Wrightsville Beach’s future was on the minds of the more than 50 residents attending the Wrightsville Beach Board of Aldermen and mayoral candidates’ forum on Tuesday, Sept. 24.
Hosted by the Wrightsville Beach Chamber of Commerce at the Blockade Runner Beach Resort and moderated by North Carolina Representative Rick Catlin, R-New Hanover, also a Wrightsville property owner and part-time resident, the forum gave residents an opportunity to hear unopposed mayoral candidate Bill Blair, along with board of aldermen candidates Bill Sisson, Lisa Weeks, Hank Miller and Andy Hall weigh in on a variety of questions targeting the beach’s most pertinent issues.
One of the first issues addressed by each candidate was the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act and the effects it could have on the flood insurance premiums of Wrightsville’s residents. Comments included devastating (Miller), far reaching (Blair) to current Wrightsville Mayor Pro Tem Sisson saying it will affect 820 structures on Wrightsville and 5,000 in New Hanover County. He said some homeowners’ insurance bills could go up as much as $20,000. Sisson and former alderwoman Lisa Weeks stressed the need to form a grassroots push to fight Biggert-Waters.
“You have legislators passing things that don’t really know what is in it and don’t consider the unintentional consequences,” Weeks said in reference to the pending hike in insurance rates. “We don’t have a unified front with the coastal communities and I think there needs to be a grassroots effort to try to build some shared voices and reliable presence to make sure we are knocking on doors and that our priorities are established.”
Also a former alderman, Blair agreed with the need to pursue the postponement of Biggert-Waters on a grassroots level, adding that it may be beneficial to enlist the help of lobbyists.
In response to a question about the town’s pursuit of applying for grants to help fund transportation improvements and other needs, Sisson said he has long advocated for the use of a professional grant writer.
“I don’t think there is any doubt that we need a more aggressive grant application process,” Sisson said. “We are on the track but we just need to do a better job in pursuing them.”
The current board of aldermen’s decision not to pay for a space in New Hanover County’s Emergency Operations Center was an issue that divided the candidates, with Blair and Miller agreeing with the decision not to participate, Weeks and Sisson agreeing that the board should have. Hall said he was undecided on the issue.
The statement that Wrightsville Beach has a reputation for being unfriendly to nonresidents also prompted varying answers. Hall, Miller and Blair all agreed that the answer to the question would be different if both a resident and nonresident were asked with nonresidents agreeing with the statement. Weeks and Sisson said they did not believe the town was unfriendly to nonresidents.
All candidates agreed that tourism is an important part of the Wrightsville Beach economy with Weeks noting that tourism brings a half a billion dollars in revenue into New Hanover County and that 40 percent of the town’s revenues come from parking revenues. Hall said the critical four months of high tourism were a necessary part of who we are as a town, and commented, “I love it.” Miller agreed saying we have to support the hotels and businesses that rely on that income.
Blair countered with the argument that 60 percent of the town’s revenues would then come from the residents and that resident quality of life issues should be important to the board, that a balancing act was needed.
“I think you have got to remind everyone that the residents do bear the brunt of it, and I think first and foremost [we need] to make sure there is some help to the residents when things don’t go well,” he said. “There is a balancing act between the tourism and the money with the quality of life issues here.”
The candidates were also asked whether they would be in favor of a wage and class study, previously funded in the CIP, but which the current board of aldermen has chosen to defund.
Sisson, Weeks and Blair all supported the town’s efficiency study during their tenures on the board of aldermen and said they would still support it.
Hall and Miller said they would support the study but not every recommendation made.
“With a $10 million budget I think it would be extremely prudent to periodically have an external audit,” Hall said. “But I don’t think [we should] collectively say we are going to have an audit and whatever their decisions are the hammer will fall.”
Of the four candidates for aldermen the residents of Wrightsville Beach will be able to choose two to fill the open seats occupied by Sisson and Alderwoman Susan Collins in November.