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Moderator John Marshall, left, gives all of the Blowing Rock town council candidates — from left, Sue Sweeting, Doug Matheson, Ray Pickett, David Barker and Laurin Carter — a chance to make their final ‘sales push’ at the end of Tuesday evening’s candidates forum at Blowing Rock School. Photo by Jeff Eason

Originally published: 2013-10-24 08:15:36
Last modified: 2013-10-24 08:20:01

Blowing Rock hopefuls address issues

by Jeff Eason

Blowing Rock candidates heading down the homestretch of election 2013 utilized a public forum Tuesday night to meet with the public and explain how their stands on a variety of issues differ from that of their opponents.

The Candidates Forum 2103, presented by the Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce, took place at the Blowing Rock School auditorium and was attended by approximately 200 spectators and candidate supporters.

Moderated by John Marshall, the forum gave the candidates an opportunity to speak about a number of pressing issues in Blowing Rock, including the U.S. 321 widening project, county sales tax distribution, aging playground equipment at Blowing Rock School, water and sewer needs, tourism and business and Blowing Rock's relationship with Boone and Watauga County.

The forum began with mayoral candidates, incumbent J.B. Lawrence and challenger Dan Phillips, speaking on the role of mayor in Blowing Rock.

"Let me just say what the town code says about the role of mayor," Lawrence said. "'The mayor is the ceremonial head of the town. In addition, he must keep himself informed about town issues, preside over the town meetings, sign off contracts and legal documents of the town, vote to break a tie if needed and administer oaths and perform other duties pursuant to law.'"

"Also, I think that the mayor is the face of the town. He is the ambassador, wherever he goes, whether it be at home or traveling. He should always try to put Blowing Rock in the best light possible. That's how I see the role of mayor," he said.

Blowing Rock Commissioner and mayoral candidate Phillips responded, "I don't disagree with the things that the mayor has said. I do see that it is currently ceremonial. I do think, though, that as times are going on, it may be needing to change. Also, the mayor is supposed to be working with the board of commissioners to accomplish neutral goals for the town and to benefit the community at large. One of the reasons I ran against Mayor Lawrence is that for two years and attending two retreats there was no effort whatsoever to make any unison with the current council. To date, I've not received one email or one phone call from the mayor to welcome me to the board or to work with me to work in unison. You always welcome new members to the board. You are also supposed to act as the CEO. I've been a CEO. You always welcome new members. So, I do agree that it is ceremonial, but as changes are coming to Blowing Rock, this role may need to be updated."

The second question mayoral candidates faced asked them to discuss their thoughts on their concerns and vision for Blowing Rock's future.

"The big issue is getting Highway 321 done as planned in a timely manner without any further delays," Lawrence said. "To make sure that we get the things we agreed upon years ago. We have issues with getting our sewer lines extended to parts of town that aren't sewered. That's always been a big issue. Some of the problems that we've had in the past such as parking we've addressed. We've taken care of that. My vision for the town? It's your town. It's your vision. Where do you want Blowing Rock to go? I'm here to listen. You can tell me where you want Blowing Rock to go. I'm not going to set the course for you because it is your town. It is our town. And we need to do this together."

Phillips responded that he thought the big concern for the town was, "not having term limits. The cost of our infrastructure. We have not had any capital increase in our expenses for capital improvements since 2007. I'm concerned about the development that is happening, and will happen along (highway) 321. I'm concerned that our big box ordinance has not been tweaked, and currently, right now, if a big box store wants to go out there, it can. I'm concerned about how the property is being bought up downtown and how that's going to be developed. I'm concerned about how the seven-acre project is going to be developed and how the old hospital property is going to be developed.

"My visions? There are so many of them I can't name them all. But they are what your visions are: the Middlefork Greenway, what an incredible thing for our community. If that is finished, and finished right, that will bring people up here like you wouldn't believe. The equestrian side of our community, that is something that we have let go. The horse shows, what an untapped asset. It's unbelievable. This elementary school is an incredible thing that we need to continue to protect. Our town is safe. It needs to continue to be safe.

"We need to be bringing business up here year round. We need to do better for a future infrastructure, so that we can have high-speed wireless and things like that so people can work from home."

The next few questions posed to the mayoral candidates were submitted by members of the audience. The first was, "Whom do you represent as mayor?"

"I represent every citizen, every property owner and taxpayer in Blowing Rock,"  Lawrence said. "I have no special interest groups whatsoever. I'm here for you. My door is always open. Call me or come by to see me whenever you need to. I am here for you."

Phillips replied, "That is an easy question. You have to represent everyone in the community. If you are going to do a good job as mayor, you better have an open door policy. Since this is a nonpartisan election, you need to make sure that you listen to everybody. It has to be transparent. And you do need to listen to all sides."

