Overseeing the best interests of a growing town means its elected leaders must balance a variety of needs.
The next four years could prove pivotal for Southern Pines with a massive road construction project on U.S. 1 and U.S. 15-501 in the offing, two soon-to-be vacated school buildings that will need to be repurposed, and managing a vibrant and expanding downtown shopping district that is attracting innovative infill projects.
On Wednesday evening, the League of Women Voters hosted a candidates forum at Belle Meade to give voters a chance to hear from each of the five candidates running for seats on the Southern Pines Town Council.
In the two-way mayoral race, incumbent Councilwoman Carol Haney is facing challenger Craig Morrison, a Southern Pines businessman and political newcomer. Haney currently holds a council seat. If she is elected to replace outgoing Mayor David McNeill, the newly constituted council would have the opportunity to appoint a new member to fill her chair.
The ballot for the two open council seats includes John McLaughlin, incumbent Councilman Paul Murphy and Bill Pate.
During the forum, each candidate had the opportunity to introduce themselves, identify pressing issues they see facing the town, and respond to audience questions. The event was moderated by Carolyn Mealing.
Carol Haney identified infrastructure, inclusiveness and growth as her three top priorities, though not necessarily in that order.
Looking ahead she said town leaders will be developing plans to fund more than $2 million in already-identified safety and long-term maintenance needs in town-owned buildings. In addition, Southern Pines and Aberdeen are negotiating with the state Department of Transportation on shared costs to relocate an 18-inch water transmission line from U.S. 1 to North Poplar Street.
On growth and inclusiveness, Haney said the council created two new task forces this year. One is working closely with the West Southern Pines Pines community to encourage economic development, and the other is focused on how to best engage new residents.
“We want to make it easier for newcomers to find their place here and feel at home,” Haney said. “And we are focused on growth that is sustainable, and not destructive.”
Haney was initially appointed to the Southern Pines Town Council in October 2016, filling the seat left vacant after former mayor and longtime council member Mike Fields resigned. The following year, she received the most votes in a decisive win to retain her seat.
A real estate professional, Haney has lived in Moore County since 1982. She has served in numerous civic leadership roles including on the boards of Habitat for Humanity of the Sandhills and Sandhills/Moore Coalition for Human Care. Haney is a past president of Southern Pines Rotary, Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities, and a former chair of Keep Moore County Beautiful. Prior to her appointment to the Town Council, she also served as chair of the Southern Pines Appearance Commission.
In the next few years, Haney said it will be important for the town to develop additional downtown parking, encourage diversity on its boards, and that she would like to see economic development and equality on both sides of West Pennsylvania Avenue. She identified Southern Pines Primary as a potential site for a business incubator and performance arts center, while Southern Pines Elementary could be repurposed as a town administrative building.
“A lot of good things come with managed growth. The future of our wonderful town is very bright,” she said.
Craig Morrison is a political newcomer and part of the changing demographics of Southern Pines. He is a military veteran who fell in love with the town when he was stationed at Fort Bragg. When the time came for him to transition to civilian life, he opened a small business, Valhalla Tattoo, in downtown Southern Pines.
He decided to run for the mayoral seat because he understands how decisions made at the municipal level have such a profound impact on citizens lives. Morrison identified growth as a top concern, along with economic development and sensible spending.
“Southern Pines is a desirable place to live. But when people say growth, it is also about this being a destination where a number of people of coming to shop and eat,” he said.
Economic development needs strategic planning, he said, similar to the work Partners in Progress undertook to identify key industries to pursue.
“We need to look at not just retail, but military related businesses too,” said Morrison.
His vision for the next few years is to see the “great things preserved,” such as the town’s charm and inviting neighborhoods. He said he sees opportunity for diversified economic growth, particularly in the West Southern Pines community.
John McLaughlin is seeking one of the two open council seats. He identified his priorities as maintaining a stable tax base, developing a high tech business park between Southern Pines and Vass, and managing infrastructure and building maintenance needs. He also noted he’d like to take a look at parking concerns and do a feasibility study to see if the Southern Pines Elementary campus on May Street could be repurposed for town use.
“I feel my construction background would be beneficial from a cost perspective as we look at the Southern Pines school as a location for a town administration building,” he said.
A Southern Pines native, McLaughlin retired from a 40-year career in the construction and development industry. More recently he completed two consecutive terms on the Southern Pines Planning Board, including three-and-a-half years as chairman. During his tenure, the board adopted the town’s Unified Development Ordinance.
“The biggest challenge we have is controlled growth,” he said, noting that Aberdeen, Pinehurst and Whispering Pines have all annexed land “up to our doorstep.”
“That only leaves the U.S. 1 corridor to Vass for potential development to increase our tax base. This issue must be carefully planned,” McLaughlin added. “We need a unified Moore County. We are not in competition with other towns.”
The Rev. Dr. Paul Murphy also grew up in Southern Pines. He was appointed to the Southern Pines Town Council in November 2018, the unanimous choice to serve out the unexpired term of longtime member, the late Rev. Fred Walden. He hopes to retain his seat in the November election.
A Pinecrest graduate and military veteran, Murphy is the head pastor of Trinity A.M.E. Zion Church in West Southern Pines, and patriarch of the Murphy Family, a musical group that includes his wife, Sharon, and their four children. He attended Hood Theological Seminary, and holds a Masters of Divinity from Duke University and completed his undergraduate degree in music theory and composition at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
“Our population explosion is a great thing but, at the same time, can be challenging with traffic and growth. The town is doing some wonderful things to provide services, like the new fire station near the airport to facilitate this growth,” Murphy said.
He noted the growth has also brought a shift to a younger population and that it is important for the town to respond to the needs and opportunities that presents for all ages.
“There is the challenge of simply getting along. Being able to become a more compassionate community and making sure that all can participate,” Murphy said.
Bill Pate is also running in his first political campaign, at least since high school when he served as senior class president and was valedictorian at Pinecrest. He attended the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and earned a joint law degree and MBA from Campbell University.
He works in private practice, in partnership with his father, serving clients with estate planning, trusts and administration.
Pate currently chairs the Southern Pines Planning Board and identified the town’s strong fiscal health as his main priority.
“With my business background and legal background, this will continue to aid me in developing a strong fiscally conservative approach,” Pate said. “We need to maintain and upgrade our infrastructure and make sure necessary repairs are not deferred. It is the ability to plan that will help ensure we don’t have unexpected tax increases.”
Pate said Southern Pines is fortunate that is has experienced a stable growth rate, and said future growth must continue to be balanced and of high quality.
“Our current UDO and long range plans offer a good blueprint. But these documents are not static and that is important: we can adjust if needed.”
Pate said as a council member, he would be passionate about the town and accessible.
“I think it is important to listen to both sides of every issue,” he said.