the future of H’burg

Brent Finnegan -- December 15th, 2006

This is where I make another one of my ill-conceived forays into opinion…

After reading all the local media reports on yesterday’s SRI announcement, I could not find one critical, skeptical, or cautionary statement made in any of them.

Like most people, I’m glad to hear the news that SRI will be creating new, high-quality job opportunities locally. According to local officials, it seems likely that some other high-tech firms would see the state’s incentives, and at least look into opening a facility or office, or expanding their operations here (the magnet effect). In fact, the SRI story overshadowed Merck’s announcement that they will expand their operations in Elkton, so things seem to be moving in that direction. The SRI partnership with JMU will undoubtedly mean many good things for the area.

Since I’m in favor of this move (sure beats a Wal-Mart distro center or a Six Flags) you can’t really call me a naysayer. However, I’m a skeptic by nature, which means I get suspicious when everyone is in total agreement that this is the best thing ever to happen to the Valley.

When I look at a prosperous, progressive city like Charlottesville, I can see very well-defined class differences between the educated white-collar types, and the single-parent families that live in section 8 housing, well-hidden from all the tourist foot traffic. Of course, I’m not saying there are no class differences in H’burg — all you have to do is see how the neighborhoods on Chestnut Ridge interact with each other to see class differences here. I like C’ville a lot, but there is a difference between H’burg and C’ville, and there are reasons why I choose to live here.

I guess this post is less about any possible negative effects of a new Silicon Valley, and more of a question in light of the recent media stories: as an average citizen, how will this effect me? Yesterday’s press release stated that “by the end of the first ten years of operation, the project will create more than 100 new jobs with an average annual compensation of $85,000.” That’s great. I think it’s good policy to try to attract JMU students to stay here after graduation. But what effect will those 100 jobs (or, if the magnet effect pans out, several hundred jobs) have on the rest of the city? Will you or I ever have one of those jobs? This announcement is big news for the local movers and shakers, but it’s hard for those of us who have little chance of ever making 85 grand a year to care a whole lot about it. All I’m thinking is: what effect will this have on my plan to buy a house?

Anyway, I’m all for progress. I also like the blue-collar sensibility that the “friendly city” has. I’ve lived a lot of places in this country, and this city is really not as bad as some people (particularly bored JMU students) often make it out to be. If the Shenandoah Valley ever becomes “the next Silicon Valley” as people are saying it will, I sincerely hope H’burg doesn’t lose the things that make it, well, H’burg.

-finnegan

15 Responses to “the future of H’burg”

  1. davidtroyer says:

    Finnegan,

    I tried to post a comment on the SRI post with similar sentiments but it didn’t seem to stick.

    Anyhow, I am also somewhat skeptical. I think as a city we are obligated to explore what the downsides might be. Can a city, county, or state ever go too far in their steps to attract businesses? If we are talking numbers before return, the City and County have made concessions through the nature of the Technology park, as well as the state making a $19 million commitment to SRI. A property-owner might also scratch their head and wonder “what’s in it for me?” after the recent property reassesment which may raise property taxes 40%.

    While this may give some bored JMU students a pretty sweet new chem lab and some research experience, I highly doubt SRI will have many positions for otherwise inexperienced persons fresh out of undergrad. Even for someone with a graduate degree, the “$85,000 annual salary average” seems a bit steep. This leaves mostly PhD level individuals for the city to attract, as well as probably giving JMU some leverage in attracting more quality research-oriented professors. Do JMU students really want this? I went to a research-oriented institution before EMU, and I rarely even saw my actual professors even in lectures. They were there to research, and had TAs to do everything that interacted with undergrads. (As it were, this is the major reason I transferred to a liberal arts institution).

    So as JMU becomes more and more research-oriented, how will the city adjust? I wonder if the UVA/Charlottesville relationship would be a good case study. I am not an economic developmental planner and have no answers; but are these questions even being raised? More importantly, are they being asked to people who might actually know and not just some politician?

  2. Adam Sharp says:

    No growth in this area (except for JMU) happens without the consent of either the City Council or Board of Supervisors. Each jurisdiction also has a Planning Commission which approves – and can deny – new developments. These bodies decide if there is enough, too much, or not enough affordable housing, upscale housing, retail, and industry – and what it will look like.

    If local leaders simply allow the area to “go with the flow” – letting prices rise and new money chase them – Harrisonburg and this valley will change, and probably not for the best (unless you like modern suburbia, a la Fairfax). However, if local leaders make a strong and determined effort to maintain a balance, to maintain an identity, to maintain the small town, “blue collar” values and mix of residents, then we can have high tech and blue collar live side by side. We can preserve our farmland. We can protect our quality of life. We can remain “Harrisonburg.”

    Instead of merely looking at whether a candidate for local office is a Republican or a Democrat, local citizens should begin asking whether prospective leaders are willing to say “No” to growth that erodes the community we have now, and “Yes” to efforts to maintain a balance that keeps the values of the past with the prosperity of the future.

    And remember, finnegan, the American Dream is not just to have one of those great jobs. It’s the hope and opportunity for your children to have one of those great jobs. The more jobs like this in the area, the better. We just have to make sure community leaders understand the need to preserve and protect what we have now.

