Lazarus re­flects on time as chair­man of county coun­cil

The Sun News (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY TYLER FLEM­ING tflem­ing@the­sun­news.com

Horry County Coun­cil Chair­man Mark Lazarus has over­seen the re­cov­ery from eco­nomic down­turns, flood­ing and un­prece­dented growth in Horry County. The Sun News sat down with Lazarus in his of­fice to dis­cuss his ten­ure as coun­cil chair, the elec­tion and what he learned from his time on the coun­cil. His re­sponses are ver­ba­tim, with ed­its only made for space, clar­ity and style:

The Sun News: First, talk to us about why you first de­cided to run for pub­lic of­fice?

Mark Lazarus: I first got started by be­ing in­volved in the Myr­tle Beach Area Cham­ber of Com­merce. I had never been in­volved in pol­i­tics. I was pretty young at the time and got in­volved with them, and I ac­tu­ally be­came chair­man of the Myr­tle Beach Area Cham­ber of Com­merce. That kind of in­tro­duced me to pol­i­tics and things around the county, and on the state level, too. I started at­tend­ing the Repub­li­can meet­ings over at the old Myr­tle Square mall and I just got in­ter­ested in it. My fam­ily has al­ways been a fam­ily of giv­ing back to our com­mu­nity, and it in­trigued me and of­fered me an op­por­tu­nity to be in­volved with the growth of Horry County.

TSN: How long have you been been a busi­ness owner in Myr­tle Beach?

ML: Our fam­ily started here in 1976. My dad opened the first Myr­tle Beach Grand Prix down on the south end of Myr­tle Beach. My fam­ily moved here from Gas­to­nia, North Carolina, and started the busi­ness. So I started in it from Day 1. Then, of course, high school, and a stint at Fort Union Mil­i­tary Acad­emy and then at (UNC) Chapel Hill. Af­ter Chapel Hill, I came back and got in­volved in the fam­ily busi­ness.

Left for about a year to open a Show­biz Pizza place and then my dad was buy­ing out his part­ners and called me in and said, “I think now is the time, if we’re go­ing to grow this busi­ness, we will have two lo­ca­tions in Myr­tle Beach and North Myr­tle Beach, it’s time for you to come back into the busi­ness.” That was around 1985. I de­cided to come home and I’ve been here ever since.

TSN: So how does run­ning a busi­ness com­pare to be­ing county chair­man?

ML: I can make de­ci­sions a lot quicker in a fam­ily busi­ness. But you know, it’s all the same. It’s about bring­ing peo­ple to­gether, and it’s all about the team you put to­gether. Over the years we’ve put a tremen­dous team to­gether here in our busi­nesses, and I have peo­ple here who are work­ing with us for 20 or 30 years, al­most since Day 1. So that says a lot about our busi­ness and build­ing a team. I took that same thing to county coun­cil, to build a team. For the team that was elected, I needed to pull them to­gether and help lead the 11 mem­bers of coun­cil. I think I suc­cess­fully did that. But at the same time, you’ve got staff when you’re an ad­min­is­tra­tor or coun­cil form of gov­ern­ment. You have to build those re­la­tions with your staff in or­der to get them on the same page and to lis­ten to them. They’re the pro­fes­sion­als in the in­dus­try, and you need to learn from them also. And I think we did that. As leav­ing county coun­cil, I be­lieve I’ve left them with su­pe­rior per­son­nel in a lot of di­vi­sions.

You men­tioned lead­ing the 11 mem­bers of coun­cil. What’s it like be­ing a leader of lead­ers?

There are a lot of chal­lenges. You have a lot of per­son­al­i­ties. And with there be­ing 11 dis­tricts, each district has its own is­sues that they deal with. The role I took was to help those mem­bers of coun­cil solve and han­dle the is­sues in their district. And to di­rect them and help them with staff, when they needed the help of staff to ac­com­plish their ob­jec­tives and goals. And to give them the good and the bad. Some­times things couldn’t be done for cer­tain rea­sons. And we would re­search and make sure we did that where we wouldn’t have a lot of is­sues. It’s a chal­lenge to say the least, but I took that role to help them to work di­rectly with staff. But I took a big­ger role and looked at the big­ger pic­ture. My fo­cus was on big­ger-pic­ture items. Roads, work­ing with the state and fed­eral del­e­ga­tions to bring dol­lars to Horry County, to help us, and then to work with lo­cal mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties. One of my great­est ac­com­plish­ments from the be­gin­ning of be­ing chair­man was to build re­la­tion­ships be­tween the county and the cities. Myr­tle Beach, North Myr­tle Beach, Aynor, Loris and to be on a com­mu­ni­ca­tion level with the may­ors and elected of­fi­cials to ac­com­plish com­mon goals.

