How will 2020 shape Hburg’s future? Let’s play Twenty Questions

By Ryan Alessi, publisher

And so it begins. Hopes for and speculation about the future abound, as does list-making for a fresh year. As we set off for the next 12 months, get ready for plenty of “20/20 vision” references. 

In that spirit, here are 20 questions (in no particular order) for 2020 that address issues that will likely shape Harrisonburg for the next decade and beyond: 

1. How will the new high school take shape? No single construction project will have a bigger ripple effect on the community’s future than building a new high school — one that promises to ease crowding at the already overstuffed Harrisonburg High School but also provide infrastructure for more computer, science and technology classes. As construction proceeds throughout 2020, we’ll learn a lot more about how the city’s two high schools will work in concert, what redistricting will look like, and how the new school will be named.

Paul Jennings Hall at JMU.

2. How will JMU and EMU continue to evolve? Both Harrisonburg’s universities are major employers and bring thousands of students to town. After years of steadily growing its enrollment, JMU’s student population has held steady between 21,750 and 21,850 for three consecutive years. EMU’s enrollment was 1,488 this fall, down from a high of 1,908 in fall 2015.

In the coming decade, a dip in enrollment is expected across higher education as a result of fewer babies being born during the Great Recession that began in late 2007. Universities will also continue adjusting to the demands and interests of prospective students is one factor, and a public university like JMU will have to comply with policy directives from the state .

Look for the campuses themselves to continue changing. JMU’s new convocation center and business college building are under construction, meaning the residence hall that opened this year won’t be its newest facility for long. 

Blacks Run in Harrisonburg.

3. What will be Hburg’s approach toward protecting the environment? Energy and sustainability efforts in town have taken different forms, but the city’s Environmental Performance Standards Advisory Committee suggested the most comprehensive roadmap for how Harrisonburg can protect water and air quality while reducing waste and energy use. Since becoming public, that committee’s report hasn’t led to any sweeping changes yet. Groups like Renew Rocktown have continued pushing for action. And policy makers on the city council and other entities like the school board and city-owned Harrisonburg Electric Commission also have roles to play and have discussed and debated other initiatives. But 2020 could be crucial in determining where Harrisonburg goes next as the EPSAC’s environmental action plan gets more attention. 

4. What is Hburg’s approach to criminal justice (such as jail spending)? The local jail population has grown faster than anyone expected, as The Citizen publisher Andrew Jenner reported last year. That creates mounting financial and social costs. And now the Middle River Regional Jail, which houses people from Rockingham County as well as Harrisonburg, is looking at $96 million expansion, as contributor Sergio Ossorio was first to report in December. Will Harrisonburg and other Valley communities continue to divert more resources — money, people and space — to jails and the “criminal industrial complex,” as 2019 Democratic nominee for the House, Brent Finnegan, called it? And what about the future of the so-called “jail fee,” in which people incarcerated are charged a daily fee in order to access the commissary?

At the same time, Harrisonburg has been exploring other ways to address the criminal justice system, such as seeking to hire a community justice planner and using restorative justice in many ways. And people who have run afoul of the law are finding greater support networks in and out of jail, such as through the Strength in Peers program, although some advocates say the community is not eagerly embracing all possible alternatives. How will the Harrisonburg Police Department continue to evolve under the leadership of Chief Eric English and how will city leaders prioritize ways to make the justice system more fair and effective? 

5. How does the city address homelessness and what will become of a low-barrier shelter that’s been discussed? After concerns about homelessness in Harrisonburg came to a head this summer, city and business leaders met with service providers to discuss the issue. That brought attention to the lack of a year-round shelter for people experiencing homelessness, especially those battling addiction. Advocates say it should be publicly funded – adding another item to a spending wish-list whose size has some city officials concerned.

Mayor Deanna Reed, left, and Council Member George Hirschmann, right, are on the ballot in 2020.

6. What will the 2020 local elections tell us? Three council spots are up for election this year. Mayor Deanna Reed, who is finishing her first term, and council members Richard Baugh and George Hirschmann’s seats are all on the ballot. Reed and Baugh are Democrats; Hirschmann is an independent. While Reed voted for the new high school last month, Baugh and Hirschmann cast the two votes against it. Will that issue factor into the elections? In the wake of a landslide Democratic sweep of the two council seats in 2018, will Democrats continue their success in local elections? On the Harrisonburg City Public Schools’ board, three seats are up for re-election — those held by board Chair Deb Fitzgerald plus members Kaylene Seigle and Nick Swayne. All three voted to approve the new high school’s design as part of the board’s unanimous vote Nov. 5.

