I have served on Staunton City Council since 2012. This year, 2020, I’m running for reelection. I hope to earn your vote on May 5 or by absentee ballot before then.
I’ve always stood for clean energy, jobs, efficient government, and a high quality of life. As we get through the coronavirus crisis and look towards the recovery, these goals and values will be more important than ever.
Getting through the Outbreak
These are uncertain times and an unprecedented situation. This is not a normal city council campaign.
My family has experienced a loss, as have many families across the nation and across Virginia. My heart goes out to those families.
I hope there will be as few more losses as possible. That’s why all of us need to take the coronavirus outbreak seriously. Each of us must take personal and household precautions for physical distancing to “flatten the curve” of new infections and bring the contagion under control as soon as possible.
We on City Council have been trying to do our part.
First, following directives from the governor and advice from local public health authorities, we’ve striven to keep our citizens safe and healthy by limiting public gatherings and encouraging physical distancing.
Then, we’ve taken steps to ensure continuing operations especially of essential City services like public safety, water and sewer service, and refuse pickup. Then, we’ve offered relief to our citizens and businesses. We’ve suspended water cutoffs, added free parking, and suspended collection of tax payments. View the details of City Council’s relief package.
A crisis can bring out the best in people. In Staunton, this crisis has shown our generosity more than ever. I’m cheered by people who are bringing meals to seniors in isolation and to school kids at home. And I’m impressed by the businesses and the nonprofit organizations that have found creative ways to serve their customers and patrons, from downtown restaurants doing curbside takeout to the American Shakespeare Center putting their performances online through their innovative video channel BlkFrs-TV.
Planning for Recovery
Working together, we’ll get through this. Nobody knows exactly how long that will take. But when it’s time for recovery, here in Staunton we need to be ready. Some things will return to normal and other things may change. This can be an opportunity to strengthen what’s great about Staunton while moving forward to solve longstanding problems.
When it comes time to start our recovery, Staunton will have to work with state and federal governments to get our fair share of economic stimulus. In addition to the federal stimulus passed by Congress at the end of March, experts predict there could be two or more rounds of relief packages in the coming months.
Staunton must work with our federal legislators to help ensure that any future rounds of federal relief will really benefit Staunton. That will take city council members who already have the knowledge to work inside the system to get things done successfully.
This time, the usual giveaways to powerful special interests with lobbyists in Washington will not be enough. Instead, we need flexible cash assistance like block grants that cities can use the way that they think best to help their citizens and their businesses get back on their feet. Once federal aid comes through, Staunton will have to work with various agencies of Virginia’s state government to make sure that we get our fair share of available funds.
At the same time, we can’t rely on outside help exclusively. We’ll need to be creative about ways to offer immediate help to our citizens and local businesses. And that will take city council members with a proven record of bringing new ideas and successfully getting those ideas put into place.
Why Me and Why Now
I’ve got eight years of experience on City Council. I know how things get done. Yet, I haven’t sat around just rubber stamping ideas from others. Instead, I’ve continued to bring new ideas to address some of Staunton’s biggest challenges.
My record shows that I’ve brought new ideas and been able to work effectively with my colleagues to implement these ideas. Below are a few key areas I’ve focused on. Click on each box below to see the highlights of what I’ve done in each area and what I’ll do if you send me back to City Hall for four more years.
Local Food and Farmers Markets
Just after I was first elected in 2012, at my request, City Council established a Food Policy Task Force to find ways to make healthy local food available to all our citizens. The committee consisted of a diverse group of Staunton citizens, farmers, and others involved in local food production and selling. In October 2013, I presented the group's recommendations to City Council. Click here to view my presentation.
Today, we need healthy local food more than ever. During the virus outbreak, I've worked with City staff and local food producers to help safely reopen Staunton's Farmers Market and to offer safe alternatives for our citizens to buy local produce, dairy, and meat.
In the future, Staunton needs to get more serious about local resilience. If reelected, I will help our farmers market expand and grow while supporting our citizens in creating Victory Gardens at homes, schools, and on public land across the city.
Grassroots Economic Development
How much of your monthly spending goes to your Staunton and Virginia neighbors, and how much leaves our area?
Think of your biggest monthly expenses: a mortgage or rent payment, an electricity or gas bill, filling up your car at the gas station, shopping at the grocery store, buying clothes and computers and refrigerators. Even if you get them from local retailers, chances are those products and services originate outside our area.
