From water quality to affordable housing to hurricane prep, candidates in several area races squared off on a range of issues Tuesday morning in the run-up to Election Day.
Hopefuls on the ballot for New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, state Senate and Congressional seats addressed an audience of nearly 500 people at the Greater Wilmington Business Journal’s Power Breakfast.
Julia Olson-Boseman, Eric Lytle, and incumbents Skip Watkins and Rob Zapple are the four candidates running for two spots on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.
Economic development, affordable housing, infrastructure and GenX were some of the topics they discussed during the county commissioner candidates' question-and-answer session Tuesday morning.
They had different answers for what they believe is the most important single issue in New Hanover County.
Olson-Boseman, a former state senator and former New Hanover County commissioner, said improving the county's infrastructure is key.
“I believe that we need to do a better job at providing infrastructure as far as water that we can drink and take into account traffic before new developments are approved,” said Olson-Boseman, a Democrat.
Lytle and Watkins -- both Republicans -- said economic development is the most important issue.
Long-term planning is important to consider when it comes to economic development, said Lytle, a financial planner who hasn't previously held public office.
“I think we should start really taking a long-term planning approach to really attract businesses and jobs down here,” he said. “That will help cure some of the other issues.”
Watkins said that he wants to recruit clean industries into the community and pointed out the Connect NC bond as a program that can help with economic development in the county.
Zapple, a Democrat, said GenX is the main problem the county faces, and economic development will be impacted until that issue is resolved.
”It’s a GenX problem,” Zapple said. “We're not going to have the economic development that we need. We're not going to have the businesses coming here until we can solve this issue.”
One of the main topics brought up by all candidates was the county’s infrastructure, including traffic levels, water quality and sewer structures.
For infrastructure plans, Olson-Boseman said it is important to have traffic impact studies done before a project is underway and focus on water quality.
Lytle said long-term planning is important and questioned what the county has done to prepare for population growth.
Both Watkins and Zapple cited the county’s 2016 Comprehensive Plan as an initiative that is going to help the county with population growth and future land use planning.
Candidates also talked about how CFPUA could improve aging pipes and its response during Hurricane Florence after it almost ran out of fuel.
Some of the recommendations by Watkins and Zapple to improve affordable housing included providing incentives to developers.
Concerns over safe drinking water, including fears about the contaminant GenX, have also been a major topic for the District 9 state Senate race candidates.
Former Wilmington Mayor Harper Peterson, a Democrat, is challenging incumbent Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover. The candidates did not appear together on stage but separately gave 15-minute overviews of why they are running while also answering audience questions.
Peterson, who served on the Wilmington City Council from 1995 to 1999 and as Wilmington mayor from 2001 to 2003, said one of his main reasons for pursuing the state seat is clean water.
“It is a human right to have safe, clean drinking water, and we need to fund our state agencies that were created to protect us and provide that,” Peterson said. “We need to make sure industries act responsibly.”
He said another reason he is running is education, “the foundation for a healthy society and democracy.”
Peterson said the government needs to find creative ways to encourage affordable housing for people in professions such as teaching.
“It’s not only a city-county, it’s a regional challenge,” he said.
Asked about coal ash, which washed out of a basin at Duke Energy's Sutton Plant in Wilmington in September as a result of Hurricane Florence, Peterson said, “We need to excavate all of these coal ash holding areas and get them on high ground.”
Lee, who is serving his second term as the state senator for District 9 and owns Lee Law Firm in Wilmington, addressed Peterson’s campaign advertisements at the outset of his presentation, saying,
“If you believe the television ads that you’re seeing, you think that I don’t care about clean water … Harper has actually said that I’ve been invisible on this particular issue. What he doesn’t know is that I’m actually the person that drafted the Water Safety Act,” Lee said.
The senator said he, too, cares about education. “I’m really passionate about education. I’ve supported increasing funding to the tune of billions of dollars,” including pay raises for teachers.
At the same time, Lee said, “It’s not just about how much money you spend; it’s what you spend it on,” giving an example of a program he’s supported that “empowers teachers to have control over their own classroom,” giving them charter school-like leeway.
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