What role does a new Waynesboro High School play in economic, community development?
The Waynesboro School Board is trying to cast the need for a new $76 million Waynesboro High School in economic development terms. A new school, board members have argued, will help attract new business to Waynesboro, and even if it’s just a sales pitch, it’s a sales pitch based on a valid point, when you consider how decisions are made about locating a new development project somewhere.
A new industry will bring with it new people who will ostensibly want to ensure that their children get a good education, so decision-makers making their rounds of locations to build a new plant or commercial center will take a tour of the local schools to see what they’re buying into.
The good news is that we have gobs of developable land to offer new industrial and commercial partners, so having a new high school to show off to prospective suitors could be a nice addition to the arsenal that we can unleash on them when we get them into town.
There is, of course, some bad news here. As much as we have developable land to offer suitors, it’s basically scrub brush, nowhere near being in a position to be built on, even accessed.
We’re at least 10 years and $10 million, and probably more in both respects, years and millions, from being able to market our industrial and commercial land located off Interstate 64 in between Exit 94 and Exit 96.
And we’ve been there for years, with little movement from city leaders.
Even once we get our butts into motion, you have to presume that landing a potential future prospective suitor is going to cost us more money. That’s the way economic development works in 21st century American commerce. Companies don’t up and decide to invest tens of millions of dollars in your community for nothing. They want something in the form of incentives, and if you don’t offer them, the next community will, guaranteed.
Which gets us back to the $76 million. As debt, we’d finance that money over at the least 20 years, and up to 30 years. The $76 million proposed for the new high school would nearly double the city’s current debt load of $79.5 million.
The payback would require an increase in the city property tax rate of 22 cents to 30 cents, pushing the rate from its current 80 cents per $100 assessed value over a dollar and to as much as $1.10.
That itself has to be factored into the discussion of the high school playing a role in economic development. Tax rate isn’t the sole determinative factor when a company is looking at a community for a new project, but it’s certainly a key one.
We have a lot else going well for us: great location, 25 miles west of Charlottesville, direct access from Interstate 64, a few miles from the nexus of Interstate 64 and Interstate 81, about an hour from the Interstate 95 corridor, with natural beauty of the very nearby Blue Ridge as a prime selling point.
To fully realize our potential, we need to address two glaring needs: our stock of developable industrial and commercial property and our school system.
We know what we need to do in both respects. The issue with developable property requires a significant investment to build a road network making our land stock accessible and getting the property essentially pad-ready for suitors who will want to be able to make decisions and then get to moving in short order.
The issue with our school system also requires significant investment.
How we balance the two competing needs will go a long way to determining the long-term viability of this community.
Note the intentional use of that word: balance. It’s a concept that we’ve not heard yet in the context of next steps for Waynesboro, which to date have been, we either commit $76 million to a new high school, or else.
My view, we commit $76 million to a new high school just for the sake of committing $76 million to a new high school, without a commitment to a sustainable, comprehensive community development strategy behind it, and Waynesboro in 20 years will be the city with a shiny, half-empty high school populated with kids who are biding their time until they can graduate and then move away.
We’ve got to get this right, but right now I don’t have any confidence that we will, or even get close.
– Column by Chris Graham
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