As another local election campaign nears, new and familiar faces have been filing to fill three Wilmington City Council seats. Mack Coyle, Harry Smith Jr., Kimberly Spader, Kevin Spears, Scott Monroe and Matt Thrift are on the ballot, and up for re-election are Margaret Haynes, Paul Lawler and Neil Anderson (Alexandria Monroe pulled out of the race).
encore has been reaching out to all candidates to get their thoughts and views on top-of-mind issues concerning our city. This week we chat with Devon Scott about his upcoming mayoral bid. Scott is challenging our current mayor, Bill Saffo, who has held office since 2006.
encore (e): Part of the mayor’s job is to build consensus with City Council. What teamwork skills do you bring, and how do you plan to keep the council working productively? How has your experience with StepUp Wilmington prepared you to be mayor?
Devon Scott (DS): As a volunteer facilitator with StepUp Wilmington, I had to be prepared to speak to individuals from various walks of life and help them set goals for the future, regardless of what their past may have been, by taking the time to earnestly listen, relate and respond. The ability to build consensus and find common ground is an integral part of who I am, and a critical part of the work I intend to do as mayor. I am naturally diplomatic and compassionate to the concerns and statements of others, which is a quality I will rely on in working with city council.
e: What projects do you want to see included in long-range city planning currently neglected? How would you motivate council to accomplish those goals?
DS: We can accomplish big things to improve our equality, ecology, and economy in Wilmington, but we need a road map. Establishing a healthy brand and vision for Wilmington’s future is a priority that has been severely under-attended to over time. Without a defined brand, how do we attract the type of people and businesses that bring real value to our region? How do we establish for ourselves what we want in the first place?
A tangible example on vision is the disconnect between the “Wilmington Strategic Plan” and “Wilmington Comprehensive Plan.” Look them up and read them. It is not clear why there are two strategy plans, and the plans do not appear to reconcile with one another.
The Comprehensive Plan is a very impressive document the city spent enormous resources on, including over 70 public meetings, but it does not appear we are bringing action around its guidance in any sort of coherent way. Rather than motivate council, the real job is to motivate a greater level of civic engagement from citizens. We do this by building trust through transparency and making sure everyone is heard and involved in the process. Our growth plan can be substantial and comprehensive in setting the rules of engagement, but without clear vision, this is a map with no destination.
e: You’ve said you’re running against the status quo—not an incumbent. What do you see as the biggest failings of the current leadership and the biggest successes? Tell us the most important area, in your opinion, that you will fix and improve upon.
DS: I can answer both with one statement: development. There was a time when Wilmington desperately needed new development to revitalize the city, but now Wilmington is successfully growing quickly and we hold all the cards. We are demonstrating a strength in real estate as an investment vehicle, and our beaches and natural environment will continue to draw people here into the future, as long as we do not let dirty industry and misguided runaway development ruin it. We don’t need to incentivize global corporations to bring 50 jobs and a lifetime of pollution to our area; we need to establish a healthy brand and pursue opportunities accordingly.
You could say our current leadership has brought us to where we are, but I believe it is unable to take us where we want to go. The rampant development needs to be tempered with intent and vision so we can preserve our ecosystems and focus on our people, municipal amenities and local infrastructure.
e: How do you plan to curb this development and/or reallocate development to areas of the city that need it most? Specifics welcome.
DS: It wouldn’t be necessary or even useful to issue a moratorium on new development. I endorse a “Smart Growth Filter” before approving any new projects. It would prioritize the approval of projects that offer solutions for housing, enhance green spaces, increase connectivity and bikeability, avoid sprawl, and undertake low-impact development practices. Combining this with the opportunity for citizens to achieve ownership of local projects creates an exciting way forward for Wilmington.
