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Salisbury’s nine council candidates see economy as important issue

By Liz Moomey
liz.moomey@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Two years ago, the city of Salisbury made history.

After voters gave Al Heggins the most votes in the 2017 election, the Salisbury City Council named her mayor, making her the first African-American female to be appointed to the position. And voters elected what was called the most diverse council in the city’s history, with its first LGBT council member, Tamara Sheffield, and David Post, the first Jewish mayor pro tem. They were joined by incumbent council members Brian Miller and Karen Alexander.

All council members have filed for re-election, but they’ve been joined by a diverse group of challengers, too, in the 2019 campaign: Patricia Jones “P.J.” Ricks, Giannina Monzon, Gemale Black, Ladale Benson and John Struzick. Benson has ended his campaign, but his name remains on the ballot.

Early voting for the municipal election began Wednesday and will continue until Nov. 1  at 7 a.m.-7 p.m. on weekdays and also Saturday from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Election Day is Nov. 5 at 6:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. The city council consists of five members who hold two-year terms, and voters will be able to choose up to five when they cast their ballots. The tradition is the highest vote getter becomes the city’s mayor.

For many, economic development remains top of mind. And the Salisbury area has multiple, ongoing projects, with the Empire Hotel redevelopment project; Chewy, an online pet product retailer, opening a fulfillment center on nearby Long Ferry Road; property owners renovating downtown buildings; and businesses coming to the city or expanding. The most recent announcement came Friday, with Team Auto Group saying it would build a call center and offices in downtown Salisbury.

Alexander, 69, said economic development is a key issue. Alexander said she is leading by example by supporting other small businesses in her KKA Architecture firm building by leasing spaces for other entrepreneurs.

She pointed to downtown revitalization grants the council recently awarded to the five downtown businesses as a success for the city’s future. The money given will be cycled back into the local economy, benefitting all in the city, she said.

Alexander said she wants to continue to look ahead, as the city did with its 2020 plan, and become an advocate for the 2040 plan.

“If we don’t plan, someone will plan for us,” Alexander said.

Black, the 30-year-old Rowan-Salisbury NAACP president, said economic development must be equitable. A partnership with Rowan-Salisbury Schools is the solution for encouraging job growth.

“I encourage economic development,” Black said. “How do we continue to keep jobs, bring jobs? It plays a big part in our school system. I think we need continue that partnership with the school system so we can continue to have jobs come to Salisbury and jobs stay in Salisbury.”

Black, a recertification specialist at S.L. Nussbaum, said economic development has to come with a bigger conversation than just enhancing the downtown but if it will impact the community as a whole. 

Heggins, 55, said she believes local government needs to set a standard and a high bar by ensuring that all city employees are receiving a minimum of $15 an hour and have family and medical leave. In doing so, employers will follow the city’s lead, Heggins, the owner of Human Praxis Institute, said. 

“Many times, we are just talking about just the jobs that we’re bringing here,” Heggins said. “It’s important to me that the city really does have a real voice for economic development with our county so we’re bringing good-paying jobs here, not just jobs.”

Heggins said she wants to build community wealth, that the money lost from Fibrant will be replaced and put back into public projects and to develop a prospectus from the city for Opportunity Zones.

Miller, 50, district manager for BB&T, said the cost of doing things is more expensive. Miller said he wants to grow the tax base because, at some point, citizens will not be willing to pay for services through increased taxes. Miller said he wants to create an environment where everyone can succeed. With incentives, the city will show it wants economic growth. 

Miller agrees with other candidates: the school system is a critical part of the city’s success and the council has no say. Salisbury should be an advocate for Rowan-Salisbury Schools, he said. This atmosphere will allow people to come to Salisbury whether the city is looking for new opportunities or not, he said.

Looking forward, he wants Empire Hotel to be off the city’s book and and a streetscape redesign to be more pedestrian.

Monzon, the 37-year old president at Eagle Integrity Solutions, said she supports new businesses coming to Salisbury and recruiting outside investors. But Monzon said she also wants to help neighbors who want to open up a shop. Help must not come only for those in downtown, she said.

“How do we motivate and incentivize our own residents to open their own business?” Monzon asked.

For those businesses that are established, Monzon said, she wants to meet with them, ask what they want and what the city can do to help.

Post, 70, an attorney and businessman, says he decided to run again for council is because the city is engaged in positive economic development issues in which he would like to stay involved. And Post said he wants to re-examine the downtown incentive program.

“A city can’t be successful without a vibrant downtown,” Post said. “Counties need their primary cities to be successful.”

The council needs to look at ways to encourage development in downtown and also create disincentives for owners that have vacant buildings.

The city needs to have a larger voice with the schools, too, Post said. He explained Salisbury, the largest municipality in the county, pays the most in county taxes, which financially supports the school system. 

Ricks, 74, said the council needs to bring more opportunity to the city’s citizens. The city should provide more resources for small businesses to start and be successful. Ricks, a retired educator, said working with Rowan-Cabarrus Community College’s Small Business Center, the Chamber of Commerce’s minority business council and the Rowan IDEA Center can help businesses get off the ground. 

She also wants to focus economic development for all, which includes affordable housing and jobs with a decent wage.

Sheffield, a senior account manager for Frito-Lay, said the city is in the middle of many big projects and she doesn’t feel her work is done. Sheffield said she feels like she owed it to the citizens to see the city’s ongoing projects through. The Empire Hotel project, in which a developer will transform the historic hotel into apartments and first floor into commercial space, has been talked about for years, she said. 

Sheffield, 49, said she would like to ensure capital improvement projects are implemented that will fix the city’s infrastructure and facilities, too. 

The city must work with the county commissioners and the Rowan EDC, she said.

“We have to thrive for the county to thrive,” she said. “They have to thrive for the city to thrive.”

John Struzick, who ran for City Council in 2017, said he wants to bring his business experience to council —  he is the manufacturing financial manager of Innospec. 

His focus will be not to just look at bringing economic opportunities to downtown Salisbury but the city as a whole. Struzick, 73, like Black, says a factor of economic development is the schools, which the city doesn’t have any representation.

The city needs a business council, Struzick said, that is for all of the city.

As a planning board member, Struzick says he’s been on the front lines of developers coming to Salisbury, but he added that houses are being built in neighboring cities like China Grove, and he has not seen that same growth come to Salisbury.

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