The ‘city that cares’ is now Virginia’s second-largest

February 21, 2020 12:01 am

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I bet you can name the largest city in many states across America. But what about the second largest?

California’s is easy: San Diego trails Los Angeles. North Carolina? Many know Raleigh, the state capital, is No. 2 behind Charlotte. 

What about Virginia? Spoiler alert: The city of Norfolk, long the second city to the nearly half-million residents in Virginia Beach, just got supplanted. 

The relatively sleepy, unassuming place that jumped in the rankings might surprise you, unless you live in the region.

Chesapeake, founded in 1963 from a merger of Norfolk County and the city of South Norfolk, has more than tripled in population since its birth. It boasted an estimated 245,745 residents in July, according to the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia.

Not that people in Chesapeake would spew tons of hyperbole about it all. Folks here are way too modest for that. 

And yes, I know Fairfax County – with 1.14 million people – dwarfs the three South Hampton Roads localities. Don’t blame me for the cockamamie system in which cities and counties are separate in the commonwealth.

I moved to Chesapeake in 1997, and I’ve always been struck that the self-proclaimed “City That Cares” sells itself short. I wrote tons of editorials and columns about the place when I worked at The Virginian-Pilot, but it usually trailed in importance — at least on the editorial board and in most people’s mind-set — behind Virginia Beach and Norfolk. 

That was odd, since Chesapeake was so close in population to Norfolk, and its advantages included a low violent crime rate, strong public schools and a high median household income – now at nearly $76,000. The household income figure is a few thousand more than the state average, and much more than the U.S. average of $60,300, according to the U.S. Census.

A good-natured Mayor Rick West, 68, has lived here most of his life. He told me he’s heard all the perceived shortcomings over the years: No skyline. No ocean. No nightlife.

I’d also add there’s no downtown. The city is more a collection of distinct neighborhoods — Great Bridge, Greenbrier, South Norfolk, Western Branch, e.g. — as it is one big place. It has urban, rural and suburban corridors. 

There are farms and lots of subdivisions, and too many two-lane roads for all the people who live here now. Officials are tackling some of the transportation issues with a new I-64 High Rise Bridge and oft-delayed plans replacing an old, two-lane bridge in Deep Creek.

After huge population growth decades ago, the city has risen only 1 percent annually in recent years. West calls that rate manageable.

“This is a happy medium for everbody,” he told me. The mayor said he also was pleased with the bump to the commonwealth’s second-largest city: “There’s some prestige. Chesapeake has always wanted a seat at the table.”

However, many people might know of Chesapeake only from some bad PR, some of which I wrote about:

In 2014, it was called the third-most boring large city in the nation. The online real estate brokerage behind the ranking said Chesapeake “wasn’t exactly an exciting spot, unless you’re really into swamps, birdwatching or napping.” 

What a gut punch.

Or the fact that, a couple of years ago, Chesapeake got much overhyped criticism for a 1970 ordinance – never enforced – that threatened teenager trick-or-treaters with a fine or jail time. The city then changed the ordinance.

Then there’s one of my pet peeves: The city is the largest in the nation without a public pool. I can’t begin to tell you how much ink I wasted over the years trying to shame Chesapeake into doing the right thing.

So why do I stay? 

Chesapeake is well-managed. Controversies, if you can even call them that, are minor. Real estate taxes are reasonable, now at $1.05 per $100 of assessed value. 

The city can tout its 5,000-plus businesses, including 50 international companies. It has a Fortune 500 company, Dollar Tree, which ranked 135 last year, according to Fortune magazine. More non-chain-style restaurants have opened over time. 

People in local pharmacies, smaller hardware stores and other sites know your name and take the time to help you, whether it’s the hard-to-find knick-knack or a tool for your chipper-shredder. 

Such qualities have always been something to tout. Now, Chesapeake has one other kudo – even if most people don’t know it.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]