Diversity and inclusion are priorities for McGahee

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Wendall McGahee is an ambitious young man, citing governor or senator as an aspiration, along with growing an “empire” of mortuaries and becoming a university president. McGahee is beginning this journey from his own back yard, Fernandina Beach, where he is running for the Group 3 seat on the Fernandina Beach City Commission.

McGahee lists diversity and inclusion as his top priorities, which begin, he says, with supporting young people.

“We don’t have community-based organizations to promote our youth,” he said. “I want to work with the School Board to bring programs to the community to promote education, access, and stability for young people. How do you have a community where you have nothing for the youth that’s education-based, recreational-based? We have to get back to taking care of our young community. We have prided ourselves on being a retirement community, but no – we have young people here. They are important too. We want to ensure that they have been equipped, they have resources to become productive members of society.”

A seventh-generation resident, he also believes city government should reflect the people it represents.

“When you look at the City Commission now, you see all older white males,” McGahee said. “We don’t have an all white community. They are not originally from here. That, to me, says a lot. I think we need someone who is going to represent the general population. I believe it’s time for everybody to have a voice.”

The Delanies, McGahee’s ancestors on his mother’s side of the family, came to Fernandina in 1865 from St. Marys, where they had been slaves. Thomas and Sarah Delany came by rowboat with their 12 children to Old Town, according to McGahee. The family became shrimp net makers, a tradition that continued until the 1980s.

“My charge will be to make sure a more than decent level of quality of life is sustained here for all residents so that family legacies can continue and flourish for generations to come,” McGahee said. “I will bring young blood, fresh ideas, and a wealth of hands-on experience to the city’s leadership. I want the citizens of Fernandina Beach to know that I will pursue every possibility of making our home a better place.”

McGahee says that his family has a long tradition of education and public service. His own began when he was the student body president during his junior and senior high school years. He was voted ‘Most Likely to be President’ by his class at Fernandina Beach High School. After graduating, he earned a degree in philosophy and religion, with a minor in political science, from Florida A&M and is set to graduate this year from Florida State College at Jacksonville with a degree in mortuary science.

While in college, McGahee got some experience in government by working in the student senate and as an intern in the Florida House of Representatives.

In addition to being a manager in Student Support Services at FSCJ, he is the lead representative at Funerals by T.S. Warden in Fernandina Beach. McGahee said he has been working in funeral homes since he was nine years old, when he began washing cars and arranging flowers. It is a career path he loves.

Among other goals, McGahee also wants to help shape the community into one that is more self-sufficient.

“We want to somehow find a way to thrive among our own,” he said of his vision for the city. “Downtown shouldn’t just be a tourist haven. The people who actually live here, who are from here, can thrive within their own means. I remember being a kid, we went to the bank, we went to get shoes where now there’s tourist shops. If we could find a way to establish a means of self-sufficiency within our community, that would be great. That comes from taking care of our citizens, making sure they aren’t overpricing taxes, making sure they have a decent community they can afford to live in.”

McGahee knows Fernandina Beach relies heavily on hospitality, an essential component of the local economy. He simply wants those who support the local economy to be able to live locally.

“We are a community, we have to create a community that is a safe haven, economically and socially. I want to ensure that, no matter where you fall on the social spectrum, everybody is taken care of,” he said. “When I talk about essential workers, I’m not just talking about emergency personnel. We are a tourist town. They are essential workers to our community. It is absolutely shameful that you pride yourself on being a tourist haven and we cannot sustain those who work in those industries. There is no sense in individuals who work here having to live in the west side of the county or Georgia and have to spend half their pay on gas to come to work. If you really want it, if you care or are concerned, there is something that could be done.”

The city’s marina is another former cornerstone of the economy that is an issue. As an enterprise fund, is supposed to support itself but has not been able to do so. McGahee says the city needs to take a hard look at the situation and determine the return on investment.

“We have continued to put millions of dollars into the marina, and we have not gotten back out of it what has been put in, so what is the benefit of putting money into this when we are not getting money out of it?” he asks. “I knew the marina when there were shrimp boats coming in. I would love to see that again, but at this point, we’ve gone so far (that) I don’t know how we can get back to that. When we look at tax dollars, I don’t want to permit anything that’s digging the citizens in a hole. We have a garden but we aren’t getting anything from it. Over time, what are you doing? Throwing money away. That is money that could be put into, for instance, youth development.”

McGahee realizes growth and development cannot be stopped, but thinks it needs to be controlled: “We cannot permit, with our infrastructure, over development and unnecessary development. How can we develop a system where these impact fees, which we know are necessary, where they are inclusive of everybody?  We should take the time to use what we already have before we go out and develop more, use what is at our fingertips. Only a small percentage of our island is left.”

Ensuring local residents are not forced out of their homes because they cannot afford their property taxes is another way McGahee says he will support the citizens of Fernandina Beach.

“I want to make sure property taxes stay as low as possible,” he said. “We cannot continue to keep raising property taxes. We need to do whatever it takes to sustain an economy where our citizens can pay these property taxes. If we continue to wear out our infrastructure, that won’t be possible.”

jroberts@fbnewsleader.com