By David Rogers. November 12, 2017. BLOWING ROCK, NC — A good ol’ fashioned lesson in grassroots politics, that is what most would call mayoral challenger Charlie Sellers’ convincing win last week after a campaign that included pounding the pavement, door-to-door to get out the vote and get out his message. In 2015, Sellers challenged longtime incumbent J.B. Lawrence for Mayor of Blowing Rock and was soundly defeated, with Lawrence receiving more than 61% of the votes cast.
This time, Sellers captured more than 56% of the ballots cast, at least partly because more people voted — a probable outgrowth of his door-to-door campaign. In the 2017 election, exactly 500 votes were counted from Watauga County in the race for Blowing Rock Mayor, and an additional 26 votes (17 for Sellers) from Caldwell County residents living within the Blowing Rock town limits, according to the North Carolina Board of Elections website. In the November 2015 municipal election, the total number of votes cast from the Watauga County side of Blowing Rock was 438 (61.19% for Lawrence), and just 14 from Caldwell County, where Lawrence the incumbent received 11 of them (78.57%).
We are working for our citizens.
Blowing Rock News (BRN): Big win at the polls on Tuesday. What was your initial response when you realized that you had won?
Charlie Sellers (CS): Well, it was very humbling. I am very honored that the citizens cared enough about my campaign to put me into office. Everywhere I went, in speaking with people, there were so many that said there is a lot to be done and it needs to be done in a timely manner.
J.B. (Lawrence) has been a great mayor, as have all the mayors before him and the Commissioners serving on Town Council. But change is good. Change in leadership brings a different set of eyes and different ideas, a different perspective.
All of that was running through my mind, but in retrospect it is very humbling to be able to serve in an elected office, where you have to win the people’s votes.
BRN: Your first go around, you were pretty soundly defeated. This time, you turned the tables and were rewarded with a pretty sizable margin of victory. What did you do differently this time to get your message across? Anyone wishing to run for public office might benefit from your answer, because this is pretty much a case study in local election politics.
CS: I think my message this time was pretty clear. But most importantly, I listened to the citizens. These local elections are about the citizens, all of them: the voters as well as the non-voters. Especially in Blowing Rock, it is about people that own property. It is about business owners. It is about how we attract our visitors.
I visited every community and neighborhood in Blowing Rock during this campaign. I spoke with many people, many of whom I had never met before. You know, we have a lot of really intelligent people in this town and we need to utilize that intelligence, mostly because this is their town. I think what put me over the top in the vote was that people were ready for a change and I had some good ideas because I was listening to them. I simply listened.
Now we have to make things happen and that includes working with the citizens, with business owners, with the other members of Town Council, and with all of our good Town employees.
In a nutshell, what put me over the top this time was listening, hearing what the citizens wanted and reassuring them that we can make it happen.
BRN: One of my business partners reported to me that you were out going door-to-door all over Blowing Rock. What did you say to people and what did you learn from them?
J.B. Lawrence has been a great Mayor.
CS: It was pretty easy, once you got somebody to the door. I simply stated to them that I am Charlie Sellers and I am running for Mayor of Blowing Rock and that I am running because this is about our town and our citizens. Then I listened. I listened to what they had to say. I listened to their values, their priorities, their problems, and their ideas. A lot of these people had never been approached before.
When I was standing in front of Town Hall on Tuesday with all of the other candidates, a few people noted that a number of those who had come to cast ballots had never been seen voting before. Others came, people who I was not able to talk to when I went around town, they said, “Oh, I got your information. You left it on our door.”
People want to know they are needed. They want to be involved and they want to know that their vote matters, that it counts.
BRN: Let’s shift gears a bit. Were you born in Blowing Rock?
CS: No, I was not born here. My mother was. My grandfather was Grover Robbins, Sr. My uncles were Grover Robbins, Jr. and Harry Robbins and Spencer Robbins, who is still alive.
BRN: So your mother was a Robbins.
CS: That is correct. My parents separated when I was pretty young, so with my mother and sister, Sara, we all moved back to mother’s hometown, to Blowing Rock. I attended Blowing Rock Elementary School and Watauga High School and then Appalachian State.
