Home Chris Graham: Starving government, stifling progress in Waynesboro

Chris Graham: Starving government, stifling progress in Waynesboro


Ousted Waynesboro Downtown Development Inc. director Kimberly Watters says she was let go because of … rain.

waynesboro2editsIt’s a helluva way to run a local government. That’s all I can say.

The story is a bit more complex than that, but the reason for her departure and the conclusion about how we run local government is spot on. WDDI is a non-profit entity separate from city government, but as in many communities working with the Virginia Main Street Program, local funding in some form or fashion is an essential foundation for the redevelopment efforts that WDDI would be expected to jumpstart.

The early iterations of the city-WDDI relationship, dating back to WDDI’s launch in 2000, were positive. The city provided a stable amount of funding toward the operations of the organization, including salary for the executive-director position, and WDDI raised the rest of the money it needed for operations on its own.

A critical mistake made in the early years of WDDI was the failure to foresee that this stable relationship might not survive changing political winds if they were to blow in. Neighboring Staunton provides a key source of funding for its Staunton Downtown Development Association through a special downtown tax district that keeps SDDA out of the political fire. Waynesboro resisted suggestions to establish a special tax district for the same purpose, and that decision would come back to bite us later on.

Later on started to come to fruition in 2008, when City Councilman Frank Lucente led a political reversal that saw a conservative majority swept into power in City Hall. The mood surrounding funding for things like downtown redevelopment changed, but it’s not like the conservatives cut things off immediately. It was more like a starvation diet. WDDI’s funding was slowly ratcheted down as the organization was forced to turn more and more to fund-raising events to get the money it needed just to keep its doors open.

Not surprisingly, this led to a less effective WDDI, whose key employee, Watters, was forced to sing for her supper as much as, and ultimately more than, being able to focus on what was supposed to be her day job.

Which brings us to 2013, and two key WDDI fund-raising events, the Chili, Blues ‘n Brews Festival and the Virginia Fall Foliage Art Show, both of which were saddled with rain that depressed turnout from past years.

Two rainy weekends, and WDDI had to let its executive director go.

If this isn’t Grover Norquist’s dream come true, nothing else could be.

WDDI literally drowned in the bathtub.

There’s plenty of room for debate on the wisdom of using public dollars toward downtown redevelopment. Except that we’re already committing money toward another long-term development project, Opportunity Park, so this isn’t a philosophical crusade on the part of city leaders against government involvement in economic growth.

The Norquists and Lucentes of the world know that this isn’t about philosophy. It’s not about not spending any government money on economic development. It’s about value choices, about spending government money on what conservatives want it spent on versus what progressives want it spent on.

Four million dollars for the scrub brush that we’re calling Opportunity Park, versus $40,000 a year for WDDI.

Four million, plus another seven million to open Opportunity Park up for development, for what will likely end up being retail and office space located off the interstate, versus $40,000 a year plus additional public monies for what will likely be more retail and office space downtown.

Four million, plus another seven million, for something that is at best 20 years down the road, versus $40,000 a year plus additional public monies toward something that we’re already 13 years into.

Value choices. That’s what this is about.

Progress called on account of rain.




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