Innovative partnership for Petersburg shouldn’t be judged by politics

August 26, 2022 12:02 am

PETERSBURG, VA – FEBRUARY 8, 2019: The sun sets Friday, February 8, 2019 over Petersburg, Va. (Photo by Julia Rendleman for the Washington Post)

Few cities have boosters as effusive as Yvette Robinson of Petersburg. The longtime resident attended this week’s unique, wide-ranging partnership announcement by Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Petersburg Mayor Samuel Parham to bolster the struggling community.

Robinson was so pumped by the announcement she wanted EVERYBODY to know it was time to jettison negativity and work together for the place she’s called home since the late 1960s, when she enrolled at Virginia State University.

“We need to stop the skepticism,” Robinson, 72, told me Thursday, recounting the combination of governmental, faith-based and community groups that gathered for the symbolism-laden event. Hundreds of people attended.

“I think people have such a feeling of despair,” she added, “but as the Good Book says, there’s hope.”

Youngkin, along with several of his Cabinet secretaries, and Parham raised that hope. They announced dozens of initiatives to assist this city of 33,000.

It’s a place beset by violence, poverty, rock-bottom health metrics and few high-paying jobs. Some 20,000 people, or nearly two-thirds, are on public assistance, the mayor told me. The poverty hampers what Petersburg can generate in taxes.

This rare city-state partnership grew out of several discussions between Youngkin, a Republican, and Parham, a Democrat, about the city roughly 20 miles south of Richmond. Parham told me those talks began after he reached out to Youngkin shortly after the latter took office in January.

Youngkin this week said the two “hit it off” while initially discussing vaccines and health outcomes.

Since then, Parham said Thursday, he’s talked with administration officials every week. That entrée has proved valuable for his majority-Black city.

How so? Petersburg previously tried to secure substantial amounts of state money to upgrade the Poor Creek water and wastewater facility, Parham said, but officials always fell short. This year, the city gained more than $29 million to do the job.

The Ramada Inn, a “gateway” to the city that’s been an eyesore following its closure a decade ago, was blessed this year with a $2.6 million state budget amendment that will help raze it. It was no coincidence a crane began tearing down parts of the hotel the same day as the partnership presentation.

Critics noted, correctly, that many of these initiatives and their funding streams were already in the works, approved by the General Assembly this year or part of ongoing federal projects. It’s difficult to assess what’s truly “additional” dollars.

That shouldn’t negate the buzz and optimism of the just-announced alliance, however.

Another factor: With at least a dozen police vacancies in the local department, Virginia State Police have been patrolling city streets for several months, helping lower gun violence and providing “boots on the ground in hot spots,” Parham said. Compared to two months before the surge of state and federal resources, shootings declined 12% and homicides fell 56%.

“The citizens of Petersburg have been ecstatic,” the mayor said.

The guv, by the way, said the partnership could be a pilot program to be used in other localities. I can imagine some communities in Virginia that would raise their hands.

Politics, obviously, are part and parcel of this new effort. Youngkin has gotten national attention for winning the governor’s seat as a political novice. He’s tried to brand himself as someone who can attract moderates – even on a national level. News articles tout his presidential flirtation and the titillating speculation over it.

This is a bait-and-switch, though, since he jumped into the culture wars on wearing masks during COVID-19, banned critical race theory – even when it’s not taught in K-12 public schools in the commonwealth – and suggested there needs to be more “election integrity.” (A statewide audit of the 2020 election produced high marks for accuracy.)

The Washington Post noted his administration has drawn criticism for agitating the racial divide, especially for its crusades against “equity” in school programs.

The so-called “Partnership for Petersburg,” then, is an olive branch to a majority-Black city that craves the help. It’s a place that’s fought getting off the mat for decades.

Brown & Williamson closed its tobacco processing plant there in the mid-1980s, taking with it loads of jobs. Other manufacturers left too. Roughly 33% of residents back then had links to the tobacco industry, said Parham, a Petersburg native.

The crack epidemic then wreaked havoc there and in communities around the country. A local mall closed in the early 1990s, slashing jobs and retail choices. Natural disasters harmed the city, including a deadly tornado in 1993 that leveled parts of downtown.

Then the potential coup de grace: A long-simmering fiscal crisis came to a head in 2016. Petersburg had a $12 million shortfall in its operating budget and had spent all its reserves. The city nearly went bankrupt, and officials considered cutting police and school services.

Then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe directed the state finance secretary to review the city’s capital ledger. A turnaround was achieved by 2020, partly because of better local tax collections.

Residents, business owners and others who care about Petersburg aren’t sure what they’ll get from the new partnership. They described emotions ranging from ecstasy to caution about the rollout.

“If the city doesn’t get a handle on the violence, a lot of the other things will be irrelevant,” said Petersburg native Shahid Shabazz, a community activist who owns a barbershop in the city and nearby Colonial Heights. He also heads a children’s academy. 

“The lack of entertainment for youth, the parks and recreation” is another drawback, Shabazz added. “It leads to idle time, misdirection.”

Barb Rudolph is a community activist and co-founder of “Clean Sweep Petersburg,” which fights for transparency and accountability in local government. She thinks a “pervasive feeling of powerlessness” among residents holds the city back.

 However, “I’m encouraged by the interest and the fact they’ve gone to the effort, the state and city,” said Rudolph, who’s lived here for 42 years. “I don’t think it’s just for show.”

Several people told me they’re not looking for quick fixes. They said any changes should last long after Youngkin leaves state office.

I believe he and his supporters will deem the Petersburg experiment a success – no matter the reality on the ground. Democrats will take potshots.

Petersburg backers couldn’t care less. They’re looking at the residents and their livelihoods. They want long-lasting, consistent improvement.

“The measure of success is sustainability … not in six months, not in one year,” said Shemicia Bowen, who was raised in Petersburg and is board chair of the Urban League of Greater Richmond, an entity in the partnership. “It can’t just be lightning in a bottle.” 


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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]