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Albemarle candidates focus on economic development

The terms of three members of the Albemarle City Council will expire in December, and two of those seats are being contested in the Nov. 6 election.

At-large council member Martha Hughes defeated challenger Donnie (Duke) Furr in the May primary, and will run unopposed on the November ballot.

The two seats up for grabs are the District 2 seat (West Albemarle area) currently held by Democrat incumbent Benton Dry, and the District 4 seat (East Albemarle area) occupied by Republican incumbent Chris Whitley.

Dry is being challenged by Republican Shirley Lowder, a long-time educator who is now retired.

Whitley will face a challenge from Democrat David Morgan, a former Stanly County commissioner and local businessman.

Following is information the candidates provided regarding their views on current issues and their positions.

Chris Whitley (Albemarle Council District 4 Incumbent)

When asked to identify the most important issues facing Albemarle, Whitley, a former banker and school board member, identified economic development as a key to the city’s future.

“There are many complicated issues cities face,” said Whitley, ”but I feel the most critical issue Albemarle faces is growth and economic development. With economic growth comes increasing revenues needed to address many of the other issues such as fire, police, streets, etc. North Carolina is projected to see significant population growth into the foreseeable future, however, most of that growth will be along the Charlotte to Raleigh corridor as well as a few other major cities.”

Whitley noted that most rural counties are projected to decrease or remain flat in population, and that large corporate relocation prospects are fewer than in the past and competition for those available is intense. As a result, Albemarle needs to recognize the value of attracting small businesses.

“Many businesses looking for new locations are smaller and are looking for quality of life factors such as walking trails, quality of schools, health care, cost of living, transportation, arts community, outdoor activities, etc.,” he said. “According to the Centralina Economic Development Commission, the Charlotte region is the number one destination for Millennials. So with our proximity to the Charlotte market, as well as outdoor opportunities, we are well positioned to gain employers and residents, but we must have an attractive community to offer them.”

Whitley pointed to the current city council’s record as a positive.

“I believe the current City Council has taken and is taking aggressive steps to promote growth in our local economy,” he said. “Government’s role isn’t to create jobs, but to create and facilitate an environment where the private sector can create jobs.

“The first step we took a few years ago was to hire an economic development officer for the city to focus on recognizing and working with existing businesses as well as attracting new businesses to Albemarle,” he added. “We also took measures to expedite the process in planning and zoning and make it more business friendly.

The purchase of land for an industrial park is a huge step, according to Whitley.

“One of the biggest steps we have taken is the purchase a 282-acre tract of land to develop a business park,” he said. “A common theme we kept hearing was that we had limited industrial sites and the few available buildings are not suitable by modern standards. We are removing that obstacle and hopefully the infrastructure will be in place in the business park within the next year so we can attract businesses and qualify for additional development grants. We have already received a $750,000 grant from the state.”

Whitley also noted that the current council has addressed concerns with the city’s appearance to visitors and residents.

“Because of the quality of life issues businesses and residents expect, we have taken steps to improve the appearance of the city by implementing the Streetscapes plan as well as significantly increasing the number of unsafe, dilapidated houses we are removing per year,” Whitley said. “We also renovated the auditorium at Central School Apartments to make it available for a downtown performance venue to support the arts community.  By contracting with the company Retail Strategies, we are addressing the recruitment and retention of retail businesses which draw visitors from surrounding areas.

“And to further draw on tourism and visitors from a more regional area, we contracted to lease a portion of Rock Creek Park to a private company for a treetop challenge obstacle course which will draw visitors from a wider region and will be a destination,” he aded. “Those visitors will certainly spend time in our restaurants and other businesses while they are here.”

The city’s cooperative work with Pfeiffer University will pay numerous future dividends, according to Whitley.

“In my opinion the most impactful event that City Council has worked to facilitate in the area of economic growth is the location of Pfeiffer University’s Health Science Center in Downtown Albemarle,” said Whitley. “Council was involved in obtaining the property and will continue to be involved in providing parking as well as infrastructure improvements for these programs as well as any expansions. A number of properties have already changed hands with plans for development of downtown housing and retail, including the Albemarle Hotel.”

In addition to the changes Albemarle is seeing, Whitley noted it is imperative that the city’s infrastructure and services receive appropriate attention and resources.

“Other critical requirements are being addressed as well, such as water and sewer infrastructure, reliability of the electric system, and the quality and adequacy of police and fire departments as well as our parks system,” he said. “Quality and reliability of water, power, police, fire and other basic services are also very important to residents as well as businesses.”

