Steve Carey is used to moving at the speed of sound, so perhaps that’s why he’s not too alarmed by the rapid growth of Daphne or Baldwin County. During his 34-year career in the U.S. Air Force, Carey piloted F-15 and F-16 fighter jets in demonstration flights and in combat, so his life for the last 12 years in Daphne as the owner of CertaPro Painters of Mobile and Baldwin Counties has a somewhat slower pace. But that doesn’t mean he’s blasé.
“The genie is out of the bottle and we’re victims of our own success here and we are not going to stop growth,” he said. “I think everybody is concerned when you talk about growth and traffic and I think everybody is on that page that we’ve got to manage the spraw. We really have to do more than just live and operate on the day-to-day or on a two- or three-year schedule, that’s not planning. The city has improved in that and they began to look a little bit further out, but we do not have a plan in place. And it’s easy to say we’ll create a plan — that’s exactly what the city did some 20 years ago — but that plan has never been updated, never been changed.”
Carey said there are often two forces commanding attention from planning staff and elected officials in Daphne — preservation and redevelopment downtown and along the waterfront, plus infrastructure and new development east of Highway 98 — and “you have to have consensus.
“There are those that want nothing to change and there are those that want some positive change,” he said. “One thing I encourage is to get everybody to the table. I’m pretty good at bringing people to the table and that would be my role as a mayor. If we have a healthy vision for the city, that vision needs to be translated into a written plan that can map it out for 20 years.”
Comprehensive planning is a cornerstone of Carey’s mayoral campaign, and although he has not previously campaigned for or held elected office, he believes he is uniquely qualified to run Baldwin County’s largest city. Carey will appear on the ballot Aug. 25 with two other candidates, Selena Vaughn and Robin Lejeune. Incumbent Mayor Dane Haygood chose not to run.
“What separates me completely from the rest of the pack is I’ve seen everything from small levels of management and leadership to large national levels — big organizations with big budgets,” he said. “When I look at the others that are running, I’m not sure they fully understand the scope of running an organization that size, the complexities, the pressures. You cannot run a city the size if you have any outside distractions. For a mayor, this is a 60-80 hour per week job and you’re in the leadership role for seven days a week. That same skill set I learned in the military applies to an organization that’s about 300 strong for the city of Daphne. What I was able to pull and learn from my 30 years in the military at a national level, coupled with what I’ve done here in 12 years running a small business, I’ve become very connected to the community, the networking and the aspect of being part of a town. Both of those I think are a great blend because that creates a balance and it gives me an appreciation for what I’m going to need to do [at City Hall].”
Carey said he is prepared to step away from the primary management of his business if he is elected mayor. Three years ago, Carey was appointed chair of the Daphne Industrial Board, which recently completed a $3.2 million infrastructure project at the Daphne Innovation + Science Center, “on time and under budget,” he said.
The 30-acre property on the corner of Champion’s Way and Highway 181 is envisioned as a technology campus, but it has yet to land a tenant. Currently, Carey said the DISC property has moved from its construction phase into a marketing phase, and he is attempting to expand the IDB from a five-member board to a nine members representing “a better cross section of the community.”
“Up to this point the IDB hasn’t been involved in who might be [interested in DISC], that was handled by Mayor Haygood was Lee Lawson (at the Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance), because a lot of times those companies looking to come to the area, they don’t want anybody to know,” he said. “So while we were building out the property and taking care of the infrastructure, they were talking to people. Some of them look very, very positive, others were just testing the waters. So now we’re at that marketing phase where we are going to see individuals and companies express an interest and come to us. The caveat here is COVID and commercially I think things have kind of gone on pause. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to go out there and market and do our best through the Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance and through commercial realtors. The next two to three years is when we need to work on getting a tenant or an investor or developer to put something vertical there. I’m confident that if we get something vertical, people will see what it is and we can fill it — I know we can. But the key is that initial outlay of money because it is a substantial purchase price for any investor.”
Carey said he believes in transparency and would work to improve communication with residents and community involvement by, among other things, livestreaming City Council and committee meetings. He said he’s also curious whether the City Council too readily convenes into executive sessions to discuss sensitive matters in private, rather than in open meetings.
“I’m a big, big believer in transparency and Jay Ross is a wonderful city attorney, but we determine when we go into executive session or not and as a mayor I would be inclined to not do that unless it was absolutely necessary,” he said. “Sure there are things that you need to discuss in private — that are sensitive until they’re resolved and legal aspects may require it — but the less we do in executive session, the less we try to hide. Both between mayor and council and jointly, and I think the public begins to trust us more. The public really shouldn’t ever be surprised if we’re doing our job right and the council should never be surprised if the mayor is doing something or if the council is doing something. When you’re surprised, it instantly creates a sense of suspicion and distrust and that’s what I want to get away from.”
In the discussion on supporting schools, Carey said he does not believe Daphne should create its own school district, but can do better to financially support the six schools in its feeder pattern while they remain part of the Baldwin County School System, either by direct support from the city budget or by a special tax direct, similar to what citizens in Spanish Fort and Fairhope voted to create last year. Two of Carey’s own children attended public schools in Daphne before transitioning to Bayside Academy and Christ the King.
“We need to be bolder in terms of the amount of money we’re giving,” he said. “With a special assessment, citizens decide. I honestly think our schools are A-letter schools, were going to draw people here, increase the value of our homes. I think if we do it smartly and the citizens get to vote, measure impact, I do believe we can do a much better job of supporting schools.
Other issues include recycling, which was hampered earlier this year when the city’s transfer station burned to the ground. Carey said it’s part of a broad discussion about the city’s environmental initiatives including stormwater runoff.
“We need to look at starting a viable, sustainable recycling program,” he said. “But do we recycle everything? We need to look at all elements at what needs to be recycled, and if we decide to temper and tailor our recycling program, measure it as a line item to determine if down the road it costs more … we may need to change the nature of what we’re actually doing with the materials … but I believe in it, I think it’s the right thing to do.”
The undersized Daphne Animal Shelter has long been a point of contention with pet lovers in the city, and Carey said it would be included in his comprehensive plan.
“I’d like to see a state of the art, no-kill shelter,” he said. “Daphne is a size where we need to be at the leading edge,” but he also suggested existing shelters could work better toward connectivity.
“We may not be able to do everything at once, but if we have a vision and we map all these wonderful things out, we can chart a path where we can accomplish each of them versus the way we’re currently managing now where ideas pop up, and we’re jumping on them and building consensus.”
“I’m really excited about the chance to run, I have the right skill set and temperament,” Carey said. “You cannot be a dictator as mayor, you have to build consensus with the council. We’re at a real critical time for Daphne because of the sprawl and the opportunity and the influx of people here and if we don’t get this right, we’re going to be paying the price for the next 15 years. We have to really put our heads together and shape a structure of what we want Daphne to be, different from Fairhope and different from Mobile.”
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