Raleigh City Council candidates answer questions on inclusivity, entrepreneurship, housing, Dix Park and more at Innovate Raleigh forum

A Raleigh city council candidate forum on Thursday morning gave Raleighites one of the first opportunities to hear from the large number of candidates, with 24 of the 27 present.

The forum, organized by Innovate Raleigh in partnership with the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, split the Raleigh City Council candidate field into groups by district candidates, at-large candidates and mayoral candidates. In a packed morning event, the candidates each gave a short opening. 

WHO ARE THE CANDIDATES? See the list and Raleigh City Council candidates’ websites.

Moderator H. Wade Minter then fielded questions from a crowdsourced list by Innovate Raleigh and from the audience.

Raleigh mayoral candidates
Raleigh mayoral candidates (credit: Innovate Raleigh)

Want to have candidates answer additional questions? Send your questions to raleighconvergence@gmail.com for potential inclusion in the Raleigh Convergence candidates’ questionnaire by the end of August. Questions will be sent to candidates and posted at raleighconvergence.com before early voting begins in September.

HOW THE RALEIGH CONVERGENCE IS COVERING THE RALEIGH CITY COUNCIL RACE

Raleigh voters will decide on Oct. 8 which city council candidates will represent them for the next two-year term. 

Raleigh residents will vote for mayor, two at-large council seats and for the representative for their district. (Scroll to the bottom of this page and to search for your address if you’re unsure of which district you live in

Scan below to see questions and answers. The moderator adhered to the allotted response times given each candidates, so some answers trail off when no longer audible.

RALEIGH CITY COUNCIL MAYORAL CANDIDATES 

Question: “We have a housing crisis here in Raleigh. … What innovative housing strategies do you have, and I’d like to hear answers that go beyond just low-income housing tax credits.”

Zainab Baloch: “It’s interesting, because Raleigh’s number of public housing units that we have right now is lower than what we had in 1992. … We have a housing crisis. We have to build more housing. That means increasing density, that means getting rid of things like single-family zoning. There are a lot of innovative solutions out there, but we’re not putting into place the solutions that we know are already working in other progressive — true progressive cities. We need to look at these policies that were created in a time when they weren’t for everyone and figure out how we take an equitable and racial lens on recreating them and how we develop that moving forward.”

Mary-Ann Baldwin: “Please go to my website, maryannforraleigh.com. I actually put a lot of time and effort into addressing this issue and created a 10-point plan to improve housing affordability. I’ve gone to a lot of conferences where I’ve listened to experts. That kind of advice is assembled in that plan. It contains everything from encouraging accessory dwelling units to improvements in zoning, to address part of what Zainab was mentioning, but also working cooperatively with Wake County and our development community to come up with solutions.”

George Knott: “I continue to maintain that by our housing crisis, and our homeless crisis, is directly driven by our city-subsidized growth. I wish Raleigh would grow organically, I think we’re growing too fast, we’re not taking care of the people who are getting pushed out. I don’t think that we can make any meaningful change until we either get a plan in place or stop encouraging the growth at the rate we’re going. It just is a personal pipe dream of mine, I wish we could also mandate that developers would include a set amount of affordable housing per new development. My number in my brain is 20 over units over eight housing units, but like I said, that’s just my pipe dream, that’s way on down the line.”

Caroline Sullivan: “You can also go to my website, carolineforraleigh.com, and check out my plan, but the first thing that we have to do is to bring all the stakeholders together to figure out where we’re going and what we value. We did this when I was on the Wake County Board of Commissioners with the transit plan, to figure out ‘what is the whole community’s plan?,’ because right now we’re shooting single strategies in silos and we realize we need to leverage funding with the county, and we need to have the builders, and the developers, and the nonprofits, and the community at the table and figure out where we’re going today and start moving those policies, but also in five years, 10 years, in 15 years, because this issue isn’t going away, and we have to keep some sustainable board to be able to deal with this in the future as well.”

Justin L. Sutton: “Listen. You can’t build your way out of an affordable housing crisis. The market has already taken off, the cost of living is going up and affordable housing bonds will only increase property taxes and the values. Listen, we need to focus on… our existing housing programs, we need to put in credit counseling strategies to our low-income and moderate-income households, we need to provide rental subsidies, anything at the state level that we can tap, resources, but this is a growing concern and it is becoming a social concern.”

