Chris Graham | Common ground
Waynesboro does have a vision, to hear Frank Lucente tell it. “Speaking only for myself as a council member and a citizen of Waynesboro, I have always felt there was a plan, and have always consistently worked toward it: ensure that the city provides the services of government in the most effective and efficient way possible, (and) have the lowest taxes of any city in our state,” Lucente wrote in a letter to the editor published in The News Virginian last week, defending the council conservative-libertarian majority coalition against criticisms in the hard-right conservative editorial pages of the NV that the city has been woefully lacking in the Thinking Ahead Department.
“The entire council has been actively working to generate and seek out other opportunities that are sound and solid,” Lucente wrote in the letter. “This hasn’t always been done in public, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. If anyone has an idea that can help our city, please share it with the council. Though we are committed to our goals as stated above, we remain open-minded to any proposal that can help the city and the citizens.”
The NV responded in a Sunday editorial, “Inspired by Des Moines,” pointing out that the city has the seventh-lowest tax rate among Virginia’s 39 independent cities as a positive, but reinforcing the message that editor Lee Wolverton has been hitting on for months, as he phrased it in his Sunday editorial that “good ideas disappear in this town almost paranormally, like ships vanishing in the Bermuda Triangle.”
“We know the forces at work here are forces not at work,” Wolverton wrote. “Waynesboro has manufactured a heritage of its own lost visions. Lucente in his letter called for ideas. The city has had no shortage of these. Where it has lacked is in sheer will.”
From my perspective just left of center I have observed that same trend – in fact, it’s what motivated my ill-fated run for City Council last spring, and it’s why I’ve joined Wolverton’s River City 2020 downtown-redevelopment effort, to work with community members from across the ideological and insight spectrum to see what we can do to start Moving Waynesboro Forward.
Those who followed my City Council run last year might remember how the conservative-libertarian coalition that ended up winning the election tarred and feathered me as the “Wayne Theatre candidate” given my past service on the board of directors of the nonprofit organization leading the effort to redevelop the historic downtown theater into a community performing arts center and anchor for downtown revitalization. It interested me then that the Wayne was still a political issue after serving as the driver in city elections in 2006 and given the complex challenges that our city was facing.
Well, guess what? It’s still driving at least a portion of the behind-the-scenes debate in Waynesboro, even as the complexity of our shared challenges has ratcheted up exponentially.
“The News Virginian could be such a positive influence in our community if they would only support our effort instead of focusing solely on the expenditure of taxpayer money,” wrote John Curry, a member of the board of directors of the Wayne Theatre Alliance and the chair of its fundraising campaign, in an e-mail this morning to Wolverton responding to the Sunday editorial, noting, I think, a valid critique of the paper’s editorial stances vis-a-vis the rebirth of Downtown Waynesboro generally and the Wayne Theatre project more specifically.
It does seem to stand to reason that the Wayne project could serve as a prime example of one of those potentially “lost visions” that Wolverton referenced in his Sunday editorial and evidence of the city’s lack of “sheer will” to see good ideas brought to fruition.
“Unfortunately,” Curry wrote in his e-mail to Wolverton, “The Wayne became a political football, rather than a source of community pride. I hope we can fix that problem,” Curry wrote. “After watching my investment portfolio get slashed, I am more worried about greedy corporate executives than government by the people-for the people. With the economic downturn, and the negative attitude about the Wayne renovation by The News Virginian, it is getting tougher all of the time to bring our project to reality,” Curry wrote in the e-mail.
Wolverton shared his response to Curry with me. “We’d love to see the Wayne make it. But we differ with you on how to make it happen and precisely what the theater’s significance might be,” the editor wrote back, reiterating a point that he has made to me privately several times, namely, that he has yet to be convinced of the worthiness of the Wayne as an economic catalyst downtown.
To borrow from a headline on an unrelated story in the Sunday NV, I think we’re all a little guilty here of missing the forest for the trees. As I wrote in an e-mail response to both Wolverton and Curry, my two cents on the “how to make it happen” is that Wolverton was himself hitting on that point in writing about the lack of “sheer will” to bring the ideas that we have developed for getting Waynesboro moving forward into reality. “The Wayne effort,” I wrote in my e-mail response, “has substantial community will behind it aside from the one-vote majority on City Council, but without the city’s support, it could end up falling by the wayside of history as many other such efforts have done here in the past 47 years, dating back to the first downtown revitalization effort that I tracked here in 1962.
“I’m not of the mindset that the success or failure of the Wayne is itself an indication of the success or failure of our city down the road, just to be clear,” I wrote. “But I do see the project, along with efforts to attract high-tech industry and develop our Exit 96 corridor, in addition to continued work to finish out development at Exit 94, as being an important cog in our economic rebirth. The Wayne can be the foundation of our downtown just as Wal-Mart was the foundation of the West End and perhaps Exit 96 can build on a foundation of a new tech sector here in our city.”
Now let’s bring Lucente back into the discussion. “To summarize, our goal is to provide the best service at the lowest cost to our citizens. That is what we are working toward, and we are doing so by figuring out how to do more with less, which is something we haven’t had much experience with lately,” Lucente wrote in his letter to the NV from last week that initiated this discussion.
“If we can accomplish this, and I think we can, the benefits will be enormous. Entrepreneurs will flock to our town to take advantage of the low taxes and service fees. We will be seen as a destination point for the producers and contributors that all cities seek to attract. Our businesses will flourish, and the city will be studied and used as a template for others to follow in their efforts to become destinations for people to live and work,” Lucente wrote.
Lucente’s vision is limited in one key respect, in my view, because it focuses almost entirely on slashing the tax rate with the idea in mind that an even lower tax rate would serve as a boon to additional economic development.The chief limitation there was pointed out well by an NV reader commenting on the paper’s website who noted that Augusta County’s tax rate is 12 cents lower than Waynesboro’s, and yet “there is little, if any, entpreneurial activity there.” Another point that could illustrate the narrowmindedness of Lucente’s viewpoint comes to mind when we think back to the development of the Exit 94 corridor. The catalyst, we all concede, was the decision in 2002 of Wal-Mart to locate a supercenter off Rosser Avenue. The tax rate then was 97 cents per $100 assessed value, 27 cents higher than the current 70-cent rate.
But that said, there is space on the highway wide enough for us to drive a tractor-trailer through for us to come together to find some common ground. I’m right there with Lucente on the need for us to at the least keep our current tax rate as an attraction to business and industry, while keeping in mind that we need to ensure that the tax rate can sustain the delivery of public services and the development of infrastructure that will allow for the continued vitality of our city. I’m there with Wolverton that city leaders need to develop the will to take the good ideas that we have here in Waynesboro for moving our city forward and bring them to market, and that we need to properly vet them to ensure that we get the best bang for our bucks in that respect. And I’m there with Curry that the Wayne Theatre is a future catalyst for the redevelopment of our downtown.
I think what we’re really guilty of here is hubris. We all want it done our way, and as we’ve witnessed watching Washington the past few years, nothing gets done in a my-way-or-the-highway kind of environment.
It’s time for us to realize that what we are letting divide us is also that which is conquering us – and that the only way we’re going to work our way through this toughest of tough times in our city’s history is to sit down together at the same table and bring our libertarian and conservative and centrist and progressive ideas to that table to craft a path toward a mutually prosperous future.
- Column by Chris Graham