No one seems willing to step forward to do something. That, Waynesboro Economic Development Authority chairman Carl Rosberg told the River City 2020 Forum Thursday, is a big thing holding Waynesboro back economically.
Local developer Bill Hausrath called a group of property owners in and around Downtown Waynesboro together last year to try to get a consensus toward moving things forward in some way, Rosberg told the Forum, which was organized by The News Virginian with a similar goal in mind, of getting Waynesboro moving toward the development of a solid economic-development strategy.
“But nobody is willing to be the one to pull the trigger,” Rosberg said, though the Economic Development Authority is beginning to at least resemble a trigger mechanism, if not the action needed to get things going.
Rosberg has served on the EDA for 12 years, and for most of that time, “we were just a rubber stamp” for City Council and the city government, Rosberg said. “If the city needed us to do something, we did it,” Rosberg said, but outside of those ad hoc purposes, the authority was an authority in name only.
In the past 18 months, though, the EDA has tried “to be more proactive than reactive,” Rosberg said, with Rosberg, the retiring president of Ntelos Wireless, and Tom Reider, the retired manager of the Hershey Chocolate of Virginia plant in Stuarts Draft, helping guide things in that direction.
Rosberg and Reider are routinely in meetings with development interests and city officials. Rosberg is in meetings on EDA business “three, four days a week,” he said, in addition to taking field trips, for example, to Harrisonburg to talk with city officials there about what the Friendly City has done to attract high-tech businesses to its downtown district, and Lewisburg, W.Va., to learn how a downtown theater has impacted the local economy in that locale.
This is a huge step for Waynesboro, in my view. The city has suffered in recent years not for not trying hard, because we’ve clearly been trying hard, and we’ve had two top-notch economic-development directors leading the way in Brent Frank and Meghan Williamson. What they lacked wasn’t anything in their skill sets but a clear direction from City Council and the city management as to what we wanted the future of Waynesboro to be.
Those who point to the West End conveniently overlook the fact that it wasn’t anything we did that led to the retail and food-sector growth that we’ve been seeing out that way since 2003. That end of town had long had potential, dating back to the decision of city management under former City Manager Jerry Gwaltney to build the Lew Dewitt Boulevard connector linking West Main Street and Rosser Avenue that really opened up that end of town 20 years ago. What made that potential come to reality was the simple numbers game with growth in Crozet and Western Albemarle and Stuarts Draft and the ring of Augusta County around Waynesboro providing the critical mass of customers needed to lure the Wal-Marts and Targets and Applebee’s and the rest.
The good news is that retail and restaurant jobs are good in terms of the sales-tax base that they can provide. The not-so-good news is that those jobs are not good as foundations for a city economy that has seen its proportion of high-paying industrial jobs wither away from nearly half the workforce in 1990 to barely 10 percent of the labor force today.
We’ve been fortunate here that what we have experienced has been an erosion and not a mass exodus of jobs that our sister industrial city in Martinsville suffered nearly a decade ago, but I wonder if perhaps we haven’t allowed ourselves to be lulled into thinking that we’re doing well enough managing things with the growth of our retail and service sectors that we might be better off just leaving well enough alone.
It’s going to take a proactive EDA, people like Bill Hausrath and citizens groups like River City 2020 to lure us from that complacency into doing what we need to do to position Waynesboro for economic revival.
– Story by Chris Graham