Friday, April 28, 2006

Official secrecy, Exeter and upscale, downtown Hopewell

Mark Dorroh

The handful of people who showed up at the Tuesday, April 18, forum for Ward 1 Hopewell City Council candidates heard a few truths we'd all benefit from giving ear.

Before the forum even started, Mayor Vanessa Justice had a few crisp words to say on the subject of what Dr. Henry Kissinger used to call "the art of the possible."

Justice addressed at length the oft-repeated canard that city council does altogether too much of its business behind closed doors, especially concerning potential investors and developers. To illustrate what happens in the absence of secrecy, Madam Mayor told of a few incidents, sans names and dates, of what happened when council negotiations hit the street before they were supposed to. Each time confidential information wound up dangling on the grapevine, would-be investors took off like scalded cats.

Justice also explained to the wannabe city councilors that there is a wealth of educational opportunity out there involving matters the well informed local legislator really needs to understand. Especially in the area of land use policy, the knowledge required to make good decisions doesn't come naturally. And even with the advice of a topnotch staff, which our city certainly has, it can't hurt for council members to learn the lingo and logic behind modern zoning ordinance.

So far, Justice says only she and Councilor Bob Smith have taken the courses, although Milton Martin, the city's former director of development, is already well-versed in the subject matter. She implored the three candidates to sign up for the classes and bone up on the knowledge if they won the election.

When the forum began, the format called for the candidates to ask each other questions. Unfortunately, they seemed to spend entirely too much time delivering a manifesto prior to asking an actual question, so I left early. Before I did however, I heard some very unorthodox thoughts voiced by candidate Craig Gilkison.

Questioned on his support of the recently voted-down amendment to the Exeter property redevelopment deal, an amendment which would have allowed 300 upscale townhouses and a Food Lion grocery store to be constructed on the long-dormant land, Gilkison stated flatly, "City councilors made a mistake. They turned down a brand-new neighborhood of upscale buildings - prices were to begin at $170,000, $175,000 - which is somewhat above where most of Hopewell housing is priced now. [That new neighborhood] would have brought 700 - 800 people to within walking distance of downtown and the Beacon Theatre. And why would you not want that to happen?"

Gilkison said he'd asked some of the business owners on East Broadway their opinion, "and they were just amazed that the city wouldn't want to add a brand-new neighborhood to their area."

In response to public comments that the townhouse starting prices were well above the average prices of existing Hopewell housing stock, Gilkison said, "People in Hopewell can't afford those? Well duh! You're not marketing to people in Hopewell. It was to be a new community, an addition to Hopewell."

But would anyone want to live in a small, relatively expensive townhouse home set in an industrial landscape?

"Sure," he said. "All you have to do is look around. In downtown Richmond, they're doing lofts, they've been doing lofts in Chicago for 30 years. People are moving into cities now, not out of them."

Gilkison, a career Navy officer, cited his experiences while living in Europe as a type of municipal planning American cities could employ to lure young, affluent families to areas where they could live, work, shop and be entertained without having to even own a car.

It will take years to tell if he's right or wrong, but Gilkison has at least broken ranks with his fellow candidates on the issue, saying something we hadn't already heard.

Your Humble Correspondent is not sure for whom he would vote if he lived in Ward 1. Each candidate has much to offer: Gilkison, while joyously cultivating the image of a loose cannon on deck during his dustup with the Port and Dock Commission, is the candidate I find most closely attuned to my own libertarian neo-capitalist sympathies, Christina Bailey is both goodhearted and very bright, and Cheryl Maida seems the most familiar with the basic understandings of how municipal government works.

But regardless of whom Ward 1 residents elect, all Hopewellians should spend a bit of time thinking abut what Gilkison said April 18. It was this: The March 28 city council decision sent packing $69,000,000 worth of investment, plus the possibility of settling some 300 upper income families in a neighborhood within walking distance of our struggling downtown with its burgeoning ranks of empty storefronts.

Strangely, out of all the incumbents and challengers to be sorted through by voters on May 2, only Craig Gilkison has noticed that perhaps that was not the smartest thing in the world to do.

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