TSN: Mov­ing to de­vel­op­ment in Horry County, how has Horry County changed dur­ing your time?

ML: It’s changed tremen­dously from growth in the tourism in­dus­try and grown tremen­dously from growth in our lo­cal pop­u­la­tion. The lo­cal pop­u­la­tion has been more to­ward the re­tiree side. We’re work­ing dili­gently, and I think we’ve made great strides with the eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment cor­po­ra­tion to try to diver­sify our econ­omy, bring in diver­si­fied jobs other than tourist-re­lated jobs, to give peo­ple mov­ing here and liv­ing here other op­por­tu­ni­ties. It’s been a chal­lenge, to say the least, but we have grown tremen­dously. I know when I first started serv­ing on county coun­cil our bud­get was close to $300 mil­lion and now we’re closer to $600 mil­lion at this point in time, so it’s al­most dou­bled since I started serv­ing in 2002.

TSN: So with all these new peo­ple, how do you get more peo­ple in­volved in lo­cal gov­ern­ment?

ML: I think we do a lot al­ready. All of our meet­ings are tele­vised, we have pub­lic in­put. When I first got on to coun­cil, pub­lic in­put was at the end of the meet­ing. First thing I did was change that. … So we moved it to the front of the agenda, which I think was very, very help­ful. We ex­tended the time from 3 min­utes to 5 min­utes. You still have to have some type of time of lim­its. Ev­ery­thing is tele­vised and ev­ery­thing we do is recorded and on the in­ter­net, so peo­ple have ac­cess to it. So­cial me­dia has changed the way of the world, there is no doubt about it. So­cial me­dia is why so many peo­ple got out to vote, peo­ple are get­ting en­gaged and want in­for­ma­tion. So we’re giv­ing it to them. I think just about ev­ery coun­cil mem­ber has their own Face­book pages to put out things that hap­pened. So I think we’re do­ing a good job of com- mu­ni­cat­ing, be­ing vis­i­ble and putting the mes­sage out there.

TSN: What would be your ad­vice to a new mem­ber of coun­cil tak­ing the seat for the first time?

ML: My best ad­vice is to study and to lis­ten to staff. Re­mem­ber that staff runs the county, we’re here to set pol­icy. Mostly lis­ten and learn and get the ad­vice and in­for­ma­tion from staff, and then form your own opin­ions. And work with your other coun­cil mem­bers. I’ve seen coun­cil men and women come in be­fore that don’t do a real good job of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with oth­ers or work­ing with them for spe­cific goals they have, and they failed. You’ve got to work with the other coun­cil mem­bers and in­ter­ject and in­ter­act with them, and with staff, to ac­com­plish your goals.

TSN: Only a hand­ful of county of­fi­cials have ever led a county through a ma­jor dis­as­ter. What do you learn from that process of mak­ing sure the county runs even through ex­treme cir­cum­stances?

ML: Well, I think we have set the county up with an Emer­gency Man­age­ment Divi­sion and pub­lic safety di­vi­sions and an ad­min­is­tra­tor that con­tinue to func­tion. I took the role as the spokesper­son and the leader of that, the face of it. And I think the pub­lic re­acted to it. They needed some­one to come in front of them in a calm man­ner but stern man­ner to say, “Hey, here are the is­sues we got and here is what we need to do for you safety.” And I took that role on and I was suc­cess­ful at do­ing that. I got a lot of pos­i­tive re­marks from that. And it’s about lead­er­ship, whether it’s about lead­ing a com­pany and the em­ploy­ees I have or lead­ing a com­mu­nity and mak­ing them feel in­formed and feel safe is the goal, and I think we ac­com­plished that.

TSN: So, what are the big is­sues you think coun­cil is go­ing to have to show lead­er­ship on?

