It is no accident that Blacksburg has been named the BEST place to raise children, the BEST college town; the BEST place to retire; a BEST outdoor town, and more. We have always enjoyed lively civic, faith and cultural traditions, as well as a strong sense of place in our mountain home. The town was founded by European settlers, newcomers themselves. We welcome the stranger. We are engineers, architects, farmers, and teachers; and, to paraphrase author Mary Pipher, we have achieved all of this “in the shelter of each other.”
Blacksburg is a town that reveres its past but greets the future with abiding hope. Planning, historic preservation and allegiance to community character have been integral to our success. The town has committed to results-oriented urban development, as well as the sound fiscal policy that supports it. However, a well-funded and increasingly strident group of voices is calling for a pivot away from intentional growth. Some question the town's focus on its central business district; others want a town that has recently seen $100 million in redevelopment to prove that it is even more "business friendly."
Make no mistake, this crowd isn't looking for friendship. They are developers, and they are vital to our future. They want and deserve fair and reliable treatment from the Town of Blacksburg: online permitting; timely inspections; and sensible code enforcement. That's why Town Council just added three full-time employees to its over-worked Planning and Engineering department. I stand absolutely for fairness, but absolutely against one-size-fits-all development.
As one expert has written: The unique characteristics of place may be the only truly defensible source of competitive advantage for cities in a global enconomy. We need to partner with Virginia Tech's new leadership to create transportation and housing solutions which promote quality of life for the town, but also strength for the university. As bricks-and-mortar retail retracts, we need to boost residency within town borders that will support our commercial sector and also contribute to the vibrancy of life in community.
Our citizens have nothing to prove to the outspoken, out-of-town critics who "know the price of everything but the value of nothing."
This election is about you and your quality of life-- your ability to start a business, to buy a house, to find safe and reliable childcare, to age in place and see your children succeed. Blacksburg will not remain static -- but it can remain special. As Mayor, it will be my privilege and duty to be a faithful steward of the legacy we have built together.
The Real Issues
LIST OF ISSUES
Tech and Town
Time to hit "reset"
A new generation of leadership at Virginia Tech offers possibilities for hitting the reset button on the relationship between Tech and the Town. A more connected and far-sighted group of leaders understands that undergraduate amenities are not the only way to boost reputation and enrollment . . . No longer is the Town of Blacksburg a mere ornament at the gates of the academy.
The historic fact is that the town is not here because of the university, but exactly the inverse: Blacksburg citizens successfully lobbied for a land-grant institution in the wake of the 1862 Morrill Act; and their canny efforts have been reaping rewards for the region ever since. Until the last decade, the town's residents were mostly the university's active faculty and students. We are one community, bound by mutual interest, and our quality of life must be a unified commitment.
Blacksburg's growing national repute has brought tangible benefits to the university community. The town's name was recently adopted by our regional airport authority; and the university lately markets Blacksburg to alumni as a travel and retirement destination. As mayor, I will work energetically and creatively to promote positive and mutually advantageous relations with Virginia Tech. In the truest sense, we are not merely neighbors, but family.
What about housing?
Public/Private partnerships can offer solutions
As a member of the town's Housing and Community Development Advisory Board, I've had a hand in helping to shape our community in tangible ways.
We have targeted the Bennett Hill-Progress Street neighborhood for strategic redevelopment. This is an effort to preserve historic properties; maintain community character; and expand the affordable housing market. In partnership with the non-profit Community Housing Partners, we are leveraging federal housing dollars with creativity and focus. Unfortunately, long-standing federal programs like the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program and the HOME Investment Partnerships program are at risk of elimination.
Of course, government can't do everything -- in fact, some people would argue that government can't do most things well. Partnering with the private sector can make us nimble problem solvers. I advocated for the Fieldstone Apartments project and supported $1 million in incentives to make the project work. This new development undertaken by Pinnacle Construction on Givens Lane will bring to market 144 apartments for older and lower income residents. They are on schedule to open in the fall.
For two and a half years, I also championed the idea of legalizing Accessory Dwelling Units in homes that are owner-occupied. This is a tried-and-true solution to many challenges -- and it works in places big and small, all over the country. When homeowners can add legal apartments to their houses, it allows them to age in place with a caretaker on site. It also allows multi-generational living and can contribute to income diversity in town limits. Most importantly, the ordinance I sponsored and which was passed by Town Council this spring incentivizes owner occupancy, contributing to neighborhood stability.