I'd guess the the average Staunton household spends $99 out of every $100 outside our area. That's a missed opportunity to keep wealth circulating inside our community. Does it have to be that way?
In the old days of big corporate globalization, Americans thought that sending most of their money overseas or outside the area was just the way of modern life.
But after COVID-19 and the shutdown of global trade, we've now seen how vulnerable it makes us all to rely on essential goods and services from across the ocean or across the country.
Even before I was elected to City Council eight years ago, I was a businessperson in downtown Staunton. In my work with the American Shakespeare Center, with my own marketing agency the Curren Media Group, and with Secure Futures Solar, I learned first hand both how tough it is to run a local small business and how key local businesses are to the prosperity of our community.
Shorter-distance tourism is just one of the opportunities for Staunton to increase its economic resilience in the future. Overall, with long supply chains from overseas now exposed as vulnerable, in the future the U.S. must find more ways to provide more of our products and services domestically. An example for Staunton: try to attract more domestic tourism in the future (see my point on Tourism in this section).
In Staunton, we'll have plenty of changes to make more of our stuff and do more of our work closer to home. If we think creatively, localizing our economy can open up satisfying careers in small-scale manufacturing and services that can make us better prepared for the next crisis while making us all more prosperous every day.
Fighting the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Promoting Clean Energy
I also was the first to alert the City to the danger of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to our water supply. As a result of my advocacy, in October 2014, Staunton passed a resolution opposing this dangerous and unnecessary project, becoming one of only two local governments in all of Virginia to do so.
Since then, Staunton has participated in numerous legal and regulatory actions to oppose the construction of this dangerous and unnecessary project, including a recent case argued before the United States Supreme Court.
So far, working with allies across the state, we've succeeded in delaying the project. It's a David vs. Goliath battle that experts thought we could never win. Yet, it appears that the experts were wrong. Major investors are already pulling out of this terrible project. With more delay, the project could collapse altogether. We're winning!
But we still have to keep fighting. If I am reelected, I will continue to fight vigorously to protect Staunton's water supply from this and other threats from dirty energy.
But I'm not just about fighting dirty energy. For years I’ve also been leading efforts to bring clean energy, and especially solar power, to Staunton. As this 21st century industry takes off nationwide, Staunton can't be left behind. We need the good jobs and local resilience that clean energy provides.
Most recently, I've been working with a group of citizens to get the City to adopt a plan to bring 100% clean electricity to Staunton in the next 15 years and 100% clean energy overall by 2050. We hope to present a proposal for City Council to start developing a Staunton Clean Energy Plan in the next few months.
West End Development
I understand that West End residents want to revitalize their area with thriving businesses. I think they also want homes renovated. And they want it all to work together. They don't just want housing tracts behind a commercial strip. They want a dynamic, vibrant neighborhood.
Before the COVID-19 crisis, we had an opportunity to use outside funding (Opportunity Zone and an EPA Brownfields grant) to inject outside funds into the area. I hope we can still access those sources along with mixed-use zoning to enhance walkability, encourage local entrepreneurs. Key businesses will serve both locals, such as corner markets, and be a destination to draw outsiders, such as a brewery.
Once the coronavirus crisis is over, we should be able to re-start the exciting new planning process with potential to bring in major outside funding starting. I look forward to seeing the West End Community Open House rescheduled to start the process of writing a community development plan.
Staunton Crossing is an excellent project with much potential to help our city in the future. This project has not been completed as fast as some people had anticipated. But compared to similar projects in other cities, and considering challenges from the national economy, the project is proceeding well.
First, let's look at a little history:
- Purchased in 2010 for $15 million in bonds. Debt already paid down by 40%.
- This projected helped the state to cover a shortfall in its hospital construction budget allowing us to keep the facility and its jobs in Staunton. This preserved 300 jobs paying more than $1 million in salaries per year.
- Staunton's Economic Development Authority took over the site after new hospital opened in 2014.
- Meanwhile, national trends intervened: the 2008 Great Recession put a 5- or 6-year damper on commercial development everywhere, which reduced the ability of developers to get financing. Plus, changes in big-box retail derailed an initial plan to obtain a single large buyer for the whole site.
- The Economic Development Authority responded with new plan to sell off the property in smaller chunks and finalized a business development plan to do that in 2019.
