Post by Katrina Tilley and Kaitlyn Carpenter, POSC 351 “Local Politics and Issue Governance” students

The City of Harrisonburg conducts a City Council meeting every other Tuesday of the month. On October 22, 2019 there was a meeting held in the council chambers. The individuals on the council that were present consisted of Mayor Deanna R. Reed, Vice Mayor Sal Romero, Council Member Richard Baugh, Council Member Christopher B. Jones, and Council Member George Hirschmann. The meeting first started off with a special recognition of October 23, 2019 as Paralegals’ Day. After there was presentation that illustrated the work that the Arts Council of the Valley and the Court Square Theater. These two topics on the agenda were for recognition and praise and didn’t produce a discussion between the council members. By having these two topics on the agenda it allowed the community to see the work these organizations are doing and how they positively contribute to the community. Another topic that was not heavily discussed was topic 7.b. Which addressed the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority to issue up to $15,000,000 in bonds for the acquisition and rehabilitation of Newbridge Village Apartments. Everyone on the council board voted yes and there was no discussion on the topic. They stated that they have discussed this issue in previous meetings and there was no need for further discussion.

The topic on the agenda that caused the most debate was 7.c. through 7. f. These items were in regard to allowing construction of a multi-family dwelling more than four stories with retail and convenience stores included on the property. This issue was the source of major discussion because it would take place on the r3 lot which is located at 2150, 2152, 2156, and 2158 Reservoir Street and 717 Foley Road. This plot of land is in the middle of a residential area and if developed would get rid of a park and acres of trees and natural scenery. This topic of what to do with the r3 lot has been a long-debated topic in city council and the planning committee. Prior to this meeting on October 22nd, there have been previous ones where the public have had the chance to express their opinions and opposition to the construction. During this meeting there were people from the community present waiting to hear the final verdict. When council was asked to vote on this issue there was opposition. The opposition came from Vice Mayor Sal Romero and Council Member George Hirschman. Council Member Hirschman stated that he didn’t think the development of the land was a good idea due to the feelings that the members of the existing community expressed. He stated that there are children and elderly individuals who live in that community and there is no need for a four or more-story building to be in the community. Vice Mayor Sal Romero stated that he didn’t want the land developed because it truly wouldn’t create affordable housing to families and those in need. He stated that by creating more of what would likely become student housing could continue the divide between the community and the students.

Despite the opposition, Mayor Deanna Reed, Council Member Christopher Jones and Council Member Richard Baugh approved of the development of the land. They stated that according to the city planning committee it was approved for a building of this type to be built on this property. Council Members Jones and Baugh also said it would help economic development due to the amount of housing that would be produced and the amount of economic growth that would take place in the retail stores on the property.

Although citizens showed up to this town council meeting to protest the new development, there is more that these citizens can do to be more active in policy making at the local level. Opposition to the development stems from a much larger issue. Member Jones mentioned that stopping this specific development will not be beneficial in the long run.  Not only because college students will most likely inhabit the townhouses that the other council members stated could be built as an alternative, but also that it does not fix the problem of the R3 lot rules/ parameters. Residents would be better off participating in the city Planning Commission and the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority meetings and contributing to the conversations earlier in the policy-making stages. Yet, these commission and board meetings are rarely attended.

The opportunities that are available to city residents through participation in local governance can start will the ability to change things that directly impact them. It is a space where their voice can be heard, and their ideas for addressing public issues can be presented and debated. It also allows them to hold the officials they elect accountable for the things/ funding they promised to constituents in Harrisonburg. It allows people to show council members that coalitions have formed of concerned citizens and there are numbers behind opinions not just anonymous surveys.

“Small-town America is increasingly desirable as providing recreational, leisure, and retirement amenities for urban dwellers. This can also entail an influx of newcomers—often affluent and educated—with “urban” sensibilities and expectations. These “external” audiences shape gentrification dynamics that can, for instance, pits economic development against environmental and agricultural protection. These demographic changes generate new cleavages to bridge before communities can benefit from the infusion of new kinds of human and social capital.” (Catlaw and Stout, 2016).

The quote above is an accurate representation of what is happening in Harrisonburg currently. With the influx of urban sensibilities and expectations from students such as new eateries, downtown bar scenes, and other programs that affect the rest of Harrisonburg taxpayers create cleavages. Some of those divisions overshadow the real need for Harrisonburg to grow its infrastructure and capacities. Although it is a small town, it has the desire to provide socioeconomic mobility and create innovative working opportunities to attract more young people to settle into permanent residences here. It is evident that the need for change will benefit many locals in the future but the current feeling of “infiltration” and expectations that feel more “big city” outweighs the potential for Harrisonburg to even rise to something of that caliber and thus creates tension toward housing and economic developments as seen during recent council meetings.

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