Gainesville city commissioner Gigi Simmons, elected in May 2018 and photographed in front of city hall in June 2018. (Ethan Magoc/WUFT News)
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50 Days In Office: Q&A with Gainesville City Commissioner Gigi Simmons

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Gigi Simmons is a lifelong resident of the Porters community in east Gainesville, and as of May 17, she is the newest city commissioner to represent District 1 on the commission. Representing an area of Gainesville with some of the highest levels of poverty, Simmons began her tenure as commissioner with plenty on her plate.

We recently sat down with Simmons following her swearing-in ceremony. She talked about topics including her priorities as commissioner, what it was like growing up in and now representing the Porters community, and even the history of blues in Gainesville. Below is an excerpt, edited for clarity and brevity, of our conversation with the newly-elected commissioner.

I wanted to start off with some questions from our readers. We actually got a lot of interest in things like Internet service and broadband, so Andy Hirshik asked, “Currently the only broadband available in Gainesville is through Cox Cable. Is having a reasonably priced, publically available broadband important to the growth and equality of this city’s population?”

We have to face the reality that there’s a digital divide, and we need to be at a place where everyone has equal access to Internet services, particularly the lower income. I represent the district that has a high percentage of low-income folks, poor-performance schools, children that are performing not as great as other kids in other areas. So, I think it’s critical that we have at least some type of infrastructure in place, such as broadband, that can help at least my district and folks that aren’t performing as well and that don’t have the opportunity that other folks have at least have something in place so they can have an opportunity. The digital divide is real, the Internet is not going anywhere and we need to recognize the fact that that is part of the infrastructure.

“The digital divide is real, the Internet is not going anywhere and we need to recognize the fact that that is part of the infrastructure.”

So, to answer his question, I believe that we do need something in place to make sure that the digital divide shrinks or gets to a level where people have the same opportunity as other folks, and I know sometimes that’s costly to some people, but to most people who I represent, so we need to figure something out to make sure that, once again, that we have something in place where people of lower income have an equal playing field.

That kind of actually ties into somebody else’s question that I want to piggyback off of: Zack asks “What steps need to be taken to make Gainesville the most connected city and establish a public ISP?” So, is there any city-provided Internet access in our future, or something along those lines?

Yeah, yeah, I definitely think that the City of Gainesville should take the lead. I think that we should be good stewards to our citizens and at least take the approach of being leaders and trying to facilitate that.

Do we partner with Cox Cable? At least let’s sit at the table and look at various ways that we, as a city, can take the lead and try to once again eliminate the digital divide.

Based on what you know, what would that timeline look like to actually get something like that launched? I know you’re not on the broadband subcommittee, but what do you know so far?

What I know now is I think we are in the gathering-the-information phase, and that’s critical. If I’m not mistaken, we should have something coming back relatively soon, not too far off.

Much has been made about the historic nature of two African American women serving on the commission at the same time. How will that translate to governing the city and what should citizens expect to see in actions and results?

“Now that the election is over, it’s time to get back to reality. That’s wonderful, that’s great, we accomplished great things, but at the end of the day we need four people to cast a vote.”

That’s an excellent question and, once again, it’s a historic feat. Now that the election is over, it’s time to get back to reality. That’s wonderful, that’s great, we accomplished great things, but at the end of the day, we need four people to cast a vote. Hopefully Commissioner Johnson and myself, as well as other commissioners, believe that that there is an inequity problem in this community, and how can we work together as a whole, as a unit, to identify certain needs in our community, not just in east Gainesville, but other pockets of the city as well.

You have different dynamics now with Commissioner Johnson and myself on the commission. We’re both single parents. Myself, I raised two young men, and as many of you will know, raising two black boys in the United States of America, in spite of Gainesville, is a hard feat. So you look at the dynamics and you look at what each of us brings to the table, and we look at how our experiences can help change that and working together to at least come to an agreement and say, “hey, as a commission, they have these experiences, we have these experiences, and it’s real. It real in this city, so how can we work together in various situations? Let’s work together and try to make a difference.”

I think that’s what Commissioner Johnson and I bring to the commission, and I think that by us being African American women, being resilient and working together, just coming from a different background. Let me just add too that the commission is diverse. That’s wonderful, that’s great. So you bring all these elements into the commission. So you look at everybody’s experiences, everybody’s past. You look at their passion and you try to work together to create something that’s good for the city.

Switching over and becoming a commissioner is no easy feat, so is [Commissioner Johnson] somebody you feel you can lean on and relate to because you both are going through the same thing right now?

It’s not as easy said than done, or however that quote goes. Because of the Sunshine laws, there’s certain things that you can say to commissioners, but you can’t talk about business because of the Sunshine Law. That’s unfortunate, but it is what it is. I just wish her and our commission the best year ever. I think she’s a wonderful person, I think all our commissioners are great people. Hopefully within this first year, we’re both learning, and hopefully we can both pick up our own great things and try to make our city better.

