“The New Portsmouth”: A Hopeful Welcome to New City Manager Lydia Pettis Patton, & More Good News from Around #HRVA

This week, I want to take a break from poking the bear and point out some good things going on around the region. As always, I hope they represent a trend, and I want to encourage the kind of progress these positive actions represent. 

A ray of sunshine? Let’s hope so

I want to start this week in Portsmouth, but for a more positive reason than usual. I’ve spent a lot of time picking on Portsmouth, and frankly it’s been justified. The litany of problems that city faces–when combined with the incredibly poor leadership displayed by it’s elected representatives–have combined to leave Portsmouth in a particularly bad lurch.

But in an act of pathologically uncharacteristic unanimity, the Portsmouth City Council came together in choosing a new city manager, and a few days ago, former Deputy City Manager Lydia Pettis Patton (pictured) was officially sworn in as that city’s first female chief administrator.

In her speech, this article quoted her as saying: “She promised to develop a ‘comprehensive plan of actionable goals, metrics and timelines’ and to work with city employees to create ‘the new Portsmouth.’”

People in the city who have worked with her in the past have universally praised her abilities and leadership. That’s good. She’ll need those qualities to deal with the dysfunctional elected body that governs that city. After all, former City Manager John Rowe also possessed those qualities, and in his telling those qualities earned him nothing but a pink slip.

If Ms. Patton comes to the city council with an equally honest but bitter pill to swallow, will she be treated with the same degree of dis-ingenuousness?

But I’ve also been told by a couple of people that Patton has a reputation of being somewhat imperious. That’s not a good quality to exhibit in an environment suffering from egotism, distrust and polarization. She’ll need to create consensus and cooperation, and that won’t be achievable through bullying. In addition, if she wants to earn the trust of the community she serves, she’ll need to adopt a policy of much greater transparency, as well as not treating the media as if they’re the enemy, as Mayor Kenny Wright has gone out of his way to imply.

Toughness will serve her well. Aloofness, not so much.

On the other hand, Jim Oliver, who is one of the region’s big thinkers when it comes to municipal government and civic engagement, expressed great optimism in this editorial regarding the city’s potential under the leadership of Patton. His opinion carries a lot of weight with me and many others.

Oliver writes: “For everybody to be successful, she will need to be both leader and facilitator in sorting small problems from the big ones and identifying and resolving true value conflicts.”

I’m probably not as optimistic as Oliver about her chances at success. With the current city council, she’ll be pushing a boulder uphill. But I wish her well, and am rooting for her to accomplish great things for that vibrant city. Everyone else should, too.

So how about that SONO?

Just across the river from Portsmouth, something is starting to percolate in the community of South Norfolk, which is, of course, actually in the city of Chesapeake.

Despite it’s pockets of poverty and urban decay, I’ve always loved South Norfolk (and the adjoining community of Berkeley, which actually is in Norfolk). Driving through some its old neighborhoods provides a hint of not only its rich history, but also its unrealized potential.

In some ways, South Norfolk was the previous century’s Virginia Beach. Many of the neighborhoods were bedroom communities, which is reflected by the presence of so many beautiful–but often deteriorated–old Victorian and federal style homes. In fact, there was once a streetcar that ran all the way from Ocean View to South Norfolk, and was used by residents of those communities to commute to the commercial center in what is now the Downtown Norfolk area.

Many trace South Norfolk’s downfall to the merging of South Norfolk and Norfolk County into the contemporary city of Chesapeake in the early 60s. The politics of that burgeoning municipality were dominated by people who were advocates for the development of other parts of the city at the expense of South Norfolk.

But all the elements for a revival are in place. It will only take the kind of vision that drove capitalists to recognize the redevelopment potential of Ghent in the mid to late 60s and invest in ways that completely reversed the fortunes of what is now one of Norfolk’s most desirable places to live.

And finally, after decades of neglect, Chesapeake’s leaders have in the past few years been making some (albeit modest) efforts to give South Norfolk a leg up. In this article, we learn that a project the city invested in–not without quite a bit of opposition–is bearing fruit.

“The space at the corner of Poindexter Street and Bainbridge Boulevard is now home to luxury condos that have just gone on the market, as well as the South Norfolk Memorial Library, which has exceeded expectations since its new location opened in July 2013,” according to the article.

I hope this signals an upturn in South Norfolk’s fortunes, and leads to the kind of large scale redevelopment that can only happen when private investment becomes part of the equation. Such investment almost always leads to a reduction in blight – even in less developed and more impoverished adjoining neighborhoods.

Inhabiting the ViBE

My love for the Norfolk Arts District (NEON) knows no bounds. But as an (almost) lifelong resident of Virginia Beach who pines for a time when the old town of Virginia Beach – the resort area, more or less – actually had some character, I’ve been pretty stoked by the development of an arts district in a part of town sorely in need of someplace that doesn’t resemble a bad realization of Anyresorttown, USA.

It’s hard to describe to those who never experienced it what an amazing place the resort area was when I started hanging out down there in the early 70s. The Strip and adjacent areas was a mecca of the counterculture of the times, with amazing small shops, watering holes, surf shops and great places to hang out.

But by the early to mid-eighties, developers had eyed it as being a money machine. Through investment in real estate and exertion of power in a compliant city government, capitalists who wanted to transform it into a place that would appeal to bland tourists with lots of money to spend succeeded in literally forcibly sterilizing the whole area.

Now, the relatively new arts district, known by the name ViBE, is exhibiting signs of reintroducing some unique cultural characteristics into an otherwise barren environment. And to the credit of the city, they seem to be completely behind this transformation.

One seemingly universal characteristic of thriving arts districts is the availability of affordable utilitarian spaces where artists, craftspeople and budding entrepreneurs can practice their vocations. In this article, we’re told that “those spaces are few and far between, but not unheard of, and the city and business leaders in the Oceanfront district are working to find back offices, storage rooms and other unused corners of buildings to serve as an artist’s working lair.”

As someone who had little appreciation for anything the resort area has had to offer for many years, my interest is seriously piqued, and I for one plan to spend more time exploring the ViBE.

Bravo, Virginia Beach.

An admirable reversal of course

Finally, I want to wrap up in Norfolk. I, for one, was pretty surprised when the Pilot reported about how ODU had told Sheriff Bob McCabe that they could no longer permit his department to provide the vast range of services they had to the university for many years, simply because McCabe himself had chosen to run for Mayor.

If there was even a whiff of favoritism towards ODU on the part of McCabe, this decision might at least approach being understandable. But there was nothing odoriferous here. McCabe’s department provides inmate and security services in all sorts of environments all over the city. These services are great for the city as they keep costs for such services down, but they’re also good for inmates, who get to engage in some useful positive activity, as well as for sheriff’s deputies, who get the chance to augment their not-so-great salaries.

Fortunately, as reported in this article, the university apparently had a change of heart, and with McCabe, worked out a way that the Sheriff’s Department can continue to provide at least some of these services to the school.

I’d label that wise decision as a win-win for everyone.

(Mike Rau is still grieving for his colleagues – a television reporter and photojournalist killed in Roanoke. #WeStandWithWDBJ)