21 questions for Harrisonburg in 2021

Compiled by Ryan Alessi, publisher

The new year brings a fresh start and lots of questions. Here are 21 of them heading into 2021:

  1. The obvious: When can we resume our travels and interactions without jeopardizing our health or others?If so much of life and news of 2020 got transformed by COVID-19, then much of 2021 will be about ending and recovering from the pandemic … we hope. 

2. Speaking of which, how exactly will the local distribution of vaccinations go? The first vaccines arrived in mid-December and went to health care workers. But the Virginia Department of Health is still working out problems that have slowed the statewide distribution, especially after the federal government miscalculated the initial number of doses available. So when will most of us get vaccinated? Where? How?  When? How soon? Can we start now please?

In this photo taken on March 19, 2020 the Sentara RMH website states “Effective Monday, March 16, all routine visiting was being suspended until the transmission of COVID-19 is no longer a threat to our patients, staff and community.”

3. Can the local health care infrastructure handle what’s ahead? When local COVID-19 cases spiked in April, it was driven in part by an outbreak at the Accordius Health care home. How nursing homes and long-term care facilities evolve moving forward is one key question. Sentara RMH had more than enough beds to handle the local COVID-19 spikes last year. But broader changes and effects on the local health care system are still at work. Sentara, the parent company of the local hospital, began restructuring doctor compensation, and how that affected doctors, surgeons and other medical personnel’s decisions to stay or leave Harrisonburg remains unclear. 

A crowd of several hundred people gather outside the courthouse in downtown for a racial justice rally June 5. (File photo by Randi B. Hagi)

4. What comes next in the pursuit of racial justice? Last summer’s protests were public manifestations of work that many advocates and groups, such as the Northeast Neighborhood Association, have been doing for years. But whether it’s addressing public policies or people’s perceptions, that work is far from over. 

5. What will be the short- and long-term effects of online learning and how will education change as a result of this past year? The first part of the fall semester for Harrisonburg City Public Schools showed more students struggling with the online format. But the district’s leaders are discussing adjustments. How educators and students cope through the rest of the school year is important but so will tracking the effects of this last year of disrupted learning. 

6. Will the local housing market continue being red hot and can leaders find a way to allow for more affordable housing? lack of available and affordable housing has plagued Harrisonburg for years, forcing homebuyers outside the city limits and tying up big portions of residents’ income. City leaders commissioned a study to suggest strategies and new developments could be in the works. But as more people work remotely in the wake of the pandemic, could Harrisonburg see an influx of city dwellers escaping even more expensive places like Washington, D.C., and Richmond? 

An updated computer-generated rendering from February shows the plans for the new high school campus between I-81 and Main Street.

7. Will Harrisonburg still move forward with a high school? Under the original plan, there would be the beginnings of a structure on the plot between South Main Street and I-81 by this point. Then … COVID. And the Harrisonburg Public Schools’ board and the city council delayed the project for a year because of the sharp dip in city tax revenue at the end of the 2020 Fiscal Year, which ended in June. City leaders said they’d reassess in early 2021. 

Billy Jack’s Shack adds new patio seating in parking lot next to restaurant for reopening.

8. How will local businesses, especially retail stores and restaurants that rely on foot traffic, continue to adapt and survive … and how will Harrisonburg’s economy and business landscape have changed by the time this pandemic is over? These two questions are inextricably linked, hence the two-fer. In 2020, many local businesses had to shut down. Then reopen safely or partially. In the case of some restaurants, that meant turning parking lots into dining rooms. Some didn’t make it. Other new businesses started amid the pandemicanyway. But a couple months of cold weather and the lingering threat of the virus still await, forcing restaurants, stores, bars, breweries and coffee houses to continue to hang on any way they can. 

