Candidates running for Georgetown City Council were united in their opposition to offshore drilling but divided on how best to attract jobs to the city during a forum Tuesday evening at Winyah Auditorium.
Four of the five candidates on the ballot for the June 11 Democratic primary took part in the forum, which covered topics ranging from housing to downtown parking. Incumbents Sheldon Butts, Al Joseph and Clarence Smalls are seeking re-election against former council member Jeanette Ard and Hudson Henry Milton, who was not at the forum.
Butts and Joseph, both currently serving their first term, highlighted City Council's accomplishments in recent years, including projects to upgrade the city's water and sewer infrastructure.
Ard, who served on council from 2010 until 2013 when she lost in the general election, said a top priority for her would be working with the South Carolina Department of Transportation to improve roadways throughout the city, most of which are managed by the state. She's owned a business on Front Street since the 1980s.
Smalls, a council member since the 1990s, joined with Butts in support of bringing industrial jobs to the city and reviving the Port of Georgetown.
"Cannot forget the heartbeat that we have," Butts said about Georgetown's legacy as a port city.
But Joseph said the focus should be on attracting small- and medium-sized business along with some light industry, adding he thinks it's highly unlikely the port dredging will become a reality.
He also stressed the importance of tourism as a foundation of the city's economy.
"We have to promote ourselves. We have to market ourselves. ... Let the world know Georgetown is here," Joseph said. Last year, City Council approved an agreement with the county's Chamber of Commerce to have the organization lead marketing efforts on behalf of the city.
Joseph said the city doesn't currently have the land available for more heavy industry. Smalls said City Council needs to be more active in annexing land into the city limits.
Joseph said he thinks the corridor along Church Street from the bridges to Pawleys Island is a "huge opportunity" to expand the city's business sector.
Ard said, "Our corridors coming into the city could really be enticing if they were cleaned up."
Expanding the city's stock of affordable housing will attract people to Georgetown, Ard said. The four candidates agreed that housing should be a top priority for city leaders. Joseph noted that a large apartment complex is planned for the undeveloped land across from the Post Office.
On the topic of dilapidated housing, Joseph said the city needs to form partnerships with nonprofits and other organizations to provide property owners with access to resources that can help them revitalize their homes and community.
"There are areas that are terrible and ones that are beautiful," he said about housing in the West End.
Since joining council, Butts has led a group focused on updating the city's West End Redevelopment Plan. The document, developed in 2004, had literally sat on a shelf for years. Butts said it's vital that the city use the plan as a pathway for improving the West End.
Smalls noted that the city recently added a city planner to its staff. He said it's important the city enforce its ordinances covering property upkeep and maintenance, but he also conceded that poverty is a problem.
"The folks over there just don't have the money to" maintain their property, Smalls said about some residents of the West End.
The group agreed the city's housing problems are not limited to the West End. Joseph stressed that it can sometimes be very difficult for city staff to make contact with property owners when trying to address ordinance violations.
Ard said the city needs to enforce it's property ordinances on business owners as well.
Joseph said, "It is almost impossible for the city of Georgetown to take care of litter" because of limited staff.
That same theme came up when the candidates were asked about derelict boats in the harbor.
The city "can't just tow boats," Joseph said about how the ordinance works.
Butts said an ordinance is "no good" if it can't be enforced. He added that the city can't manage the harbor on its own. Cooperation with the county, the Coast Guard and the state Department of Natural Resources is necessary, he said.
On the topic of blight along N. Fraser Street across from the steel mill, Butts said, "Change doesn't happen overnight. We are making progress, we want to make progress."
When discussion turned to paid parking on Front Street downtown, something city council is currently examining, Ard, owner of Colonial Floral Fascinations, said the problem has always been employees parking in front of businesses.
"Meters won't solve that problem," she said, adding the city needs to expand the amount of parking space in the downtown area, including adding a parking structure if necessary.
The city has a two-hour parking rule for Front Street, but effective enforcement depends on available resources. Ard said a parking attendant could help ease the problem. Smalls suggested turning the green space at the corner of Prince and King, a block up from Front Street, into a parking lot. He also said he's undecided on whether parking meters should be installed.
Butts said there is a need for paid parking along portions of Front Street. Joseph said his biggest concern is that paid parking with a two-hour limit could negatively impact tourism. Two hours isn't enough time to shop and have a meal, he said. But, he added, paid parking won't "kill downtown."
"Do we need it? I don't know right now," Joseph said, adding his final decision would be based in large part on input from constituents.
Because no Republicans filed for the election, it's likely Tuesday's primary will decide who wins a seat on council. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. on Tuesday.
The candidate forum was organized by the Georgetown County League of Women Voters.