Tumbleweeds

Ask me what Waynesboro’s biggest problem is, and I’ll tell you this – people here love telling you how nobody here seems to have a clue of what we need to do to move Waynesboro forward, but when push comes to shove on that, folks don’t seem to want to do anything about it other than remind you about the shortage that we have to endure in the clue department. 

Waynesboro Downtown Development Inc. is in the crosshairs, for example, for focusing too much on events at the expense of laying out some sort of vision for the future of downtown. OK, so a few years ago its new executive director changed the focus from events to trying to put together a development plan. Before she even got to work on that we saw board members resign in protest of her hiring, and a couple of years later City Council pulled half of its funding for WDDI operations citing frustration with what WDDI was doing, or what it was perceived that it wasn’t doing.

So WDDI should focus on events. Except that it should focus on planning. An AFP reader commenting on a post from last week on development in Waynesboro criticized WDDI for “going 90 mph in a circle.” It’s not hard to figure out how this has come about.

The city’s economic-development efforts are slammed, meanwhile, for focusing for a time on trying to make downtown into a home-furnishings center, then for the quiet abandonment of that effort, while some say we should put our attention on manufacturing, others say we’re stupid to even think we can land new manufacturing given the economic trends, and in the meantime we don’t have an economic-development policy anymore, or a staff person to implement one should we ever throw a dart at a dart board and decide on one.

We’re 30 years into our metamorphasis from being the industrial capital of Western Virginia to being whatever we’re going to be when we get our heads out of our asses and do something to secure our economic future. We’ve seen in that time our community devolve from being an economic power in our region to being a bedroom community for Charlottesville and a shopping center for Crozet. And a haven for low-income housing with the crime petty and organized associated with the magnet that plentiful low-income housing has become.

This is why Frank Lucente holds so much sway in Waynesboro. I jump the hell out of the guy for his lack of vision, but he seems to have his finger on the pulse, fainting as it is, of this city and what it wants, or rather doesn’t want. He gets it, that a lot of folks here, and a clear majority of folks who vote in city elections here, have given up, that they don’t want to expend the energy necessary to make something that will take 10-15 years to achieve come to fruition, that if they had their way, they’d turn the clock back to about 1975, when all here was just so darned-tootin’ hunky-dory … .

Time is marching on whether those folks want it to or not, and if they think they can continue replacing manufacturing jobs with retail jobs and splash a new coat of paint on a downtown building every five years and call that redevelopment, well, they’re deluding yourselves.

Waynesboro, you have a deadline out ahead of you. Development projections in Crozet have the Crozet area breaking the 20,000-resident barrier by 2020, and I expect that a few years ahead of that the Wal-Marts and Targets et al will have decided that it makes a lot more sense to cater to their customer bases closer to where they live than it does making their customers drive over Afton Mountain.

I give you until 2015 or 2016 before the metamorphasis that began in the early 1980s with the beginning of the decline of the manufacturing sector in Waynesboro takes on added speed with the beginning of the end of the mini-retail boom that has masked just how things have gotten here.

Conveniently, that’s roughly 10 years into the run at the Waynesboro Town Center and 15 years into the run at the Wal-Mart Supercenter that sparked the mini-boom. Target and Wal-Mart will have long since gotten their money’s worth from these properties by then, so moving on won’t be that much of a loss for them, if it’s a loss on the ledger at all.

Where does this leave Waynesboro? My friend Jerry Carter, the owner of the Waynesboro Generals, is the king of hokie motivational sayings, and I say that endearingly, because it takes a starry-eyed dreamer to run a Valley League team. One that Jerry uses often is, There are two kinds of people in this world, those in the boat rowing with you, and those who stand on the shore throwing rocks at you.

Waynesboro seems to have plenty of the people throwing rocks from the shore, and what interests me is not the presence of people like Frank Lucente among those on the shore, but the long line of people who think of themselves as wanting to see the city invest in downtown and invest in economic development and work toward an improved public-school system and the rest gathering rocks and waiting their turn.

Progress-minded citizens, and I use that term carefully, because the coalition is truly bipartisan, encompassing, sure, Democrats, but also independents and also moderate-conservative types who otherwise consider themselves Republicans but think the ultraconservative libertarian-Republican mindset pushed by Lucente has taken this city down a dangerous path, are the ones responsible for holding this city back, not the Lucente faction currently in charge in City Hall.

It’s the progress side that stayed home on Election Day in May 2008 and allowed Lucente and Bruce Allen to achieve sweeping landslide victories getting about half the vote total that Barack Obama and a third of what Mark Warner got in the city a few months later in November, then got all in a lather when the ultraconservatives did what they said they were going to do and began to unravel the work that had been done by the city governments led by Chuck Ricketts and Tom Reynolds and Doug Walker. It’s the progress side that sits at home watching the ultras trot out organized anti-tax rallies at City Council meetings on TV and mutters about how the local newspaper sides with the naysayers and doesn’t do anything to counter the staged TV events by using the same medium afforded to the other side to get their point across or write letters to the editor of the NV or actively back the progressive news source in the AFP. It’s the progress side letting turf battles over whether our future is a downtown theatre or another downtown-redevelopment project or more growth in the West End play the old divide-and-conquer game with respect to its long-term interests.

I think I’m starting to get why we haven’t seen anybody on City Council take the lead toward getting things moving forward. Me personally, I’ve been at this for seven years now, dating back to the launch of the AFP in July 2002. I offered myself to serve as a leader of the effort to move Waynesboro forward last year, and despite falling well short of success at the polls felt that we had something positive going. I’ve tried to keep the flicker of a flame that we started last spring going, fighting back the attempts at dousing from the right at the outset, now seeing the wick burn down on its own, the heat dissipating for a lack of oxygen in the maelstrom of progress.

It pains me to say that I don’t foresee Waynesboro ever overcoming these many self-imposed limitations. I’m among the more patient people you’re ever going to come across, and even I’m thisclose to packing up and moving on, and I can’t imagine that I’m alone in wondering aloud how much sense it makes spinning ’round and ’round and ’round debating the same things we’ve been debating for 30 years and not getting anywhere with it all.

I want to think that Waynesboro’s future is more than tumbleweeds running down Main Street and the West End, but that’s where things are headed.

 

– Column by Chris Graham

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