By Calvin Pynn, contributor
The candidates campaigning for the three city council seats up for election on Nov. 3 participated in a virtual forum Wednesday night – the second such event this month involving all five candidates.
Two incumbents, Mayor Deanna Reed (D) and George Hirschmann (I), and three first-time candidates, Democrats Laura Dent and Charles Hendricks, plus Republican Kathleen Kelley, largely agreed on topics ranging from how to help low-income residents in Harrisonburg to transportation priorities.
The forum was broadcast via Facebook Live and hosted by the United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, the Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Coalition, the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Association of Realtors, and the JMU Institute for Constructive Advocacy and Dialogue. During the 90-minute forum, moderated by JMU professor Lori Britt, candidates initially answered questions from the event’s organizers, followed by audience questions.
The ALICE Population
According to a recent report by the United Way, 61% of Harrisonburg residents meet the criteria for economic vulnerability referred to as “ALICE” – Assets Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. Dent, who proposed enacting a living wage, said she was startled when she first saw that number. She would also like to encourage better planning to allow ALICE families to live closer to where they work.
“There are two sides – being able to afford more, and improving our housing,” she said. “It might be a matter of increasing density.”
Incumbents Reed and Hirschmann both stressed the need to continue efforts already underway, including a housing study expected in January. Reed also said she plans to pursue the creation of a Housing Advisory Board to work with stakeholders in affordable housing, including developers.
Kelley, a physician practicing alternative and integrative medicine, said her priority in helping the city’s ALICE population would be identifying the immediate causes of the problem.
“We need to determine why we have such high numbers: do they need skills, higher-paying jobs, or more education so we can give them more opportunities and lift them to a higher pay grade?” Kelley asked.
She recommended encouraging employers to provide childcare for their employees and identifying healthcare issues but also suggested taking steps to encourage independence and upward mobility.
“If we had financial advisers talk with the ALICE population, maybe we could help set a budget and identify areas where they need help, and then connect them with groups in the city to help them out of their rut,” Kelley said.
For Hendricks, the struggles faced by the ALICE population hit close to home, as his family endured homelessness after his father had been laid off while he was growing up.
“I’ve seen what the impacts are when one thing goes wrong,” he said.
Hendricks, an architect and co-owner of Gaines Group Architects, said developers need to be encouraged to build more affordable housing. He argued that the challenge facing the ALICE population is not a lack of marketable skills.
“This is not a lack of education, this is a matter of hardworking people struggling to make ends meet,” Hendricks said.
He suggested building up a strong safety net, including public transportation, to help alleviate the cost of living.
Homelessness in Harrisonburg
When asked about ways to address homelessness, Reed cited the city’s support of the recent effort to establish a shelter at Godwin Hall on JMU’s campus in the first month of the pandemic. Still, she said, Harrisonburg also needs programs with more permanent effects.
“Homelessness is an ongoing issue,” she said. “I want to give them the tools they can live independently, not just with a physical shelter but also access to training and programs that can be transformative.”
Dent and Hendricks both voiced support for opening a low-barrier, cold-weather shelter in Harrisonburg, while Kelley and Hirschmann both said that existing empty buildings in town could be used for shelter. Hirschmann added that strengthening the local economy is an important response to the issue.
“We’re gonna take a bit to get there, but it would revitalize interest and attitudes in the city,” Hirschmann said.
As far as transportation is concerned, all five candidates agreed on the importance of investing in non-vehicular infrastructure such as bike paths. Kelley suggested dedicating an entire lane to bicycle traffic in the city’s more congested areas, while Dent called for broad bike lanes that are separated from traffic, as well as more walking paths in the city.
Dent also supported the idea of zoning areas near the city’s schools for affordable housing to decrease commutes.
Reed said that transportation needs to be part of every conversation in the city’s development, and encouraged more participation in programs such as Bikes for Refugees.
“The evidence is clear that getting people out of cars makes for stronger, healthier communities,” Reed said.
Hendricks is in favor of planting trees along bike paths to keep them shaded, as well as solar-powered charging stations, and more connected paths – a vision Hirschmann echoed.
“I think, in time, we’ll see bike lanes anywhere you can put them,” Hirschmann said.
All candidates were asked to name their most pressing issue in the city, and how they would address those issues in the short term and long term. Each agreed that in the short term, focusing on reopening would be a priority, albeit with some differences.
After the pandemic, Reed said, her focus will be on affordable housing.
“It affects everything and everyone, this fundamental need is more important now than ever,” Reed said.
Post-pandemic, Hirschmann plans to focus on raising teachers’ pay, housing affordability and economic recovery in general.
“We have to reopen Harrisonburg, but do it safely, and continue to revitalize downtown and all shopping areas,” he said.
Kelley hopes to work on making the local economy more resilient by bringing in more businesses and industries, lessening the city’s reliance on JMU as its main economic engine.
“Losing students and classes had a big impact on Harrisonburg,” Kelley said. “If you provide more jobs and more opportunities, it lifts everyone up.”
Both Hendricks and Dent said their long-term priority is addressing climate change at the local level. For Hendricks, that would mean focusing on sustainable building.
“We need to get solar paneling on our rooftops, make sure buildings are using renewable energy, and make sure ALICE homes are weatherized,” Hendricks said.
Dent also supported focusing on constructing weather-proofed housing for low income families in Harrisonburg while supporting carbon reduction efforts such as the 50 by 25 initiative. She also said she would focus on promoting remote work as a way to retain JMU graduates in Harrisonburg while they could work for companies in larger cities, much as she does as a freelance technical writer.
“We can promote that aspect that you can live here in Harrisonburg while working for someone else in New York or Northern Virginia. That can help keep students here,” Dent said.
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