Anatomy of a stimulus project
Nancy Dowdy was surprised, to say the least, to hear that the not-anywhere-close-to-being-shovel-ready Shenandoah Village Drive extension had made its way into the package of proposals for federal stimulus money up approved by Waynesboro City Council last week. She has an idea as to why it ended up in the submission to the state for the drawdown of stimulus monies, of course.
“We all know why this is in there,” the city councilwoman said, alluding to Afton lawyer and Waynesboro Opportunity Park owner Roger Willetts, whom you might remember as being a member of a group of city and local-area residents who recruited Bruce Allen to run for City Council and later backed Allen and Vice Mayor Frank Lucente financially in their bids for city office.
It was mentioned to me last summer when I began uncovering the members of the power brokers by telling the story of one-time candidate recruit John Lawrence and his knowledge of the desire of the group to oust then-City Manager Doug Walker that we would all soon find out what the real motivation behind the machinations was, and that it would involve Waynesboro Opportunity Park, which I had to that point only known as the strip of land across from the entrance to Chinquapin that otherwise seems like an important developable piece of property given its prime access to Interstate 64.
A key to its development of the 161-acre property, currently zoned for industrial use, would seem to be a road that could open up the property to I-64 and South Delphine Avenue. The proposed extension of Shenandoah Village Drive that was included in the stimulus submission last week, to the tune of an estimated $10 million, would effectively bring that access road into being.
So how did the road end up in the city stimulus package? Was this backroom politics at its ugliest? Well, this is where things start to get confusing. It was revealed during last week’s Council discussion for the matter that a long-time local real-estate broker, Arthur Harrison, had been meeting individually with Council members to discuss the proposed road extension, and the impression left by the council members who had met with Harrison in advance of the Council meeting was that he had been speaking on behalf of Willetts.
A conversation that I had with City Manager Mike Hamp on Monday afternoon furthered that impression to me.
“We were approached by the owner and a representative of the owner, and spoke with them about including the project in the stimulus package,” Hamp told me, sharing with me the genesis of the move to include the road extension in the stimulus package.
I talked Tuesday afternoon with Harrison, though, and he said that while he once served as an agent for the Waynesboro Opportunity Park property, his involvement in meeting with Council members and with city staff was purely a private matter.
“I don’t represent anybody,” Harrison said. “I am putting forth an idea, the potential for which is a real crapshoot, as you know, for Waynesboro to possibly get some stimulus money that involves the extension of Shenandoah Village Drive.
“This road intersection would link the two interstate interchanges that Waynesboro has, and thereby relieve what is an emerging public-safety problem at the intersection of Rosser and Shenandoah Village Drive, which is overloaded now and will be more so as time goes on,” Harrison said.
“In the city’s best interests, they should link those two interchanges with a commercial corridor, and support and take advantage of the Town Center traffic in every way it can. Right now, those people are coming all the way around and driving to the Town Center and leaving. They’re not to one single additional commercial establishment,” Harrison said.
“This is something that I’ve been talking about for a long time. It’s not anything new to a lot of people,” Harrison said.
“My only interrelationship with Mike and Roger Willetts was I wanted Roger Willetts to tell them what his position was as far as the city is concerned. But that’s between them,” Harrison said.
Which brings us back to the how did this get into the stimulus list? discussion point. What we have so far is Arthur Harrison talking with Council members and the city manager about something he considers a good idea and Roger Willetts detailing for the city manager his thoughts on the matter. Let’s now go to City Councilwoman Lorie Smith, who had been the Council’s point person on the stimulus project after convincing fellow Council members in January that the city needed to be proactive in putting together a list of projects assuming that Congress would make stimulus monies available to states and localities for infrastructure projects. Smith met with Harrison before last week’s City Council meeting, and she came away with the thought, one, that Harrison was acting on behalf of or at the least strongly advocating, for Willetts and his interests, and two, that the road project was not ready for prime time by a long shot.
“They say they’re not asking for anything from the city in terms of money. But they’ve asked for council’s support. I’ve asked for that to be defined. What do you mean in terms of support? And I’m still not sure what that means,” Smith told me
There’s a lot left in the air to Smith’s reckoning. The matter of the future use of the property, for one. It is presently zoned for industrial use, but Smith said Harrison talked up to her a long-range plan for a commercial-residential project encompassing the undeveloped property of Willetts and adjoining landowners. Harrison detailed that same idea with me in our conversation just after I had mentioned the interest of the city in seeing it developed for industrial or tech-sector purposes, then reminded me gently, “Zoning can be changed.”