Charles Francis: “Housing is my number one issue. I raised that issue in the last campaign and I’m glad to see it’s become central to this campaign. I also have a robust plan that is on my website, but two, three things I’d highlight in response to the question: The first is, I also would set up a task force of people who are really interested in doing something about the problem, then just start picking five or 10 things and let’s start doing them. I don’t agree that you can’t build your way out of the problem. Part of the problem is, there’s not enough supply. It’s a supply and demand problem. So if you increase supply, then the price is going to go down. And it has to be subsidized for people who are renters, otherwise the market is going to take over. For homeowners, we need programs that help people to buy that first home. Homeowner assistance programs, like the one in College Park, but all around town, to help people to buy that first house and begin to build equity.”

Question: “What would each of you do to include people with disabilities?”

Charles Francis: “I’ll make sure that all of our city structures are fully accessible. I’ll make sure that people with disabilities are included on all of our boards and commissions and I’ll consult actively with the disability community to make sure persons with disabilities are represented and their voices are heard throughout city government.”

Justin L. Sutton: “We can state why we do things, but I believe we need to be strategic in how we accomplish things … A priority of mine is to… reassess our public programming, providing more opportunities for our mental health and wellness, looking at our disabled and redirecting funding from our budget to address these programs and these concerns of all. We want to be a city that’s responsive to all and receptive to the needs of all. …”

Caroline Sullivan: “I’ve been advocating for individuals with disabilities for over 20 years when my son was diagnosed with a developmental disability. I’ve served on the statewide commission, the Interagency Coordinating (Council) for early invention. There’s nothing more important than how you invest in a child, especially with a disability, early but also late. In my current role in the North Carolina Business Committee for Education, it’s a nonprofit, we developed a program called LINC-IT, which stands for Linking Inclusion in IT, and actually we’re working with Innovate Raleigh on how to expand that program. Because it’s not just education with folks with disabilities, it’s also accessibility to jobs. We are in a talent war, and if we leave if we leave people behind, anyone behind in this community, we’re not just hurting their opportunities but ours.”

George Knott: “I’m guilty of this… I just had a series of four town halls in a building that was downstairs and … it had no handicap access. It created a problem for me in that I had to start trying to figure these things out. Of course, state and city buildings are all ADA-complaint. There are exceptions to public buildings. I’d like to see all buildings in Raleigh ADA compliant. How do you start that, I’m not exactly sure. But I know it’s an issue…”

Mary-Ann Baldwin: “Recently Councilor Nicole Stewart asked the Downtown Raleigh Alliance to start an ADA compliance committee looking at issues that the disabled face in our downtown. I think that’s a great first step. In talking with the people in the community, one thing they think is missing is an ADA compliance officer within the city. There is no one that they feel they can go to. We do have the Mayor’s Committee (for Persons With) Disabilities. I think we need to give them a louder voice. But also, when we build our buildings, we need to make sure that we have input…”

Zainab Baloch: “Representation. We need to get people with disabilities and people with mental health instances to the table. We have to understand that cities, when we take care of our most vulnerable populations, everyone thrives. When you focus on lifting up those vulnerable populations, it’s how we can build cities that work for everyone. So not just buildings — think about how we design cities, when we design streets, sidewalks, for people with disabilities in mind. How do we create crosswalks… people with disabilities, it takes longer to get across them. So the first thing is representation, because we can’t make solutions without people who are impacted by these issues at the table.”

AT-LARGE CANDIDATES

Question: “How would you grade the city’s efforts to support entrepreneurs and small business owners in the last 5-10 years and what will you specifically do to support entrepreneurs going forward?”:

James Garland Bledsoe: “I’d probably give them a D rating. Over the past two years alone we’ve seen headlines being made about mobile retail being a bad thing in the city. There (are) lawyers going around doing pro bono work and they’re being told ‘hey, you can’t do this because you’re taking up precious parking or you’re going to have people congregating on the sidewalk.’ Food trucks can’t operate too well in the city because of all the red tape and that needs to go away.”

Jonathan Melton: “Yeah, it’s been a while since I’ve been in school so I can’t really remember the rating system and you asked for a period of time that it’s a little bit wider than I feel comfortable speaking on, but I will say for the last two years, and I’ve heard from a lot of small business owners who are supporting my campaign, that it’s become extremely difficult to do business with the city, that the permitting process takes a long time, the construction processes take a long time, and I really think that it’s going to stifle a lot of our innovation and folks who want to invest their talent and their money in our city and we need to do a better job.”

Carlie Allison Spencer: “Like he just said, I would also say for the past few years, I want to speak on that. I’d say probably a B-minus. I think there’s some things we’re doing really well. With big business, I think we are doing better, but small businesses, there’s so much red tape, like they already said, so something I’d do is cut regulations and make it easier to open small business and keep them open, so the people of Raleigh, who’ve lived here and worked here and want to start a business for everyone who lives here to benefit so they can do that.”

