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Nikolai Mather takes us through the most significant municipal elections in rural Cape Fear this year.

Cape Fear Votes: There's a noticeable force guiding Surf City elections – growth

The Surf City bridge on a summer's eve. The sky is slightly cloudy, and the sun is going down. A tall bridge straddles blue brackish water. The bridge is framed by some docks and some green coastal grasses.
Courtesy of Surf City Government
Surf City has doubled in population over the past ten years. How will that impact the upcoming mayoral race?

Surf City is no longer a "beach town, but a town with a beach." How will that impact the race for mayor?

Teresa Batts has lived in Surf City her whole life. As mayor, she has had a front-row seat to its evolution.

"You know, we used to be a small town. We used to be a beach town. Now we are a town with a beach," she said.

The town of Surf City has changed rapidly in the past few years, mostly as a result of an explosion of growth in Pender County. What once was a sleepy beach town has now become a population center for the mostly unincorporated communities off Highway 17.

That growth has become a key topic of discussion in the run-up to the 2023 mayoral election, where Surf City native Batts is up against Marc Caldwell, a recent transplant and first-time candidate. The election is a match-up between Surf City's old guard and new guard — and its outcome will be consequential not just for the town, but for coastal Pender County as a whole.

Transplants and townies

Surf City's population has doubled since 2010, from just shy of 2,000 people to 4,000 in 2020. But the area’s growth isn't just within Surf City limits: transplants have been setting down roots up and down the Pender County section of Highway 17, from the unincorporated community of Hampstead up to the Onslow county line.

The increase in population is both a blessing and a curse. It brings business to Surf City, but it also tests the limits of the town's aging infrastructure.

"This is me calling the kettle black, because I moved into one of these brand new neighborhoods. But I moved in not knowing that there was an issue," said Caldwell.

Marc Caldwell, a white man in his forties, poses next to his wife Alysun Caldwell, a blonde woman in her forties. They're in formal clothes, with Alysun wearing a floor-length black gown and Marc in a ceremonial Marine Corps uniform.
Courtesy of Marc Caldwell.
Marc Caldwell, right, poses with his wife Alysun Caldwell. Marc Caldwell is running for mayor of Surf City this year.

Caldwell settled in Surf City back in 2017. He quickly grew familiar with the daily challenges of living in coastal Pender County: overcrowded schools, random traffic jams, even maintaining decent water pressure.

"[My] friends that live on the island — especially during tourist season — they have to use their plungers to let the shower turn on," he said. "There's an infrastructure problem."

There's only so much that a North Carolina municipality can do to cope with these issues. Some problems, like Pender County's overburdened public schools, are outside the city's purview. Most of them, like improving the local sewage system, take a lot of time and money. Batts gave some examples: Surf City is investing $30 million into a beach renourishment program next year, and will be breaking ground on a $5 million public park in November. Both of those projects took years to come to fruition. Batts said she's committed to growth, but she wants residents to have realistic expectations for how well the city can cope.

"I personally see it as we cannot stop growth," said Batts. "You can't stop it, but you can place things where they need to be."

Still, Caldwell thinks that the city can do more, particularly when it comes to swaying Pender County.

"There's a lot of stuff this town doesn't do that they can do," he said.

Outsider politics

Caldwell said that these problems with growth got him thinking about politics in general around Surf City.

"Right now, we've got five councilmen and one mayor," said Caldwell. "Of those six positions, three of them are appointed right now. They're not elected."

Batts is one of those representatives. After serving on several municipal committees, she was appointed to the town council in 2016 and re-elected to her position in 2017. When former mayor Doug Medlin stepped down in 2022, the town council made her mayor of Surf City.

Caldwell feels these appointments are evidence of what he calls "disassociated" politics. Surf City's major decision-makers, he said, have become more and more insular.

"Because I think [our representatives are] a little bit disassociated with what people really say," he said. "And what they really say about them, and the local feel for what's wrong with the town or things that can be improved with the town."

Caldwell is a former Marine and restaurant owner. He has no political experience. Some might see that as a reason not to vote for him, but he plays it as a strength. As an outsider, he believes he can bring new ideas for how the town can keep up with its growth.

Teresa Batts, a blonde woman in her fifties, poses for a photo on the beach. She's wearing a blue button down with the Surf City Government logo on the right side. Behind her is a fishing pier and golden beach on a sunny summer day.
Courtesy of Teresa Batts
Teresa Batts, who was appointed mayor in 2022, will be running for re-election this November.

But the balance outsiders have to strike is making sure those big ideas are practical, or at least doable. Over the past year, Batts tells me, she's learned a lot about the day-to-day work of being a mayor. One of the key lessons has been you can't do everything.

"We all share the responsibilities towards sustainable growth," she said. "It is all about crossing those lines… and having the connections on a state, local, and federal level."

What it means for Cape Fear

Surf City is far from the only town in the Cape Fear region grappling with these realities ahead of the November election. The struggle to keep up with growth impacts the entire Cape Fear region.

"I think that's what this election is holding, not only for this town, but… Holly Ridge, Surf City, North and South Topsail, Hampstead," Caldwell said. "This right here is going to be probably one of the more important ones that we've had in a long, long time. Because the town is growing so fast."

Even with all the talk about expanding, Surf City is still a small town. Batts and Caldwell both emphasized that the race is not personal for them. At the end of the day, they both want what's best for Surf City.

"It's such a small town. When this election is over, we're all still going to be friends, and we're all going to still want to love this community and take care of it," said Batts. "It is all about loving your community."

The Surf City mayoral elections will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023. Early one-stop voting is open now through Saturday, Nov. 4. Voter registration closes Friday, Oct. 13, 2023.

Nikolai Mather is a Report for America corps member from Pittsboro, North Carolina. He covers rural communities in Pender County, Brunswick County and Columbus County. He graduated from UNC Charlotte with degrees in genocide studies and political science. Prior to his work with WHQR, he covered religion in Athens, Georgia and local politics in Charlotte, North Carolina. In his spare time, he likes working on cars and playing the harmonica. You can reach him at nmather@whqr.org.