New Hanover County commissioner candidates on Wednesday added their thoughts about economic development, growth and other business issues to the race's crowded campaign landscape.
With early voting already underway in the primary elections, seven of the 15 candidates spoke to members of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, BASE, Cape Fear Realtors and Wilmington-Cape Fear Home Builders Association. They answered the same questions pitched to seven other candidates in the race last week
. Ricky Meeks is on the Republican ballot but did not participate in the forums.
The candidates are campaigning for three seats on the board. Commissioners Pat Kusek and Woody White, both Republicans, decided not to run for re-election.
“We all know that the growth is coming, and we need to be very careful about how we handle that,” said Leslie Cohen, a Democrat who has previously run for a state House seat. In 2018, she won the Democratic primary in the House District 20 race but lost in the general election to state Rep. Holly Grange.
Cohen pointed to current discussions about the county’s unified development ordinance as a key part of preparing for that growth.
“I want to make sure that we preserve our way of life here, and if we’re not careful about how we develop we are not going to do that,” she said. “If we have too much traffic, if we don’t have the infrastructure, if we don’t have clean drinking water and our air isn’t clean all of this growth that we’re hearing about isn’t going to happen.”
With transportation, Republican Skip Watkins brought up the Cape Fear Crossing, a proposed second bridge over the Cape Fear River that the N.C. Department of Transportation took out of its long-range transportation plan last year.
“For as long I’ve been here, folks keep talking about the bridge,” said Watkins, who previously served as a county commissioner but lost a re-election bid in 2018. “And what we need to do is come to a decision as to what’s the best viable route, get that in the queue then at the state level to get the money to come down here.”
Republican candidate Harry Knight said while the area’s workforce is “vibrant” in the services and film industries as well as in professional positions such as doctors and lawyers, a gap exists for middle-class jobs.
“[In] the economic downturn, you know about a decade or so ago … large [employers] GE, both nuclear and aircraft, and Corning some of those things contracted; they need to expand again,” said Knight, who previously worked for GE-Hitachi, spent nearly three decades in the nuclear industry and now chairs a political action committee. “So what you need is we need to incentivize businesses and companies in order to fill that hole for the middle-class jobs because middle-class jobs are the lifeblood of this area.”
John Lyon, who was the longtime regional director of external affairs for AT&T in the area before retiring, pointed to his past in working with economic development.
“We need to promote our area as best we can, everybody from California to Carolina wants Silicon Valley … and we all do that,” said Lyon, who is now vice president of New Hanover Printing. “We need a balanced economy. We’ve got a pharma industry; we’ve got a banking industry here that quite frankly is very impressive. So we just need to keep putting the line in the water and sweep the banks every once in a while.”
When it comes to promoting the area, Kyle Horton, an internal medicine physician, said the region shouldn’t rest on its laurels.
“I think it comes down to emphasizing the people that we already have here and what we’ve been able to do in the past couple of decades,” she said. “But we’re failing to live up to some of the most basic things I think businesses would look for when they come here, which is that there are concerns about our health care. There’s concerns about our public schools. There’s obviously the concerns about our infrastructure … And those are sort of boxes that major employers across all industries are going to look for.”
Horton’s first jump into politics was in 2018 when she made a run for North Carolina’s 7th Congressional District against incumbent Rep. David Rouzer, coming up short but garnering about 43% of the vote.
For workforce development and the area’s higher education, Democrat Steve Miller said there were opportunities for even more tie-ins to the area’s fastest-growing industries.
“And that is contract research organizations and pharmaceuticals, as well as financial technologies,” said Miller, who in his career worked for the EPA and as a consultant. “Three of our largest private employers are Live Oak Bank, their spinoff nCino, and PPD. When we provide the skillsets for the students to come out and get jobs in those places, those companies don’t have to go outside the region to hire people.”
Republican Matt Rhodes spoke of limiting the role of government.
“Keeping government out of your way, that’s a big thing. I’ve got a small business,” he said. “I realized that real estate plays into that because three out of every five jobs somehow or another are attached to that industry so we always want to support that but also have a good plan for the infrastructure."
ON THE BALLOTS
Here is who is running in the Democratic and Republican primaries for New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.
One-stop voting is Feb. 7-29.
Election Day is March 3.
Frank Christopher Meares
Jonathan Barfield Jr.