Sutphin: Let’s talk about solutions

The following op-ed originally appeared in The Roanoke Times on Dec. 7, 2014:

The logjam over the Old Blacksburg Middle School property has some doubting whether the 20-acre site in the heart of downtown Blacksburg has a future beyond an empty lot and occasional spats between governing bodies. But it certainly does.

Government handwringing over the property is not without cause: For the town, it has the potential to extend downtown with a high-quality, mixed-use development that adds to Blacksburg’s commercial and residential offerings. For the county, it brings much-needed revenue for a school system that has faced cuts from Richmond, as well as a pressing need for new schools in Blacksburg and eastern Montgomery County.

My colleagues Leslie Hager-Smith and John Bush have already explained the intricacies of town-county relations and the reason for the current impasse — namely, the contract between the county and its hand-picked developer, Fiddlers Green Partners. Despite these challenges, a solution does exist that will benefit both the town and county.

I am not the first to point out that the county should work with Fiddlers Green Partners to go through a Request for Proposals process to develop the property. A national search would give both local and out-of-town developers an opportunity to submit proposals based on development guidelines that would meet both county and town interests. Each proposal would give our community the benefit of seeing the property’s development potential through a new lens, and perhaps some creative thinking is just what we need. A national search is more likely to yield a developer with the experience and resources to provide a quality development that will maximize tax revenue.

Alternatively, Montgomery County could turn over this role to the town of Blacksburg. This would not involve the actual exchange of land. Instead, the town would seek developers for the property on behalf of the county, as set forth above, under the stipulation that it met measurable goals and a timeline for completing those goals. Both town and county would agree on redevelopment guidelines, and the county would still have to approve the sale and would have the authority to back out of the process at any point. But with a shared understanding that the successful sale of the property would not only bring an initial cash infusion into the county’s coffers but also contribute to its annual budget through additional property tax revenues generated on the site, the county would have little reason to get cold feet.

Regardless of the path that the county chooses to take, a successful rezoning and sale of the property will need to meet three criteria.

First and foremost, the process must be open and transparent. In 2011, open meetings and citizen input led to the creation of a master plan for the property. Both the town council and board of supervisors approved this document. The county then entered into a contract with a local developer behind closed doors. To move forward, we must return to the kind of open government approach that resulted in the master plan in the first place.

Second, the process must be responsive to the changing reality on the site. The fact that Modea has terminated its contract means that much of the master plan, which was developed around the advertising agency’s desire for a signature building on Main Street, has become dated. This does not mean that we should throw out the entire plan. Instead, future development should use the mixed-used development principles that formed that basis for the plan. These principles call for high-quality design that will not only extend Blacksburg’s downtown with strong architectural elements, street presence and a unique sense of place, but also contribute to both the county and town’s economic base through urban infill development.

Third, the process must be collaborative. Since the county’s developer withdrew its application, the town council and board of supervisors have held one joint meeting on the matter. The town is prepared to have either large or small group meetings to continue discussions on the property’s future. Although more meetings do not necessarily mean more results, they do keep the issue on the front burner and ensure that both parties have access to the same information on an issue where they both have a vested interest.

It is uncommon for a community like Blacksburg to have such a large parcel available for downtown redevelopment. The 20-acre property is the largest and most significant area for redevelopment of our time. The outcome will shape our community for generations and will be a legacy for both town and county decision makers. We have many ways to get this wrong, but only a few ways to get it right. Let’s get it right.

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