Mayor Bill Saffo is running unopposed this season for what will be his fifth term serving the City of Wilmington.
After a full decade in City government, he says he’s committed to completing a handful of projects. Topping his agenda is the construction of a Convention Center Hotel and plans for another bridge crossing between New Hanover and Brunswick Counties.
But in spite of recent personal challenges, he’s still passionate about an idea he admits could be a long way off: a large green space – a la Central Park in New York or The Great Lawn in Louisville, Kentucky.
Rumors have swirled for a good part of the summer about Bill Saffo’s personal life. So to clear the boards, Saffo has this to say about his sixteen-year marriage to Renee Saffo:
"Me and Renee are separated. We’re doing what we feel is best for our families and for each other, and we only ask that people allow us our privacy during this whole entire process. There’s a lot of things to work out, but she’s a great person. And we’re just going through it like a lot of people have gone through it."
Notwithstanding the potential personal toll that can accompany such a life change, it’s the prospect of completing some unfinished projects that Saffo credits with propelling him forward.
"Probably the biggest one right now is the hotel at the convention center. This is a deal that we’ve been working for the last – probably over four years now. And I think it’s an extremely important project for the Convention Center because it will allow us to bring in larger conventions and larger groups into the community."
The neighboring Hilton Hotel will face new competition. Saffo says that’s one reason company representatives have accused city officials of seriously undervaluing the land – which was priced at $579,000. They’ve gone so far as to threaten legal action against the City if the deal goes through.
"I think it’s ludicrous. Anybody that has done any kind of appraisal work in this community – and we’ve had two MAI appraisers that are local appraisers that have looked at that land – have said that that land is priced at the right price. But there has not been any piece of property that I’m aware of that has sold for the price that the Hilton Hotel has claimed it should be selling for."
This new hotel, to be built by Harmony Hospitality, the Courtyard by Marriott and a Holiday Inn Express – all going up in downtown Wilmington -- will move the area closer to what Saffo calls “the tipping point.”
"I look at it from this perspective. Everybody sometimes is looking for the magic bullet or the silver bullet. That this is going to be the thing that takes us over the top. I don’t look at it that way. I look at it that each one of these things pushes it that way."
Another tool that will provide not just downtown – but the Greater Wilmington area with continued growth, says Saffo, is incentive packages for desirable companies.
"Government, especially at the federal level, has done a lot to drive businesses out of our country through trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT."
Over the course of his lifetime, Saffo says he’s watched the textile, tobacco, and furniture industries all disappear from the North Carolina landscape.
"And I believe that government that has allowed this to happen also has a responsibility – even at the local level – to do everything in its power to try to bring jobs back into their communities."
To the critics who frown on such tactics, Saffo says there’s a dangerous fantasy out there that because the area has beautiful beaches, businesses will come without incentives.
"We’re going to get tourism here on the coast. There’s no doubt about that. And we’re going to get retirees to come here to the coast. But as far as companies, they can go anywhere. They can go anywhere in this country they want to go, and at the end of the day, those companies’ responsibilities are to its shareholders and to the company."
After the film industry spent a record 250 million dollars in New Hanover County alone last year, Saffo, a Film Commission veteran, says he worries about the looming expiration of those incentives and the blow this area could take if they’re not renewed by state lawmakers.
"That is something that we’re challenged in having to explain to a lot of these legislators – that – a lot of them, by the way, are freshmen. So a lot of these folks have not had that education process to allow them to see what the impact is to the state and the economic impact it’s having on the state."
Another project that Saffo says he'd like to at least solidify plans for in the near-term: an additional crossing over the Cape Fear River between Brunswick and New Hanover Counties.
Traffic analysis produced by the state, says Bill Saffo, shows that the area needs another crossing between the two counties now – never mind the effect of projected development over the years.
"That area continues to grow at very fast rate. There’s a lot of people moving over there for land availability… the prices are cheaper. They’ve got more of it. And getting people to and from Wilmington and New Hanover County to Brunswick County is critically important. "
After years of talking about the Cape Fear Skyway without securing funding, Saffo says it’s time for elected officials to identify a final route for a second crossing somewhere over the River. The next step: protect that route.
"And don’t allow development to creep into that route. Because once you allow development to creep near that route, it’s over. Because people don’t want it in their backyards. I understand that."
A realistic timeline on construction, says Saffo, could be more than ten years out, but it’s imperative, he says to create the plans as soon as possible.
When he considers his accomplishments over the last decade, it’s the Convention Center that comes up first.
"…because we’ve been talking about it since 1930. "
There’s the Gary Shell Cross City Trail… a project, he says, that's close to his heart.
"I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever been involved with… Hopefully by sometime next year, we will have 15 miles of this trail – the entire trail - -funded, paid for, and done."
Saffo says he’s very proud of being on the team of elected officials that brought PPD, one of the area’s largest employers, back downtown.
"…And then of course the expansion of the riverwalk..."
But it’s that Great Lawn for Wilmington that Saffo says he’d jump at the chance to develop if given the opportunity.
You’ll hear more Candidate Profiles this month and next during as WHQR’s Special Election Coverage continues.
And stay tuned for details on WHQR’s Candidate Forums, October 22nd and 23rd.