Whitley concluded by pointing to what he believes will be positive times ahead.

“I feel that the current City Council has been unified in setting a strategic direction for economic growth in Albemarle and is aggressive and is successfully making progress toward those goals,” he said. “With the projects currently getting off the ground, the next 3-5 years should be a very exciting time to live in Albemarle.”

David Morgan (Albemarle Council District 4 Challenger)

Albemarle businessman David Morgan, a former Stanly County commissioner, expressed concern over what he sees as a “downward trend” in the city’s economy as a key issue in the upcoming election.

“While other cities around us are attracting new jobs and experiencing new growth, Albemarle isn’t,” said Morgan. “We have got to reverse this downward trend and grow our manufacturing and business job offerings. Better opportunities and our own quality of life depend on good paying jobs, economic development and growth, and not more years of a steady decline.”

The lack of quality jobs will lead to a decline in school population, according to Morgan.

“Without growth, we won’t be able to adequately populate our schools so more unique classes can be offered to our children,” he said. “Not only do our children need these opportunities, but our own quality of life depends on our ability to grow with new and good paying jobs. The Albemarle City Council received a 7 percent reduction in their cost from their supplier of electricity. Instead of passing on the rate reduction they only passed on 4 percent.

Utility rates are also a concern, said Morgan, citing the costs as a potential deterrent to families and businesses seeking to relocate.

“Albemarle electric rates are higher than some around us. This is just another reason for new development and families to not locate in Albemarle,” he said.

“Recently, the Albemarle City Council approved spending $59,800 for a City Water Rate Study. If the study comes back that our water rates are too high, will the City Council reduce our rate or if the study shows our rate is too low will they increase our water rate? We are blessed with a bountiful water source and we need to use it to attract new jobs, growth and economic development. Our city should be able to not only match but beat the water rates of competitors for industrial development.”

Morgan also questioned the reasoning behind partisan elections for city council.

“Of the 554 cities, towns and villages in North Carolina only eight continue to hold partisan city elections … and Albemarle is one of them,” he said.

“With partisan elections in Albemarle you have to register with one of the four political parties to run in the Primary Election and then be the top vote getter of your party,” he added. “However, if you are one of the almost 3,300 unaffiliated registered voters in Albemarle you have to complete a petition with signatures of 4 percent of the registered voters for the office you are seeking. To me that’s just not right for it to be so much harder for someone unaffiliated to be able to run for mayor or one of the seven seats on the Albemarle City Council.

“Every registered voter in the city, regardless of registration, should be able to play by the same rules in order to run for mayor or city council,” he continued. “The North Carolina General Assembly and the Albemarle City Council can change this backwards requirement. The current Albemarle City Council did not address the issue of non-partisan elections when they voted to ask the N.C. General Assembly to increase the mayor’s term of office from two to four years and extend their own term by one year to allow Albemarle city elections to move from odd to even number election years.”

Morgan concluded by summarizing his platform, and stating his reason for seeking office.

“We’re not doing something right when it comes to recruiting new good-paying jobs, new young families to populate our schools and new economic development to reduce our tax rate burden,” he said. “I’m running for a seat on the Albemarle City Council to represent District 4, and I promise to keep you better informed of city issues, be easily available and do my very best to make Albemarle a better place for all of us. I will appreciate your vote for me.”

Benton Dry (Albemarle Council District 2 Incumbent)

When asked to identify what he sees as the most pressing needs facing Albemarle, Dry (owner-operator of Dun-Rite Cleaners) noted several concerns.

“Our most pressing immediate need is getting people who are suffering from storm damage back into livable conditions,” said Dry. “In my business, I’ve seen it seven days a week since Hurricane Florence came through. We have countless people here who need our prayers and our assistance, and we can’t forget them.”

Dry also noted that many of Albemarle’s streets are in need of resurfacing, and noted that Council, along with the city’s Public Works department, is seeking to utilize a combination of methods in order to improve as many streets as possible.

“Here in Albemarle for the near future, many of our streets are in need of repair. There are three ways we can go about this: patching, slurry surfacing and total reclamation are our options,” Dry said. “After we identify the streets most in need of improvement, I would like to see us identify what method is most appropriate for which streets and work out a combination of what we can do, using all methods, that will provide improvement to as many streets as possible.”

Economic development, according to Dry, is a constant focus of the council. He explained how the board has approached this task during his tenure as a council member.