Nicole Stewart (incumbent): “Wonderful question. So I first want to shout out our economic development team, they are small and scrappy, they do a lot for a lot of companies here, and thanks to the Chamber for being an incredible partner. That being said, while I think they’re doing incredible work… I think a lot of the blame of what’s happening with our small businesses, a lot of our small- to medium-businesses it’s more about the planning side of things and that falls back on council, that falls back on our regulations, our not being responsive to their needs…” 

Russ Stephenson (incumbent): “One of the key jobs we have to attract innovators and entrepreneurs is to have a great quality of life and I think we do that. We do have a real surge in growth now that’s causing problems with planning and development. I will say, on the planning side, if you go back and look at the record of the last four years at our council retreats in budget time, I’ve said we need more resources in these areas to be able to do a first-class job. So I keep asking for it…”

Portia Wilson Rochelle: Not present

Question: “I’m interested to hear how you see arts and culture as part of our economic development. …”

Russ Stephenson: “…Arts and culture is a critical element of our economic and cultural and quality of life prosperity in the city of Raleigh. We didn’t use to have that kind of attitude about it. When I got on council, I said, ‘Guys, you gotta make the economic case’ and went out and hired an arts economist, and they brought in all the economic benefits, so now people who say ‘don’t waste my tax dollars on arts and culture,’ now they’re going, ‘ooh, I get a vote…’”

Nicole Stewart: “Huge supporter of the arts, grateful for Mayor McFarlane’s leadership on this issue. I think it’s a huge part of who we are as a city, and we need to keep moving that forward.”

Carlie Allison Spencer: “The arts are vital to our culture here in Raleigh. I moved here a few years ago and one of the reasons was Raleigh is on so many top lists. But I also researched all the different activities that are here in Raleigh, it’s one of the things that brought me here. And that’s something we have to continue because it is so important to the quality of life we have here in Raleigh and it is continuing to bring in citizens.”

Jonathan Melton: “I’m sitting here trying to figure out how to say the same answer a different way. Yes, it’s fantastic, it’s necessary to our quality of life. It’s something that attracts people to Raleigh, it makes it a destination city. I know when family visits, and when friends visit, I’m always looking for something to do, and there’s a lot to do. We need to cultivate that even more.”

James Garland Bledsoe: “Huge supporter of the arts and culture around here. The murals that are all around the city, I absolutely love, they certainly put a great face on our entire city. All the artwork that you see popping up around, also the culture of our small businesses like House of Swank… It’s funny and interesting and I’d love to see more things pop up like that. 

Question: “I’m curious what your thoughts are on the soccer stadium proposal, both the stadium itself and the larger, longer-term idea of mixed use development around it, both the funding and the opportunity, is it a good thing or a bad thing… your thoughts on it.”

James Garland Bledsoe: “My thoughts on this, I want more information on it. … We’re only going to be using the hotel tax on it… If those are the only funds going into it, sure, but I don’t want to see any more taxes or any other secondary forms of our tax dollars going into that stadium. Sure, it build up a good area around it, however, I’d still want to see more plans, I’d still want to see more information before I give you a thumbs up or a thumbs down on the project.”

Jonathan Melton: “This is a really tough question for 30 seconds, but I will say I support it, from what I understand the proposal is for it to be privately funded but the tax dollars are to be used for maintenance and it’s tax money that’s earmarked for tourism and I think that would be a good tourism-generating project. I do understand there are some equitable concerns about the area around the stadium, and I think as it develops that those need to be addressed and discussed. It’s at a very early stage but I do support it… it’s a very exciting opportunity for our city.”

Carlie Allison Spencer: “I like the idea, but as it’s been said already, I definitely want to see how this develops and get more information… One thing that’s been tossed out there is why aren’t we considering some sort of retractable seating at Carter Finley, which is a stadium that we already have. If you do retractable seating and you push it back, it’s big enough to be a major league soccer field. … We’re here for innovation, maybe that’s a better plan.”

Nicole Stewart: “I don’t think this is a yes or no question, it’s an if and how. I’m interested in exploring this some more, figuring out what is the private investment coming into it and how can the local governments be the cherry on top that makes this thing happen. The other crazy idea I want to throw out there is what if we invested in our women’s team, that’s already internationally winning, that’s already here, instead of waiting on a men’s MLS team, so just throwing that out there as we’re thinking about equitable development.”

Russ Stephenson: “I thought Raleigh getting a professional soccer team would be a great idea for a long time. Likewise I think the location they’re looking at now, as opposed to up on Peace Street is probably a good spot for redevelopment. I do not think that we should be buying a stadium for $330 million dollars when we don’t even have a team, that stadium and the other entertainment facilities would just cannibalize other investments we’ve already made. I do think that the first conversation we should have is hey, this is an Opportunity Zone…” 

DISTRICT CANDIDATES

Question: “Do you support robust public funding implement the Dix Park master plan?”