The NC PACES Act allows average citizens to invest in private developments through equity-based crowdfunding. What this means is citizens can invest in parts of their own communities rather than leaving it only to big money and private investors. Issuing requests for proposals (RFPs) requires developers to raise a portion up to a million dollars of financing for their projects through non-accredited local investments; it provides opportunities for the common citizen and a funding source for developers, while allowing the public to demonstrate approval for the project through a buy-in. As an added bonus, because these financial instruments would have a lower return on investment for non-accredited investors than private investments, it allows developers to keep rents lower on tenancy developments.
e: You’ve been a supporter of small businesses. What kinds of businesses do you think Wilmington most urgently needs? What are your plans to attract them here?
DS: Without specifying an industry, Wilmington desperately needs businesses that will hire more white-collar positions so we can close our widening equality gap and provide greater economic mobility. Beyond that, we need to attract clean industry businesses that excite economic activity. One way is to support our local businesses that are close to providing return for their investments. An initial public offering (IPO) from nCino or an exit from Untappd would gain the interest of regional and national investors, and demonstrate to other businesses Wilmington can successfully incubate and launch high-growth businesses. We are well set up to cater to the remote working community, and can do more to attract clean future growth industries and startups.
e: Citizens aplenty are seeing our green space going to the sidelines for development; how do you foresee combating and correcting this?
DS: We absolutely must realize green space is an investment in public health, ecological resiliency, and economic development. I’ve already mentioned my idea for a Smart Growth Filter that will work to preserve existing green spaces and advocate for new ones, especially where such amenities are underserved.
Wilmington only has 10% of our green space left, and there are three times the area of parking spaces to green spaces in the city. We have to engage what is left as a priority for the future of our health, economy and our people, even if it means engaging the historical land owners in our town to do what is right.
We need equality in our parks, we need to make it a cultural priority to plant more trees and implement a fertility program to allow them to thrive. We need to be smarter in how we move forward and recognize how difficult it is to undevelop development.
e: You studied at UNC Chapel Hill and graduated from Cape Fear Community College. What role do you see our universities playing in the larger community? How might they be better utilized to support Wilmington at large?
DS: Universities are a natural cradle for innovation, and our recent regional economic scorecards reveal we lag behind other cities on this front. I would want to strengthen the relationship between the city and universities by challenging them to create more intellectual properties and patents toward the issues we face locally—especially regarding our coastal ecology and environmental resiliency.
Further, as a statement toward our local identity, we should train and graduate a labor pool coherent with the businesses we invest in attracting through the university and the community college. It gets back to brand and vision; we must connect where we have come from, to where we are, and then make sure it is coherent with where we want to go.
e: Rate the following in importance and explain your ideas to correct/enhance them: affordable housing; better paying/more jobs; public transportation; tax incentives; climate crisis; hurricane preparedness; systemic equity and systemic equality. What else would you put on this list and why?
DS: As a preface, these are not isolated issues; they live in a web of dynamic interplay that must be engaged with systems-thinking, or what can be called an “ecosystem approach” to problem-solving. We cannot solve dynamic problems with linear thinking; we must use dynamic thinking to deliver healthy solutions. In this spirit, these answers are in order of impact and inclusion, not of priority.
Systemic Equity & Equality: A government that does not operate with true equality and equitable intentions toward all people on all levels is defeating its purpose. We address equity by creating transparency and auditing the city to ensure opportunities are equal and barriers of access are removed. With efforts having been placed in providing opportunities for all citizens, we can remove policies and practices that promote and propagate inequality. By addressing equity and equality as our weakest links, we have an opportunity to solve many of the below problems at one time.
Better-Paying / More Jobs: Equality and equity are economic development issues. Society performs better when there are more potential collaborators with fewer barriers between points of collaboration. This alone stimulates economic activity and potential. Executing wise decisions about infrastructure and creating the right encouragement for our businesses will naturally attract others to the city.
Affordable Housing: Much of our housing crisis is a wage crisis. Regardless, in order to truly combat and rectify many of the scourges affecting Wilmington, such as homelessness and retaining our college graduates, we will have to engage creative funding sources to manage affordability. We must create opportunities for partnerships that increase the diversity of our communities across the socio-economic spectrum to further bolster our growth and opportunity.
