Candidates for the Havelock’s Board of Commissioners shared their thoughts on the city’s future Tuesday night during a candidate forum at Annunciation Catholic School.
Incumbent Commissioners Brenda Wilson and George Corbin joined challengers Jim Kohr and Jimmy Sanders to answer wide-ranging questions that focused on the city’s infrastructure needs and the challenges of bringing new businesses to the area in the forum that was put on through the Havelock Chamber of Commerce.
Corbin, a Marine Corps veteran, was appointed to the board in 2015 to fill an unexpired seat of Jim Stuart, who stepped down due to health reasons.
Wilson, who was elected to the board in 2013, is a local realtor who currently serves on the Craven Community College Board of Trustees and the Committee of 100.
Kohr is seeking his first term on the board. He serves as the pastor of Freedom Baptist Church in Havelock.
Sanders, a familiar face in Havelock politics, served as mayor before losing the seat to Will Lewis in 2013. Lewis, who is running unopposed, also joined in Tuesday night’s forum.
The first question of the night asked the candidates to lay out their vision of Havelock 10 years in the future.
Lewis said developing infrastructure and protecting existing businesses should be a main priority while Kohr stressed the need to bring businesses back to Havelock. Kohr said he believed in not overburdening local citizens and businesses with prohibitive taxes and restrictive ordinances.
“I don’t believe there are any ordinances that need to be put in place but perhaps some that need to be removed,” said Kohr. “I believe many of these ordinances are what’s restricting businesses along with the high taxes and high electrical and sewer rates.”
Wilson said she would like to see the city “without the empty storefronts and the empty buildings.”
“All of that affects businesses coming; you need activity to create activity. We need to bring people from out of town to visit our restaurants and our businesses,” said Wilson
Sanders said he would pay close attention to the city’s expenditures and work to strengthen Havelock’s business community. He said the development of senior citizen housing would also be critical.
“Every year we see longtime residents move from Havelock because they get older and there’s nowhere for them to live," said Sanders. “They have to go to New Bern or they have to go to Morehead.”
The candidates were also asked for their thoughts on investing in the city’s infrastructure.
“I believe it is critical, if we are going to see business come to Havelock, that we do what’s best for our infrastructure,” said Kohr. “It’s time to put aside some of the niceties and focus on the necessities, because businesses aren't going to come into town if they don't have good roads and good water and sewer systems.”
Corbin responded that recent recreation improvements in the city were funded through grant money, not city tax dollars. He said the city has also implemented a plan to grade local roadways based on their condition. The roads are repaired and maintained on a needs-based system, he said.
“We don’t have the money to go out and pave all the roads. We just don’t,” said Corbin.
Wilson pointed to recent upgrades to the city’s water plant and wastewater facility as proof of the current board’s commitment to infrastructure improvement.
“We try to do as much as we possibly can with the money that we do have,” she commented.
Sanders said Havelock’s infrastructure needs must be addressed. He recommended that all city department heads be required to live within the city limits.
“Right now we have one department head, maybe two, that live in the city limits. They don't have to live with the shortfalls that you and I have to live with,” he told the audience. “They don't have to live with the potholes and other problems.”
Lewis said infrastructure is one of Havelock’s most important issues. He said the city has moved from a system of “putting out fires” to a more overarching plan.
“We don’t create 50-year problems here, we solve them,” said Lewis. “I will absolutely support spending money for the city’s infrastructure.”
The candidates also discussed the concerns of local businesses in light of the proposed U.S. 70 bypass around Havelock that is scheduled for construction next year.
Corbin said he did not believe the bypass would hurt area businesses.
“We have a lot of people who pass through that never stop here to eat or get gas. They’re passing through to go to the beach," he said. "The bypass will take them out of here. I firmly do not believe that bypass is going to hurt Havelock.”
Kohr said he believed the bypass had the potential to help Havelock.
“I see the potential for better connectivity," he said. "If there’s going to be land for sale out that way, it’s an opportunity for us to attract manufacturers to come in here. That will be bring more jobs to the city and help the economy and broaden our tax base.”
Lewis said he believed local businesses would see some adverse effects from the bypass, but that proper planning could help mitigate those problems.
“From a leadership perspective, our conversation is about what can we do to make sure the city of Havelock benefits from the bypass," he said. "As a city we’ve already started planning for things like infrastructure expansion so we can capitalize on any development that may happen around the bypass.”
Wilson acknowledged that local retailers were nervous about potential lost revenue due to the bypass.
“But I think this gives us a wonderful opportunity to expand,” said Wilson. “We need to grow.”
The candidates also addressed the need to attract new businesses to Havelock while maintaining the city’s existing establishments.
Wilson said it was important to make sure businesses would create jobs and help the local tax base before the city offers tax or funding incentives.
“We don’t need to give away too many incentives and then end up having to explain why that business moved away,” said Wilson.
Sanders said he believed a “fundamental change” had taken place in the relationship between Craven County and the city of Havelock.
“We’re working together more than ever,” he commented. “I welcome it with open arms. The county has more resources. They have better contacts.”
Corbin said he fully supported the Craven 100 Alliance, the nonprofit, public/private partnership that works on economic development initiatives for Craven County.
“We have buildings that businesses can move into, but we cannot go out and lasso somebody and drag them in here,” said Corbin. “We will work with anyone but we can’t do anything if they don't submit a business application.”
One of the night’s final questions asked the candidates if they would support diversifying the city’s image beyond its traditional role as the home of Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point.
While each candidate stressed the importance of the air base to the city’s economy, they also agreed on the need for growth.
“Havelock certainly carries a lot of its identity because of Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point; there are almost 4,000 jobs there,” noted Lewis. “But we should also not be afraid to diversify away from that to create other jobs. That’s a focus of our economic development team and it will continue to be.”
“We do a lot to protect the air station, but we can’t rely solely on Cherry Point,” said Kohr. “The truth is this city needs Cherry Point, but Cherry point doesn't necessarily need the city outside their gates, because they're self sustaining.”
Corbin stressed the need to advertise the city’s recreation and business opportunities.
“We have to make sure people know where we are,” he commented. “You have to be put on the map before you can do anything.”
“People don't really know our story. We need to talk to people about our schools and our jobs,” said Wilson. “At Cherry Point we have some of the best jobs east of Interstate 95.”
Sanders said he would “welcome any businesses that aren’t harmful to Cherry Point.”
“But we have to spend most of our energy on aviation. That’s who we are and that’s what we’re known for.”
Election Day is Nov. 7 in Havelock. Voter registration deadline is Oct. 13. Same-day voter registration and early voting begins Oct. 19 at the Craven County Board of Elections in New Bern.