Gigi Simmons was joined by her two sons Sterling and Nicholas as she swore her oath on May 17, 2018. (Matthew Arrojas/WUFT News)

This is from reader Cynthia Barnett, and she says, “Do you support energy efficiency standards for rental properties to help ease some of the burdens of the area and should the city help bring solar to lower-income areas?”

“I think we should help the people that need help the most as it relates to energy efficiency.”

I think we should help the people that need help the most as it relates to energy efficiency. I know GRU has several programs, they have the LEEP program. But my concern is if we implement different energy efficiency into certain groups of people, will they just carry that cost to the renters, will they just add that to their rent? To me, we’re right back at square one. It’s kind of tricky, but I definitely support whatever we can do to help lower the utility bills to help the renters, homeowners or whomever build an energy efficient home.

In terms of bringing solar, is that something you could see yourself supporting?

I would look into it. One of the things I had mentioned early on is I live in a neighborhood, a community, Porters community. Right next to my house is an empty lot. It would be awesome if we could put solar panels in that lot and just energize and have that whole community benefit from the solar in that lot, like a solar farm, if you will, in a community. Like a co-op. So that’s something I’m interested in.

“I believe in thinking outside of the box, I believe in looking at different models. There’s never going to be a one-size-fits-all, so why not look at different ways of trying to accomplish our goals?”

One of my neighbors, he has solar panels on his home and he doesn’t have a utility bill, they actually pay him, so it’s something to look into. You have cheaper bills and you’re helping aid the environment.

I know too in my neighborhood we have a lot of elderly people that are on fixed income. Anything that’s out there that can help reduce utility costs and to help our people alleviate the burden of high utility bills and just anything, I’m all for it. I’m open to looking at anything that can help our residents. I believe in thinking outside of the box, I believe in looking at different models. There’s never going to be a one-size-fits-all, so why not look at different ways of trying to accomplish our goals?

What will you do in helping the Cotton Club be restored as a museum that’s been in development for years, given that the Cade Museum has government money in it?

It should be finished this year if I’m not mistaken, or next year. But I know the CRA gave a lot of money if I’m not mistaken. They received grant funding for the Cotton Club.

It’s beautiful. The Cotton Club is where James Brown and all these people, it was on the Chitlin’ Circuit back in the days. I don’t know if your viewers or readers or whomever is familiar with the Chitlin’ Circuit, but that’s where African American blues artists would come around because the Caucasian business owners wouldn’t allow them to play in their establishment in the South, so they had a Chitlin’ Circuit. You had certain areas you could go in for different cities and different communities, and Cotton Club was one of those locations where James Brown, probably Bobby “Blue” Bland, all the old, old, old blues singers would come and perform. So definitely the Cotton Club is historic.

“Cotton Club was one of those locations where James Brown, probably Bobby “Blue” Bland, all the old, old, old blues singers would come and perform. So definitely the Cotton Club is historic.”   

What are your plans to support and grow local businesses and encourage new entrepreneurs? What are the opportunities?

What I wanted to do is really focus on entrepreneurship. One thing that I’ve heard from a lot of people in my district in going door-to-door knocking on doors is there are not enough businesses or places here in the city that pay living wages, so it’s kind of difficult for people to make ends meet. So I’m encouraging, folks, if you have a hobby that you love, something that you really believe in, I encourage you to look into becoming an entrepreneur.

We just had a forum a couple of weeks ago where we had SCORE representatives at the table, we had the chamber of commerce talking. I think that’s a start, and I think if people have an indication of where to start and where to go, they can have a successful business. I believe in creating a business and making it sustainable. I don’t want to see someone have a business and next year they’re out of business.

As a matter of fact, there was a young lady who came and visited me yesterday and she said, “Commissioner Simmons, I like to cook, I like to bake cakes, I like to bake cupcakes, I like catering.” And she showed me on her phone all the things that she’s made, and I’m like, “This is wonderful. This is great.” Her question to me was, “I’m almost 50 years old and this is my passion. Where do I go from here? How can I start my own business?” You know what was great about that? Commissioner Johnson happened to be here and she has her own catering business, so that was an opportunity for me to introduce her to Commissioner Johnson and say, “You know what, today is your lucky day. This young woman started her own catering company and she can assist you. She can at least point you in the right direction.” This young lady was so happy and thrilled. Commissioner Johnson, she took the time out to say, “Hey, this is how I started. I have a kitchen, a commercial kitchen, and these are the things that you’re needing.”

Let me just say this: Just for two commissioners in that moment sitting together to assist someone else who walked into city hall and said, “I have an idea. I have a passion for something and this is what I want to do. Where do I get started?” And for us to be able to say, “Hey, great idea, and this is how you get started and we’re here to help you.”

So, just on that personal note alone says a lot. She walked away so happy and so thrilled, and not only that but Commissioner Johnson scheduled a follow-up meeting with her to give her more time to talk about her dream and passion.

If not every single person who wants to start a business can meet with you, do you have a possible solution for how Gainesville can help entrepreneurs get off of the ground more in general?

