Earl Sheridan is the current Mayor Pro Tem of the City of Wilmington, and he’s running for a third term on City Council.
The Wilmington native says he’s committed to what he calls his “unfinished business” on Council.
Economic development tops Sheridan's priority list. But that broad issue is not separable from other city issues, he says, such as the high poverty rate and troubling violent crime.
Incentives are one pathway to economic growth, says Sheridan. The payoff is evident in the recent commitments of Live Oak Bank and Castle Branch to create a certain number of good-quality jobs. In return, the companies enjoy financial incentives courtesy of the city and county. But Earl Sheridan says that’s only one component of economic development. One of the biggest factors contributing to an area’s growth: quality of life.
“I think it’s important that we utilize and have more bike paths and sidewalks and amenities -- things that people care for. I think it’s important that we have parks and things of that nature that will help bring people to our area. When executives are looking for some place to locate, Wilmington will be a place they want to locate.”
Sheridan, a political science professor and the Chair of UNCW’s Public and International Affairs Department, says a poverty conference he attended in Wilmington revealed a poverty rate around twenty-one or twenty-two percent. He calls that shocking.
“When you have such a high poverty rate, that means there aren’t good opportunities for people and these people can drift into crime. And so I think we need to do what we can to provide more opportunities and hope for our young people so they don’t become involved in a life of crime.”
While Sheridan acknowledges there’s only so much that can be done at the city level, he says some larger social problems plaguing the region actually impede Wilmington’s growth.
“There are some schools here that are better than others. We have some schools concentrated – basically kind of re-segregated as far as race -- and even segregated as far as income levels.”
And schools, says Sheridan, are a critical pathway to creating that sense of hope and opportunity for kids.
While there are successes to celebrate, says Sheridan, the last couple of terms on city council have been challenging thanks to the recession. Council simply hasn’t had the money to do some of the things they would have liked.
“We were fortunate in that we did not have to fire anyone or furlough anyone as far as our city workers are concerned, but there are many vacant positions that we didn’t fill because of the economic downturn.”
Sheridan says he has absolutely no political aspirations beyond City government, but he is intensely disappointed by the last session of the State’s General Assembly. The changes to voting laws are disturbing, he says, in spite of the fact that supporters say they were instituted to prevent fraud.
“It seems as though they were done for political reasons or even in some cases for racial reasons. Because there were things that were done that disproportionately affected minorities and disproportionately affected young people.”
However, the city council race is non-partisan, and Sheridan says that’s one of the gratifying elements.
“I don’t think you don’t have extreme partisan battles that you have on other boards. I don’t think you would have the kind of wrangling and antagonism, for example, that took place up in Raleigh with our city council because it’s a nonpartisan position. We don’t seem – I don’t think -- to get caught up in a lot of the partisan battles. And I think that’s good for our city.”
But if, in a theoretical world, he had all the power and could effect change without building consensus or finding funds, the first thing he’d do is bring in new industry. A diversity of new jobs is important, says Sheridan, from high-pay, higher-tech positions to opportunities that don’t require specialized education. And there’s another thing…
“I would do more to try to upgrade housing and streets and infrastructure throughout our city. I would try to provide for more affordable housing in our area. Not the old -- necessarily -- concentrated barrack-type housing -- but innovative housing that would be in various areas of our city.”
Ultimately, Sheridan says he considers Wilmington a progressive city – partly due to the presence of the film industry. But there’s still work to do, he says, in the areas of racial and social inequity.
Part 2 -----------------------------------------------------------------------------
The Wilmington native left the Port City to earn degrees from Appalachian State University and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville – but he returned soon after that to put down roots. Sheridan says he loves the City of Wilmington and is proud of the progress it’s made over the decades.
And, as he tells WHQR’s Rachel Lewis Hilburn, he believes the heightened gun violence in the City is partly due to inequities that still need to be addressed.
When Wilmington’s City Council recently backed away from voting on an anti-gang ordinance, Earl Sheridan sided with the cautious majority. Council determined further work on the text was prudent after an attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union spoke up saying the mandate could provide new opportunities for abuse or discrimination.
The original intention, according to Sheridan: to give law enforcement officers more latitude in banning gangs from public parks.
“We wanted to make sure that this was a constitutional measure. I think most everybody on council agreed with the ultimate aim that we didn’t want people who were engaged in gang activity in the parks.”
Sheridan says he wants to see an ordinance that will give police another tool to combat gang activity. But part of the solution, he says, is improving the relationship between members of law enforcement and members of the community.
“One of the things that help police in dealing with gangs or any kind of crime problem is good trust between the police and the communities that they police. And so we want there to be that good relationship. It’s not a good relationship when communities think that police are profiling folks or pulling people over or questioning people or harassing people just because of the way that they look.”
Once the language in the ordinance is tightened, says Sheridan, he’s confident it will pass.