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Raleigh mayoral candidates tackle tough economic concerns
 
Published Tuesday, August 27, 2019
by Lori D.R. Wiggins, Correspondent

RALEIGH – The six candidates vying to be Raleigh’s next mayor showed up ready to prove themselves as the best person to lead the state’s second-largest city.

The Mayoral Candidate’s Forum was a lunchtime gathering at PNC Arena sponsored by the Raleigh-Durham Chapter of NAIOP Commercial Real Estate Development Association. Candidates Charles Francis, Mary-Ann Baldwin, George Knott, Zainab Baloch, Justin Sutton and Caroline Sullivan hope to replace Mayor Nancy McFarlane, who, first elected in 2011, will not seek a fifth term. Raleigh’s general election for mayor and the seven City Council seats is October 8, with early-voting September 18 to October 4.

About 100 people attended the forum, facilitated in a nondebate Q&A format of prepared and audience-generated questions. Common themes emerged when the candidates shared thoughts on the essential functions of city government: public safety, quality of life, infrastructure management, transportation, growth, and equitable distribution of services.

The candidates also voiced some similar views on what’s missing in the way the city conducts business, spends money, relates to its residents and other municipalities, and manages growth and changes in infrastructure it brings.

Francis, a Raleigh attorney who ran for mayor in 2017, said while prosperity is something Raleigh enjoys, he envisions a stronger, more equitable city where “more people can take part in the prosperity we’re blessed to have.”

Instead, said Sutton, also a Raleigh attorney, “We are becoming a city of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.”

The problem, the candidates agreed, is leadership and poor business. For example, Francis said, the city’s current plan review process takes too long. It bogs down the development process and increases bottom lines that land in the laps of homebuyers and renters. “We need to be real about how our city government operates,” he said. “Raleigh needs to move at the speed of business. Raleigh’s most pressing need is leadership.”

There’s also no collaboration between municipalities, Sullivan, a former Wake County commissioner, said. “What we do directly impacts each other, but there’s just not a lot of communication,” she said. More cooperation between government entities on everything from transportation to water management is a linchpin of regionalism, which can boost overall opportunities for economic development.

Baloch and Knott zeroed in on communication between city officials and Raleigh residents. “When you come from different experiences and you don’t engage all citizens, you get a city made only for a certain group,” said Baloch, a former candidate for City Council who runs a nonprofit.

Knott’s solution to the city’s problem with equitable distribution: “Listen to the citizens.” At a recent meeting in District C, Knott said, he heard from residents who “feel like they’re not being heard, and they have evidence of not being heard,” he said.

To solve the city’s affordable housing crisis, Sullivan said she’d call for a housing summit, spearheaded by a collaborative group that “stays (focused) on housing” to consistently address pressing issues and challenges. Baldwin said she has a 10-point plan to address how to make housing affordable and increase supply.

The candidates differ on using public money to fund Downtown South, a new soccer stadium off South Saunders Street in Southeast Raleigh proposed by the North Carolina Football Club and Kane Realty. Of the estimated $2 billion private investment, about $180 million is earmarked for construction of a 20,000-seat

soccer stadium. The remainder would go to provide space on the 55 acres for offices, apartments, retail, restaurants, and hotel rooms. Taxpayers would foot about $325 million of the bill in annual increments of about $13 million a year over at least two decades to cover interest and principal, and operating costs.

Baloch, citing a similar project in Nashville, Tennessee, that cost considerably less, also questioned the timing, noting the proposed project is in an opportunity zone, a tax law with a fast-approaching deadline that allows developers to get tax credit for investing in areas deemed economically disadvantaged. Rather than helping the area, she said, the big-dollar plan gentrifies it. “It’s the opposite of the desire for affordability,” she said.

Sutton and Knott also oppose the idea. “We need to help those who want to invest for a better Raleigh,” said Sutton, who also said he’d advocate for small, minority-owned and veteran businesses. “We can’t afford to write checks blankly any more.”

Baldwin, Sullivan and Francis said they are in favor of the project’s potential to boost the economy with jobs and tax revenue, but would only support it if affordable housing needs are met and there’s diversity among the contractors.

Talk about commercial development around the Dorothea Dix Park reveal a similar divide. In May 2015, the city acquired 308 acres at Dorothea Dix Park, now slated to become a destination city park.

Although Baloch said she’d be excited to be part of designing the Dix property in a way that ensures “everyone can get to it and enjoy (it),” she cautions commercial components of the plan invite more gentrification. She compared recent changes to Moore Square to proposed plans for condominiums near the Dix project, ranging from $750,000 to $3 million.

“That park was built to push the homeless people out,” she said of Moore Square.

Baldwin said the Dix project is the “single greatest opportunity we have as a city to do something magnificent. This is our opportunity to do great things,” she said. The challenge, she said: “Make people feel welcome.”

Baldwin used the recent Dreamville Music Festival as an example of much-needed “connectivity,” adding the festival fueled momentum. “We have to act now,” she said.

Baloch interjected: “Having a rap concert at Dix Park does not make it equitable.”

Knott called the project “a playground for the rich.” The true value of the land is its greenspace. “Once that greenspace is gone, it’s gone forever,” said Knott, a bass player with the Atomic Rhythm All-Stars.

 

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