Leader of leaders: Mark Lazarus opens up on being chairman as he preps to leave office

Mark Lazarus on why he got into politics

Outgoing Horry County Chairman Mark Lazarus discusses what's next as he prepares to move on from County Council.
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Outgoing Horry County Chairman Mark Lazarus discusses what's next as he prepares to move on from County Council.

Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus has overseen the recovery for 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 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 Ft. 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.

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

ML: 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: Often in county council meetings, other council members and you would disagree. How do you balance being the leader while also having to debate with other members?

ML: Well, a lot of it is from study, knowing the facts. A lot of times you can’t react if you don’t know the particular subject. I took a lot of time and prided myself on it and did a lot of study and was very prepared. You will hear comments from a lot of people that I was probably among the most prepared county council chairmen to hold that seat. And it took a lot of time, and it took a lot of effort and I dedicated myself to it. So when the issues came up, I knew the facts, I knew the background and I knew the problems that could be created or not be created by the issue. So a lot of it was from understanding the issues.

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 communicating, 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: What is your idea of a good leader and what is an example?

ML: I think a good leader is someone that surrounds themselves with people. Lee Iacocca said, “I am not the smartest person in the room, I surround myself with smart people.” So don’t be afraid to do that, and I am not afraid to do that. I am not afraid to listen. I take everyone’s opinions and put them together to formulate a decision while also trying to guide council members and staff in that direction. It takes a team effort. I guess that comes from my football playing days, we have to be a team. We have to work. If you want to get out there and work as an individual, alone, you will not succeed. Leaders I look up to, the biggest leader I look up to is my dad. He really set the foundation for me. I watched him over the years, over the highs and the lows. The way he handled customers and employees, and the customer service that he instilled in me. I have people from years ago show up at our doorsteps and say how much they admired him. So he would be the biggest leader, especially in my business.

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: Property rights are a foundation of our country. How do you balance those rights with calls to limit development?

ML: That’s the biggest question through this envision process we have out there. Everyone does have the right to do certain things with their property within reason and to not burden others. It depends on what they bought it for, when they bought it and where it is today. I had a big issue when I first got on to council over the exact same thing. The community came out against them for developing a piece of property that they bought under a certain zoning criteria. I fought staunchly for the developer because I believed in their property rights. They bought it, they made the investment, they had the right to develop it under that criteria. People came out and complained about the purchases that were made, but anybody could have made those purchases. Now, they have the right to develop it how they want to. You’ve got to balance it to make sure it doesn’t affect others, but also make sure to protect the property rights of the people who bought it.

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: Public safety is a major issue facing council and in recent elections, especially for county chairman. What do people need to know about what you did for public safety?

ML: I felt that during my tenure we did a lot for police and fire. I don’t believe it was the entire police or fire that came out against me. I think it was more of the somewhat unions, doing their job, that’s what they’re supposed to do. But if you look back at when I took over as chairman, nobody had gotten a raise for several years throughout the county. Because of the state pension plan and things of the nature, the health plan was changed, we had to reverse course. And we did. I did something a staunch Republican doesn’t do, we raised the millage in the fire fund and were able to save 18 positions that were under a SAFER Grant that we had no money for plus add $5 million in new fire equipment that we desperately needed because ours was in such bad shape. I led that charge and was successful in getting that done. We added 6 mills to the general fund that upped the pay of all our Class 1 officers and gave 3 percent raises to everyone across the board. We initiated a gang task force, what I call a crime task force, and that was more boots on the ground. So that was about 18 more positions that we were able to put in. Although, everyone says we lost positions, but no we didn’t lose positions. We quit doing the SRO program, so that’s where they say we lost positions, but we did not lose positions. Those are enhancements we made. And the last thing we did even after the election was putting some of the one and a half cent money toward pay raises for our public safety officers, which I think is something tremendous that hadn’t been done before. You know to say I wasn’t behind public safety is one of the most disappointing things to me as much as I did stand behind public safety. So I wish Johnny a lot of success in taking that forward with the promises that were made during the election times. But budgets are tough and money is hard to find, so we will see.

TSN: So what is the disconnect? Why do you think people saw the county not doing enough for public safety officers?

ML: I really don’t know what the answer is. The Fraternal Order of Police and fire union did their job in trying to push for more, more, more. And I was not going to tell them a lie, to tell them I can do something when I can’t do it. I am not going to make false promises. So, I could have stood up there and said, “Hey guys, I am going to do everything I can and I am going to give you all raises, and do this and that,” but I knew within the tight budgets that we have — where was that money going to come from? That’s why we’re talking about impact fees. How do we initiate an impact fee that is useable? Right now, the one we have is not useable, so we need to get the state legislature to look at it, especially after the overwhelming numbers that said “yes, we want an impact fee.” So, a lot of it was them pushing for more, doing their job, and when you’re the guy on top you’re going to get knocked out when they come after, and that happened to me, which is disappointing. But if you look at the record over the last five years of what has been given to public safety, I think we did a tremendous amount. We reorganized a lot, absolutely. During that time I had detectives under indictment, we had a lot of issues with cases not being handled properly, we had other issues. I’ve been through three fire chiefs during my period of time, so you know when you have that turnover and those issues, we had a huge overtime issue that as a business person I looked at it and said, “How do we solve it?” The administrator said, “How do we solve it” as he is doing his job. So you know I was tied into Chris Eldridge for that aspect, so some of the employees were not as happy about it. I think we did a good job, and at the end of the day, what I feel I have done as the leader is we have left Horry County in a better place. We’re in a great financial position, we just got the highest rating which you can get by the raters of our bonds and everything in Horry on our financial status. I am very proud of that. We’ve left Horry County in a good position to move forward and I hope the new powers that be will take that and continue on that path and not let us go backwards.

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.

TSN: 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.