7. Will the political divide between Harrisonburg and Rockingham County keep getting more pronounced? With each successive election, the line between Harrisonburg and Rockingham County becomes brighter. Last fall, Republican Del. Tony Wilt of Broadway built on his dominant performance in the county precincts from 2017 and won 72.9% of the votes there, up a tick from 72.76% two years earlier. At the same time, Democratic candidate Brent Finnegan did better in Harrisonburg in this fall’s rematch of 2017 and won those precincts with 65.7% of the vote — more than two points higher than his 2017 share. What does this kind of political sorting mean for our communities, how we relate to each other and where we go from here?

Members of Harrisonburg’s Kurdish community marched in October.

8. How will the story of Harrisonburg’s diversity continue to play out? With Harrisonburg designated as a refugee resettlement area through Church World Service, the community has developed a rich tapestry of cultures in recent decades. And last summer, the city began making interpretation services available for the first time.

But some area residents are worried about the local presence of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which attracted more attention by moving its office across the road. And resources to help immigrants can seem hit-or-miss. Some support services, such as Skyline Literacy, saw a reprieve in 2019 and received a key federal grant to keep operating. Meanwhile, some new residents who have moved to the United States find it difficult to establish a support network and resume the careers they had in their native countries, as contributor Nzar Sharif covered in his series for The Citizen last year.

9. Will the sharing economy keep challenging local policymakers? It seemed as if the city council and planning commission spent most of 2019 trying to figure out how to best regulate Airbnbs and other short-term rentals. Some meetings lasted well into the night as policy makers weighed the effects on the neighborhoods, and they’re not done yet. Such features of the sharing economy – and related quandaries involving scooters and ride-sharing – are prompting some communities to rethink whether existing regulatory structures still make sense in the 21st century. 

10. How does the city encourage more affordable housing? The city’s population might have taken a slight dip in 2018, but estimates show Harrisonburg growing. The big question for city leaders is where those new people will live and how they’ll pay to live in town. The city council in 2019 created a new zone for smaller lots. But at a council retreat last February, leaders expressed broader ambitions to allow for more affordable housing at a time when home prices are rising and availability of housing is scarce in the city. 

Steven Thomas, center, leads a tour of the Newtown Cemetery as part of the Arc of Citizenship tour in April, coordinated by JMU’s Madison Center for Civic Engagement and the Northeast Neighborhood Association.

11. How does the community continue to come to terms with its history – and its lingering effects? Looking forward requires understanding the past – still a work in progress in Harrisonburg. Community leaders are working to memorialize the 1878 lynching of Charlotte Harris and have been discussing the lingering trauma felt by African-American residents. JMU named its newly-opened residence hall after Paul Jennings, who was born into slavery at James Madison’s homestead before going on to prominence as an author. At the same time, other buildings on campus are named after prominent Confederate leaders.

There’s also the question of how to handle the alleged Thomas Harrison House, which archeologists recently determined was not the home of the city’s founder but built after Harrison’s death and likely included quarters for enslaved people. A similar reexamination of the past has begun at the Lincoln Homestead outside of Harrisonburg, where enslaved people were living when family scion Abraham Lincoln proclaimed emancipation.

12. Will the city and county buy the Denton Building? This spinoff of the ongoing criminal justice discussion deserves its own section. After people learned that Rockingham County has considered buying the Denton Building on Court Square to expand offices for court-related services, some mobilized to protest. The fact that this would eliminate numerous downtown apartments and a successful business, Larkin Arts, makes it a multi-faceted controversy. 

13. Will anything change at with Heritage Oaks Golf Course?  The city operates its golf course at a cost of a little more than a half-million dollars a year. Late in the year, as concern mounted over the cost of building a second high school,  City Council Member Chris Jones became increasingly vocal about selling it. And a former member of council suggested shutting it down. Will taxpayer-subsidized golf in Harrisonburg survive the coming year?