The next audience-submitted question concerned the safety of the sidewalks of downtown Blowing Rock.

"I think with the Streetscape program, we are improving a good bit of that, although I think that we have some issues because of prior development and the history of where buildings have been located and where our roads are located," Phillips said. "And it gets more and more difficult to widen our sidewalks."

Lawrence responded, "I think they should be fixed tomorrow, because we can't get to them tonight. Since I have been mayor, we have extended sidewalks down north Main Street to the Shoppes on the Parkway. We have had developers who were developing property put in sidewalks that we did not have to pay for. Sidewalks are very important to a pedestrian town like Blowing Rock. We need more of them. We also need a walking trail from downtown out to Bass Lake."

The mayoral candidates were then asked about Chestnut Ridge, the proposed Appalachian Regional Healthcare System facility that will be built on land annexed by the town last year. The long-term and rehabilitative facility would be located off of 321 near the Blue Ridge Parkway, just north of downtown Blowing Rock. Groundbreaking for the new facility is set for spring 2014.

"Any time someone wants to invest $20 million in your community, how can you not assist," Lawrence asked. "Other opportunities to develop those outparcels will follow, along the highway, possibly an assisted living facility up there. And if you do all that, all that development there still has to be built to Blowing Rock's standards, but it doesn't affect the charm of downtown Blowing Rock. To me, that's nothing but a plus."

Phillips said, "I think it's a fabulous opportunity for Blowing Rock. I've never been against it. Sometimes it's interpreted, if you ask difficult questions about anything, that you may be against it. One of the things that's surfaced lately is the issue of the water line coming from Boone, as to whether or not that's going to be a problem to tap into it. And as I've read the contract, there's some difficult language as to not whether we are going to run into some issue with Boone if we do tap into it. This one thing may become a problem for that property to get off the ground."

Finally, the mayoral candidates were asked about their experiences balancing a budget.

"I've owned companies for 25 years," Phillips said. "I've had to develop budgeting, spreadsheets and many things along that line for all of those years. The difference is that a lot of times I've had to do it with my own money. So what I did was I had to make salaries and I had to pay bills. I had to do everything so that at the end of the year we had enough money to do it again the next year. I didn't have to do it on taxpayers' money. That's a huge difference. That's the position we've been in here for a long time. We've had to ride on the backs of the taxpayers. That's a different ball game."
Lawrence responded, "I have 24 years of experience doing the town's budget to start with. I've been on the board of directors of Blue Ridge Electric, which probably has a $100 million budget. I've been heavily involved in that process each year. I've been on the High Country Council of Governments for the past 22 years. We have a $6 million budget. I have tons of experience doing budgets. And it may be easier to use your own money because you can do what you want to with your own money. But when you're using other people's money, you're the one accountable for it."

Town Council candidates

Five of the six candidates for three open seats on the Blowing Rock Town Council appeared at the forum and answered questions, some preselected by the organizers of the forum and some submitted by audience members. Commissioner Tommy Klutz declined to take part in the candidates forum.

Question: What single issue caused you to decide to run for town council?

David Barker: "The biggest thing I was after was the future. What I think is going to happen in the next few years in this town is really going to present some issues that will really impact Blowing Rock for probably the next couple of generations. Those include the development that's going to happen along the 321 Bypass when the widening is complete. A lot of things are going to be happening in downtown as a result of the economic improvement. I think it will have a lot of people looking into downtown Blowing Rock again.

"And then the hospital out on 321,  that's going to create a third economic zone for the town. And what we do with those three areas in the next couple of years will really impact Blowing Rock for the long term. I really feel fortunate to be a caretaker of the Blowing Rock Market. That spot is sort of a centerpiece of the town and I take that responsibility seriously. Every day, I try to have conversations with full-time residents, newcomers to the town, tourists and students from ASU, to really get an understanding of what every interest group is looking for in the town. I think that gives me a unique perspective on where the town can go in the future."

Laurin Carter: "There was not a single issue that prompted me to run for town council. There are many issues that are very close to my heart. Valley Boulevard. It is very important that we take care of that. It is important that it is just the way we want it, that it is beautiful and coincides with downtown Blowing Rock. Transparent government. That is something that we need to do because the town council needs to keep you informed of what they are doing. Make sure that our tax money is spent correctly to take care of the needs of Blowing Rock. I would be a very good steward of that money. I will never lose sight that this is your money that we're taking care of. The infrastructure. There is a plan in place that we're working on that needs to be taken care of. Sewer lines, waterlines, water runoff from the storm, the ditches dug back out. That's a big issue. And then we have clean drinking water. Given this opportunity, to represent the town council, I would work very hard to make a positive difference for our town."

Doug Matheson: "I really don't have a single issue. To me, Blowing Rock has raised me so much as a town, that running for town council was a way for me to give back.

