WILMINGTON –– Mayor Bill Saffo has helmed the Wilmington City Council for 15 years, managing to maintain relationships on both sides of the political aisle as the region’s population base has ballooned.
The city’s longest-serving mayor is seeking an eighth (elected) term leading the dais come fall; in 2006, he was first appointed to the gig to replace Spence Broadhurst, who was resigning for his day job. At the time, Saffo was serving his first term as a councilman, elected in 2003.
Saffo will face Harper Peterson in November, a redo of the 2007 mayoral race, when he won his first mayoral bid against the former senator by a healthy margin.
Just as he did in his first mayoral campaign, now approaching his eighth, Saffo bills himself as a consensus builder. “I work well with people and that’s one of my hallmarks,” he said. “I have not changed my style since I was first elected.”
His tenure in office is a reflection of his ability to make actionable decisions, he said. “It’s a referendum on each and every one of us who put our names up there. And that referendum is based on things we do in our community. And I believe I’ve demonstrated over and over again that I’ve been able to deliver,” he said. “I get things done.”
Compared to state or federal politicians, Saffo finds himself personally accountable to his constituents in his daily routine: “I have to see our citizens. I’m in the grocery stores, I’m in people’s shops, I’m in restaurants. People see me. People grab me. People talk to me. We’re the government that’s closest to the people. So they expect for us to get things done.”
The mayor heads into this election after his closest race yet during the last municipal cycle. Challenger Devon Scott trailed by just 610 votes, a four-point difference, picking up many downtown precincts on the northside while the mayor kept a firm grip on midtown.
(Interestingly, Saffo picked up his first mayoral seat by about 1,000 more votes than he earned in 2019, despite the city’s growth, likely a marker of low voter turnout.)
“I took some things from that election that people were concerned about and people were upset about and said that I would do the best that I could to improve upon the concerns of people that may not have even voted for me,” Saffo said. The race prompted him to listen more closely to the community, causing him to champion issues that mattered most to them: tree removal, growth, more opportunities for public input, and clean energy.
“The other part of this is that there’s a responsibility at the state level –– and I’m not passing the buck here –– but the major roadways in our community are owned by the state of North Carolina and asking for help, and asking them to step up and help us, is a major component of this,” he said.
Officials have been talking about the Hampstead Bypass for 20 years, he said; construction is slated to begin next year, with a 2030 completion date. By the time leaders recognize road or traffic improvements are needed, it’s often too late. The state operates in a drawn-out timeline, leaving room for legal and environmental planning concerns (not even counting budgetary hold-ups, which have further blocked much-needed improvements).
“These projects take a long time. The amount of time and effort it takes to get through these road projects is too long –– way too long,” he said. “I don’t think we get our fair share of money in southeastern North Carolina.”
As the city’s leader, Saffo has been singled out as letting growth go unchecked. To this sentiment, he said it’s not always easy to quickly explain the underlying dynamics: “I can’t stop somebody from moving here. They’ve found us.”
“I have to work as a mayor in a region that is growing dramatically,” he said. “We’re sandwiched between two counties that are growing tremendously.”
Brunswick County was the fastest-growing county in the state between 2010 and 2019, with Pender County ranked close behind in the number-five spot. An estimated 50,000 vehicles cross into city limits on a daily basis, Saffo said, to either access the beaches, go to the doctor, a job, shopping, and more –– “they all have to come through the City of Wilmington to get there.”
“So the feeling is always that we are overrun with growth; what we’re overrun with is people that are coming into our city every day to enjoy our services, to come to work here, then go back out in the evenings,” he said. “So we feel that. And we feel that every single day.”
Like most native Wilmingtonians, Saffo points to I-40 reaching the city in 1990 as a shift in the zeitgeist. “Forty changed the dynamics of Wilmington. Forty changed what Wilmington looks like. And 40 will continue to do that for years,” he said. “Those people at that point in time when they were talking about putting Interstate 40 here, weren’t talking about what could happen 30 years later. But we have seen the aftermath of that decision for the whole region.”
Back then, Wilmington was a tough place to make a living, Saffo said. Now, it’s an employment hub and an even more alluring destination point. The mayor lists the extended Riverwalk, the Wilmington Convention Center, the Cross-City Trail, luring PPD in 2005, a revitalized downtown, the first film tax credit, the redone film tax grant program, and of course the newly opened Riverfront Park as highlights of his political career.
He remembers council faced pushback in 2006, when the city first passed the parks bond that funded $2.5 million in improvements to turn Greenfield Lake Amphitheater into what it is today. “This is where I say leadership comes in,” he said. “We as a city council said, ‘Let’s do this, let’s try this. Let’s repurpose this iconic little facility at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater and make this happen.’”
“To have two beautiful venues, one small one, one larger one, one on the river, one on the lake, for a community this size, is outstanding –– I mean it’s rare,” he said. “As hard as it is to believe, Wilmington, North Carolina, is becoming known as a music mecca.”
Again in 2013, when council bought the property where Riverfront Park sits today, they faced criticism, naysayers believing they should have left it for economic development purposes to accentuate the tax base. During this month’s Fourth of July grand opening, while local bands took the stage, Saffo reflected on the long road it took to get there.
“I was so proud when I sat up on that stage and I looked out at that crowd. And looked back over the city,” he said. “It brought chills to me because I know how much work went into it but also just to see the look on people’s faces, was beautiful.”
Gateway to downtown
Lately, he’s proud of the city’s Rise Together initiative, which reflects on and tries to improve upon equity, diversity, and civic inclusion, and his goal adopted by the Clean Energy Task Force to electrify the city’s fleet by 100% by 2050.
A new Land Development Code is on the horizon, one that includes stricter ordinances for trees (a cause Saffo dove into in recent years, beefing up the city’s tree division). A $50 million proposed housing bond is in the works (requiring voter approval) to address the city’s affordable housing crisis; “I think the government has some role to play in it but not the entire role,” he said.
In the near term, if Saffo had to isolate one project to espouse, it’d be shaping how the city-owned gateway project downtown gets developed. “Seeing that completed, seeing this downtown revitalized and that final big piece is very important to me,” he said.
In his 18 years serving council, he said his most important lesson learned is “anything can be accomplished in life as long as you don’t mind who gets the credit.”
“I have a lot of energy. I have a lot of passion for this community because I was born and raised here. And this community was very, very good to my family: immigrants who came from a foreign country trying to make a living and make a better way for themselves,” Saffo said of his Greek heritage. “This community was good to them and good to us. And I want to give back to this community because I love this community with all my heart.”
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