Robert Cruse, Mayor of Sandy Creek: A Small Town Mayor with Big Ideas
EDITOR’S NOTE: THIS IS THE FINAL ARTICLE IN OUR SIX-SERIES FOCUS ON THE MAYORS OF NORTHERN BRUNSWICK COUNTY.
“When we incorporated, Sandy Creek was a small town with dirt roads,” says Robert Cruse, mayor of the Town of Sandy Creek. “Look how far we’ve come.”
The year was 1988 and Sandy Creek was a small community on N.C. Highway 74 with only a handful of houses and wide dirt lanes rather than paved roads. Tired of waiting on the county to allocate funding to pave their roads, the townspeople of Sandy Creek banded together and made the leap into incorporation, an act that would allow them to secure funding for roads, develop municipal water and sewer services, and become more self-sufficient.
Cruse moved to Sandy Creek from nearby Delco in 1987 and remembers the dirt roads well. Now, looking around at his growing community, he swells with pride at the development they’ve seen in the last two decades, especially the last decade, which found him as the mayor and the decisions resting on his shoulders.
“At the time I moved here, we had a Home Owners Association but there was talk of incorporation,” he says. “The next year they took the plunge.”
In 1989 Cruse dove into local politics with a position on the town’s board of commissioners. Motivated by an intense desire to make his new hometown a better place and to help it grow in the right ways, he saw this as an opportunity to serve his neighbors and his family.
“In those early years, when I was on the board, we didn’t know what was best for Sandy Creek, and none of us were quite sure what running a town entailed,” Cruse says. “We had a patchwork set of ordinances that needed to be refined, changed, added to or dropped entirely. Over the period of a few years we did just that and then really came into our own.”
Take, for instance, ordinances like Sandy Creek’s 15-mile-an-hour speed limit, which served the town well when it contained only a few dozen homes. But as the town grew, doubling then tripling in size, the slow speed limit didn’t make sense.
“As the town expanded and we started seeing homes a half-mile, a mile or farther from Highway 74, we knew the speed limit had to change,” Cruse says.
Changing the speed limit was the first of many changes Cruse would have a hand in for Sandy Creek.
Over the next decade Cruse continued to serve on the town board, until, in 2001, he felt that he wanted to do more. He ran for mayor and won. Cruse was mayor from 2001 until 2004, when his position as an auditor with the North Carolina Department of Revenue called him away. He stepped down.
“That was one of the hardest decisions I ever made,” Cruse says.
A year later, which happened to be an election year, Cruse was again transferred, this time to Wilmington, and he was able to move back to Sandy Creek with his wife and son. Still wanting to contribute, he ran for and won back the mayor’s seat and hasn’t stopped since.
In the nearly ten years since Cruse has been mayor, he’s been a part of a lot of meaningful change in his community.
“Certainly our water and sewer system has helped better our community,” Cruse says. “And through some selective annexation, the size of the town has more than doubled.”
The annexation Cruse refers to is the acquisition of a large, developable tract adjacent to the former town limits of Sandy Creek. Part of this property will one day be home to a small airstrip and an airport community much like Wilmington’s Pilots’ Ridge community near Monkey Junction in New Hanover County.
“The developer of that tract plans to construct a runway and hangers suitable for small, privately owned propeller planes,” Cruse says. “Along with the runway, he’s planning several home sites and hopes to draw pilots and flying enthusiasts into his subdivision. Our annexation of the property will benefit the town through property and sales tax dollars, but also will benefit future development since this land is now part of an incorporated town and can take advantage of the opportunities for grants and other funding that come along with it.”
Ask Cruse what he thinks the mayor’s most important job is and you may be surprised by his answer.
“Being mayor, you want to step out of the way,” he says. “You want to allow people to do what they need to do and try not to get in the way, but also provide the order and structure to help them succeed.”
Cruse believes in strong households building a strong community through cooperation. This is much like the cooperation found between him and his four fellow North Brunswick mayors.
In quarterly meetings, the five mayors discuss common goals, ask and give advice, and find ways to strengthen not only their towns, but also their neighboring towns, all in the hopes of building a strong Brunswick County.
“To me, working together, well, that’s just good common sense,” Cruse says. “I’m glad the other mayors see it that way too.”
Cruse says that the mayoral cooperation has resulted in some great efforts and opportunities for each of the communities. For Sandy Creek, where the residents have been clamoring for a police presence and a city hall but for budgetary reasons have not moved forward, the cooperation between the mayors has resulted in regular patrols of Sandy Creek by officers from neighboring Northwest and nearby Navassa. The end result is much the same — a police presence and first responders available in the event of an emergency – but the expense for the town is greatly reduced.”
“We’re stronger together, so we’re always working on the issues we have in common,” says Cruse. “Take recycling, for example. Residents in all of our towns want some sort of recycling program, but, much like a police force, these programs are expensive to get started and expensive to keep running. We’ve been studying the cost-effectiveness and logistics of sharing the expense and benefits of a joint recycling program.”
Looking to the future of Sandy Creek and Brunswick County, Cruse sees some bright spots on the horizon, but he’s not sure how long it will take to see a true economic turnaround.
“I keep hearing and reading about economic recovery, but we haven’t seen much movement here yet,” he says. “From where I sit, I see us moving into a good place, but it will take some time. In five years, this county and this town will be in the same situation they are now if things don’t improve. If there is a change and we feel it locally, we could see a return to economic prosperity.”
Cruise and his fellow mayors are acting to ensure long-term economic viability for their piece of Brunswick County. At their meetings they strategize on approaches to the Department of Transportation on plans to widen the causeway between Brunswick and New Hanover counties and on ways to ask for further study on the Skyway Bridge and to allow for improved traffic flow through the county.
“As much as we all want to keep business on our side of the [Cape Fear Memorial Bridge], the reality is that Brunswick Countians have to travel to Wilmington on a regular basis and vice versa. If it’s easier to get in and out of Brunswick County, it’s easier to visit. We’ll see an increase in traffic at our golf courses, our beaches and parks, our shops and restaurants. And we’ll see all of the room occupancy tax and sales tax dollars flowing into our communities, making our towns’ coffers full again,” he says.
As Cruse points out, the planned Skyway Bridge and recently funded I-140 connector loop will help traffic flow, but not necessarily in a good way.
“With I-140, travelers can bypass most of northern Brunswick County and almost all of New Hanover County, which means that all of the towns bypassed by the road are missing out on those tax dollars our visitors pump into our economy so regularly. We need to find a solution that eases traffic and helps businesses grow,” he says. “That’s why we need to widen the causeways. That’s why we need to improve the utility services across the county. That’s why we’re working together, because only together can we make Brunswick County great.”