Election over – how will Elizabeth City move forward?
An interview with incumbent mayor Joe Peel
ELIZABETH CITY – Having won re-election for another term, Mayor Joe Peel tries to work with the City Council while trying to shape a forward looking policy that will lead the city into the future. He and Council are divided and struggle to find their way.
Mayor Peel says that the city has begun to implement a number of positive measures but that they need to take the “next step”. The use of Downtown grants has brought two new businesses to downtown and to restore the appearance of old buildings. But he admits that the city needs to be proactive instead of reactive. In order to finish the transformation of downtown, they need to recruit additional business, improve parking and correct long overdue road construction.
The Mayor realizes that the waterfront is a major element in the revitalization of downtown. The conclusion of the Camden Causeway Bridge is expected to be completed in November along with the repaving of Elizabeth Street, and signage that will provide a new entry into the city. The possibility of a one-way Water Street will help with the parking as well but a DOT study will be needed to decide which way the traffic flows. Coast Guard Park will provide increased access to the waterfront.
There is a parking garage on Poindexter Street, which can help the parking congestion, but it is not located conveniently for a majority of downtown visitors. The Mayor laments that Main Street is so narrow and could be more functional if it were 15 feet wider.
As everyone knows, the major creator of new jobs is the Tanglewood Shoppes at Walmart, which will help to cement the position of Elizabeth City as the business hub for this region. The sales taxes to be generated are projected at around $1 million annually, the bulk of which will go to the county.
Additional development in the area such as a movie theatre, a large grocery across from the 7-11 and another “big box” store are coming or are rumored to be coming. The Ehringhaus shopping district cannot be ignored, however, and should not be allowed to become a ghost town. The Mayor hopes that the new Tourism Director will be able to offer some marketing ideas. We asked about the suggestion by some people that to close Main Street to two-way traffic and to diagonal the parking would help, but the Mayor has taken that idea off the table as it will cause more problems than it solves.
The Mayor described the city business districts as a Downtown, Midtown and a Newtown situation. Each has its own set of problems and benefits. How the city will muster the talent and meet these divergent needs of these divergent districts is a significant challenge under the best of circumstances. Achieving positive results with the divisions on City Council, makes this an even bigger challenge.
The big issue within city council is the manner in which the councilors work or don’t work together. How this will transpire will be the “Decisions that people will have to make,” says the Mayor. Peel says that he has reached out and invited people to be part of Vision 2020, but some chose not to participate. Council does not reflect the interests of the common man where he says that people live side-by-side, black and white alike with no issues except at City Council meetings.
We asked about whether or not some functions of government could be reduced or cut in order to reduce the city overhead costs, the Mayor expressed his view that some cuts have already taken place. Several positions have been eliminated by attrition with increased automation. As an example, Peel referred to the operation of trash trucks where better equipment has reduced the number of personnel from 3 to 1. In another example, the use of the smart grid will result in far fewer meter readers. However, even with these increased efficiencies, the largest cost the city has to bear is labor.
Peel asserts that the city has added 500 jobs in recent months. But clearly, the expansion of the Walmart facility and related businesses are the cause, plus the Desert Wind project. The Mayor acknowledges that these decisions have been made independent of the city government. Some people have suggested that the Cotton Mill should return to operation with the attendant job growth. But the Mayor reminds us that the people that worked there when it closed would be unable to get jobs there now.
In order to attract this type of employer, citizens will need training in high tech fields such as robotics. The city has begun to work through the Work Force Commission to improve the job skills of local workers.
In addition, employers are looking for managers and assistant managers. But this type of worker typically lives out of the area. Therefore, the jobs are not taken from local ranks. Any job is a good job, but when jobs pay $8-$9 per hour, with no upward mobility, the overall attitude of the work force is diminished. The city is working to increase job training so that workers can go from flipping burgers to management.
Hobby Lobby employs workers that make $15.24 per hour and they had 70 ‘happy people’ in front of the store on opening day. How many are earning that level of income is not clear. What is clear is that this firm can be a game changer in the local economy.
Peel says that there have been various businesses looking in the area to expand and existing business or start a new one. But this will need the cooperation of the City Council. If progress is to be made in the next four years, everyone will need to pull together in the interest of the city. Can they do that? Will they do that? Only time will tell!