City Council Candidate Q&A: Paul Lawler

By Staff Reports, posted Oct 19, 2021
This year’s municipal elections for the city of Wilmington include candidates for city council and mayor.
The Wilmington City Council has three open seats with eight candidates running. Those include: Clifford Barnett (current councilman), JB Brookins, Paul Lawler, Charlie Rivenbark (current councilman), Angie Ulmer, Jonathan Uzcategui, Luke Waddell and Philip White.
For the mayoral seat, current Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo is seeking another term while Harper Peterson, a former state senator, is also pursuing the mayoral seat.
Early voting started on Oct. 14 and Election Day is Nov. 2. To look at sample ballots, check voter registration status, voting options, polling places and more, visit the New Hanover County Board of Elections website.
The Greater Wilmington Business Journal sent questions to all city council and mayoral candidates and will be running a different candidate’s responses every day on our website.

Paul Lawler - Wilmington City Council

Name: Paul Lawler
Occupation: Retired accountant
Political experience: One term on Wilmington City Council. Currently serves on Wave Transit Board, NCWorks Commission, Wilmington Rail Trail Steering Committee and Wilmington Rotary Club Board.

GWBJ: What are your top economic development priorities?
Lawler: “We need an economic development strategy built on our strengths. These strengths are the area’s quality of life and appeal to people who will create businesses and jobs here. Our recent successes, whether it's Live Oak Bank, Quality Chemical, the many mid-sized companies and even our many one-and-two-person shops, have not been from companies recruited here but from companies begun by Wilmingtonians creating businesses and jobs for our citizens. We need to encourage that. How do we do that?
It begins with what this area says. A former airport director outlined the steps to make this happen. He proposed unifying the current marketing efforts of the airport and three tourism agencies. He believed that approach would lead to more effective use of monies and the ability to reach markets that aren’t reached now. His vision can be extended by including all other area marketing efforts.
Our quality of life provides the message. This area’s rich history, arts, festivals, film, food, theater, ocean, river, music and sports offers the appeal of the major metropolitan areas in a beautiful setting providing an attraction few places could match. Emphasizing those features better tells the appeal of the area. We want the people who move here to appreciate what we love about the area.
This approach works for tourism too. The tourism economy is a heavily seasonal effort. Employees don’t have the income from seasonal work that they would have with year-round work and seasonal employers must rebuild their workforce every spring. Focusing on the quality of life can lead to a year-round business and with visitors who have more to spend on our economy.
This shift in emphasis does not supplant our traditional business recruiting efforts, it just recognizes that our success has been through the entrepreneur route."

GWBJ: If elected, what are two goals you would like to have completed by the end of your term?
Lawler: “The new Land Development Code goes into effect December 1. It is intended to promote walkability, save the tree canopy and create more attractive ‘streetscapes’ (streetscapes are what you see as look down a street, i.e., is it attractive?) The code is intended to direct dense development to places that can handle it. The council needs to support the new code and avoid backsliding. The council needs to make it work for us.
There’s too much trash on our streets. A citywide volunteer effort to pick up trash would 1) create a cleaner community and 2) promote a widespread sense of community and civic pride. With the many new people moving to Wilmington, we need a ‘we the community’ moment. The Azalea Festival holds such cleanup for its venues just before each festival. Imagine if we scaled that to invite every house of worship, civic club, business and any other group to volunteer to clean up a bit of Wilmington. We’d have a much cleaner city and likely a sense that we shouldn’t mess it up.”

GWBJ: How can the community address the issue of lack of affordable housing?
Lawler: “Many working in our service sector, tourism sector, contractor sector, public safety and a host of others are finding they can’t afford housing in Wilmington, and soon, in New Hanover County. It’s a big problem and growing. The Workforce Housing Advisory Committee estimates the area needs 11,000 affordable residences, today. That number will only increase in future years as new residents bid up the price of housing. The community needs options.
Fortunately, there are any number of community groups and governmental agencies involved in addressing this growing challenge. Private groups build new houses and repair existing housing. Wilmington has increased funding for its Home Ownership Pool (HOP) program. And there is talk of a county bond.
However, all of these together will only address a portion of the need. There are two other strategies needed to really address the issue. The first is the jobs/economic development program already discussed. Affordable housing is about a person’s income. More income solves a lot. The second is to engage the people in affordable challenged situations to consider buying a house.
We have a great many residents who have always been discouraged from buying a house. They haven’t seen it done, they don’t know what it takes, they don’t know what they can afford. They might not know the advantages of ownership. We need a grassroots effort to reach out to these people to suggest that they consider the idea and to show them how they can be a homeowner.
A great many people have listed all sorts of reasons this can’t be done. First, let’s recognize that no one knows what can’t be done until you try and second, I just have faith that Wilmingtonians can do it if shown the way and given encouragement. Not engaging these people means not solving the affordable housing challenge.”

GWBJ: From roads to bridges to more accessibility, what are some of your infrastructure concerns and ways to deal with them?
Lawler: “Transportation is the big infrastructure challenge. Area leadership needs to unite and pursue what is needed from the state. City projects need to happen faster. Street paving needs to accelerate. And Wave Transit needs to be a high-performing organization.
The immediate need from the state is a new Cape Fear Memorial Bridge (CFMB). N.C. Department of Transportation has determined the CFMB needs to be replaced but hasn’t solved the funding. One proposal came forward to make the bridge the first existing route with a toll. A better option is for leaders in Brunswick and New Hanover to unite and explain to North Carolina governmental decision-makers that this replacement is needed. We should follow the lead of the Charlotte area and Raleigh area and press our case for a new bridge.
The city has a number of projects in various stages of planning to improve city street intersections. Some of these have been in planning for too long. Wilmington needs to find a way to get these projects paid for. The taxpayers have paid for them and need a return on their tax dollars.
Several years ago, the city began a program to methodically pave all the city streets and each year it makes progress on that plan. Recently, I checked on one street in bad condition and was told it wasn’t scheduled until 2022. That’s too slow, the plan needs to be accelerated. Increase the funding for the re-pavement.
Wilmington has residents that have no means of getting around save for the bus, residents who need an alternative to driving, residents who would like an alternative and a host of drivers that would like to see fewer cars on the road. Wave Transit needs to meet those needs. The bus needs a thorough customer focused redesign.”
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