Commissioner Candidates Square Off For First Time – Transylvania County, NC
Last updated 9/2/2020 at 4:18pm
The nine candidates for the Transylvania County Board of Commissioners discussed infrastructure, housing, child care, jobs and other topics during an online candidates’ forum held last Thursday evening. The event was sponsored by the Transylvania NAACP.
Three open seats are on the ballot, plus another race to see out the term of Will Cathey Jr. Democratic candidate David Siniard; Republicans Larry Chapman, Jason Chappell and Teresa McCall; and Unaffiliated candidates Carl Conley Jr., Mike Hawkins and Page Lemel are competing for the three open seats. Republican Jake Dalton and Democrat Doug Miller are squaring off for the Cathey seat.
Chapman said the biggest challenge that will face commissioners is financial.
“Our last budget, we had to dip into reserves to balance the budget,” said Chapman. “We know that the upcoming sales tax revenues are going to be seriously limited.”
He said the county is going to be “very limited on any major capital extensions” and growth in current programs.
Chappell, an incumbent, said a stagnant tax base is hurting the local economy. He said Henderson County has a growing manufacturing base, which had increased its tax base and allowed it to do more.
“If we want to truly grow, we’re going to have to expand that tax base,” said Chappell. “We have an aging population. We need to get a younger population coming back into Transylvania County.”
Conley said the biggest challenge is recovering from the impacts of COVID-19 on the county. Longer-term, the county needs to have a large-scale employer.
Dalton, who is serving out the term of Will Cathey Jr., said the county could lose anywhere up to $2 million in sales tax revenues, but said the county could capitalize on manufacturers moving back from overseas. By bringing more manufacturing into the county, he said would increase the tax base which would then help pay for items like a new courthouse.
“Everything flows from infrastructure,” said Hawkins, the incumbent board chair, who added the county needs to expand water, sewer and broadband.
He agreed expanding the tax base is important, but it is infrastructure that drives housing, economic development and quality of life amenities.
“It is very much about infrastructure,” agreed Lemel, an incumbent, regarding water, sewer and broadband.
Lemel said it is difficult to make progress, particularly with broadband due to “constraints” at the state level.
McCall said the county needs to provide support and incentives so that they can weather the current economic downturn.
“I know without doubt, if these businesses start closing, families will start moving and our tax base will change, and change drastically,” said McCall.
Miller said the community needs more industries, but those industries must not hurt the vibrant tourism industry.
“A lot of folks move away from this area when they grow up,” said Miller. “We need to do something about that. We need to invest in our community.”
Siniard said the 29 percent of the county’s population is 65 years of age or older.
“We’ve got to find a way to get young people to come back into our community, stay in our community, and in so doing, we must create jobs, bring manufacturers into this,” said Siniard. “We’ll never have DuPont again. We’ll never have Ecusta again, but we can bring in manufacturers who will align with who we are now.”
Candidates then were asked how young, middle-class families could afford to live in the county when the median price of a home is $365,000 and the average price is $422,000.
“Our housing prices are very high because we have a limited amount of land to build on,” said Chappell, who added that more than 65 percent of county is in “coveted” state, federal and local parks. “Our available property is shrinking further, further and further. We have to make sure that we build where we can build.”
Conley agreed the county has a small amount of land to develop, but with most residents working in the medical industry or retail that do not generate middle class incomes.
“Basically, it’s job creation,” said Conley. “In order to generate middle class income, you’ve got have middle class jobs.”
Dalton, who has family members in real estate, said the prices have increased dramatically because people are evacuating big cities, “coming here looking for our way of life.”
He said housing is related to economic development and jobs, and that if there are better and more jobs here, then people can buy homes and raise their children here.
“I disagree a little bit. I don’t think it’s entirely about jobs. It’s about product,” said Hawkins, who added that prices have gone up because the demand has increased while the supply has not.
“So, what you need to do is expand your product,” said Hawkins. “You’ve got to expand the amount of available land by expanding utilities so that developers can come in and provide the product to bring down the prices so that people can, over time, have more affordable housing.”
“It is linked to infrastructure,” agreed Lemel. “You’ve got to have property with the sewer and water available because that is such an investment for a developer.”
She said the county has worked on projects to extend infrastructure in Rosman and should work with the City of Brevard to expand its infrastructure into the ETJ (extraterritorial jurisdiction). She also said the county should look at federal grants and incentives, but those grants are dependent upon “the availability of infrastructure.”
“There’s expansion that could happen there,” she said. “We need to look at our county as a whole. We need to get outside of the City of Brevard and look at Transylvania County and what can be developed.”
Miller agreed with the need for more infrastructure but added, “Our school system is the largest employer in this county. If our teachers can’t afford to live here with dignity, we need to support our schools a little bit more.
“We’re going to have to do something to address the affordable housing issue because $365,000, $400,000 is not affordable for most folks.”
“We have another major crisis in this county related to housing and that’s rental property or lack thereof. There’s a serious push to convert long-term rental to short-term rental,” said Chapman.
