Charlie Rivenbark is running for a fourth term on the Wilmington City Council.
The Democratic incumbent, who says it galls him to identify as what he calls an “R” or a “D”, started his public service career in the early ‘90s as a member of an ad hoc budget review committee. It was the rewards of seeing his committee’s hard work inform the business of the City, he says, that lit the fire in him to run for office.
This 65-year-old native Wilmingtonian credits his work as a commercial and industrial real estate broker with giving him what he says is special expertise in city planning and land use issues.
“Sixty to seventy percent of what we do on Council deals with land use. And I make a living out of that ordinance. And I understand a lot of things about the ordinance that someone who came, perhaps, from another walk of life -- it’s a learning curve.”
The development of the downtown area just over the last five years, says Rivenbark, is a point of pride for him.
“It hasn’t been that many years ago that -- where Cape Fear Community College is north -- was big, large warehouses, old, abandoned wharves, poor -- no infrastructure at all. And in a matter of a few short years, this is what has come of it.”
Now that Ed Wolverton has taken the helm at Wilmington Downtown Inc. as its new CEO, Rivenbark says the downtown area is about to take off – and he wants to be part of that.
Wolverton has created municipal service districts in other cities, says Rivenbark. In Wilmington, if city officials decided to move forward with the idea -- and that is an open question – the undertaking would amount to an additional tax on owners of property within the Central Business District. The CBD covers downtown West to East from the Cape Fear River to 3rd Street and North to South from Red Cross Street to Ann Street.
"We're the largest city in North Carolina that doesn’t have one.”
The revenue generated by a municipal service district would be earmarked for use only in the downtown area.
“It puts ambassadors on the street to help tourists. If there was ever any graffiti painted on a wall, it comes off the next morning. Sidewalk beautification for storefronts, planters, events... it’s a wonderful thing.”
But it is a tax. The idea went down in flames about a year and a half ago. At the time, the economic recovery was shaky at best, people had no appetite for additional taxes, and the benefits of MSDs weren’t effectively explained to stakeholders, says Rivenbark.
“It’s been shown that property values will increase when there is an MSD and occupancy rates go straight up when there’s an MSD because of things like ambassadors – some of the benefits that come along with that… There are a multitude of things that can be done with that revenue to benefit the downtown area.”
Rivenbark serves on the board of the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority – or CFPUA - which is searching for a new CEO. It was his initial heated opposition -- what he calls his "jaundiced eye" about the authority -- that became a major motivating factor behind his re-entry into city government in 2009.
And his tenure on the Board has convinced him, he says, that CFPUA is a lean operation largely focused on paying off debt. All revenue goes to operations – with no money allotted for growth.
“All that debt that the utility authority inherited – that debt service has to be paid. And the only way the authority can generate cash is through the rates. If you renege on your debt service payments or you fail to pay, the Local Government Commission will come in here, they’ll run the authority – just like they would a city -- and they’ll raise those rates to satisfy that debt service.”
As water becomes a more expensive commodity, Rivenbark says the authority is looking for other revenue-generating opportunities that could offset costs for local customers. The ability to develop that strategy will guide the board’s choice during their search for a new CEO.
“We have plenty of water to sell and the authority is trying to come up with customers to sell water to where we can get the rates down… And one of the criteria we’re looking at is we want somebody with a good business mind and a good business background to get out and sell water, create new customers.”
When Council recently postponed voting on an anti-gang ordinance, Rivenbark was the only dissenting member.
“And the ordinance was that if a known member of a gang or an employee of a gang is in a park, they are first warned… and if they’re seen in there a second time, they’ll be arrested. And I think it’s a misdemeanor.”
But at the City Council meeting when the matter was brought up for discussion, an attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union raised concerns about the potential for racial profiling. That’s when Council backed away from the vote, but Rivenbark says he was ready to make a statement.
“I would rather be getting ready to go to court to defend my position than paying my condolences to a mother who loses a small child shot with an errant shot. Because we have problems.”
Rivenbark agrees that gang violence must be addressed in children before they’re of an age when they can be co-opted by gangs. But he also says the criminals perpetrating the violence are already a lost cause.
“These people that we’re dealing with -- they have absolutely no fear or respect for the law. They will shoot anybody. They’re cold-blooded.”
He says he has great faith in the integrity of the police force – especially because they know they’ll be under a microscope. If Wilmington does pass the ordinance in some form, other communities will be watching.
And he expresses a similar faith in his colleagues. The political division pervading state and national dialogue has no part in Wilmington, says Rivenbark.
“I’ve worked with a lot of commissioners and council people, and I don’t think I have ever served with one individual that I didn’t honest in my heart believe that they were there for the same reasons that I was there – to do the City’s business or the County’s business.”
Rivenbark says he takes pride in the fact that City Council is nonpartisan.
You’ll hear more Candidate Profiles throughout October as WHQR’s Special Election Coverage continues.
And stay tuned for details on WHQR’s Candidate Forums, October 22nd and 23rd.