Virginia Beach officials, just about now, should be planning a statue for music impresario Pharrell Williams right near the ocean.
The frequent Grammy winner and Virginia Beach native solved an excruciating headache for leaders of the commonwealth’s largest city: How should they respond when tens thousands of — mostly black — college students flock to the Oceanfront each April, with barely any city-sponsored events?
Many of those young adults come to the city from around Virginia and along the East Coast, right before final exams. Many attend historically black colleges and universities.
Ever since College Beach Weekend caught municipal officials by surprise in 2013, the lack of structure and sanctioned events has been a recipe for trouble, recriminations — and stereotyping. Residents have cited the race of attendees as the problem.
Shootings and robberies have occurred. Felony arrests were common. In 2018, for example, four people were shot. Police said dozens of people were arrested on gun, drug and other charges.
The Virginian-Pilot reported recently, however, that Virginia Beach police data show crime “during the three-day college gathering was largely similar to recent Fourth of July celebrations.” Some College Beach Weekends drew as many as 40,000 people to the area. (Full disclosure: I worked at The Pilot from 2000 to 2018.)
I question whether a similar crowd of white college students, year after year, would’ve been subject to such benign neglect, without city staff doing more to set up activities. Except for strong police presence, city officials had hesitated to take the lead.
Enter Pharrell, the musician-record producer-fashion designer. In only six months, he conceived, planned and pulled off last weekend’s “Something in the Water” festival.
Boy did he ever.
A city official told me Pharrell and the organizers spent a whopping $15 million on the three-day festival. That’s five times the budget of any other special event held in the city, said Brian Solis, assistant to the city manager/ special projects. Beach officials provided logistical support, including public safety, crowd control and traffic oversight.
The musical acts (including Jay-Z, Missy Elliott, Timbaland and Rosalia), guest speakers and even a pop-up church service on the sand reversed the narrative associated with the annual weekend. That all combined to lure some folks older than the typical college crowd, as well as people of every hue.
The #sitw hashtag and several variations were all over Twitter. Some 35,000 people showed up, even though storms and high winds forced cancellations Friday, April 26.
Pharrell’s interview with Oprah pal Gayle King of CBS helped introduce people across the country to the cul-de-sac on the Atlantic – in a good way. The region and state got some serious pub.
“We just want to raise the awareness that, like, Virginia is here and we are open for business,” the music man told King. He’s also a partner in a new business venture that includes a surf park in the city.
Pharrell discussed the long path his life has taken: “I was raised in Atlantis Apartments, not even a mile from here on Section 8,” he said. “And now we are on this section of the beach. I’m super grateful.”
City officials said afterward that initial reports show crimes were lower at the festival compared to College Beach Weekends of years past.
Yet, it shouldn’t have taken a megastar to plop down millions of bucks to get the city to change course — and its image.
Mayor Bobby Dyer, a council veteran, told me the event was a huge success. Inclusiveness and positivity were a big part.
Why didn’t the city leadership spearhead something in previous years —even if it wasn’t on as grand a scale? After all, the college students kept coming each April. In 2018, I interviewed a member of a city task force that provided suggestions to beach officials about College Beach Weekend.
She was disappointed the city didn’t help schedule an agenda of events that year.
“It’s very few people in the world who could’ve put something of this magnitude together,” Dyer said of Pharrell. “It took a vision.”
No doubt. That doesn’t mean Virginia Beach should’ve sat on its hands for so long.
The approach was timid, and it did no one — students, residents or city officials — any good.