"One reason I am running for re-election is that I would like to see a lot of the projects we started through, such as 321, Streetscape and the hospital. Right now, one of the most important documents for Blowing Rock is the comprehensive plan. I hope you will allow me to finish work on these projects."

Ray Pickett: "The most important thing to me is Blowing Rock. I live here, I work here, I play here. I love Blowing Rock. And with your support, I hope to guide Blowing Rock into the future.
"And I think with my experience in business, on the planning board and may other boards in Blowing Rock, this will help me to guide Blowing Rock into the future."

Sue Sweeting: "I have been a permanent resident of Blowing Rock for 32 years and I think my biggest concern has been the 321 bypass and wanting a vision about what's going to happen out there. We have had trees that have been taken out. We've had signage that needs to be put up and we want it not to be a bypass to Boone. We want to bring people back to downtown Blowing Rock. This is one of the most important issues facing Blowing Rock and this is why I chose to run."

Closing statements

Each of the mayoral and town council candidates were given a last chance to address the crowd and make their case for votes.

J.B. Lawrence: "Why did our local elections get so contentious? Is using postcards as a scare tactic to influence voters what Blowing Rock all about? I don't think so. This is Blowing Rock, not New York City. You all are smarter than that. I have served with some fantastic council members that didn't always agree, but they always went home friends. Let's get back to that. Please consider carefully who you vote for for town council. They are the ones who have to make the tough decisions. However, if you want a mayor with integrity, honesty and commitment, who places the well being of the town and its citizens above his own personal gain, you will vote for me for mayor."

Dan Phillips: "When the mayor was asked for a recent article about small business, he said Blowing Rock basically owed small business utilities. I think the day that Blowing Rock took over the TDA (Blowing Rock Tourism Development Authority), the town is now in the business of bringing people to Blowing Rock. And it is in our best interest to be as accommodating as possible. I can assure you of one thing as mayor, I will represent this town respectfully and honorably. The one thing about Blowing Rock is its people and it's also its small business. You can't be disrespectful to the small business and also be disrespectful to the people. I will assure you that when Celeste and I represent this town, we will be great ambassadors and we won't be disrespectful to the opponent."

Sue Sweeting: "As I've said, I've lived in Blowing Rock for the past 32 years. I've raised two children here in the town and I know about the school. I know about the town. My leadership qualifications span over 30 years. I'm an experienced thinker, an active listener and a problem solver. As a nurse, I problem-solve every day and I would like to transfer that to the town council. I care about this town and each one of you. And I want to help meet your needs and your wants. I ask for your vote now during early voting or on Nov. 5. Thank you."

Doug Matheson: "I've seen Blowing Rock as a child, as a town worker, as a firefighter, as fire chief, and as a citizen with a 'not in my front yard' attitude for a while. I found out it is not always about my views. We're trying to balance the views of everyone. I think representing most of Blowing Rock is the most important thing we can do. As most of you know, I'm not very big on being a public speaker. But if you'll watch, you will see that I do listen. I think there are certainly more than the five people on the town council that have good ideas, good views and opinions. Sometimes, they may vary. Sometimes, we may be divided, but I think if we listen, we can tell that we have some common threads there. That gives us something that most of us can agree on, and then we can go forward from there together. I will continue to base my decisions on what the majority of Blowing Rock people want. Thank you for coming out and I hope to have your support come November."

Ray Pickett: "Thanks for coming out tonight and supporting all of us. I would like to ask for your support in November or during early voting. For I do believe I can bring a good leadership quality to the town of Blowing Rock. I have been part of Blowing Rock for many years now. I have been on many committees. I have been a volunteer for events. I want to listen to each and every one of you and try to base my decisions on what the people of Blowing Rock want. I think we can work together and we can continue to make Blowing Rock the best place there is to live."

David Barker: "Thank you for coming out tonight. It makes me realize that people in this town have way more in common than they do in differences. Focusing on our common wants and desires is something that I think being on town council is all about. It is a privilege to live in this town and my friends from college all tell me that I am living the dream here in Blowing Rock. That's pretty much true. As much as it is a privilege to live here, it would be an honor to serve on town council and I think the future is bright in this town and I would love to have your support in November."

Laurin Carter: "Thank you all for coming out tonight. This has been fun, but a little nervous. I'm a business owner and I know how to run a business. I know what it is like not to take a paycheck and have to make a payroll. You have to know these things in order to run anything. I'm not afraid to get my hands dirty. I have no problem with that. I read legal documents, and that is something that is very important, because you have to read every line to make sure there's not something in there that you're missing. I will do that. I'm a really hard worker. And I will never forget I work for the town of Blowing Rock and the people of Blowing Rock. Without you, there is no town council."