The Mayor’s chat with the VA Pilot: Translated & Truthified

Last Thursday, Mayor Johnson participated in an online chat about Suffolk’s economic development with Jeff Sheler of the Virginia Pilot. Most of answers were predictable, but some danced around the truth, while others sounded good but conveyed nothing. Here is the interview, along with some politi-speak translations & truth.

Jeff Sheler: Joining us with the mayor are deputy city manager Patrick Roberts, economic development director Kevin Hughes, and chief of staff Debbie George, who will be typing the mayor’s responses to your questions..

Notice – The mayor is not doing this on her own. She’s got the economic development guy standing over her shoulder, and the city’s Chief of Staff playing transcriptionist.

Jeff Sheler: Mayor Johnson, two and a half years ago the city faced pretty bleak economic prospects with the announced disestablishment of the U.S. Joint Forces Command, based in Suffolk. Things have turned out much better than many predicted at the time. Why do you think that is? Mayor Linda Johnson: I think it was in part of the plan that we put in place immediately which was to reject the closure, replace anything that we were to lose and certainly to retain as much as possible. We had many partners federal and state working very diligently with us to ensure the outcome was successful. After many months of hard work we were able to replace with the cyber command – a very important piece to the future military.

Truth was, JFCOM closing didn’t affect Suffolk’s economy, because many of the people who worked there did not live here. It did affect the civilian contractors, as all their contracts were cancelled. There was some loss. Then the Mayor announced that Cyber Command would be bringing over “200 new jobs” to the area, which was a stretch of the truth. The jobs were mostly existing jobs that were being relocated from VA Beach. They were new to Suffolk, but for the most part not new, and not even for residents of Suffolk.

Jeff Sheler: We have a question coming from Mark… Comment From Mark I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about growth and development. What exactly is our plan for growth and where do we see ourselves headed. Mayor Linda Johnson: Hi Mark – thanks for your question. We see Suffolk headed for a very bright future. As we move forward we are guided by our comprehensive plan for the city so as to ensure that infrastructure needs and growth are compatible. Our goal is to see growth throughout our city so that all of our citizens benefit as we grow together.

Translation: Hoo-Rah! Go Suffolk! We are Awesome! Just ignore the looming 3 million dollar shortfall in our budget, we rock! “It’s a good time to be in Suffolk!”

Comment From Guest What kind of incentives do we offer businesses to come (or stay) in our community. Jeff Sheler: Good question Guest. The mayor is typing her answer. Mayor Linda Johnson: It depends on the size of business, the needs of the business and how the business fits into our city. We work very closely with workforce development and our Economic Development Department works with current and future businesses of our city to help ensure their success. We multiple economic development incentives depending on the business.

We saw this with the recent 3.7 million dollar tax break incentive to Lipton to keep their factory here in Suffolk. The state kicked in another 1 million in grant money to convince Lipton to stay. But think about this folks, do you really believe that Lipton would have been able to relocate its largest tea-producing plant, the plant that produces all Lipton Tea for North America, for less than $96 million dollars? Do you really believe that Lipton would have been able to start from scratch in a new location for less than $96 million?

Jeff Sheler: An example of that happened this week with the Lipton announcement, right? In that case it was a grant. How common is that for the city? Mayor Linda Johnson: It is not uncommon for incentives to be used for a company such as Unilever. We were in competition with other states and it is most important that we maintain ourselves in the global market. Lipton has been a business partner in our city for almost sixty years and is an integral part of who we are. We were able to keep 300 jobs in our city and make sure that Lipton/Unilever is a part of our future. The incentive was appropriate and the announcement was a success for our city.

Mayor Johnson touts the 300 “saved” jobs, and in the papers the city has been saying that this may result in more jobs down the line, but the “$96 million expansion” is not really an expansion, it’s more of an equipment upgrade. The city’s $3.7 million in tax breaks over the next few years, coupled with the $1 million from the state equal about $15,667 per job “saved.”

Jeff Sheler: Here’s one from Mr. Wizard. Comment From Mr. Wizard Economic development question. With all the money being spent on the ‘NorthEnders”; when will some of the ‘redevelopment’ funds be spent ‘downtown’? Mayor Linda Johnson: Thank you Mr. Wizard. The northern end of the city has grown as a result of much private investment in our city. The location of 664 made the northern growth inevitable. We’re steadily working to redevelop downtown and in fact the success of the northern end will only help the rest of the city. We look forward to a vibrant, redeveloped downtown as all of the city grows.

