Nearly a week prior to his annual State of the City address scheduled for 5:30 p.m., Monday, Feb. 9, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo sounded off on how the city has grown since he became mayor almost 10 years ago and where it is heading.
This is your fourth term as mayor and you were first elected in 2007, right before the recession. How do you think the city has changed as the economy rebounds eight years later?
The way I have seen it change is in its growth. We had pretty significant growth it the 10 years prior to the recession and now that we are seeing the recession go away we are seeing that uptick again. The projection for the city of Wilmington for the next 20 years is 57,000 additional citizens just in the incorporated city limits. People would think we are already crowded but we are going to be even more urbanized as a community and a city in the next 20 years. Working on a new comprehensive land use plan … to see how the city should develop is very important and it will give future council’s a road map to how the city should be developed in the future. The challenge we have as elected officials is how do you incorporate all these new citizens that want to move to your city without wrecking the quality of life everyone enjoys here.
Coming from your background in real estate, what do you see as the biggest challenge to homeownership and the real estate industry in our city?
The biggest challenge is going to be affordability as the area becomes more popular, and it has. I think the price of real estate is going to continue to increase as a supply and demand issue. We are starting to see the prices in all areas of our city rise.
Obviously [affordable housing]comes in a variety of forms, it could mean garage apartments, smaller units and more multifamily units because the demographic for the 21st century is the new family model is one person. We are starting to see more flats and one-bedroom units that people want because of demand.
Since the great recession changed the whole landscape of how you qualify for loans for housing you have to have more money up front, which has driven that trend of why more people are renting than owning. We still have a high ownership rate here, which is a good thing … but you are going to see some transition into more smaller rental units than we have in the past.
What would you say to the citizens concerned with crime rates in the city?
First of all we have had a dramatic decrease in [violent and property]crimes in our central business district. There is no doubt there is a problem that exists with youth and gang-related crime. We are going to have to bring more resources to the table, we are going to have to work with our district attorney, our state and federal agencies, and we have to take these people off the street.
Our police chief, Ralph Evangelous, has come forward with a plan that is more than $2 million and we need to start implementing that plan. He needs more officers, resources and detectives, and we are going to give it to him.
The other side of the equation is on average we have about 200 kids that drop out of our high schools. In the 21st century it is tough to get a job even with a college education … so what do we do with these 200 kids that are dropping out of school with no skills? We have to make certain they are not dropping out … and catching those kids that are dropping out because invariably we are going to have to deal with them on the street. It is costing each tax payer in the state $30,000 a year to incarcerate them so it may not be happening in your section of the city but we are all paying for it.
It will continue long after I’m gone but at least we know what the problems are. It takes time, money and commitment; it just does not go away in a minute. We are spending millions on the repression side and we need to spend more on the prevention side because it could at least reduce what is needed on the repression side.
Looking back on 2014, what were some of the biggest accomplishments and losses for the city?
The announcement of Vertex with 1,300 jobs was a big accomplishment because that is something we have been working on for over a year and they came in after a pretty bruising battle with [losing]the film industry. To have an announcement of 1,300 jobs and to have a pretty significant manufacturing facility within the city in an old manufacturing facility that is going to be reused is huge.
The transportation bond was also a huge thing for the city. Between that and the money city council allocated three years ago to resurface our streets, that will give us over $100 million of projects that will be completed within the city limits in the next five to seven years.
The two major losses were, one, the significant loss of movie productions in our community. That is 1,000 people that were affected by that and go to work day in and day out. It is profound and unfortunately we are losing a lot of those citizens that were here for many years and are now moving to places like Atlanta. Hopefully we can work with the North Carolina General Assembly to make the grant competitive but we don’t know.
The other significant hit for the city was the loss of the privilege license tax, which was about $1.7 million. We get a lot of calls for service at the big box stores and to have that loss of revenue we are going to have to make it up somewhere. I doubt very seriously the city council is going to cut police or fire personnel so we are going to have to find some way to pay them.
What are the top issues for the city heading into 2015 and a long session in the NCGA?
Obviously the film grant is extremely important and trying to make up for the loss of the $1.7 million in privilege license taxes. At the same time we are dealing with an increase in people and an increase in services yet the money we were using to help pay for those services is gone so it puts more pressure on the property taxes, which the citizens always tell us not to put more on.
I think giving us more options on local taxes is also important because as the state continues to cut back on the money we are receiving … we have to figure out a way to improve and invest in infrastructure and provide services. We would like to have more options so at least the citizens could be the ones to make those decisions. We are the ones closest to the citizens; we feel it, we see it and we know what they will support and they will not support. This is the best way for the citizens to be involved, to sell it to them and let them vote on it. I can tell you based on what I saw with the transportation bond and the school bond, people are willing to support schools and infrastructure, and that is a good argument to the general assembly.
If the citizens want to make an investment in their community then they should have the right to do so because I don’t see any additional revenues coming from the state.
What is your opinion on the possible opening of oil and natural gas production off the coast of North Carolina and how do you think that would affect Wilmington and its residents?
The quality of life we have and the pristine environment we have is very important to the citizens of southeastern North Carolina. As someone that was born and raised here I have seen a lot of things come through here that the citizens have said no to. There are some significant concerns about what the testing is all about and … how do we extract that oil and gas without damaging the environment and what are the benefits of that to this specific area?
We have a lot of issues to deal with down here like beach renourishment, transportation and environmental issues and to not get something in return for that extraction of gas and oil would be a travesty. I guarantee you if it goes back to the state coffers without coming to us there is a good chance we are not going to see any of it.
The other part of it is we need to make sure this process is as transparent as possible and constant communication between these companies and the citizens. What I have found is those companies that are transparent, talk to citizens and explain what they are doing usually come out a lot better than those that don’t.
We have seen what can happen and our economy is heavily dependent on tourism and if we had an accident that hurt our tourism industry, what are they going to do to support the hotel operators, restaurateurs and shops that depend on tourism? It is a legitimate and serious concern, and it could happen.
I think it is very important that the players are all at the table and they don’t sit in different camps.
How do you see the city in the next ten years?
In the next 10 years for this city you are going to see phenomenal growth. You are going to see an area doubling in size in the next 30 years. The growth is not going to stop. We are not the world’s best-kept secret anymore.
This whole region of the southeastern portion of the state is going to continue to grow and as I tell my friends in the middle part of the state, beware of the beast in the east because we are going to be a significant player. We have so many things going in our favor — a great university and community college, great beaches, great quality of life, diverse economy, great medical facilities — so it is going to continue to grow.
Will you still be the mayor?
We will see but either way it is has been a great ride and I have had a great group of people to work with. You have got to have debate, diversity and a differing of opinions, but after all is said and done you have to come together and make decisions to better your community and citizens. Are we perfect? No. Can we do things better? Yes. But at the end of the day I think we have done a pretty good job as elected leaders.