ML: The big­gest is go­ing to be growth. We’re al­ready see­ing how do you han­dle the growth, how do we han­dle stormwa­ter, how do we han­dle the roads and things of that na­ture. For­tu­nately for Horry County, we have the tourism ef­fect. And with the amount of peo­ple we have here, and able to use hos­pi­tal­ity fees and road fees, like the one cent paid for by tourists, I think our road build­ing projects are pretty good, sub­stan­tial as op­posed to other lo­ca­tions through­out the county. As much as peo­ple say we need more, I think we’re do­ing pretty good. But we can al­ways do bet­ter. I think we need to look at qual­ity-of-life is­sues, how we han­dle those. A lot of it is not to over­bur­den peo­ple with taxes, and how do you pro­vide the ser­vices they’re de­mand­ing with­out putting the bur­den on the back of our cit­i­zens. We’re go­ing to be look­ing at im­pact fees, we put the ques­tion on the bal­lot. And it over­whelm­ingly said new de­vel­op­ment needs to pay its way, right now new de­vel­op­ment does not pay its way. So we’re go­ing to find ways to make that hap­pen and be able to bal­ance the bud­get.

TSN: As we saw dur­ing the flood, wet­lands are good at mit­i­gat­ing rain wa­ter. It’s been said that coun­cil does not get enough credit for the 3,700 acres of wet­lands it pur­chased. Why do you think that pur­chase was im­por­tant enough to spend the pub­lic’s money on it?

ML: First, when you do new road projects, by law we have to mit­i­gate any dam­age to wet­lands in the pass of new con­struc­tion and new road­ways. Those cred­its go any­where from $8,000 to $12,000 per credit on the open mar­ket. We had an op­por­tu­nity in Horry County to buy those 3,700 acres, turn that into mit­i­ga­tion cred­its for the ben­e­fit of the county, and at the same time pre­serve a great piece of prop­erty that the cit­i­zens were even say­ing “we don’t want de­vel­op­ment in that area. You’re just want­ing to do In­ter­na­tional Drive for com­mer­cial de­vel­op­ment.” No we weren’t. In­ter­na­tional is a pub­lic safety road, so to prove that fact, we bought the 3,700 acres, pre­served it, and used it for mit­i­ga­tion cred­its. Which in the end, what we paid $12 mil­lion for is go­ing to have a value of $18 mil­lion-plus. So we saved the county a lot of money by do­ing it for fu­ture mit­i­ga­tion cred­its while also en­hanc­ing the pub­lic space that we have. So I think it was a fan­tas­tic move and I love that move, I love that charge. From my back­ground in real es­tate I knew about it, I knew how to do it and with staff’s help and the back­ing of coun­cil, we were able to make it hap­pen. So I will be very proud of that for a long time to come.

TSN: So whats next for you? Any thoughts of your run­ning for a state po­si­tion?

ML: No, not right now. I have a new grand­child and we’re go­ing to spend some time with him. Just a year ago, I ac­quired a new busi­ness, Myr­tle Waves Wa­ter Park. We fully en­gaged in it, and I have

some fam­ily mem­bers work­ing in the busi­ness now. Right now, I am go­ing to fo­cus on fam­ily and the busi­ness, and we will see what the fu­ture holds down the road. But for now I am just go­ing to re­lax.

Fi­nally, what do you love most about Horry County?

ML: Well I’ve raised a fam­ily here. Three chil­dren grad­u­ated from Myr­tle Beach High School and gone on and got­ten col­lege de­grees do­ing var­i­ous things. I pretty much grew up here and seen it grow and been in­volved in a lot of the growth. And what a great place. Some­one asked me the other day if I could chose to move some­where else where would I go, and I couldn’t think of any­where else. I’ve got ev­ery­thing I want here. And if I want to go some­where else, I can quickly do that. I love the peo­ple here: we’re a car­ing and giv­ing com­mu­nity. Every­body has their is­sues, but when it comes down to it, as we saw dur­ing the storm, look at the com­mu­nity come to­gether and work to­gether. We didn’t have loot­ing or rob­bing, we had a com­mu­nity that came to­gether and is still help­ing. I love this com­mu­nity and I will con­tinue to be in­volved in some as­pect.

JOSH BELL jbell@the­sun­news.com

Out­go­ing Horry County Coun­cil Chair­man Mark Lazarus sits down with The Sun News and talks about his years as a lo­cal leader.

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