It’s time for a change in Waynesboro

waynesboroWaynesboro City Manager Mike Hamp, writing a death warrant for the city’s future, is recommending that the City Council back out of a longstanding agreement with the Wayne Theatre Alliance that was key to the $10 million renovation of the downtown landmark.

If the Council follows through, it is hard if not impossible to imagine the city ever finding another economic partner – public, private, commercial, manufacturing, technology – willing to invest its money in Waynesboro.

“While increases in sales, meals and lodging are beneficial, the stability and sustainability of our organization could be improved by increasing reliance on more stable revenue sources, such as the real estate tax,” Hamp said in offering his rationale for leaving $140,000 that was to be earmarked to the WTA under the terms of a performance agreement signed in 2008 out of his recommended city budget.

This is startling in its implications: whereas the talk at the federal and state levels is about what government can do to take the burden off the backs of middle-class taxpayers by putting increased attention on economic growth as a way to provide the revenues needed to pay for public services, Hamp is saying specifically that Waynesboro, on his watch, will put the onus on homeowners.

Holy crap, indeed.

Hamp then pottymouthed the city’s longstanding efforts to boost its tourism sector, saying that the city, in building a reliance on tourism dollars, puts itself at risk in the event of an economic downturn. Thus, he said, it makes more sense to rely on manufacturing.

Which is all well and good, and no one is going to argue that a locality should hang its hat on tourism, or for that matter on any one sector. Waynesboro knows all too well that even relying on manufacturing, supposedly the bedrock of any economy, can be bad for business when the going gets tough.

Remember the good old days when DuPont and General Electric employed upwards of 8,000 at their facilities in Waynesboro back in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s? If you walk or run the South River Greenway, which adjoins the old DuPont property, now owned by Invista, you see, any time of the day, any day of the week, the sad sight of the biggest empty parking lot you will ever want to see.

Invista is a shell of its former DuPont self; the old GE property barely registers from its heyday of hustle and bustle in the mornings at 7, afternoons at 4 and evenings at 11 at shift change.

Those properties, and the old Wayn-Tex building on South Delphine, sit largely idle, or at best functioning at a tiny fraction of their capacity; and the city has additional capacity in an industrial park located off Shenandoah Village Drive that the City Council has failed to find funding to make its open parcels pad-ready.

And then there’s the matter of the nearly $4 million that the current City Council invested in scrub brush on what would be the other end of Shenandoah Village Drive a few years back.

That property, purchased from the political ally of a member of the City Council, still sits fallow, as the Council now argues with itself over what it would cost to make it marketable.

We have plenty not going on in Waynesboro, and then there’s what is going on. Even as the city administration and City Council pulled funding from the downtown revitalization organization, Waynesboro Downtown Development Inc., private interests have taken to doing what the do-nothings in City Hall refuse to do.

It hasn’t been that long since downtown was a ghost town from 5 p.m. Friday through 8 a.m. Monday, but now there’s life again, with several thriving restaurants doing good business and art centers building up foot traffic.

The Wayne Theatre, oddly, though it has only been open for a few weeks, was a driver of what we’ve seen happening downtown. The effort to renovate the Wayne dates back to 2000, with the WTA patiently putting together millions in private monies, grants, tax credits and loans to tie it all together to put the finishing touches on a space that features a 385-seat main theater and additional performance and educational spaces inside.

What used to be a ghost town on nights and weekends is now teeming with issues arising like, where do we park, and, how long do we have to wait for a table?

Good problems to have, indeed.

And all this for a relatively meager investment of $700,000 over the next five years, under the terms of the performance agreement put in place by a previous City Council, the Economic Development Authority and the Wayne Theatre Alliance in 2008.

Trying to understand the logic of the city manager, this money is not better spent meeting the terms of an economic-development agreement already in place, and already having an impact on the local economy, but rather in pursuing other economic-development agreements that may or may not come, depending on a host of other factors, like, for example, whether the City Council can find money to make all that industrial-park space pad-ready, and open up that scrub brush that it bought on the other side of the industrial park.

The message that is being sent is clear and unequivocal: don’t waste your time dealing with these jokers.

Seriously. A person who communicated with a local news editor suggested that the money would be better spent going after Google, and so let’s indulge that fantasy for a comical second. You’re in development at Google, and you’re willing to risk getting fired and laughed out of the room as you get the axe by suggesting locating a division in Waynesboro.

It’s not far from Charlottesville and Harrisonburg, basically the midpoint between a national university and a respected regional university, not far up the road from Virginia Tech.

Some sense can be made of this otherwise farcical move.

You get past the snickers. Then Larry Page, well, Googles “Waynesboro.”

“You want to sign a development deal with a city that turned the screws on a small theater project and backed out of a signed agreement? Bwa-hahahahahahahaha …”

If the City Council follows Hamp’s advice, we can save more money by jettisoning the economic-development department, because we won’t need them anymore, because we don’t need people to try to set up meetings with companies that aren’t going to want to move here because they know they can’t trust us to live up to whatever agreements we may sign with them.

That’s the good news, saving on the city budget bottom line. The bad news is that you and I, taxpayers here in the City of Waynesboro, property owners, we get the hammer. Because with the current manufacturing base eroding, and with no new prospects on the horizon, we’re going to continue to pay more in property taxes while receiving less in the way of services.

The current City Council has already seriously considered eliminating garbage collection and approved massive increases in water and sewer rates.

(And they call themselves conservatives. Irony, thy inspiration is Waynesboro.)

Higher taxes, less services, delivered less effectively, a brand-new $10 million theatre sitting empty and unused.

This is the Waynesboro that your city manager is planning for you.

It’s time for a change in Waynesboro.

Column by Chris Graham

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