Then, let's look at recent developments and the what may come in the future:
- Phase I, a 25-acre site at the front of the property has been completed. After costs, the City netted $400,000. With four more buildings, tax revenue will be $1.3 million annually.
- Now, we’re upgrading it to a “business ready” site as defined by tje Virginia Economic Development Partnership. This will make the site much more appealing to potential buyers and will qualify the site for marketing assistance from the state.
- Ultimately, once the site is fully developed it could create up to 3,000 jobs and bring in local tax revenues of $4 million annually.
As with all plans envisioned before the virus outbreak, we'll need to reexamine many of the projections here. Nobody knows what the economy will look like after the COVID-19 crisis is over. But we can be reasonably certain that a site like Staunton Crossing, one of the largest flat sites in the area and located right at the interchange of two major interstate highways will like remain attractive in the future.
Tax Levels in Staunton
Nobody likes paying taxes, but most (52%) of our citizens think the levels are “about right” (source: 2019 Staunton Citizen Survey).
Apples-to-apples comparison: we must compare Staunton not to rural counties but to full-service cities. Staunton ranks in the middle or near the bottom for major types of taxes, according to research completed earlier this year on 37 Virginia cities by Councilwoman Brenda Mead.
The example of Staunton's largest source of local revenue, the property tax, will show that we are in line with comparable Virginia cities nearby, listed per $100 in property value:
Staunton and Charlottesville: $0.95
Harrisonburg: $.86 (expected to increase to cover cost of new high school)
Other taxes will compare similarly.
We do not have the rock-bottom lowest rates. But then Staunton is not a rock-bottom place to live -- not should we be. Leave that to someplace else.
Staunton people are proud that we consistently rank as one of the country's top 20 small cities or towns, a reputation for a high quality of life that pays dividends in terms of higher property values for our citizens.
Racial and Social Equity
Like cities across the nation, chances for people of color, women, and low-income citizens to advance themselves have failed to live up to our nation's promise of equal opportunity for all.
We must work harder to ensure that all our citizens have access to good jobs, opportunities to start businesses, and adequate housing. We must also ensure that all our kids have a chance for a first-class education, regardless of where they live in Staunton.
I have consistently worked to help make Staunton more inclusive and welcoming to all types of people. Working with Vice Mayor Kier, I proposed that the City rename a feature of our streetscape after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, leading to the dedication of the MLK Bridge on Richmond Road in 2016. I have also supported community efforts to highlight the history of Staunton's African American community.
Finally, I have also supported full funding for our K-12 schools and pay increases for teachers and staff whenever possible.
Sometimes people ask: why is Staunton investing in things for tourists? Shouldn't we build things that locals want first before we offer things to outsiders?
I have two responses. First, making our city attractive and interesting for tourists also increases quality of life for residents. For example, both visitors and locals enjoy our arts and cultural attractions such as the American Shakespeare Center and Frontier Culture Museum. By supporting attractions to bring in visitors we get a two-fer: we also get something great for locals.
My second response is that, even if a tourist attraction or other investment isn't used much or at all by locals, we still support that investment because it will help locals in another way. It will generate tax revenue and create jobs. And if it's only used by outsiders, it means that these revenues and jobs are created 100% by others, taking a burden off of our own taxpayers.
Studies show that for every $1 invested in tourism promotion, a city can get $5 worth of benefit in terms of tax revenues. Talk about a win-win situation!
As the official liaison from City Council to the Tourism Advisory Board, for eight years I've worked hard to help the City's tourism department as well as local businesses and attractions that depend on visitors to bring more tourists to Staunton.
Tourism was one of the first businesses hit hard by the virus crisis, and many of our attractions, hotels and B&Bs, and restaurants have been impacted by official shut-down orders and severe declines in customers.
When the crisis is over, leisure and business travel will return. We need to plan creatively to make sure that Staunton's tourism industry, so crucial to generate tax revenues, create jobs, and improve our city's quality of life, comes back healthy and strong.
For example, industry analysts expect that international travel will decline temporarily or even permanently even after the public health restrictions and advisories against travel are lifted. But, as Americans always have, we will still want and need to travel. A revival of interest in shorter-distance travel could represent an opportunity for Staunton to draw more visitors from a radius of 500 miles or less.
I Ask for Your Support
I hope to earn your support! Please vote for me in person on May 5 or before that by absentee ballot.
If you’re on Facebook, please like my Councilman Curren page.