I worked for family at Tweetsie Railroad but, ironically, my first real paid job was putting on bumper stickers at The Blowing Rock attraction.
BRN: Back in those days, who owned The Blowing Rock?
CS: My granddaddy, Grover Robbins, Sr., started that in 1933. He was Mayor of Blowing Rock at the time. But that was my first real job at 12 years old, putting bumper stickers on cars.
I visited every neighborhood during this campaign, walking door-to-door.
BRN: Were people paying you to put bumper stickers on their cars?
BRN: Now was that with those people’s permission?
CS: No, it was a different time with different sensitivities in those days. You just put the sticker on their bumper. Of course, back then bumpers were all chrome, so they came off pretty easy if the visitor didn’t want them. They would just peel off.
BRN: Did you do that for a long time?
CS: Not really. Then I went to work for Tweetsie, running various rides. That was while I was in high school.
BRN: Were you ever one of the actors at Tweetsie, maybe a cowboy or an Indian?
CS: No, I ran the Ferris wheel and then later on the last two years I was here, I hit the big time and fired the locomotives for $1.80 an hour!
BRN: So you went to college at Appalachian State. Did you study business there?
CS: Yes, focusing on business management.
BRN: And what did you do after Appalachian State?
CS: I moved on to what I thought were greener pastures in Greensboro, and started to work for Rochester Midland, and took over management of their water treatment division.
BRN: Was that an interesting challenge?
CS: Well, yes. All I had as an educational background was basic chemistry from high school. So they sent me back to school. I ran their water treatment division in the Southeast for 24 years.
BRN: Two dozen years. That is quite a long time, and almost unheard of these days to be in the same business with the same company for two dozen years.
CS: Well, I decided that I wasn’t getting the assistance that I needed so I left and started my own business, Cape Fear Consulting. And we did exactly the same thing, industrial water treatment.
BRN: Why Cape Fear?
CS: Well, it is about branding. My wife at the time had a house in Wrightsville Beach. And when I was starting the company I happened to be driving down to Wrightsville Beach and crossed over the Cape Fear River. Name recognition has a lot to do with business success. We named it Cape Fear Consulting and I can tell you that never once did anyone ever ask me, “Where is Cape Fear?”
BRN: At what point did you get involved with The Blowing Rock attraction?
CS: I took over management of the Blowing Rock three years, eleven months and eight days ago, to handle renovations.
I took every review that was negative and turned it into a positive.
BRN: Who had it before you?
CS: My mother had run it close to 30 some years. Mother had a fall and while recovering, I took over operations and found I felt a commitment to grandfather’s business.
BRN: What got you interested?
CS: I did some research through websites like TripAdvisor to see what was needed and decided that everything was fixable.
I looked at every review.
BRN: Mmmm…sounds like it gets back to “listening” again.
CS: That’s right. I took every review that was negative and within three years turned it into a positive.
(smiling) The only thing that I could not change is the question, “Why do we have to spend $7.00 to see a big rock!
But I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of my own money on the renovations, enhancing the facilities and the grounds, and even making some additions. Now we are at the next level to where we can go forward and the town can be proud of the attraction. It is, after all, the town’s namesake.
BRN: Were the renovations your idea or your mother’s idea?
CS: Oh, these were my idea. My mother is very conservative. She spent very little money and my hat is off to her. She could squeeze a dollar out of a dime in a heartbeat.
But I just thought that since this attraction really is the town’s namesake, we needed to do something. The trail was closed, the restrooms needed renovations, the buildings needed renovations. But this is the town’s namesake. It needed to look good. Blowing Rock citizens needed to be proud of it. That was my goal and we achieved that goal.
BRN: So what is happening with Cape Fear Consulting?
CS: Cape Fear Consulting will be transitioning to a new owner on January 1st.
BRN: So you will be up here full time?
CS: I am pretty much up here full time already, but yes, full time. As of January 1, Cape Fear Consulting will be owned by someone else.
It is free money.
BRN: Was it hard to find a buyer?
CS: Actually, no. We narrowed it down from three candidates to buy Cape Fear Consulting to just one that we felt was the best fit for employees, as well as customers. We started from zero, with no sales and no employees to just over a million dollars in revenue in a very few years. Our client retention was good, because we listened to our clients.
