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Live Local, Live Small: An interview with NHC Board of Commissioners candidate Rob Zapple

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As the race to the polls draws nearer (Nov. 4th), encore continues its coverage of NC hopefuls with New Hanover Board of Commissioners candidate Rob Zapple. All the county commission candidates received the same questionnaire and are afforded the same space to respond.


Rob Zapple Photo

encore (e): When and why did you decide to seek this office?

Rob Zapple (RZ): I ran for county commission in the last election cycle because I saw a need for more collaboration between city and county governments, greater cooperation between the commissioners, and a return to common sense thinking and decision-making. Two years later the same issues still are relevant and more urgent than ever. As citizens of New Hanover County (NHC), we enjoy a wonderful quality of life in one of the most beautiful and unique environments in the U.S. I will work to preserve our beaches and waterways, and plan for a future that supports a vibrant, diverse economy that offers quality educational and job opportunities for all members of our community.


e: What is your central issue in this election?

RZ: [It’s] restoring common sense and effective government to NHC. Wasted money on studies, no decisions on important issues and political infighting between the commissioners all have created gridlock for our county. I support measures that will increase economic development and educational opportunities (the two are tied together) for our entire community. 

Funding of early childhood education, support of high-school vocational programs and community college certification programs all [will] help develop the skilled, educated workforce necessary for retaining existing businesses and attracting new businesses that will offer the jobs of the future, including independent entrepreneurs, small-business owners, innovative technology-based companies, bio-tech research companies, and manufacturers that respect our coastal environment. Diversity of businesses and a strong commitment to our educational institutions create the foundation of a thriving and growing economy that will lead to strong, sustained growth in all sectors of our economy.


e:  Tell us where you stand on fracking?

RZ: I do not support induced hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in NHC, nor do I support allowing the disposal of the hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemical tainted discharge water withdrawn from each fracking well in our county. Discharge wells have been drilled in NHC in the past and [have] created serious environmental problems. The fracking process and disposal wells would pose a serious threat to our drinking water, by polluting our freshwater aquifers, streams and rivers.

e: Tell us how your platform supports small business?

RZ: I am a small-business owner, as is my wife, Michele. We know the challenges and the benefits of doing business in NHC. It is not [the government’s role] to create jobs, but the county government can help create the environment for successful business growth. [It] must establish and maintain clear, understandable regulations, [and] communicate those regulations to the public and explain the need for the regulations and their purpose in maintaining a level regulatory playing ground, so all businesses can prosper and grow. Small businesses should be able to expand within their field of business with a minimum of additional governmental permitting. 

I strongly support the work of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) at UNCW. Their program brings new entrepreneurs, educators, business people and investors together. The center offers office space to potential startup companies and small businesses that are ready to expand, and helps them explore partnership opportunities within the regional business community—all while promoting the creative/business talent of UNCW, existing successful businesses and New Hanover County.


e: How do you plan to generate income for our local economy?

RZ: The role of county government is not to create jobs, but it can help create a positive business climate by seeing that our local school system and community college are fully funded and that program offerings at all levels of education match the hiring needs of the local manufacturing and high-skilled job demands in NHC. 

I support expanding and retaining existing companies, attracting new companies that embrace innovative technologies, and encouraging the growth of the bio-research and clinical research organizations already located in NHC. I actively support the work of unique public/private partnerships such as MARBION, a partnership between UNCW and the private sector. [It’s] focused on the discovery of new products and technologies derived from organisms in our largest, untapped resource (the ocean) for development and marketing. 

I support the promotion of existing industries, including NHC’s film and television industry that employs over 2,000 members of our community and that has built an infrastructure of sound stages, technical-support businesses and a skilled-worker base that makes [it] a top national competitor. With the potential loss of funding for NC’s film incentive program, our elected officials and county staff will need to reach out in a regional effort to find new, creative ways to continue to attract film production to our county. [Otherwise we] risk the deterioration and potential loss of this important local asset. 

The success of all these business sectors will create stronger sales-tax revenue. Through wages paid to employees and materials and services purchased locally [it will] strengthen and grow our local economy. The jobs of the future [will not] be found in the smokestacks of the past.


e: Do you support the film incentives? If not, what plan do you have to replace the lost income in our economy?

