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Downtown, or industry?

The chicken, or the egg? The debate over Waynesboro’s economic future is akin to the timeless yarn over which came first, with a twist. Which should we do first in Waynesboro – build up the downtown, or rebuild our industry base?

One of the great things about being a magazine editor is people just show up at the office to talk about what’s going on around town, and today was one of those days. A former city manager and a member of the Waynesboro Downtown Development Inc. board of directors dropped by within minutes of each other, and after we were done talking about what we were supposed to be talking about, the discussions turned to the news at Invista and the River City 2020 project being initiated by The News Virginian that I will be taking part in.

What an interesting backdrop, isn’t it, for the first meeting of the River City 2020 group, what with the goings-on at Invista, where the news gets worse by the day? That initiated both of my morning conversations about River City 2020. My first observation in both instances – hey, we had to see it coming.

And to the credit of city government, it did, too, though I’m thinking that it only solved part of the problem with the approach that it took. From a revenue standpoint, we’re not in bad shape at all. The doubling of the economy in the past five years that has been fueled by the retail explosion on the West End should keep us going through this rough patch, and that was by design of the city council that got things moving out there six years ago. But that having been said, retail and restaurants are not the foundation of a sustainable long-term economy, and that’s what the West End is. And just as I want to give citiy council and city management a pat on the back for foreseeing the revenue crunch that would result the day Invista decided to do what it’s doing right now, I want to smack them upside their collective heads for not being more forward-thinking about our job base.

Fifteen years ago, at the tail end of a 65-year run of industrial prosperity in Waynesboro, the city economy had 4,400 jobs in its manufacturing sector, according to data from the Virginia Employment Commission. As of the first quarter of the current year, we were less than half that, at around 2,100, and if Invista follows through with another mass layoff or two in the coming months we’ll be half that again, perhaps seeing our manufacturing labor base dip below 1,000.

The issue here is that manufacturing jobs pay so much better than the retail and restaurant jobs that are there for the taking for those being laid off. The average Waynesboro manufacturing employee earns around $45,000 a year, more than $15,000 a year more than the average non-manufacturing worker here. And let me tell you from personal experience, the experience of my late father, who worked for 25 years at General Electric and Genicom before Genicom sent his job to Mexico in 1997, that those left behind are lucky to ever catch back up to average.

Our kids have long since noticed this. It’s not an exaggeration to say that there aren’t many of me still out there beating our heads against the wall trying to make a decent life for ourselves in a community with an economy that’s on life support. Some of us leave with the intention of one day coming back, but more and more of us are realizing that there’s not much here to come back to. I made that point to my second morning visitor, and he jumped from there to the argument that a revived downtown might be that something to come back to. And I see his point. Waynesboro doesn’t even have a movie theater anymore, hasn’t for going on a decade now, which is hard to believe for a city our size. And while we have groups like the Waynesboro Players and the Choral Society and Schola Cantorum to keep us entertained, we’re still sorely lacking vis-a-vis our neighbors in Staunton with their thriving downtown that has Blackfriars as its anchor and Charlottesville with JPJ and the Paramount and The Pavilion among many things to do year-round.

I agree, downtown would be a big draw for twenty- and thirtysomethings like myself who look around and wonder if this is all there ever will be to Waynesboro. But I disagree, and vehemently, that we need to do downtown first. The analogy that comes to mind here is building a house, which I know a little bit about, having worked a couple of summers with my grandfather, a contractor who built houses for 50 years. The nicest room in the house is the living room. It’s where the couch goes, the recliner in the corner, the TV, the coffee table. It’s where you entertain guests, where you spend your relaxing moments otherwise. A pretty important room, to say the least. But you don’t build it first. You have to lay the block at the foundation first, or you have no living room.

I’m not suggesting that we don’t go through with projects like that of the Wayne Theatre Alliance, which is eight years into its work to rehab the Wayne Theatre to serve as an anchor for economic activity downtown. I think we’d be shooting ourselves in the foot not to see all of the hard work put in over the years on that project come to fruition. Ditto for the efforts, still more in the discovery and planning phases, to find a permanent home for the Artisans Center of Virginia downtown. The future of the WDDI, I think, is worthy of more discussion, one, because I’m afraid that the leadership might have a hard time surviving a confidence vote among its constituency of downtown business owners if one were to be taken right now, and two, even if it did, there’s clearly a wide gulf among business owners downtown and also among those in the broader community about the role the WDDI should play in economic development in Waynesboro.

I’ll just say that I think we’re doing things bass ackwards when we’re essentially funding out of public tax dollars a WDDI director to put on a few events downtown that not everybody downtown thinks is that much of a benefit to them and we also have on the payroll a tourism director who has little to show off to visitors and we’re now in month five of not having an economic-development director in place to coordinate economic-development activities citywide or even just answer the phone the next time a possible industrial suitor calls looking for information.

Lay the block first. I know it doesn’t make me Mr. Popularity to say that, but we’ve got to get our priorities in order.


Column by Chris Graham

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