As a matter of fact, the [Equal Employment Office] is having an event coming up next month. I just printed that flyer off, and what that is is a workshop. It’s two events, they have two events coming up. One is a workshop talking about how you can do business with the city, like if we send out a [request for proposal], how you can become a vendor with the city, and another workshop is giving you step-by-step for what you need to do, how to qualify to become a vendor.

So, we are having workshops, we are doing things to say, “Okay, we want businesses, we want entrepreneurs to be a part of the process and this is what you can do and this is how we can help you.”

In addition to that, the Department of Doing, from my understanding, they’re simplifying the process for you. If you want to start your own business like a home business you can go into the Department of Doing and say “This is what I want to do,” and they kind of walk you step-by-step in permitting and how to have your own in-home business.

“We’ve got to get out into the community. We have to say to individuals in the community that these are the steps you need to take to become a successful entrepreneur.”

What I want to do and what I’d like to see more of is workshops. We have to have more workshops. We’ve got to get out into the community. We have to say to individuals in the community that these are the steps you need to take to become a successful entrepreneur. And I think we need to be consistent with these workshops, and we need to have them maybe on a three month basis or what have you, but we need to be consistent. We need to go out and show people that we’re willing to help, we want to help, and we need to partner with various organizations like SCORE North Central Florida and the CareerSource.

When someone is interested and coming to these workshops, let’s do follow-ups. Let’s make sure that person is still engaged. Maybe do like a checklist or something and say, “Okay, you’ve come to the workshop, now are there any questions you have, and did you try to do step one? If you did step one, what happened? Is there anything else we can do to help you? You did step two, okay that’s great, how did that work for you? Is there anything else we can help you with?” So, I think we need to be more consistent and be more engaging with this process.

You’re going to be on this commission for at least three years, so what is something that you would like to see three years from now that you can point to, whether it’s a statistic or an ordinance or a program that you started, that you can say, “This made my district a better place.”?

“It’s too many people in our city that cannot afford to be in homes. There’s too many people in our city that our homeless. There’s too many people in our city that are struggling with basic needs…”  

I think what I’m really focused on right now is housing. It’s critical that we have so many people that need affordable housing. We need workforce housing. What I would like to look back on in the next three years and say, “You know what, we at least started a program that helped people get into affordable housing. We started a program or started a community land trust that is up and functioning and is working.” That’s my goal.

It’s too many people in our city that cannot afford to be in homes. There’s too many people in our city that are homeless. There’s too many people in our city that are struggling with basic needs, and a roof over your head should be a basic need. It is a basic need, and when people cannot meet their basic needs, that’s a problem.

Where have you seen the land bank model really work well?

Winter Park has Hannibal Square. I’m actually going to visit them next Friday at their model. The first one was in Keystone Heights. They’re very successful. It’s not new that started, they’ve been in existence for over 40 years, and from my understanding, when the housing market crashed, folk living in CLTs, community land trust homes, were not affected as bad as other folks.

So, it works. Like I said, I’m going there next week to take a look at the model and just ask a lot of questions and see how I can bring that knowledge back and implement some of the ideas.

The university relationship the city has, I’m particularly interested in because you say you live in Porters. How do feel that that university relationship, particularly with the Porters community, has changed over time and maybe will change, especially with the Innovation Square plans moving farther and farther east?

I’m going to say this and I’ve been saying this forever, and I’ve been a lifelong resident of the Porters community: This is not a surprise. The people in the Porters community understood this years and years ago. My grandparents talked about the University of Florida coming east, so what may seem to be a surprise to others is not a surprise to the people that live in the Porters community that are currently original residents of the Porters community.

What we try to do is we work together as a community, and we’ve always done that and we will continue to do so. What we’re wanting to do is create a narrative: Who we are, what are our concerns, what are our issues, and you have dialogue and you talk about it. But we have to be on one page as a community to get our thoughts together to talk about our needs and our concerns so we can articulate that to our neighbors to the west, to our neighbors to the north, to our neighbors to the south, and it’s not just about the University of Florida. It’s Main Street, it’s the power district, it’s Depot Park, it’s everything that’s surrounding us. Downtown. So, it’s not just the University of Florida and I don’t want to keep putting that in a box to make it seem it’s just the University of Florida. That’s a part of it, but we have other issues surrounding the Porters community.

Last question: Was there a constituent that you met, then campaign supporter, that you met on the campaign that you made a promise to and want to keep? Is there anyone in particular that you think of as you go about your job?

I am committed to the voters of District 1. The thing about me is I want to do the best job that I can possibly do and do it for the right reasons and that’s for the people of District 1, the voters who voted for me that wanted to see a change. They believed me and they really, truly think that I’m capable of doing the right thing in making sure that our district is prosperous, that our district is at least having a seat at the table where our issues are being heard, that our issues are being discussed and hopefully things are being done.

I believe in people, I love people. That’s why I ran for office. That’s my commitment. My commitment is to the people of District 1.

About Matthew Arrojas

Matthew is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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