  3. finnegan says:

    Thought it was worth mentioning that WHSV did a story this weekend hitting on some of the same points I made here on Friday.

  4. Daytonres says:

    Six flags would actually have been the best of all worlds. The jobs would be attainable for all current residents and I’m sure managment at those places make pretty good cash. People would come here, spend money and then leave without the local schools having to educate their children. More eateries would open, even more hotels would sprout up and retailers would see a big boost. Never have been sure why people wouldn’t want folks to come from out of town and pay their bills. SRI has a completely opposite outcome…high paying jobs that existing valley residents can’t get, people that will be here with children to educate and I’m sure it will cause further spikes in the local housing market.

    Kudos to TV-3 for doing the flip side story Saturday night. It will be interesting to see if the media can figure out how many locals get jobs at SRI. By the same token, this kind off economic development is not done with the present in mind. Both Chris Saxman and Steve Landes mentioned the possibility of their kids working there (both have four year olds).

    I guess we’ve gone from having poultry jobs that we were not willing to do to having high tech jobs that we can’t get.

  5. writergirl says:

    While I tend to agree with Daytonres that Six Flags would have been a good thing, I’m not totally down on SRI. It is true that the majority of people in this area are not skilled enough for the jobs that SRI will create. However this city has a number of small tech companies with some highly skilled people who are being paid well under what they are worth. Currently employers have nothing to live up to in the pay department. There are no “threats” so to speak. They know their employees have no where else to go. SRI itself may not make a big difference, but the spin off companies very well could. Depending on what they are these companies could benefit the moderately skilled by bringing a demand that wasn’t here before. I’m being optimistic and hoping for jobs for those who have some higher education, but not necessarily the level of degree SRI will be looking for.

    Overall I’m afraid that all this is going to do is raise our housing prices even more and cause a larger class difference in this area, but I’m trying to remain hopeful!

  6. finnegan says:

    Alright, Daytonres, I’ll go along with what you said about Six Flags — I mean, this is all completely hypothetical, but more local residents and businesses would benefit financially from out-of-state tourist dollars.

    However, I would have to have more faith than I currently do in our city and county planning commissions to handle/absorb such a high amount of tourist traffic that a theme park would create. Last week and this weekend I was stuck in some frustrating traffic on University, and on Burgess Road near Harrisonburg Crossing (this coming from a city boy accustomed to bad traffic). Just thinking about the occasional congestion that already exists in these areas when college is in session makes me skeptical about the accommodation of many thousands more cars on our roads.

  7. Daytonres says:

    You’re right Finnegan. This is completely hypothetical and only in that world would I support the six flags thing. It should be noted that only in a hypothetical world would six flags consider the valley. Keep an eye on the Endless Caverns expansion plan for a miniature version of what would happen if six flags did actually want to come here.

    The road situation is a terrible one. While it is true we do not have the complete gridlock that Nova or Hampton Roads has, for the amount of residents that live here it’s probably worse. There’s a direct link between the amount of traffic lights and the lack of traffic flow in the area (not just Harrisonburg). I know that people think of clover leaf and overpass as Fairfaxonian words, but they sure would help in a couple areas. Things will be nicer when VDOT closes the Port Road exit of I-81, but that will not be for a while and will not fix the Route 33 situation over by Valley Mall. I think some JMU students did a transportation study several years ago as a class project. I’d like to see what they came up with. Sometimes it takes an oustide eye to see something different.

    See you all at six flags, coors gardens or merck world.

  8. writergirl says:

    No, in the real world we couldn’t handle the traffic problem that Six Flags would create for the area. Although depending on its location, it might not be as bad as some would think. Maybe it’s just because I’ve lived here my whole life and don’t want to say anything bad about my hometown, but personally I always kind of laugh when people complain about the traffic here. I left downtown yesterday and made it to the new hospital location in less than fifteen minutes. That included going past the new rescue squad which I consider one of the worst spots in town. It’s bad for this area that’s for sure, but I know that it could have taken me an hour to make that same trip in Nova so I still can’t complain. I guess people who’ve lived in those types of areas recognize our problem more readily because they have seen worse and know that it shouldn’t be this bad for a city this size.

  9. Daytonres says:

    Writergirl is correct too (about a boatload of things). The current road system could not handle six flags. The concern I was attempting to convey is that I’m not sure the local roads can handle just the housing development that’s in the hopper. All in all the roads in Harrisonburg are not too bad, but any additional volume without an upgrade could make it worse in a hurry. Perhaps I’m just running around last minute and struggle to find a quick way much of anywhere. It seems to come down to the city and county continually building superstructure without proper infrastructure being in place. I-81 is a good statewide model of that. Instead of improving it as needed when development cropped up, now we have a project so big that the national debt apparently won’t cover it.

  10. linz says:

    Thoughtful and informative editorial on the subject in today’s DNR

  11. finnegan says:

    Wow. Nice letter.

    I wonder if it’s the same Tim Jost that teaches at Washington & Lee. He should post on hburg news.

  12. Adam Sharp says:

    It is the same one. I’ll let him know you’d like him to post.

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