Gabriel Camacho, Harrisonburg’s interim police chief, has been through a police department disbanding and various reforms. (Photo by Randi B. Hagi)

9. What’s next for the Harrisonburg Police Department? The city must hire a permanent chief to replace Eric English, who surprised the community by accepting the top job at Henrico County’s police force after two years in Harrisonburg. Interim Chief Gabriel Camacho stepped in and is applying for the permanent job. The next chief will inherit the challenges of every U.S. police department in strengthening trust with the community. Specifically in Harrisonburg, the next chief will make decisions about continuing internal reforms, addressing a disparity in use-of-force arrests and diversifying the ranks of police officers.  

10. How will the pandemic affect economically vulnerable populations — and what will organizations aimed at helping them, such as Our Community Place, Mercy House and the Salvation Army need moving forward? The network of non-profit organizations have provided services and a backstop for people experiencing homelessness and those struggling to make ends meet. As the effects of the pandemic continue to reverberate through the community and the economy, these organizations could be called upon in new and expanding ways. 

11. How will the city council prioritize needs as the pandemic winds down and beyond? In 2020, the city council had to make budget cuts, including to public safety and the parks. The financial picture isn’t looking much rosier in the coming months. With the make-up of the city council largely unchanged (Democrat Laura Dent is the only newcomer and will replace Democrat Richard Baugh), an experienced city council could be tested with some tough decisions.  

12. What’s ahead for local environmental activists push for cleaner energy? Shifting Harrisonburg’s energy portfolio to being generated by renewable sources (like solar, wind or hydro-electric power) in 15 years is an ambitious goal that would have to accelerate soon to come to fruition. 

13. How will local colleges and universities — JMU, EMU, Bridgewater College and Blue Ridge Community College — emerge from the pandemic? How professors deliver material and how students learn through Zoom and other online platforms is just one issue higher education faces. Student anxiety is high. And the institutions’ bottom lines shrunk, especially as some students opted to delay attending college until classes were back in person. Smaller colleges like Bridgewater have even thinner margins to absorb tuition hits. 

14. Will major community events like Red Wing Roots Music Festival, Valley 4th of July, Harrisonburg International Festival and the Shenandoah Valley Pride Festival happen in person and what will they look like? Does anyone else miss live music, crowded parade routes, 5k races and wandering past diverse booths, stalls and public performances? Thought so. 

Will the Valley League have more competition?

15. What’s next for the local sports scene? With so many seasons canceled and limited crowds for high school and college games that did happen, it’s been a disappointing stretch for sports fans. Few people have been able to experience the much-ballyhooed JMU arena since it opened in November. And how the Valley League could be affected by Major League Baseball’s decision to shrink the ranks of the minor leagues by 40 teams remains to be seen, especially as some of those minor league teams that were cut will become college wood-bat league teams that could compete with the Valley League. 

16. What kind of expression of creativity will emerge from quarantine? Some artists said the forced stay-at-home time of 2020 helped foster creativity. Perhaps that means we can look forward to a more colorfulmore musical Harrisonburg?

17. What will Harrisonburg voters do in this year’s state elections? Who will local Republicans get behind for governor in that party’s convention? Which Democratic gubernatorial candidate will city voters select? And will we continue to see a sharper divide between preferences of city and Rockingham County voters in the November general election? 

Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, speaks during an event in 2019.

18. In the state legislative elections, will Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, draw opposition? In the last two elections, Wilt turned back Democrat Brent Finnegan twice with more than 54 percent of the vote both times. Will a Democrat mount another challenge or will Wilt go unopposed? 

19. What effect, if any, will the change from the Trump administration to the Biden administration have locally? Will a new president urge Congress to provide more federal assistance, such as help for local governments? Will President-elect Joe Biden change immigration and international travel restrictions that President Donald Trump’s administration imposed, including those that affected local conferences and refugee communities? Will there be a shift in environmental rules and regulations that affect the Valley? 

20. Why does Harrisonburg sometimes smell like dog food? Hey, perhaps 2021 is a chance to explore the mundane – not just pressing or existential questions. 

21. What will we have learned? About ourselves? About each other? About priorities? About the importance of relationships and connections? And about how to live? If every challenge offers opportunities, this pandemic has certainly allowed for a great deal of reflection. 

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