless. It’s pointless. So that’s why a strategic vision is important. The mayor’s come up with some great ideas, but they don’t come together in any sensible vision whatsoever.
“Now all over the metro area, we see other cities and municipalities that do have a strategic vision and they’re able to accomplish those dreams because they have the right leadership. If we want to do the same here in Smyrna I am that right leadership.”
Smyrna is a majority-minority city. In recent years, the city has started having more celebrations in honor of Black History Month/Juneteenth and Hispanic Heritage Month, to name a couple of newer initiatives. Do you think there is anything more that can be done to appeal to minority populations within Smyrna? If so, what?
“First, let me just say, I am excited that there is more recognition of the contributions and the legacies of our majority-minority citizens, and that’s great and wonderful. But yes, much, much more can be done beyond just checking a box saying we recognize all of these groups. We have to do much more than that.
“One thing I would focus on is to improve minority participation, actually, in city government and on city committees. Because we are a majority-minority city, I believe that these groups should absolutely have a seat at the table in the planning, recommendations, and decision-making processes of the city, they should absolutely be involved in all that. I would strive to be more inclusive, to make sure that they are represented there.
“In addition to that, I believe more support can be provided to, for example, Asian, Latino, and African-American audiences that celebrate their respective cultures. You could do this in a number of ways, and not just that there are annual celebrations but [celebrations] throughout the year.
“So for example, we could feature some of these cultures in some of the headline acts when we have our Smyrna annual birthday, and we could hold forums throughout the year where they can share more about their history, contributions, and milestones, and share that with the general public.
“And if we do that, in the process, I’m sure we would all learn quite a bit more about each other. After all, we are neighbors. So I’d like to see efforts such as this, which will clearly demonstrate a true commitment to diversity and inclusion for all, and not just checking a box.”
Who are some people/groups you are proud to say you have the backing of?
“So we’re just in the throes of getting a foundation in place, and really starting our outreach. But I will say that due to my community involvement in the past, I have the support of a cross-section of groups and individuals within the Smyrna community, including members of the LGBTQ+ community, I have support from grassroots organizations such as Smart Smyrna, and I have support from other city and community leaders…We will continue to seek to expand our base of support as we gain momentum across Smyrna and as we continue to share our campaign message and value proposition.”
How can voters reach out to you and stay connected with your campaign?
“They can reach out to me through a variety of means. One of those is our website, where you can volunteer, donate, or elect to stay informed about our activities and events. We have also social media presences across Facebook, Instagram, X, and Threads that also provide the opportunity to ask questions and submit comments.
“Then lastly, as part of my outreach campaign, I will be visiting neighborhoods and communities throughout Smyrna over the next weeks to speak directly with residents and have conversations about what concerns them, and how I plan to make Smyrna a better place on their behalves.”
Anything else you would like to mention that has not been brought up here today?
“What I’d like to say is that in this election, the citizens really do have a clear choice. A vote for Ken Hymes is going to be a vote for change. I will actively listen to citizens and solicit their input on the key issues facing Smyrna.
“I will support transparency of city operations so you won’t be in the dark about what we’re doing and what the objectives are. I will be a mayor that will be fiscally responsible with your tax dollars and the dollars we receive from state and federal government.
“I’ll use my extensive program management experience to give life to our vision of Smyrna while staying on budget and on time. I will always be respectful in all of my interactions with the people of Smyrna, and I will certainly be a mayor who remembers that at the end of the day, I serve at the pleasure of the citizens and I will always put their interests first.
“I’m not beholden to any special interests or third parties. I’m not a lobbyist. I am a man of the people. So the choice that people of Smyrna have is between what I offer and what the status quo offers. And the status quo, unfortunately, is rife with poor execution and broken promises. So I will hope that I have an opportunity to earn the votes of all the Smyrna residents to really address the issues that are of highest concern to them, and to make Smyrna a premier community in Georgia.”
Arielle Robinson is a student at Kennesaw State University. She also freelances for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution and is the former president of KSU’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists as well as a former CNN intern. She enjoys music, reading, and live shows.