The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

December 1, 2013

The Changing Face of the Albemarle City Council

Veteran officials set to depart as new members tackle old Central decision

By Ritchie Starnes, News Editor

Sunday, December 1, 2013 — Come Monday the city of Albemarle will lose a wealth of municipal experience from its council as four veteran members exit for a new guard. Conversely, the municipal board will start anew with a dash of fresh ideas focused on economic development.

City voters last month  favored a changing of the guard by electing four new faces on the city council. Three of those posts included incumbents that wanted to continue their service before falling to defeat.

Despite the election’s outcome, the outgoing council members were instrumental in a number of accomplishments over their respective tenure. The conversion of a Coca Cola plant to a new complex for the city’s fire and police departments, a new city hall, Niven Center, Stanly County Farmers Market, Northeast Connector and Albemarle Downtown Development Corporation are a few of their achievements.

“I know that I was a good council member and we did a great job,” said Councilwoman Judy Holcomb, 69, who served the board for 24 years. The Democrat lost her re-election bid to political newcomer Martha Hughes, 52.

Jack Neel will also depart after 26 years on the council. But that hardly describes his experience. He also served 19 years as city manager before entering the political arena. In addition to Albemarle, Neel worked in two other municipalities.

“I’ve been in local government since 1957,” Neel said.

“I listened to the people and tried to do what they wanted.

“People came to me about how to get things done or where to go to get things done.”

At 83 years old, Neel said voters chose a youth movement over experience when they bounced three incumbents for political newcomers.

“I think it’s a youth movement — get the old people out. Experience doesn’t matter anymore,” Neel said.

None of his colleagues nor any of the newly-elected council members asked share his theory. But ousted Councilman Ed Underwood, 82, said he had become too old to serve in spite of his pursuit for another term.

“I’m glad I got beat because I’ve been there too long,” Underwood said.

“Really, I’m too old to be on there. I’m proud to have been on the board and I’m proud to be off, too. They’ve got some new blood now.”

Democrat and downtown businessman Benton H. Dry defeated Underwood by 99 votes.

Underwood’s time on the council does not reflect all of his service. The Republican also served as a Stanly County commissioner for eight years, where he was chairman and as a member of the planning board. He also briefly served as county manager.

Underwood theorizes that the sweeping changes were due to the council’s allegiance to Alcoa, whereas the county and the company were at odds about what Alcoa was entitled to control. Alcoa has been a major employer for local residents.

“I felt we needed more jobs around here and I supported Alcoa because of that,” Underwood said.

“I’m definitely for more jobs. We need to have more industry around here.”

Underwood said the Alcoa factor led to a group that specifically targeted re-election bids.

The council-elect doesn’t point to an Alcoa factor any more than a youth movement as the reason behind a changing of the city’s political guard.

Instead, the new members simply point to voters wanting fresh ideas, and to a lingering lack of economic development, especially in the downtown district.

“Mainly, it’s an economic thing,” said Chris Whitley, who garnered 460 votes over Neel’s 315.

“There has been several years of economic decline for whatever reason.”

The Republican contends that voters want “to see economic improvement.”

“I’m certainly not laying any blame with the current council,” Whitley said.

“I work in banking so I know firsthand the impact of what’s been going on with the economy in recent years.”

Hughes concedes that Albemarle routinely faces stiff competition for industry relocation and/or development, but suggests the city needs to devise a marketing plan.

“We need to put a plan in place that markets our community,” Hughes said.

“I don’t think we’ve really defined that.”

She also agreed that neither age or the Alcoa dispute played an overwhelming factor in the election.

“I think the consensus is that voters wanted new people in there with fresh ideas and a new approach,” she said.

Hughes also knows job creation will be the council’s toughest challenge.

“Everybody wants to see job  growth. That’s our first and foremost challenge,” Hughes said.

“But it’s not a magic button that you flip on.”

That approach will be challenged immediately after the new council members take their oath of office. The council will decide whether to partner with The Landmark Group and help finance the company’s effort to secure, then refurbish the old Central School into a mixed-use development that could bolster the economy downtown.

Landmark is competing with the Spirit and Truth United Church of Worship for an opportunity to buy the property that formerly housed Central Elementary.

The council will vote Monday night on its commitment to the development.

The outgoing councilors clearly preferred that the newly-elected members make this decision, choosing to delay any vote until their first meeting in December.

“It appears the council coming in Monday will hit the road running,” Hughes said.

“We definitely will not be walking.”

Who gets the property, however, lies in the hands of the board of education. School leaders will vote on the matter Tuesday night.

The outgoing council members harbor no ill feelings toward the newly-elected group. Instead, they wished them well with a dose of advice gleaned from their years of experience.

Neel cautioned the new council to “listen and learn,” while also protecting the city’s rank and file employees.

“I hope the new council will learn that the city’ employees are the heart of the city and they have to take care of them,” Neel said.

Holcomb echoed the need for the new members to research the issues before making decisions as well as the caution to serve ethically in the interest of the city.

“Do the right thing for the citizens of Albemarle and not any special-interest group,” Holcomb said.

A message left for outgoing Mayor Elbert L. “Whit” Whitley was not immediately returned. He served the city both as councilman and twice as mayor before deciding not to seek re-election.

Democrat Councilman Ronnie Michael defeated Chris Bramlett for mayor. The city is accepting applications for Michael’s District 3 seat.

Call Ritchie Starnes at (704) 982-2121 ext. 28 or email ritchie@stanlynews