Bob Culver: Taxes, regs holding county back

Bob Culver likes to talk about business.

Get the Wicomico County native talking about entrepreneurship and ways to make money, and he’ll talk all day with the enthusiasm as a devoted capitalist.

“I’ve had several businesses,” he says in an interview with Salisbury Independent. “Some I’ve bought and sold, some I’ve kept. But you’ve got to know what it takes to attract businesses, and to attract business, you have to know business. I do.

“To know business, you have to have been a businessman at some time.”

Bob photoOne business Culver is known for locally was his creation of the paddle boat rentals operation decades ago in City Park. People thought the business would never last, but did for more than 30 years.

These days, his most-public business is as a restaurateur, owning the newly renovated and consistently busy Cellar Door in Downtown Salisbury.

It’s from the business perspective that Culver has tried to illustrate his contrasts with Rick Pollitt, the man who holds the county post that Culver covets.

“We have got to make (Wicomico County) business friendly. We have got to have the businesses and the jobs created here to keep the people here.

“Being a businessman, I know what businesses look for,” Culver says. “And I think that is a big difference between Rick and I. I know what it takes to create a business. I know what it takes to make payroll. I know what it takes to keep it going.

“And I think that’s what makes me a better asset to the county — over a career politician. And I feel that’s better.”

Like the paddle boats — “People still think that’s all I do,” he says — Culver’s businesses have always been attention-getting.

He started first limousine-rental service in Salisbury: Atlantic Limousines, with three stretch limos.

“Before that, people had to rent a limo from Holloway Funeral Home or Miss Loretta Jolley, he recalls. “ Hill, Baker, Bounds had a black Lincoln Continental. First one I bought was from Frank Hanna — I bought his limo.”

For years, Culver was the man executives contacted for rides to important meetings in New York or Baltimore, or who parents called for extravagant senior prom travel.

The Whitehaven resident was also known for his renovation of Market Street Inn, previously Norm Nibblett’s “The Huddle” restaurant. He sold that to Mark and Leslie Reeves in 1988. His last community contribution from that venture — something people still marvel at because of its simplicity — was the check-off menu.

The Reeves still employ that build-your-meal checklist at the Snow Hill Road establishment, Back Street Cafe.

Family and affordability have also been high up in Culver’s campaign talking points.

“You have children, I have children. I want Wicomico County to be their home,” he says. “It’s getting so they can’t even afford to live here. It’s so tough now for a young couple to get a home and get started.

“If we wait any longer to fix things, they’re not going to be here — they’ll go to Sussex County and Worcester County. We’ve go so much to offer in Wicomico Count , so let’s make it liveable, let’s make it attractive, not only for people from our own area to stay here but for people from other areas to come in here.”

Taxes, regulations and fees, Culver maintains, are what’s holding the county back.

“You lower the fees, you lower the restrictions and you’ll get more people who want to come here,” he says.

Citing anecdotal evidence that Wicomico’s top earners have fled to Worcester County where income taxes are lower, Culver wants that tax structure examined.

“Look at Worcester County,” he says. “They have the lower piggyback tax. People who are very affluent are still working their businesses here, but they’re living in Worcester County, because they can save money.”

Keeping to the entrepreneurial mindset, Culver has some ideas about the county’s future that might seem aggressive to some, and common-sensical to others.

Because of an alcohol sales restriction at the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center, local officials have long debated possible solutions. Culver advocates building a new facility in the Hobbs Road area.

“Why don’t we look at building a new arena out there at Shorebirds stadium?” he asks. “We have the parking out there, we have the land out there, we have the water and sewer.”

His idea goes even further: “Then take all of the county offices — all the properties we have to rend now — and move them into the Civic Center. Our sheriff’s offices — it’s a shame that we still have that building — at the time it was built, it was OK, but now we need some different.

“We have to always think about the future” he says. “Let’s plan something for the future.”

Another idea is constructing a public amphitheater that could host major bands and draw visitors from the resort beaches.

“Where can we build a Virginia Beach-type amphitheater and pull some bands in here — bands like the Dave Matthews Band — in the summertime, like Ocean City does.

“There’s nothing wrong with the county making money. If the county can, we wouldn’t have to tax people so much.”

Business and management planning is also high on Culver’s list, and another comparison point with Pollitt.

“The big difference between Rick and I is that want to plan for the future,” he says. “Right now, Wicomico County has no plan for the future. We don’t know where we’re going. We’re reacting instead of being proactive.

“I’ve always learned that if you have a plan and something comes up, you can respond to it. If you don’t have a plan, you react to it — and reactions don’t seem to work out as well as responses.”

Pollitt recently unveiled a Regional Visioning Process report which seeks to improve the county in seven specific areas. Culver says the process is short of what’s needed.

“That Visioning Plan — it’s not the solution,” he says. Among the plans faults, Culver says, is a continued reliance on government to guide community improvements, rather than the private sector.

“Government is for fire, safety and education,” he says. “Businesses need the chance to do more.”

Some of Culver’s votes as a County Councilman have drawn criticism from pro-education circles. His vote opposing the construction of the new Bennett Middle School in Fruitland — he was one of two council members opposed — drew particular ire.

Culver says his vote was not made from an anti-schools-spending perspective.

“I think, in the county, we have some of the best teachers there are. I did not vote against Bennett Middle because of the school or the teachers or anything to do with that,” he says. “I voted against it because of the location.”

Culver cites Route 13 traffic concerns, the need to bus all of the school’s students, the area’s hydric soils and the availability of land at the current Bennett properties as influencing his decision. He said he thinks “there will be problems with the construction down the road.”

“Compare (Bennett Middle) to the Wor-Wic (Community College) facility and how ideal that location and construction is.”

Culver has also been heard to make some bold comparisons between himself and Pollitt when it comes to leadership styles and the energies he would bring to the job.

“When you run the county, you have to be a leader,” Culver says. “ Do I think I’m going to go in there and get all of these accolades and be Mr. Great? No I don’t. But with my business history and my success, I’m going to be firm and I’m going to be to the point.

“I’m going to make mistakes. I’ll make mistakes, but when I do, they’re not going to be on someone else’s back. I’ve been taught to face up to what you’ve done wrong.”

And, can Culver get accomplished all of the things he has in mind?

“You can’t fix everything,” he says “I wish I could say I could do this in four years; I don’t think I can. But I can start things down the right path.”

Building trust, he says, will also happen while he’s executive, which will promote progress.

“Once people trust their government and they know its doing everything it can, that it’s not wasting money, things can really click,” he says.

“Once they have faith in that and I come (to the public ) and say, ‘OK, I need 2 cents on the taxes and this is why’ — and explain to them — they’ll say ‘OK, we trust you on that, you haven’t wasted our money and been ostentatious with the money.

“They’ll trust you — you just have to be honest with people.”

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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