Derek Bickel is one of six candidates hoping to win one of three seats this November on Wilmington’s City Council.
While he’s not doing any fund-raising – or not enough to require the filing of campaign finance reports – he is serious, he says, and believes the support network he’s built could be enough to elect him.
This full-time information technology professional is raising two young children with his wife. But the time investment, he says, isn’t daunting. Instead, he’s eager for the challenge.
And as I learned recently when I interviewed him, Bickel doesn’t have much criticism for the current council, but he does think the board could up its proactivity quotient.
Increasing city / county cooperation would be a good start, says Bickel – by consolidating fire services.
“83% of the sales tax for New Hanover County comes from the City of Wilmington. But yet the City of Wilmington only gets 21% of that back. I think that if we could have the opportunity to see where we consolidate services -- as long as nobody loses job. I don’t want that at all. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying a merger of resources so the City of Wilmington and taxpayers get some of that money back.”
Bickel says he’d also like the city and county to align their thinking on public transportation. At a recent meeting about Wave Transit funding, Bickel says he was impressed by the number of people who showed up to say they need the buses to get to work – to keep their jobs.
“So it’s absolutely critical that we continue to fund public transportation. But we need to have a bigger stake in it from county. And I know that the city and the county have a big rift sometimes on a lot of issues – just like this – and I don’t understand why.
Other important ways the City could be more proactive, says Bickel: improve the City’s visitor website – and do something about those dead links.
Bickel cites economic development as a top priority. One reason it’s so important to him – he wants his children to have the option of returning to Wilmington after college and finding good jobs.
“I am all for incentives.”
After the City and County agreed to several incentive packages in return for companies’ investment and expansion here, Bickel says he heard complaints about public money going to big corporate interests.
“They don’t really see the big picture…we’re going to get that back tenfold in property taxes and quality high-paying jobs. That only increases our tax base. Those people are going to come here. They’re going to spend money in restaurants. They’re going to spend money in local shops. They’re going to buy real estate. That all helps the economy. So, yes, it is an initial investment to get those companies, but, yes, it works out tenfold for us in the long run – just off property taxes alone.”
There’s another critical element that Bickel says would significantly boost to Wilmington’s growth:
“I think we need to bring back an economic development person that’s on staff with the City. That’s something I’m definitely going to drive home to the City Manager if I do have the opportunity to get elected to Council. Every meeting, I’m saying, ‘Where are we going to be? Where do we stand on this?’”
But there’s already Wilmington Downtown, Inc., Wilmington Business Development, UNCW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the Cape Fear Economic Development Council…
“Correct. There are so many. But instead of just working for one particular area of the City, I think there needs to be somebody in charge of the whole City – instead of just a particular region.”
And economic development means different things to different people. To some, bringing a Titan Cement plant to the area will create much-needed jobs – particularly jobs that pay well and wouldn’t necessarily require specialized education.
“I am completely against Titan.”
True, it’s not a city issue, admits Bickel. At least, from a regulatory standpoint. When Titan applies for a special use permit, it will be New Hanover County officials that either green-light the facility – or deny the permit.
“The City should be at that table when the County does make any type of decision… Is it really necessary to get these jobs for the potential loss of the environment? You puncture the environment, you hit the environment hard, you’re talking about decades and decades and decades of stuff – not just for the county but for the entire region as a whole…”
And because it’s a regional issue, Bickel says the outlying communities of Leland, other parts of Brunswick County, and the beaches should have a seat at the table, as well.
The downtown area has its own set of issues, says Bickel, and creating a municipal service district – or MSD -- in which downtown property owners pay an extra tax -- would be an effective way to raise money for improvements.
“A lot of people have the misconception that a majority of the City’s money is spent downtown. I think that people don’t realize that the majority of money is being spent outside of the downtown area.”
An MSD could level the playing field, says Bickel, by creating a fund to plant flowers, trees, install better trash receptacles, and uniform lighting. Then downtown businesses might be able to compete with professionally-managed shopping centers such as Mayfaire and Hanover Center.
“As long as the people give into the municipal service district have control over what that money goes for, I am all for it.”
But it’s gang violence dominating the consciousness of city officials these days, and Bickel says he thinks a solution requires increasing the enforcement ability of police and funding preventive measures.
“When you’re talking about a child that’s 13 or 14 years old, that’s too late. It’s just a harsh reality. We need to start them as young as possible and go into the communities such as Houston Moore or Creekwood and get those programs started there and help fund those through the City. I think that’s where you have to break the cycle.”
Bickel cites the arts enrichment program, Dreams of Wilmington, as an excellent – and underfunded – example.