Monday, June 27, 2022

Primary 2020: New Hanover Board of Commissioners, Democratic candidate Leslie Cohen [Free read]

Leslie Walden Cohen, Democratic candidate for the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners. (Port City Daily photo / File)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The primary election on March 3 will narrow a crowded field of candidates running for the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners from six Democrats and nine Republicans to three from each party; winners in the primary will compete for three open seats in November.

Of three Board of Commissioners candidates with terms ending in 2020, only one — Jonathan Barfield — is running for reelection. Commissioners Woody White and Patricia Kusek have both opted not to seek additional terms.

All candidates in the 2020 primary were asked the same questions; candidates were not given word limits and were encouraged to broach any subject we didn’t ask about in the final two questions. Answers were edited only for typographical errors and for formatting.

Leslie Cohen, Democratic candidate

1. Tell us a little about your background: how long have you lived in the area? What profession do you work in / come from? 

I was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. My husband and I have spent our summers in New Hanover since we first started dating in the early 1980s. My husband’s grandfather built a cottage in Carolina Beach in 1933 that still serves as our family gathering place. We moved to Wilmington permanently in 2013 after our children left home. 

I have been a business owner for my entire adult life and I understand the struggles and joy that can accompany running a business. I started in the printing business with my husband when we were first married and then owned a successful graphic design firm, creating collateral advertising for Fortune 500 companies. Nearly 20 years ago we both transitioned to fine art. Most people don’t think of artists as business people, but the difference between a starving artist and a successful one is not the quality of the art; it’s the business acumen of the artist.

2. Let’s tackle the elephant in the room first: Where do you stand on the potential sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center. Weigh in on what’s already happened if you like, but please tell us where you would like to see NHRMC go in the future.

First, the hospital must remain in local control. If we sell the hospital there is no guarantee that we can maintain local control. Second, all evidence strongly suggests that a sale means increased costs and decreased quality of care. I have not been shown a single example where this has not been the case.

I can’t find the logic for why we need to change the way the hospital is managed. I’ve been to the public hearings and all I’ve heard is canned answers, carefully crafted by the PR firm. Right now our hospital is financially strong, working to promote health equity, and offering an unparalleled level of care for our community. While there may be challenges in the future, maintaining local control is critical to maintaining the value and quality of care our community has worked so hard to build.

I think this all leads to the real elephant in the room- we currently have a dysfunctional County Commission, set on deconstructing and privatizing the infrastructure of the county government (the hospital, WAVE transit, the government center sale) with a lack of transparency and public input.

3. The county is completing its UDO, which will shape development on thousands of acres across the county. How will you balance a potential development boom with concerns about traffic, school overcrowding, and stormwater?

We need to slow this process down immediately. The Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) determines what kinds of developments can be built in New Hanover County over the next decade and what opportunities there will be to shape that development. The county is on track to approve the UDO without public engagement and regular citizens, homeowners, and taxpayers are not being given a voice in the process. 

It doesn’t matter who is serving on the Commission, if the UDO says that a chemical plant can be built on a site that is zoned for Light Industrial (I-1) use, there is nothing that the County Commission can do to deny it. There would be no hearings and no approval needed by the Planning Board or the Board of Commissioners. A chemical plant or a steel mill could be built across the street from Walmart on Market Street and there would be no way to stop it.

I don’t think people understand that the power of the Commissioners to approve or reject individual projects is severely limited by state law. The real power to control development over the next decade is in the UDO. Currently, all those things we must grapple with- traffic, school crowding, and floodwater, aren’t generally grounds to deny a project. If we want to have deliberate, sustainable, and attractive growth, we need a UDO that works for the citizens.

4. Speaking of housing, how would you address the state of affordable housing in the region?

Safe, quality, affordable housing is the greatest challenge facing our community. We need to look to other cities around the world to see what they have done successfully. Some local solutions are already underway and need to be supported, like public/private partnerships with Habitat for Humanity and CFPUA. We also need to incentivize development of affordable units and be flexible in our zoning to create new types of neighborhoods, such as tiny house communities. Critically, we need to include transportation in the housing equation because affordable housing isn’t affordable if you can’t get to work, school, and shopping.

5. Let’s talk about affordable development. Years ago, the Garner report noted that the region’s economic development groups were ‘Balkanized’ — with overlapping and uncoordinated missions and a lack of unified direction. What would your approach to economic development be?

We are a small county, surrounded by water and beautiful natural habitat. People want to live here, which puts us in a position to be selective with the types of businesses that we bring to New Hanover County. I want to encourage growth in technology and information industries as well as work to bring more film projects back. We need to attract and retain businesses that preserve our natural beauty and provide sustainable jobs rather than polluting industries. I wholly support efforts like the one currently underway to create an engineering school at UNCW.

When we include everyone in the equation of economic development, not just “job creators,” we see that there is more to economic development than just incentivizing 20-50 new roles to fill. We need healthy, living-wage jobs that provide a foundation for our citizens to have meaningful and rewarding lives. We also need to address the shortage of skilled labor in areas such as construction and make sure that we are preparing our youth to fill the jobs that are already available in our community. Together, these efforts will create a pathway to success for New Hanover County citizens.

6. How would you steer the county in addressing environmental concerns?

We live in the most beautiful place in the world. If we can’t drink our water and we can’t breathe the air, all this growth that folks keep talking about is not going to happen. In fact, people will leave. When that happens, our property values will drop and our tax base will shrink and then the county will be unable to provide adequate services to the citizens and we will be in a downward economic spiral.

I think we have a responsibility to preserve our natural environment as a part of our way of life and also for future generations. It’s the right thing to do. But it’s also the smart thing to do. We have to protect our air, our water, our wetlands, our beaches, and our green spaces. We must prioritize clean, sustainable jobs, plan and prepare for severe weather, and stop the corporate polluters poisoning our water and air. 

7. What other county initiatives would you like to see created, continued, or scaled back?

WAVE Transit is in a state of transition. The interim board is in place and they have pledged that they are not going to make drastic changes anytime soon. But the short-term financial challenges are serious and the long-term plans are not clear. One thing is clear — we need robust public transit in New Hanover County. 

We need to meet the needs of all our citizens, including those who cannot or choose not to drive. As our population grows, our need for viable transportation options also grows. We cannot solve our traffic issues simply by building more roads. We need busses that run on a schedule that makes commuting by bus a viable option for the majority of our citizens. We need safe walking and biking trails that we can use, not just for fitness and recreation, but as a means to get to work, school, and shopping. WAVE transit is a staple for a healthy, sustainable local economy and I will continue to advocate for our public transportation programs.

8. What else would you like voters to know?

I love New Hanover County. I fell in love with this place the first time I crossed the bridge in 1984. I am dedicated to preserving the beauty and sense of community that makes our corner of North Carolina special. That’s why I want to serve. I want this to be a place where everyone can be happy and successful; where people can raise a family, build a business or career, retire and enjoy their golden years. I know that we face many challenges but I look forward to the opportunity to create solutions for a better New Hanover County for all of us.

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