Revitalization of cities leading to growth

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier
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Bernie Niemeier photo by Mark Rhodes

Not long ago, I was in Portsmouth for the Hampton Roads Chamber’s State of the City Portsmouth event.  Over 400 civic and business leaders gathered over lunch at the Renaissance Portsmouth Waterfront Hotel to hear Mayor Kenneth Wright report on the city’s progress in glowing terms — improved bond ratings, economic development, job creation and downtown growth, all creating considerable civic pride — lots of accomplishments.

Afterward, I took my time driving out of the city and circled downtown to see what the progress looked like for myself.  Portsmouth has a vibrant downtown cityscape on the water — new construction and renovated historic buildings, restaurants, retail and tourism, all combining in an excellent example of urban revitalization.

Leaving town, I headed west on I-264 and north on I-664.  Not surprisingly, there was an accident blocking traffic in the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel.  Fortunately, I was able to get off the highway at the last exit before the tunnel and reroute across the James River Bridge to Newport News.  Suppose I were a trucker trying to move containers from the port? But that’s another story.

Taking the scenic route, I found myself reflecting on the success of Virginia’s small cities like Portsmouth.  It wasn’t that long ago that there was talk of small cities in crisis, losing population, industry and tax revenue, perhaps reverting to town status and becoming part of their surrounding counties.

This wasn’t just a small-city or a recession-related phenomenon.  Starting in the 1980s and through the 1990s, many larger cities lost retailers, businesses and population to the suburbs. Richmond lost both Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers, locally based regional department stores. Miller & Rhoads went bankrupt in a leveraged buyout. Thalhimers’ name disappeared after its sale to a national chain, In both cases, the downtown stores closed and were empty for years. This pattern repeated itself across the nation.

Shrinking cities were particularly problematic in Virginia with its 38 independent cities.  Outside of Virginia, municipalities that are separate from their surrounding counties are virtually unheard of; Baltimore, St. Louis, and Carson City, Nevada are the only three others in the U.S.  New York City with its five boroughs also resembles an independent city.  Needless to say, a shrinking urban tax base leads to economic problems such as supporting school systems and repairing aging infrastructure.

So what are the trends today?  Surprisingly, the latest U.S. Census estimates show growth returning to 28 of Virginia’s 38 independent cities between 2010 and 2014.  Why so?

Two big factors: 1) an aging population, and 2) the availability of state and federal historic renovation tax credits.

The influence of baby-boomers aging through their 60s is just as big as it was when they were in their 20s.  No longer raising children and carpooling through fast food drive-thrus on the way to and from after-school activities, suburban living has begun to lose its appeal to the largest of our generations.  Trading in commuting and yard work for a more sidewalk-friendly lifestyle seems like a pretty good bargain after decades in the ‘burbs.  Spin-off trends include farmers markets, independent restaurants, increased interest in the arts, more multi-family housing and declines in fast-food sales.

Virginia has revitalized many of its cities through the use of federal and state historic rehabilitation tax credits.  A 2014 study prepared for Preservation Virginia by the VCU Center for Urban and Regional Development identifies Virginia as a leader in such efforts for many years, ranking third in the nation in the total dollar volume of rehabilitation expenditures.  Tax credits through the state program of nearly $1 billion have stimulated almost $3 billion in additional private investment.

According to the Virginia Tourism Corp., our cities and towns have generated many accolades.  To name just a few: Charlottesville No. 1, Top 5 College Towns in America (Travelers Today, 2014); Chincoteague No. 1, America’s Happiest Seaside Towns (Coastal Living, 2014); Middleburg, Best Small Town Weekend Getaways (Southern Living); Richmond, Frommer’s Top Destinations for 2014 (Frommer’s); Roanoke, 10 Best Bike-Friendly Cities (USAToday.com, 2014); Staunton, America’s Favorite Mountain Towns (Travel+Leisure, 2014); Virginia Beach, Top 10 Art Beaches (Huffington Post Travel, 2013); and Williamsburg, No. 2 Best Historic Destinations in the USA (US News & World Report, 2014-15).

If you haven’t visited Virginia’s small towns or big cities in awhile, give them a try.  Who knows?  Now that the kids are grown, you might even find yourself moving back.

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