Lies. Right after this chat, the Suffolk News Herald released a story about the city spending $3.2 million dollars in Redevelopment money to invigorate a site in Northern Suffolk. They are hoping to attract a hotel. Meanwhile, the old Obici site remains an eyesore, the old Lowes building remains empty, all while buildings downtown are falling further into disrepair – broken windows and boarded up doors are becoming more prevalent in the downtown areas just off of Main Street. Now, the city did just hand the old Obici site over to the Economic Development Board, after hanging onto the land for more than 10 years with nothing to show for it, not even property taxes. The only thing I can think of that the Mayor may be considering as investment in the downtown area is the new City Hall & the library they want to build right across from it.

Jeff Sheler: Here’s a related question from Pam. Comment From Pam Are there any future plans for economic growth in Holland? We don’t have a grocery store or a Dollar Store to shop. It takes us about 20 minutes to get to Food Lion. Mayor Linda Johnson: Thank you Pam. We are happy to report that the site plans have been approved for a Dollar General at Holland Rd and Dutch Rd. As the infrastructure to the village is completed, the growth will follow. I know it has been a long time coming but that infrastructure is on the way.

Translation: Hoo-Rah! Dollar General! The Mayor says that growth will come to Holland when the infrastructure is built, but the CIP (Capital Improvement Plan) showed that NOT A SINGLE PENNY will be spent on the “Neighborhoods & Villages Initiative” this coming year. That means, not a whole lot will be done to help out Holland, Whaleyville, Driver, or any other “village” in the city of Suffolk in the coming fiscal year.

Jeff Sheler: Realistically, how much of a role can local government play in setting the city’s economic climate? Mayor Linda Johnson: That’s a really good question Jeff. There are many things about the economic climate that are out of our control that we must keep a close eye on. Having said that we have to continue to do all things necessary to be ready as the climate changes, which I believe we are already beginning to see. We have to make sure our workforce is ready to take the jobs as the companies plan their futures in Suffolk. We are seeing a lot of activity in our Economic Development Department that indicates that climate change.

Interesting answer. She’s right to an extent, but there is plenty the city can do to encourage economic growth in the city, starting with lowering taxes and making it easier to do business inside the city. I would love to know what she means by “activity in our Economic Development Department”. Does that mean the multitude of warehouses that have been going up in reaction to the Ports deal? The new mini-outdoor mall being built by the Walmart in Downtown that will be anchored by Sprint, the 4th cell phone store in that intersection? Is there something else down the pike? Or does this reference the Lipton deal?

Jeff Sheler: A question from Diane F. coming up. Comment From Diane F. Why does the development seem to move so slowly for our city? Mayor Linda Johnson: Hi Diane. I don’t believe development moves any slower in our city than it does elsewhere. In fact, we have many examples of fast tracking development such as our recent Ace Hardware announcement. There are many facets of development and sometimes the timeline is not only determined by the city but the company doing the development.

Translation: Economic Development isn’t slow here, at least, no slower than anywhere else.

Jeff Sheler: Here’s a question emailed to us from Shawn Garrow: “Zoning decisions previously made by the City Council have resulted in significant deforestation and the proliferation of warehouse construction in our city. Please provide tangible examples on how you propose to sustain and expand the capacity of city thoroughfares given the rapid influx of traffic. Likewise, do you envision that the targeted focus on creating warehouse jobs is the most desirable approach versus adopting a strategy which emphasizes economic development aimed at careers in higher earning occupations such as those in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)? – Shawn” Mayor Linda Johnson: Hi Shawn – thank you for your question. The City is working daily on our transportation challenges and looks for every dollar to enhance and expand our roadways as traffic is inevitable. The focus on warehousing is but one part of our diverse portfolio for future jobs. It is important that all of our citizens have good paying jobs available to them within our city. The warehousing industry of today and tomorrow is not warehousing as we knew it. It does require a skilled workforce and we are working to have those jobs held by our citizens. The high tech jobs will also be available in our city so the key is to be diverse so that all of our citizens may work.

Translation: A job is a job. Warehousing is where it’s at in this area right now. Hopefully we’ll get some tech jobs in the future. Oh, and we know the roads are a problem. We took control of the roads from VDOT all those years back thinking we’d have access to a new revenue stream as VDOT paid us to handle the roads. But lately VDOT’s funding share has been decreasing, and we had to rob transportation to pay for the school budget last year, so, yes, roads are a biggie, and we are totally working to find more grant money and stuff because we’re broke.

Comment From Irv Harrell What can you tell us about some of the retail closures in the downtown area? There appear to be a lot of empty storefronts. Mayor Linda Johnson: Hi Irv. It is true that we have seen closures of retail businesses downtown but we are also seeing openings and success stories downtown. It is very difficult in today’s environment to have a small business. The true success of the downtown will come with more feet on the street. People must use our local businesses on a regular business. Our “Love Local” campaign says it all. I make every effort to do my shopping locally whenever possible.

Translation: Yes, there have been closing in the downtown area, especially just off Main Street. But hey! We’ve had some ribbon-cuttings over by the Walmart! So buy local!

