GOOSE CREEK - For more than half a century, Goose Creek has existed as a pass-through of sorts, mostly overshadowed by its neighbors Summerville, North Charleston and Charleston.
Goose Creek voters will go to the polls Tuesday to elect a mayor and three council members.
In the mayor's race, incumbent Michael Heitzler faces Jerry Tekac, who currently serves on city council.
Five people are running for three at-large council seats. Incumbents Mark Phillips and Mayor Pro Tem Kimo Esarey face newcomers Gerald Stinson, Victoria Morrell and Debra Green-Fletcher. Marguerite Brown, who has served on the council since 1980, is not seeking re-election.
The polling place for the nonpartisan election is Goose Creek City Hall, 519 N. Goose Creek Blvd. Polls are open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The city's nearly 39,000 residents already know it's a pleasant place to live, confirmed by Bloomberg Businessweek which twice named it a "Best Place to Raise Kids in South Carolina."
But some think it's also time for Goose Creek to become a pleasant place to work.
How quickly that happens, and how the city deals with the inevitable growing pains that come with development, are key questions facing voters Tuesday when they head to the polls.
The highest-profile race pits longtime Mayor Michael Heitzler against City Councilman Jerry Tekac.
"We have averaged a 3 percent growth rate each year for the last 20 years," said Heitzler, a retired school principal. "That's pretty much an ideal pace, steady and predictable. I don't want us to be a burgeoning, out-of-control community."
"I believe we're missing the boat on economic development," said Tekac, a senior commercial banker at NBSC. "If we don't make some changes and expand some things that we do, then we're going to be in trouble,"
Five people also are competing for three seats on City Council. Marguerite Brown, who has served on council since 1980, is not seeking re-election.
The contested races are relatively unusual in Goose Creek, which called off its elections in 2006 and 2010 because candidates ran without opposition. It's also the first time in 16 years that Heitzler, who has led the city for 36 years, has faced a challenger.
Goose Creek is at a crossroads of sorts.
Once stalled by the recession, Carnes Crossroads, a 2,300-acre mixed-use community near the intersection of the same name, is again gathering steam.
With 4,200 homes, retail and office space, the neighborhood is near two other large-scale developments, Nexton and Cane Bay, on a corridor where planned infrastructure improvements include the Sheep Island Parkway and a new interchange from Interstate 26.
Carnes Crossroads, where U.S. highways 17A and 176 intersect, will be the busiest intersection in South Carolina within 12 years, Heitzler said, making it important to control growth.
He consults the city's strategic plan, the "road map to our future," every two weeks, Heitzler said.
"I think Goose Creek is a more robust bedroom community than it's ever been," Heitzler, 66, said. "We have emerging commercial centers in two areas, downtown and Carnes Crossroads."
Tekac said the city needs to encourage more commercial growth, including restaurants and shops.
"Some residents sit there and say, 'We're a small bedroom community,' but we're beyond that," Tekac, 48, said. "We can't continue to provide the services we provide our residents by just building houses." When you don't have corresponding commercial growth to go along with residential growth, there are only two things you can do: decrease services or increase taxes."
Hospitality tax debate
Heitzler is proud that city leaders have not raised taxes in more than 30 years to meet its budget, which is about $17 million.
"I never liked the idea of the government reaching into the house," he said. "Instead, we use other people's money so that we don't have to tax ourselves and dig into our own pockets."
He was referring in part to the new hospitality tax, a 2 percent tax on food and beverages expected to pour $1 million into the city's coffers. Tekac cast the lone vote against it.
"It's a huge issue in the race," Tekac said. "A lot of folks are asking, "Why'd you vote no?' Back in June, when the issue was raised, the staff presented city council with a plan of how the money would be spent, but our residents haven't seen it yet. That's why I voted no. I think it's important that they understand where we're going to spend the money."
Heitzler said the money will be used to "generate a robust economy to bring tourists in," such as community center, an amphitheater, parks and green space, and repairs and improvements at the city-owned Crowfield Golf & Country Club.
Commercial districts and parks
When he became mayor, the city had no commercial district and no plans for infrastructure for water, sewer or roads, Heitzler said.
"There was no downtown," he said. "It was just a series of sad little trailer parks, one after the other throughout the triangle. In 1978, one of our early goals was to try to make some commercial zones out of the trailer parks."
Over time, the city bought the trailer parks and razed them, turning the area into a city center that radiated out from intersection of St. James Avenue and Goose Creek Boulevard, and adding green spaces like the hiker-biker trail.
"People need to look out the window and see forests and green spaces," Heitzler said. "I haven't done as good a job as I wish I could have. I wish the city was more proactive at protecting land. I would like the city of Goose Creek to purchase wetlands and forests so that whoever lives here in the future can enjoy them."
Tekac said parks are important to him but that they don't belong in the downtown area.
"You just can't plant a tree in a middle of a town, on a main thoroughfare, next to railroad tracks and a busy intersection, and say, 'We're not going to develop this property,'" Tekac said. "That's a waste of taxpayer money."
Although Goose Creek does not have a roads department, both Heitzler and Tekac say the council recognizes the city's traffic problems and is working with other entities to make improvements.
Several roads are marked for improvements including the U.S. highways 52 and 176 intersection, College Park Road and Henry Brown Boulevard, Heitzler said.
"What we can do is be the advocate for our residents," Tekac said. He said bringing in more businesses would also help with traffic because people would not have to travel as far to work.
The mayor's job
"I have been a full-time mayor since I was elected," Heitzler said. "I give my heart and soul seven days a week. I am a 24/7, 365 mayor and responsible for everything that happens. The buck stops at my desk."
Goose Creek has a strong mayor form of government but also has a full-time city administrator.
In his newspaper ads, Heitzler, who retired from the Berkeley County School District nine years ago, says Goose Creek needs a full-time mayor in the $30,000-a-year position.
"He's making it an issue that I have a job," Tekac said. "I think that's ironic coming from an opponent who for the first three decades was a full-time principal."
Tekac said he has the blessing of his bosses to run for office, and he will work from the bank's Goose Creek office some days.
"This fits perfectly with what I do for a living," he said. "I don't work an 8-to-5 job. I have clients that I meet when they need to meet, just like I'll have meetings with residents when they need to meet. My schedule is very flexible."
Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.