Hurricane Preparedness: There is no point in building something great if you are not going to protect it. Hurricanes are a natural hazard of our region; we need to explore “defensive design,” reinvest and properly maintain our existing infrastructure before building new projects, and do everything we can to avoid losing more homes in the future.
Public Transportation: Well-designed public transportation is part of systemic equality and equity, as well as part of the equation for the economic development and mobility required to attract strong businesses that offer good paying jobs. In fact, the decisions we make on housing and infrastructure play a greater part in deciding the needs of our public transportation than the other way around.
Climate Crisis: Wilmington comes first, but not at the cost of our global community. We are a town that is borne of and surrounded by water. My platform very heavily emphasizes the importance of ecology and environmental decisions being a part of our thinking and action going forward.
A first step is to explore what our city looks like with projected sea-level rise and plan accordingly. Without a vision that includes the reality of climate change, and without a brand to drive our development going forward, we will not be able to galvanize the collective and political will to address the problem. Another first step is leveraging our location, universities, and startups as an opportunity to champion renewable energy projects.
Tax Incentives: Incentives need to be handled delicately since they create a whole new type of market competition. Incentives at all costs hurt our region. They need to be overtly tied to the vision of the city—else we risk businesses and industries gaining the upper hand in economic negotiations. Incentives should only be leveraged after knowing what Wilmington’s brand is and what type of businesses we want to bring here.
We also need a healthy dose of creativity and imagination. For example, I have been designing social programs that can allow us to provide the equivalent of the former film incentives as a tool to again attract film to our region. Society is built on narrative and incentive. When we use these tools to our collective advantage, we can move mountains.
e: Being the official face and handshake for the city, tell us how you would represent all people, both during a hurricane—when we need calm, considered leadership—and at events like Riverfest, Cucalorus and Take Back the Night—when we need friendly dignity and inclusiveness?
DS: This question effectively appeals to my humanity. Our problems are not political, they are human, and they are clear and obvious to most Wilmingtonians. I’m both an entrepreneur and an artist, which allows me the ability to think at the rationale executive level and engage on a cultural level.
For example, within 36 hours in the wake of Hurricane Florence, I designed and launched a software system to help displaced individuals find shelter in collaboration with others involved in recovery.
I am a spoken-word poet that thrives on stage and have been working my entire life to help and connect with people in genuine ways.
I’ve been a business journalist, an event and podcast host, and even a Cucalorus volunteer. Each requires the demeanor of a professional people-person. With your help, and a vote for me starting during early voting on October 16, or on election day, November 5, I am ready for the job.
e: What’s missing from our city that needs to be included so all people are equally represented? How will you get us there?
DS: Ownership. We are missing a posture of equity in our city. We have widening gaps in our local economy, as well as in our arts and our culture. We could even explore ways to enact the rights of Mother Nature and let the Cape Fear River herself sue Chemours and other corporate polluters. We suffer from closed leadership silos, and we cannot be represented equally nor collaborate effectively until we balance out these discrepancies.
By creating social and economic vehicles that facilitate and foster greater ownership in the city, we can bolster our democracy through greater civic engagement and serve our citizens economically by allowing them to participate in our growth and economy in more meaningful ways. This will work to close those gaps. I have been championing programs that span even to the most marginalized communities that remove barriers to opportunity and invite all Wilmington citizens to the table. We all do better when we all do better.
Have follow-up questions for Devon Scott? Be sure to leave a comment on the online article, and we will see he receives and answers them for you. His responses will be posted below the article until election day, Tuesday, November 5.
One-stop voting for the municipal elections begins on Wednesday, October 16, and will conclude on Friday, November 1.
Questions were culled by encore staff: editor Shea Carver, staff editor Jeff Oloizia and contributor Gwenyfar Rohler.
Read all candidate interviews here.