Comment From Guest Are there any plans to modernize the Suffolk Airport? As a pilot, it seems like we are losing a lot of business to Hampton Roads Regional as they have recently upgraded their facilities. Mayor Linda Johnson: Thank you for your question. We have in fact recently modernize the airport terminal building and their are plans in our capital improvement budget for external infrastructure improvements. We just completed a runway extension. Just last year we placed the airport in our Economic Development Department so as to make it more of a priority in our city. We have a new restaurant announcement coming soon. Please visit our airport. I think you will be pleased.

Truth: The Suffolk Executive Airport was badly mismanaged for years, so badly mismanaged that it is now in such a state of disrepair, it’s cheaper to just outright replace many items then to repair them. The City took it over some time back, and the City Manager tried to get the Council to sign it over to her last September.

Comment From denise Why is the city considering building a new library, instead of renovating schools such as gyms/improving technology in the classrooms? With today’s technology the library usage will only continue to get smaller. Mayor Linda Johnson: Thank you Denise. The new downtown library has been a priority for many years that has not made the cut due to budget issues. The usage of our downtown library has increased and the facility is woefully inadequate. Today’s libraries will satisfy the technological needs of our students, some who may not have access otherwise. The capital improvements for the school system are prioritized by the school board and placed within our capital improvement budget. There is need for a library as well as for the renovation of schools.

Translation: We are going to dump a boatload of cash into property acquisition this year, for a building we won’t start to build for another 5 years, just because it’s been in the plans for a long time, and we feel like it’s finally time to get to it. Also, despite what the Attorney General of VA says, we totally have the right to handle all the School Board capital improvement stuff.

Jeff Sheler: Do you think the new library also will provide an economic boost downtown? Mayor Linda Johnson: Thanks Jeff. Absolutely, the one way the city can aid in the downtown development is by putting dollars in facilities where our citizens will gather. When they come to the library, they will eat in a restaurant or shop in a store. The new Municipal Building and the library will become anchors for downtown. It is important that we give people a reason to be downtown.

Oh yea, because when I think about where I might want to hang out downtown, City Hall is tops on my list. /eyeroll

Comment From Chris What plans if any do you have to overcome the economic impact resulting from RT58 being the only practical link between central and south Suffolk with the rest of Tidewater? Mayor Linda Johnson: Hi Chris. Actually, there are multiple connection points, one being the new 460. Our new upgrades to Nansemond Parkway ensure that that route will be a more viable alternative. The new transportation package recently passed in Richmond will give our transportation organization, of which I am a member, the dollars to put in place future roadways that will help all of Hampton Roads.

Translation: If construction on 337 ever finishes, it will be another connection point, and I’m sure that people will totally use the new tolled version of 460 the state wants to build. Plus, the General Assembly passed a massive tax hike, that raises sales tax an extra 1% for the whole Hampton Roads area, with the money to towards Roads. I’m sure that IF Governor McDonnell throws away his political career and signs HB 2313, that Suffolk will be tops on the list of places to get our hands on that money. I mean, it’s not like Norfolk or VA Beach have more people & more traffic or anything.

Comment From Guest What is your opinion on the tolls that Portsmouth is getting ready to face on their tunnels, I’m sure some of the workers in Suffolk may be affected by it as they may travel through Portsmouth to get to Suffolk Mayor Linda Johnson: I, as everyone, am not a fan of paying tolls on our roadways. However, the fact remains that there are not enough dollars to fund our basic transportation needs without a combination of revenues. The public/private partnership legislation that allowed the Midtown tunnel deal was flawed and I believe the General Assembly is working to rectify that. We look forward to the transportation package passed in Richmond as a means of funding in a fair and equitable manner.

Translation: Tolls stink, and it was a bad plan, but there isn’t much I think we could have done about it. But don’t worry, that HB 2313 will totally leave us swimming in cash for the roads, IF Gov. McDonnell signs it.

Jeff Sheler: We have time for one more question. Comment From Guest Do you support having a professional sports team relocate to Hampton Roads? Surely Suffolk would reap some of the benefits as would all of the local cities, right? Mayor Linda Johnson: I certainly don’t object to a professional sports team relocating to Hampton Roads and would probably enjoy it, I would want to know the deal was in place before dollars were spent and certainly would not want the taxpayer to bear unneeded burden. Suffolk, as all local cities, would reap some of the benefits.

Translation: Woo! Money! Hopefully they wouldn’t ask Suffolk to build a stadium for them though, because we’re broke.

Jeff Sheler: I’m sorry we were unable to get to all of the questions. If we didn’t get to yours, please feel free to send your questions for the mayor to Debbie George at dgeorge@suffolkva.us. Thank you, Mayor Johnson for joining us today. Mayor Linda Johnson: Thanks again for having me. It’s been a real pleasure and I look forward to joining you again.