He agreed that more infrastructure would be helpful, but asked “Where is that money going to come from to do the infrastructure?”
With some businesses still closed and schools only physically open two days a week for individual students under Plan B, the candidates were asked what the county could do to assist in providing more child care, after school care and care for young students when they are at home learning online.
“Child care is big issue,” said Conley. “I’m stumped on this one. I really don’t have a great answer for that.”
“It’s a hard one,” agreed Dalton, who noted the county did open its Parks and Recreation facility to provide care for city and county employees.
He said child care is not an issue that can be solved completely, “but we can make a dent in the problem.”
Lemel said the market rate for child care in Transylvania County is in excess of $870, an amount that many parents can not afford even if they can find a place for their child. She said she has been working with several alliances, such as the YMCA and Boys & Girls clubs, as well as the state Department of Health and Human Services and state legislators to help resolve the problem.
“This is a huge problem, but I can guarantee you the Get Set initiative of TC, of which I’m a part, is working on this day in, day out, right now to find solutions,” said Lemel.
McCall said, “I also think that we can reach out to our faith-based communities and encourage our churches to open their doors and to help with child care.”
“Rosman folks were certainly affected by COVID and they need help, but Brevard is 15 times the size of Rosman and it is also home to most of the black community in Transylvania County,” said Miller. “So I feel this was an inequitable distribution of resources at the county level.”
Siniard, whose last job in the school system was working with at-risk families, said the county needs to work with faith-based groups and the school system to provide some of these services.
“It’s tougher now with the COVID,” said Siniard of accessing quality child care, “but we’ve had these issues for a while.”
Chapman said the only thing that will help short-term is for the schools to be completely open so that parents can return to work.
“The cost is just outrageous, but the reason it is so high is there are so few facilities because of the regulations you have to pass in order to build a facility,” he said.
Chappell said the county repurposed staff to provide child care not just for children of county employees, but also for frontline employees and that it has invested in community centers so that they can help expand internet coverage. He also defended the allocation of the CARES Act money, stating the decisions was based on “economic data of those affected the most. That’s how you should divide that money.”
When candidates were asked what could be done to preserve older existing neighborhoods as well as preserve certain lands for industrial development, Dalton said he is “all for property rights” but people within an area could form their own commission or homeowners association to preserve their areas.
“There’s good zoning and there’s bad zoning, and I believe the good zoning can be used for industrial areas,” said Dalton, who said he would like to see Jennings Building Park expanded because it already has been graded and has infrastructure.
Hawkins said, “Industrial land is going to be land that has infrastructure on it” and much of that land has been zoned industrial. However, he said the county also needs to identify areas adjacent to current industrial sites or stand-alone sites that have the infrastructure and acquire those properties for potential industrial use.
Lemel said she understands concerns about preserving old neighborhoods because down the road from where she lives on Mills Avenue “I’m watching some pretty massive gentrification going on with some pretty expensive houses being built. Yes, they’re adding to the surrounding property values, but it’s making it harder and harder for folks to stay in their homes.”
She also agreed that industrial areas need to be zoned to protect them from other types of development and that neighbors should be able to come “together to decide that which they most value about where they live and acting together to preserve and protect that.”
McCall said the county not only needs water and sewer extended to industrial sites, but that roads have to be improved because “We’ve got to be able to move things in and out of the county.”
She said some “family neighborhoods are going away faster than we can preserve them” and neighbors should be able to form partnerships to upgrade and preserve their neighborhoods.
Miller said, “What we really have right now is basically no zoning and that leaves us open to possible bad things. The Ecusta site, the old tannery in Brevard are both examples of how industry can affect an area years after they move away. We need jobs, but we need to make sure the property rights we talk about also include the right not to have your property destroyed because of actions of others. That’s a really critical part of this whole conversation.”
Siniard said there are approximately 34,900 people who currently live in Transylvania County, but that number could grow to 45,000 in the next 10 years.
“We’re going to have to start making decisions, common sense decisions, on property rights, on zoning, because we have so many people moving into this area,” said Siniard.
Chapman disagreed with Miller’s comment about the county having no zoning, stating, “Somewhere around two-thirds of this county is already significantly zoned – state and national forests, City of Brevard, housing developments or what.”
He said the commissioners have been talking with state legislators about designating certain sites, such as the Ecusta site, as an Opportunity Zone.
Chappell agreed with previous comments that neighbors should be able to regulate land use if they are all in agreement and supported creating Opportunity Zones.
Conley said, “We have to figure out what to do with that big empty space down here on Ecusta Road. That’s a big deal in this county.”
He said communities need to find ways to protect themselves from things they do not want.
The final question of the forum focused on how to stimulate minority marginalized businesses and communities to connect to outdoor recreation.
Hawkins said there are obstacles, such as financing and a lack of mentorship for minorities in many businesses, not just those related to outdoor recreation. He said he has been working with others in the state on developing strategies to encourage minority businesses.
Lemel said, “I think we’ve got an absolute gem in our community in Earl Hunter and his Black Folks Camp Too program.”
She said programs funded by the local education foundation are exposing children to outdoor recreation and there needs to be more participation by minorities in business.