Newcomers, new families
What kind of future do we offer them?
The newcomer to Blacksburg today faces a very different future than my husband and I did in 1982. A house in Blacksburg costs approximately $100,000 more than its counterpart elsewhere in the New River Valley, making a 10-20 minute commute look like a good trade-off. Jobs are in greater supply, but support services for working families have not kept up.
Early childcare and education especially are in crisis regionally. It does little good to recruit new industry and support an expanding university if working parents cannot find reliable childcare. I support the Alliance for Better Childcare Strategies (ABCs), which was launched in 2013 to address scarcity, cost, quality and workforce issues.
In partnership with Virginia Tech, I would also like to explore the concept of an "academic village" in town limits. This would be a location within walking distance of campus, where staff and faculty could access market rate housing in a surrounding which supports both academic endeavor and family living.
For all kinds of people -- from millenials to retirees -- an important recent development has been Town Council's advocacy and support of online homestays (Airbnb). In a town where over 70 percent of the housing market is rental, this measure allows Blacksburg homeowners to benefit from the large demand for business and tourism accommodations in our area.
Diversity is more than a meme
No one is talking about economic diversity
I have been proud to serve on one of the most diverse government councils in the state of Virginia. Blacksburg elected officials represent a range of ages, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. This is just as it should be in a college town which is home to people from over 120 different countries, representing a myriad of religious and cultural traditions.
If there is a marginalized demographic in Blacksburg, it is the low income household. Our public transit system is designed to serve the student population; workforce housing is in scant supply; and income disparity is an undercurrent in the town's relations with Montgomery County, as well.
I have advocated for legalized Accessory Dwelling Units (mother-in-law apartments) to increase housing options and maintain economic diversity. I support the Access to Community College Education (ACCE) program, which can provide two years of free schooling at New River Community College for recent high school graduates. I have personally dug post holes, laid flooring, and painted siding for my neighbors in low-income homes. And this is why: I don't want to see my town become a bastion of indifferent privilege. That's not the Blacksburg I have known, and I will work to ensure that it is not the Blacksburg we become.
How's business in Blacksburg?
So good, we've had to add more staff . . .
As a business owner myself and the only business owner running for mayor, I can attest to the fact that Blacksburg is a great marketplace. Every month, dozens of new business licenses are issued. In every quadrant of town, there are new restaurants, new hotels, and new apartments. So, why do we hear the refrain that Blacksburg is unfriendly to business?
For too long, we have spoken in "code" about this topic. The conversation is really about development pressure in Blacksburg, not business. In today's world, as urban planners and elected officials know very well, "community differentiation is an economic development imperative." Sixty-six percent of millenials will choose a location to live before they choose a job. Our quality of life in Blacksburg is our competitive advantage, and we need to treat it like the precious asset it is -- We cannot spend it down as though it were a trust fund to flaunt and squander however we wish.
A longtime resident put this very vividly: "I have 200 years of value built up in my neighborhood, and that value is only being mined, it's not being re-invested."
While I welcome growth and change, I will not pander to critics who charge Town Council with hostile intentions or naivete. A healthy community maintains a state of dynamic tension where new development is concerned. We must prepare for growth with a clear vision -- one that will preserve the character of our neighborhoods and streetscapes, as well as our civic culture.
Common sense and creative conflict
"Compromise is not surrender. It is the lubricant of a successful democracy."
Recently, the Town made headlines by dusting off a 30-year-old study on the feasibility of seeking city status. The move was spurred by widespread frustration when a land negotiation on the old Blacksburg High School property was derailed by the county Board of Supervisors. The board shut down talks with the town, offering preferential terms to a private developer -- terms, which if they had been offered to the town, would certainly have been met.
While I share my colleagues outrage, I did not support the move to explore city status. In fact, I proposed a compromise which was adopted by the full council: We directed town staff to research and document the full menu of cooperative agreements which the town maintains with the county. In months to come, council will review the data to evaluate where tensions may be eased and improvements made.
"Compromise is not surrender. It is the lubricant of a successful democracy, " according to Michael Gerson, writing for The Washington Post. "What Jonathan Rauch calls “a cardinal virtue” allows for incremental progress on difficult issues . . . It is a moral principle that elevates progress on the common good above ideological purity."
A healthy relationship is mutual and equitable -- not by accident but by principled attention to the details. As Mayor I will work proactively with our neighbors to maintain relations which are transparent, friendly and fair to all.