“Regardless of who’s involved, this project can’t be treated any differently than any other. Everything right now is predicated upon the fact that the economy is in a terrible downturn. We’re trying to identify funds to work within a deficit budget in the current fiscal year. So to think that we’re in a position to take on new projects, especially projects of this magnitude, in this environment is really tough,” Smith said.
Rewinding back to last week, it was Dowdy voicing the objections.
“One, that developer has not made the investments himself in this property. Two, I struggle with singling out one developer that’s going to benefit from the stimulus package especially when the city has so many needs,” Dowdy said at last week’s Council staff briefing.
“I’m not comfortable asking for money for a private developer at this point, whether it’s local money, state money or federal money. I think our obligation is to the city as to our own infrastructure needs at this point. I understand the benefit we may gain in the future from that road. I do not believe at this time that it’s a priority. We have too many other priorities,” Dowdy said.
It shouldn’t surprise you to learn who came to the access road’s defense.
“As I saw it, that road goes from the Town Center, crosses our 50 acres, which is our land, then crosses the park, which is our land. And down Oak Avenue (actually Oak Lane). Then crosses Mr. Willetts’ land. I assume you’re assuming it benefits Mr. Willetts?” Lucente said later in the discussion at last week’s staff briefing.
“Tremendously,” Dowdy answered.
“Well, that may be so,” Lucente said. “That road does go down through our land. It covers through our land a lot. Through the industrial park and the Coyner Springs, which is our land.” And later, “I think we’re trying to create something that we’re not going to get much out of. This stimulus package is going to be directed to the states and will probably come down to roads and bridges,” Lucente said.
“If we want to get real technical,” Lucente continued, “ten million for the Artisans Center? You know, I don’t think that’s been defined as benefiting us. The theater …”
“It brings economic revenues to the city,” Dowdy said.
“Well, the road in that corridor will bring …” Lucente said.
“Only if it’s developed. Only if it’s developed or sold. And that’s not in our purview,” Dowdy said.
“I understand your argument, and I don’t have any difficulty understanding it. I think it’s a fine line there how you handle that. But it will benefit that property over there. That Opportunity Park is one of the opportunities that we have in the city to develop. There’s no bigger piece of land in the city to develop,” Lucente said.
That much is clear, if it’s the only thing clear in this story. The Waynesboro Opportunity Park property is prime real estate in a city that is just about tapped out in terms of large, undeveloped, interstate- and rail-accessible parcels.
“Generally speaking, that property, and by that I mean the Willetts property, is identified as a logical opportunity for the next generation of commercial or industrial development. And the city, of course, is particularly interested in commercial or industrial development,” Hamp told me.
So Waynesboro Opportunity Park is an opportunity, as Lucente put it, and the extension of Shenandoah Village Drive to transform it into a connector between Exit 94 and Rosser Avenue and Exit 96 and Delphine Avenue would serve important economic-development and public-safety concerns, as Harrison put it better. That’s all well and good. But it’s not shovel-ready, and that’s to say that we don’t even have a piece of paper or a pen to begin drawing plans that make a shovel necessary anytime soon.
“Admittedly, it’s a close call,” Hamp said generously. “But from the staff perspective, we felt like it was worthy of consideration, and the staff included it in the package that we developed and forwarded to the City Council for their affirmation or approval.”
Dowdy sees things vastly differently. “Why would we want to do this and not have a better understanding of all the variables here?” Dowdy asked rhetorically.
“I sense there’s a lot of work and detail around any potential project on city property and this individual landowner,” Smith said. “There’s a great deal of work and forethought and plans to be talked about. And I think we’re so far out being anywhere near that. That’s the only question that I had around whether there’s a legitimate reason to include it, because we really don’t have the information. It’s just a hypothetical concept.”
It’s not in there because it was thought through. You knew that already, though, didn’t you?
“I don’t mind including it, because if we exclude that, then I’m going to start saying, let’s exclude some of these other things that I’m not comfortable with,” Lucente said. “But I think, it’s a dream list, let’s put it all out on the table and see if we can get anything, and then we can deal with what we get.”
That was what one self-professed conservative had to offer on the matter. Mayor Tim Williams is also a self-identified conservative. “I agree with Frank that it’s more or less a wish list, and I think we should ask for it. I have no problem asking for it,” Williams said.
– Story by Chris Graham