McCall said the National Park Service has programs that expose children to the outdoors. She added that Blue Ridge Community College and Transylvania Economic Alliance provide information and assistance to those looking to start a business.
Miller said students need to have a good education so that they can attend institutions of higher learning and learn the skills necessary to succeed in business.
He said Brevard College has an excellent wilderness leadership program and many of that program’s graduates have gone on to establish successful businesses in this county.
Siniard said he worked with Blue Ridge Community College to help start a GED program at BRCC for high school kids who dropped out of school and an auto mechanics class for high school students, and minority students participate in those programs. He said the county needs to work with the school system to help students get outdoors and have other experiences that will expose them possible business ventures to pursue.
Chapman said, “You’ve got to have the educational backgrounds. It doesn’t matter what the opportunities are if you’re not prepared for it.”
Chapman said children need a stable home life and businesses to help mentor children and young adults so they can be successful business owners in all fields, not just outdoor recreation.
Chappell, whose career has been in workforce development, said the county has partnered with BRCC on grants and a business incubator.
“We incubated those small businesses, minority and otherwise,” said Chappell.
“Education is key to opening those doors,” said Conley. “Opportunities only present themselves if you know they are there. We need to educate people on how to start a business. We have to start working with them in the schools, nurturing them and fostering them until they get to that point where they can start a business of their own.”
Conley said programs are available through BRCC that focus on starting a business.
Dalton said there are numerous resources, such as SCORE and the TEA, for individuals who are truly interested. He also said students need mentors.
“I think that’s where it starts. The earlier you can start, the better,” said Dalton.
Lemel said her work on the board and in the community has shown her level of engagement, such as working with Education Foundation and Lake Toxaway Charities to provide a mentorship program at Rosman High.
“The future is our children, as it always has been, and it is important that we continue to invest in children, invest in supporting families, and that, in turn, will help us invest in a bright future for our community,” she said.
Lemel said there are economic concerns and infrastructure concerns, but “We’ve got to invest in our people to make everything else a possibility.”
McCall said, “When I am elected, I will strive to represent every resident of this county equally, regardless of race, background, social standing or others with the dignity and respect they all deserve. I believe in living by the Golden Rule and this is how I will serve our county.”
She said her work and life experiences, such as working for the National Park Service and being a member of the local school board, make her uniquely qualified to be a commissioner.
McCall said she was trained as an Equal Employment Opportunity counselor early in her career, so she can recognize and address discrimination, and that she fought for 30 years for her daughter with a disability who experienced discrimination and bullying.
Miller said, “When I’m elected, I’ll do everything I can to bring this community together. I want to do everything I can to ensure that the necessary services are provided to all members of this community. I want to build bridges between communities that have historically operated in silos.”
He said he supports investing in education, expanding high-speed internet access and making sure services are offered to the communities that need them.
“We need to be prepared to make tough decisions,” he said. “I know doing what is right isn’t always easy, but it is always the right thing to do.”
Siniard mentioned a student he was helping a few years ago who was murdered two days after he called Siniard for help.
“He made mistakes, but he didn’t need to be murdered,” said Siniard. “We have a lot of things going on in our community. We need to reach down to some of these kids to lift them up.”
He said the local community has always been a caring and loving one and he wants to get involved to make the community better.
Chapman said, “I have an 8-year record of serving on the Transylvania County Board of Commissioners of which I am very proud of and we accomplished a lot of things, and I look forward to coming back on the board to continue those successes.”
He said the one thing he could promise county residents is that he would provide strong, ethical and accountable leadership.
He said his goal is to make Transylvania County the best county in state to live, work, play and eventually retire in.
Chappell said he has served either on the school board or board of commissioners for more than 20 years, and that all of his votes were based on what he thought was best for the county.
“There’s been a lot of votes. There’s been a lot of decisions. I encourage you to look back at those and see where I stood on the issues,” said Chappell.
Conley said he would be receptive and transparent as a commissioner.
“Any decision that I make will be out in the open. I will take in all viewpoints,” he said. “My goal when elected is to ensure that our county keeps its local charm while moving forward into a better future.”
He also said that many people are apathetic about local government and that he would work to change that.
Dalton said, “Those that know me know that I treat people equally, equitably, fairly, honestly. I don’t mince my words. I don’t pull any punches. I just say it like I feel it, and nowadays, I think that’s sometimes hard to find.”
He reiterated his goals of expanding the Jennings industrial site, extending water and sewer from Gaia Herbs to Rosman, opening up the Burlingame-Sapphire for future growth and expanding growth along the Highway 280 corridor.
Hawkins said it’s hard work being a commissioner and sometimes can be frustrating because a lot of time progress is slow and incremental.
He said he runs for office because he wants Transylvania County to be the best it can be both now and well into the future and frequently asks the county manager what decisions have been made that will help residents 20 years from now.
“What have we done today that people 20 years from now are going to be glad we did this today? That’s my motivation, thinking longterm, trying to do what’s best for the future of Transylvania County,” said Hawkins.