Video: Bluffton mayoral candidates talk about the May River at forum
Economic development and May River preservation issues dominated the conversation Wednesday evening at a spirited but cordial forum for candidates running in Bluffton's mayoral and town council races.
An audience of about 100 packed Bluffton's Town Hall for the forum that included all 10 candidates -- eight running for two council seats and two running for the town's top elected position.
The League of Women Voters of the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Area hosted the event.
Council candidates Ted Huffman, Oliver Brown, Brendan Downey, Dan Wood, Michael Spears, Eleanor McKinsey-Chandler, Jim Sims and Harry Lutz, along with mayoral candidates Lisa Sulka and Cynthia Bensch took turns responding to questions prepared by the league as well audience members.
All 10 candidates agreed that economic development and growth should be a focal point.
Wood called for the support of policies that create "careers, not just jobs."
Spears said the town should to strive to diversify the local economy because popular industries like tourism, retail and construction "are incredibly susceptible to economic fluctuation."
Growth in the technology and medical fields will help the town weather future recessions, he said.
McKinsey-Chandler agreed and called on town officials to do more to recruit a "stand-alone medical center" that both serves local patients and provides high-paying jobs.
Bensch, a current Beaufort County Council member, said the town should "be a medical mecca."
Brown summed up the feelings of many of candidates, calling the May River "the life-source of the community."
He said the town needs to "back off" from building new homes and businesses near the water's edge and "lessen the footprint" of development.
Sulka, who is running for her third term as mayor, said under her leadership the town has done a good job implementing policies that keep growth away from "the sensitive areas of our watershed."
Lutz said doing more to "control stormwater runoff" would go a long way toward improving water quality.
Huffman, the lone incumbent running to keep his council seat, said river preservation has "been a priority since day one."
He said council initiatives to encourage residents to tap into the sewer system rather than use septic tanks have been successful.
Many of the candidates addressed the issue of parking in the Old Town area.
Downey said the "parking problem in downtown Bluffton definitely needs to be fixed."
Bensch suggested one way to fix that problem is to build a new garage, which she said she would get done within her first year as mayor.
Sims made waves last month when he called for the Bluffton Police Department to be eliminated and its operations roll into the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office.
He defended that proposal Wednesday, arguing it would save taxpayers as much as $2.7 million annually.
Downey called the plan "ludicrous."
"There's a lot to be said for community policing, and I don't think the county is capable of that," he said.
The Greater Bluffton Republican Club is hosting a second candidate forum at 5 p.m. Oct. 21 at Town Hall, 20 Bridge St.
The election is Nov. 3.
Follow reporter Lucas High on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Lucas.