BRN: Bringing our attention back to Blowing Rock, what are the three or four areas, challenges or issues that you think the Town must deal with or faces in the near future?
CS: I had my own ideas early on, but then after talking to so many citizens and business owners during the campaign, I have been able to align my ideas with theirs.
Listening to the citizens, the main issue now is infrastructure. Let’s get the road completed. Let’s get the water and sewer enhancements completed. Let’s don’t drag it out four or five years. Let’s do it and do it now.
Sunset Drive. There are a lot of people who are questioning whether we should spend a lot of money on Sunset Drive. I am a firm believer that just because you have the money doesn’t mean you have to spend it. Spend it wisely. I think we need a more conservative approach to Sunset Drive. Clean it up, work on the rock walls, paving, signage. Many people feel we have more than one entrance to this town, not just Sunset Dr. at Valley Blvd. You have north Main, South Main, U.S. 221. Then they talk about primary entrances, which are U.S. 321 on the north side near the Parkway and U.S. 321 on the south side below Green Park Inn.
The third area is transparency and communications. That is an easy fix. We have a lot of people in town who are not going to get on a computer and go to the Town website. And many of them don’t have or read email. It is very easy to supplement those emails and that website information by hard copy “snail mail.” People see a letter in the mail from the Mayor, and they are going to open it and look at it. It might go over what took place at the recent Town Council meeting, it might have a calendar of what is happening over the next 30 days.
We are working for our citizens. It is just like my company. I work for my customers. They are my livelihood. I look at the town the same way. The town employees, the staff, the mayor, the commissioners, all work for the citizens. We don’t make behind-the-scenes decisions. Everything is out in the open, in truly open meetings. There should be no coalitions making decisions before the public hearings are even held. We work for the citizens and we listen to the citizens.
BRN: Let me play devil’s advocate here. Former town manager Scott Fogleman was in the job when the community improvement bonds were passed. I recall that he laid out a schedule for completing various projects in phases or over several years in order to minimize the impact of property tax increases to pay for the bonds. And a lot of that of course was not having to borrow all of the approved money all at once, but in phases. If you accelerate all of the infrastructure improvements that were so long delayed by previous town councils, aren’t you almost requiring that the bond issues be accelerated and so the property tax increases, too?
CS: First off, we approved the bond referendums. Those monies can be allocated over a period of time, as the funds become available. From past experience not related to the Town of Blowing Rock, the stages of completion were funded in a way that you don’t have to use all of the money all at once. I may step into Town Hall and change my mind, but I am not in favor of raising taxes again for at least four years. The work was originally set up to be done in phases for reasons of payment or funds being available, but in my opinion we had a larger tax increase this last time than we needed. Looking at the budgets, I don’t think we needed that great of a tax increase. But now that it is done, let’s go ahead and expedite the work that needs to be done.
Now keep in mind that I am holding off on having any meetings of consequence with Town Manager Ed Evans or anyone else until I am sworn in. J.B. is still Mayor and I respect him and his position. But I think the monies are already available to do a lot of what needs to be done.
Looking at the budgets, I don’t think we needed that great of a tax increase.
BRN: Let’s conclude this interview by asking about the perspective that you might be bringing to the job of Mayor because of your business background, which in many respects has been more entrepreneurial.
CS: I think my perspective might be a bit different than past mayors. I may or may not be proven to have better ideas, but running businesses I tend to focus on the needs of the customers.
Assuming entrepreneurial risk in business is quite a bit different that being a business manager. Managers generally have budgets and if you have money left over, you spend it or you may not get the same level of resources budgeted next year. A small business owner has really only a couple of choices with any profits. He or she can reinvest those profits back into the business, distribute them to shareholders, or pay them out to employees as bonuses.
When it comes to being Mayor of Blowing Rock, I honestly cannot say that I can do a better job than my grandfather or Colonel Hallmark or Hayden Pitts or J.B. Lawrence, but I have a different perspective because of my business background.
Sometimes in government money is spent when you don’t need to spend it. ??? And, in my opinion, we need to do more in researching and applying for grants, whether it is in Parks & Recreation, water, beautification, whatever. Let’s research those and apply for them. It is free money.