The fate of Port Royal’s iconic shrimp docks, concerns about heavy traffic and road safety, and ways to grow the town’s commercial tax base were among the topics Monday in a public forum for upcoming elections, the first chance voters had to hear from most of the candidates for Town Council.
Three candidates are running for two open Town Council seats in the at-large election, with incumbents Jerry Ashmore and Robert Landrum trying to keep their seats in the face of an aggressive challenge from local attorney Kevin Phillips.
Mayoral candidate Joe DeVito, a retired utility administrator who spent 20 years on the local planning commission, is running against longtime Councilwoman Mary Beth Gray-Heyward. Mayor Sam Murray is stepping down after more than 20 years.
Gray-Heyward had a conflict Monday and could not attend the forum hosted by the League of Women Voters at historic Union Church on 11th Street, now owned and occupied by St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. Voters had the chance to submit questions in advance.
Here is some of what was covered.
Future of the shrimp docks
For years Port Royal officials have grappled with how to weigh public support for the shrimp dock on 11th Street with the reality that the operation has largely cost the town money and caused headaches from abandoned boats, not enough product coming off the dock and rent not being paid. The issue appears at a pivotal point as the town works with developers of the surrounding port property on Battery Creek.
Each of the candidates noted the docks’ importance to the town.
What they said
Jerry Ashmore: Noted his role in meeting with those in the seafood industry, inviting S.C. Agricultural Commissioner Hugh Weathers to visit the docks and working with the nonprofit organization to sell shrimp on site. “I don’t think the town should be in the shrimping business,” he said. “I don’t think it’s good business for the town to be in private business.”
Robert Landrum: Said the dock needs to be cleared of abandoned and rotting hulls even if it requires passing new town rules to remove them. He suggested nearby restaurants that benefit from the dock should help pay its maintenance. “Once we have turned the corner and are not losing our shirts, sell it or lease it,” he said. “We do need to get out of the shrimp business.”
Kevin Phillips: Suggested a referendum on the shrimp docks to let voters decide whether the dock was worth continuing to support with taxpayer money. He said there needed to be a public information campaign with facts about the pros and cons of a working waterfront. “Port Royal is cool, coastal and far from ordinary,” Phillips said, referencing the town slogan. “Part of our history is the shrimp docks.”
Joe DeVito: Agreed with Phillips on the possibility of a referendum and with Landrum on restaurants possibly helping support the dock. He said the town is effectively working to remove derelict boats. “We have to find a way to save them if it’s the right decision and it’s what everybody wants,” he said. “But we can’t bleed to make that happen.”
Speed and traffic on Ribaut Road
Phillips: Said the town should generate more money to pay for signs and traffic lights. That could be done in part by negotiating a larger percentage of traffic impact fees from developers that largely go to Beaufort County.
DeVito: Said the town should be careful how it spends local dollars on Ribaut Road when the thoroughfare largely serves to send traffic elsewhere. Narrowing the 12-foot lanes a foot by repainting the roads and introducing other traffic-calming measures would help, he said.
Ashmore: Said some work had been done in the form of landscaped medians, and that officials could also consider a barrier in the middle of the Russell Bell Bridge connecting Ribaut and Parris Island Gateway. He said he was working with northern Beaufort County planning officials on improvements to the clogged intersection at Ribaut and Lady’s Island Drive.
Landrum: Agreed with DeVito that narrowing lanes and adding a bike lane would help. He said an additional traffic light expected as part of development along Ribaut should also help slow traffic off the Bell Bridge and that the results of a traffic study can guide future decisions.
Growing the commercial tax base
Ashmore: Said the southern part of S.C. 170 that’s within the town’s growth boundaries is ripe for new business and should be encouraged. Ashmore added it’s important for the town to stay within agreed-upon growth boundaries.
Landrum: Pointed to opportunities to bring more businesses to Ribaut Road and Paris Avenue. He said hotels and a marina planned for the former state port property should eventually provide a boost.
Phillips: Noted the town has a similar population to the city of Beaufort but a third of the city’s budget because of city revenue from commercial growth. He said there are obvious areas to anticipate future growth and that as the town continues to welcome new residents, that will spur new places to shop and eat.
DeVito: Said the town should look at its obvious commercial areas. Developing Ribaut Road and Savannah Highway as walkable areas where nearby residents can easily get to and from shopping should help grow business in those areas, he said.