14. How smoothly will the 2020 Census go and what will its results mean for Harrisonburg? The comprehensive head-count will have broad political and societal effects by serving as the basis for state legislative and congressional redistricting (Virginia is expected to keep 11 congressional districts) as well as how hundreds of billions of federal dollars are distributed to communities based on population figures. However, some groups could be undercounted, as the Virginian Pilot reported in December.

And President Donald Trump’s administration’s attempts to include a question about citizenship on the Census stoked fear among some that the Census would be used to round up undocumented immigrants. Because of all this, Virginia state and community leaders are pulling out all the stops to ensure people are counted this year’s U.S. Census. In the Valley, several groups are combining forces, as The Citizen’s Liesel Graber reported last spring. How successful will those efforts be and what will the final Census numbers mean for the Valley and Harrisonburg? 

15. What effect will a Democratic-controlled state legislature have? Republican Del. Tony Wilt of Broadway and GOP Sen. Mark Obenshain of Harrisonburg return to Richmond Jan. 8 for the 2020 session but, for the first time, will do so as members of the minority caucuses. Will that diminish the Valley’s legislative voice? What kind of legislation will the new Democratic majorities push and what will that mean for Harrisonburg? If new gun control measures are passed, will we see legal showdowns in Rockingham County and other newly declared Second Amendment sanctuaries?

16. What’s the deal with I-81? Will the proposed improvements actually prevent accidents and frequent back-ups that snarl traffic? The General Assembly approved a $2.2 billion plan in the final hours of the 2019 session. How much pain will be caused by the expected 7-cents increase on gasoline taxes to pay for those improvements? What effect does a new configuration of the exit at Port Republic Road have on local and I-81 traffic — and for how long? 

17. What happens with local taxes and the city’s debt capacity and what economic effect do they have? The city council still has to approve a way to pay for the roughly $100 million investment for the new high school. (That includes the cost of the building, plus changes to the road configuration and furniture and equipment purchases.) City council members are expected to debate raising the property taxes, which is currently one of the lowest for similarly-sized towns in Virginia. At the same time, the city is taking on more debt, which will limit additional projects the city can take on in the immediate future

18. Will Harrisonburg begin to feel any effect of Amazon’s presence in Northern Virginia? Harrisonburg won’t directly benefit from Amazon’s new development in the Pentagon City and Crystal City area outside of D.C. But major employers, whether it’s a behemoth online retailer or car manufacturer, can have wider regional effects as other suppliers or companies seek to be closer to the action. With Harrisonburg located two hours away, on an interstate and with an educated workforce thanks to two universities in town (plus Blueridge Community College and Bridgewater College nearby), it could be an attractive place for firms that want to be within reach of Amazon but not in the increasingly expensive Northern Virginia area

Hands reach out to touch water jetting up from a column near the heart of Harrisonburg’s splash pad that opened last May.

19. How can the “Friendly City” become more welcoming to visitors, residents, students and prospective residents? There are lots of ways to think about this one beyond policy issues mentioned earlier like taxes, affordable housing and ways to help immigrants and people experiencing homelessness. What about more parking? Or less parking of there’s more public transportation/bike paths? More murals? More splash pads? More festivals? Free ice-cream for everyone on Mondays? 

20. What happens to news in the community? Self-serving question alert! But in all seriousness, communities like Harrisonburg across the United States are struggling with this issue. Many towns have lost newspapers altogether or have only ghost papers — thin newspapers containing ads but little-to-no actual news. At the same time, other news organizations continued in 2019 to cut staff.

Some people in Colorado have proposed using tax dollars to fund local journalism because they consider factual well-produced news and community information a necessary public utility akin to water and electricity. Other communities are turning to nonprofits. Harrisonburg has the Daily News-RecordWHSV and local NPR station WMRA, as well as The Breeze at JMU and, of course, The Citizen. But, as we write at the end of every article, “journalism is changing.” And we’re not quite sure how the business models will evolve to adequately fund robust reporting that communities like Harrisonburg – not to mention the entire republic – deserve and should demand.  

Journalism is changing, and that’s why The Citizen is here. We’re independent. We’re local. We pay our contributors, and the money you give goes directly to the reporting. No overhead. No printing costs. Just facts, stories and context. Thanks for your support.

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