DISTRICT A:

Sam Hershey: “Generally yes, the one thing we need to make sure of is that it doesn’t interfere with the actual needs of a growing city. We need to hire more firefighters and more police officers, we need more competitive wages. Dix is going to be wonderful, but we need to prioritize the needs as well.”

Joshua Bradley: “I would say I would support it, but at the same time, we need to be concerned about the quality of life for everybody in the city, not just necessarily around the park. A destination park is a good idea, but it shouldn’t interfere with funding of affordable housing and any backstop we can make on widespread gentrification that’s occurring.”

Patrick Buffkin: “110%. I have been on our city parks board for five years, preserving open spaces and investing in parks is a big part of my public service. Phase one of the Dix Park master plan needs to be implemented promptly and we should do it with the parks bond referendum, we pass those every seven years and we’re on track next year or the year after…”

DISTRICT B:

David Cox (incumbent): “Yes.”

Brian Fitzsimmons: “Ditto.”

DISTRICT C:

Shelia Alamin-Khashoggi: “I have two issues with it, not saying yes and not saying no. One is because … Dix Park is right there by Heritage Park, which is Southeast Raleigh. The residents there, I’m concerned about them and the affordable housing, whether they’re going to get pushed out or not.”

Corey Branch (incumbent): “Yes, we have to ensure that we continue the investments that we’ve made but we also have to make sure that we bring some private dollars. It has to be a true partnership, and in order for it to be a partnership, it has to be public and private dollars. The city has taken its first steps already by purchasing the land and… working with the conservancy on the master plan.”

Wanda Hunter: “I have concerns around the funding because my district backs up to Dix Park and housing is a critical crisis right now in my district. If it’s going to affect the money that’s going to go for… people to have the human right for housing then I do have a problem with it, but it can be discussed at the table so we can make decisions that are equitable.”

Ricky Scott: “…I think that it is equally important that the parks in Southeast Raleigh receive similar funding and support so that we can really provide equitable distribution of resources for all our parks.”

DISTRICT D:

Kay Crowder (incumbent): “Absolutely yes. I’ve been lucky enough to serve on the executive committee for Dix Park. I’ll say to you that the park funding is a different bucket of money than is public housing or any kind of other housing projects you’d want to do, so the answer is, the council took it seriously enough to allocate $150,000 for an edge study to make sure we’re taking care of…”

Saige Martin: “Absolutely, but with a caveat that we can not forget that there’s a huge deficit in our current parks and rec department that no one is addressing, including this current council. I’d echo the need and the concern that we have to make sure that this is an equitable development for the entire city and that everyone can make it to the park regardless of where they live.”

Brittany Bryan: Not present

April Parker: (April shared this message after the forum and I’ve included it here): “Implementing the Master Plan for the new Dorothea Dix Park is essential to the health and wellbeing of our community. Everyone needs a place to relax and enjoy nature. Dix is one of the best places in Raleigh to feel a sense of community cohesion – this will grow and flourish with the construction of the new park. For these reasons, it is imperative that the project has the funding to make the new park possible. From what I understand, the first phase or so of the project will be funded by donations and other non-government funds. But the rest of the project relies on getting funds from the government, which likely means a bond/tax increases. The proposed 2020 bond to help pay for the park is the biggest deciding factor on whether or not the project will be completed. If the bond is passed, then the park will have the funds to continue working on the project, if not, then the project is likely to be discontinued for the time being, unless other sources of revenue are found. Since I would prefer to implement a bond/raising taxes as a last resort to fund the project, I would like to see some alternative solutions to the funding problem that Dix currently faces. My goal is to keep taxes from being raised until all other avenues have been explored. Some potential solutions might include applying for state/federal/private sector grants and seeking additional donations from corporations. The recent Park Bond that passed isn’t currently being fully utilized, so that could be put towards the Dix project. A statewide contest could be held to discover unique, unconventional solutions that aren’t currently being explored. Should any or all of the alternative solutions prove to be ineffective, the proposed bond is the best way in which to acquire the funds needed for the Dix project. I am a strong advocate for the Dix Park project and want to see it completed.”

DISTRICT E:

Stef Mendell (incumbent): “I think the other important thing to remember is that this is a park project that’s going to take place over the next 20, 30, 40, 50 years, we don’t have to do it all tomorrow. We do have needs in other parks and …  and other needs throughout our community. So yes, but we need to do it as a partnership with the entire community.”

David Knight: “Yes, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to create a world-class destination for our citizens and really, the rest of the world, and we need to make sure that happens.”

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