RZ: Yes, I support the existing plan: 25-percent refundable tax credit on all qualifying expenses, with a cap of $20 million per project. The film industry employs over 2,000 individuals in NHC. In 2013 film and television projects were responsible for $244 million in direct spending in NC. [That’s] many times more when a conservative economic multiplier is applied. The film industry is unique; it is not a traditional brick-and-mortar manufacturer. 

Attempts by critics of the plan to compare our local film industry to other more traditional businesses is an unfair and unbalanced comparison. In general film projects are not tied to a location or a specific infrastructure. They easily can move to other states that offer more generous incentive packages. It would be an unnecessary and tragic loss to NHC‘s skilled workforce and economy if the recent proposed changes in the film incentives plan force a decision by the industry to relocate to other, more-welcoming states.


e: What are your thoughts on the proposed sales tax cap?   

RZ: A cap on sales tax will tie the hands of elected officials and could have the unintended consequence of forcing an increase in other taxes or fees. The collection of sales tax is one method municipalities have to create revenue for services and improvements [to] benefit the public. Restricting the use of this economic tool, by placing a cap on sales tax for any purpose, leaves public officials with one less option when considering the funding of important projects or issues that have the support of the public. Any proposal to cap sales tax should include a period of time for distribution of materials to educate the public on the consequences of the action, and then be decided by the voters.


e: How do you feel about a national minimum wage?

RZ: This is a federal issue. The current federal minimum wage is set at $7.25. It is very difficult to work a 40-hour week at minimum wage and meet the basic costs of food, housing, transportation, and clothing in NHC. The minimum wage standard paid for a 40-hour work week should not result in total earnings that place a worker below the poverty line (established by the federal government). 

I understand the financial impact of employee salaries and appreciate the difference that even $1 more per hour can make, concerning the success of a business. There is a middle ground that allows all workers to be respected and paid fairly, and [permit] businesses to continue to grow and prosper. I will continue to follow this debate that is important to business owners, managers and employees at all levels.


e: How do you feel about the at-large elections we have for council and commission? Would our citizens be better represented by ward-style elections? 

RZ: This is an important discussion that deserves a forum that includes representatives of all areas of our community. There is a perception that at-large representation can exclude minority voices. Especially if the majority of elected positions are consistently filled by members of our community grouped into a specific geographic area or that represent a single socio-economic level. Dividing a county or city into districts for the purpose of increasing local representation typically occurs in areas that have a larger population base than Wilmington or NHC.

There are strong arguments in support of both forms of representation, and I am open to a full discussion and study of the experience that other areas in NC have had with district-wide voting. Neither at-large nor district-style voting processes address the root problem of a lack of interest by qualified individuals within our community to step up and take part in our local and state government. Democrats, Republicans and Independents all need to encourage their members to get involved [by] attending organizational meetings, joining or applying for appointment to established committees that focus on areas of [community] concern, and consider running for elected office. An engaged, educated electorate, which voices their opinion and actively pursues the positions that will help make our community stronger and a better place to live, work and play, is the best answer to the problem.


e: What is your vision for our community in two years? In five years? 

RZ: I look forward to the day when the NHC commissioners and the Wilmington City Council can speak with a united and regional voice that includes surrounding county governments. Transportation, education, public safety, roads, and redevelopment are just a few of the areas that would benefit from advocating as a region—as opposed to a single county. 

We live in the second smallest county in North Carolina. Yet, it is the third most densely populated county in NC—only behind Mecklenburg (Charlotte) and Wake (Raleigh) counties. We also live in the fastest growing region in southeastern NC. This is a small area, with a lot of people. All projections show that NHC will increase its population by 50,000-plus in the next 10 years (5,200 people in the past year alone). I can only imagine what the intersection of South College Road and Oleander Drive will look like with 50,000 more people in our county. Where will these people live? Where will they go to school? Where will they work? We need a strong focus on planning and infrastructure development. 

In a coordinated manner we can direct and manage the areas of commercial and residential growth throughout NHC—smart growth. Housing and business development follows water and sewer expansion. Through proper county planning, in cooperation with the Cape Fear Public Utilities Authority and the City of Wilmington, we can control the growth of our county. We can protect the beauty of our environment and natural resources while encouraging new and existing businesses to expand and relocate here.

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