“As for economic development, people need to realize that city government does not create jobs. However, we do seek to provide opportunities and incentives for businesses wishing to relocate,” he said. “Every other city and county is trying to attract these organizations, and our job is to recruit these businesses in a highly competitive market. We have a great economic development director in Mark Donham, who works diligently to make potential businesses and industries aware of what Albemarle can offer.”

When asked how these needs should be addressed, Dry noted that the council seeks input from its residents and stakeholders.

“First we need to keep an open mind for solutions to problems and challenges. We currently do our best to listen to the public and to our staff to see all sides of an issue,” he said.

“Next, we need to be proactive and get ahead of problems. I believe we have done this over the last five years in upgrading the city’s infrastructure. Examples include the improvements we have made at Old Whitney, at the water plant, and the wastewater treatment plant. Every day the services provided by these facilities affects every citizen of Albemarle,” he added.

“Another way we have been proactive is in our efforts to reach out and attract new businesses. Not so long ago, we did not have a city economic development director, and as a result there was very little marketing or promotion of Albemarle as a potential site to locate new businesses or relocate existing ones,” he continued.

“That has changed greatly and we have seen new business and retail developments such as The Shoppes at Olive Place coming to town. The last two and a half years have been very impactful as we have been working with NCDOT to improve access to retailers in East Albemarle. Although the widening of N.C. 24-27 is a headache now, it will pay off in the future.”

Dry concluded his comments by pointing to the current council’s record since he took office in 2012.

“Our City Council is committed, transparent and visionary, and we will continue to be so,” he said.

Shirley Lowder (Albemarle Council District 2 Challenger)

Retired educator Shirley Lowder is a candidate for the Albemarle District 2 seat currently occupied by Benton Dry. Lowder noted a number of pressing needs, headed by economic development.

“Our present council has done a good job bringing businesses in, but we need to do more,” said Lowder. “We say we are going to do things, and we are, but it (economic development) is coming about slower than it should. We do have some improvements going on in that area, but we need to pick up and do more with economic development.”

As an educator, Lowder also noted that local schools have needs, and stated that she supports the quarter-cent sales tax that will be on the November ballot.

“Albemarle schools are part of the Stanly County system,” she said, “and all the schools need the improvements the sales tax funds would provide.”

Lowder also feels the city should seek to develop the resources it already has.

“We need to look at the businesses we have, what they need, and what we can do for them for the future,” she said, citing the Industrial Park as an example.

“As for the Industrial Park, the city has promoted that, but we can do more and go further to attract businesses to it,” said Lowder.

The candidate believes Albemarle is on the right track in its cooperation with Pfeiffer University and development of its health services campus at Five Points.

“Pfeiffer is establishing places in Albemarle to house students,” said Lowder. “We need to support that and do more to assist in that effort. No place is better to live than in a college town; and the city needs to move toward that goal.”

Lowder believes her background and work experience will be a benefit to the city should she be elected.

“I worked for Stanly County Schools for 35 years,” she said. “I have a bachelor’s degree in social work, I’m a registered nurse, and I’ve earned a master’s degree in education. Over that time, I have used all those skills.”

Martha Hughes (Albemarle Council At-Large Incumbent)

Martha Hughes is completing her first term on Albemarle City Council, and defeated challenger Donnie (Duke) Furr for an at-large seat in the May primary.

Hughes believes that the primary issue facing Albemarle is insuring the successful completion of the Pfeiffer University Health Science Center in downtown.

“I feel one of the most pressing needs facing the city of Albemarle is our preparation for the new Pfeiffer University Health Science Center, which will be built in downtown,” said Hughes. “The state-of-the-art facility will be home to the graduate Physician Assistant Studies program and the Occupational Therapy program and is critical to the revitalization to our downtown. This is an opportunity that many cities dream about in their communities, and we need to be sure that we get this done right.”

The candidate believes the successful completion of the center will help revitalize downtown Albemarle in a great way, and that the city’s involvement in the planning and location process is crucial.

“The Health and Science Center will have direct effect on many of the services offered by our city, such as fire and police, to name a few. We must begin planning and determining what those needs will be, as well as other factors, such as parking for the students. Where will the approximately 200 students live as they complete their course work? We, as a city, need to determine what we can do to encourage new businesses to open in our downtown and also be sure current businesses can grow and be part of what we are now calling the ‘Pfeiffer effect.’ ”

Toby Thorpe is a freelance contributor for The Stanly News & Press.