Former Southern Rail owner Mike Benson pledges more support for local businesses and proactive steps to meet the town’s hurdles if voters choose him over incumbent Mayor Lydia Lavelle.
Carrboro already is working toward those goals, counters Lavelle, a two-term mayor and former member of the town’s Board of Aldermen.
While she and Benson agreed that one of the town’s biggest challenges is staying affordable for residents, Lavelle argued her experience and past responsiveness is critical in the face of what’s happening at the state and federal level.
Voters will elect a mayor and choose from among six candidates looking to fill four Board of Aldermen seats in the Nov. 7 general election. Early voting in Orange County’s municipal and city school board races starts Thursday, Oct. 19.
Here’s how Benson and Lavelle answered our questions:
Q. What leadership skills or experience will be most helpful to you if elected?
Mike Benson: I have been a small business owner and operator for over 25 years. Twelve years have been as the owner of three successful restaurants (Café Saint-Ex and Bar Pilar in Washington, D.C., and Southern Rail for 10 years in the heart of downtown Carrboro). I have watched gentrification roll into neighborhoods and take away the character of those unique territories, replacing them with big-box chains. We must support our local businesses if we want to see them stay around.
Lydia Lavelle: I had years of municipal government experience working in Durham and serving on advisory boards in Durham and Carrboro before being elected in Carrboro, twice as alderman and twice as mayor. I serve on the following groups, which enhance my knowledge and opportunity to collaborate: Metropolitan Mayors Coalition (also on Executive Committee), Orange County Solid Waste Advisory Group, and Orange County Visitors Bureau Board of Directors. I am also a past chair/current alternate to the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro MPO, a transportation planning group.
My time management and organizational skills are well-developed. I know how to run a meeting, and I am an open-minded, patient listener.
This is a critical time to have a seasoned mayor, given the recent challenges posed by federal and state governments. I am an experienced, responsive leader who is “always on,” ready to act on behalf of the town of Carrboro.
Q. What was a mistake that you learned from and how do you think that lesson will help you if elected?
Mike Benson: Delegating too much authority and kicking the can down the road. We need to be proactive and act before problems become a crisis. In the restaurant business, you have to foresee problems or you will wind up getting behind (like making decisions on balancing payroll versus cutting back on services and making sure all taxes are up to date). I will act quickly to to address problems like affordable housing, parking, the state of the arts in Carrboro and the environment. Not hold meeting after meeting … committees formed and disbanded … action is needed. I will work with the Board of Aldermen to achieve results to support our business district, re-establish Carrboro as a hub for the arts, and think outside of the box for parking/light rail/bikeways.
Lydia Lavelle: I have had a few situations which have taught me to prepare beyond a first step. One example is that we have had several meetings that have unexpectedly gone late into the night. I have learned to anticipate when it looks like this might happen in an upcoming meeting, and I employ strategies and make adjustments to keep our meetings somewhat on schedule. However, this is often still a challenge.
Q. What is the town’s biggest challenge and how would you address it?
Mike Benson: Gentrification is the greatest threat to Carrboro. Our town is uncommon, appealing and a great place to live … no matter what age you are. We must lead the state in pushing for alternative energy, securing a safe and free environment for all of our residents and preserving our amazing schools.
Lydia Lavelle: Maintaining affordability. Our town budget is based on commercial and residential property taxes, as well as sales tax. Property taxes fund the large majority. Carrboro is too small to attract a “big-box” store or a large plant; it is essential we support our local businesses to ensure their success. Carrboro leaders work to drive visitors and residents to local businesses by having downtown festivals and supporting downtown destinations. We approved construction of a second hotel downtown; it will result in more visitors to downtown and generate hotel tax that goes toward marketing and tourism efforts. We constantly assess access to downtown, including parking. Our Board has not increased our property tax rate in nine years. While we have no control over the real estate market, which drives housing and other costs, we can continue to work to increase our sales tax revenue while holding our tax rate steady.
Do you support giving development in the rural buffer another look?
Mike Benson: Yes. The rural buffer was created over 30 years ago when Carrboro was still a small community with affordable houses to rent or own.
Lydia Lavelle: No. It would be many years out, and we would be much more developed, before I would support adjusting the rural buffer.
Do you support economic incentives to attract businesses?
Mike Benson: Yes. Economic incentives like access to high-speed internet (fiber), parking that has convenience to the downtown, stronger infrastructure like bicycle paths along the highway and rail tracks, partnering with the University of North Carolina to expand health care centers (like in existing shopping centers), and affordable housing.
Lydia Lavelle: No. I do not support spending Carrboro money to provide an economic incentive to attract a business to Carrboro; under certain conditions, my answer might be different if I was a state leader.
Do you consider Carrboro taxes and cost of living affordable?
Mike Benson: No. The county tax structure leads to residents of incorporated municipalities subsidizing residents of unincorporated areas; the solution would be to have a separate tax district for the unincorporated areas to fund services they require. We need to address affordable housing immediately.
Lydia Lavelle: Yes. However, while our community is affordable for many who live here, it is not for many who do live here or who would like to live here.