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Council moves ahead on new fire station and allowing a gas station downtown

The Harrisonburg City Council hears a presentation at a meeting earlier this year. (File photo)

By Logan Roddy, senior contributor

Vehicle fueling will return to downtown after the city council on Tuesday approved an amendment to the zoning ordinance to allow gas stations in the central business district. 

The 7-Eleven at 380 N. Mason Street will be the first to act on that revision after the council also approved the company’s request to build six fuel dispensers at that location.

But that decision didn’t come without some concerns, especially from council members George Hirschmann and Chris Jones, who feared the change might set a precedent that would allow gas stations to start popping up all across downtown.

The 7-Eleven owners have been working with community members in the Northeast Neighborhood since February 2020 when the change was first proposed to the city planning commission. Mayor Deanna Reed said the company has been cooperative and plans to provide grocery options as part of the renovations to the 40-year-old existing storefront.

“I think this is the first time that it’s actually been the community and the company working together,” Reed said. “When you’re living there and you don’t have the grocery stores that you used to have, and you look at the neighborhood and what we need, we still gotta drive to work. And the closest place they can go to is Sheetz, I mean that’s what we live with.”

Council member Laura Dent, who also serves on the planning commission, said one part of the proposal that personally convinced her was 7-Eleven’s agreement to add two electric vehicle chargers to the new plan.

But Jones and Hirschmann remained adamant that the amendment should only apply to this specific situation.

“We’re both doing this hoping no one else will,” Jones said.

New fire station takes first step

The council also approved building the city’s fifth fire station to serve the Park View area near Eastern Mennonite University. The project will use federal American Rescue Plan Act funds. 

Fire Chief Matthew Tobia said adding another station will not only reduce the response times to that portion of the city, which currently has the highest response times, but that will offset the load of calls on the other stations in town to bring their response times down as well.

The station is anticipated to handle 750-1,000 calls annually once it opens in about two years. 

Tobia also said of the 11,500 residents in the area it will impact, many live in the Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community or attend EMU or one of the many middle and elementary schools in the area. The faster response times also bring the fire department in accordance with national standards.

Vice mayor Sal Romero pointed out that with the second Harrisonburg high school opening around the same time, city leaders will have to plan for two substantial expenses in the budget.

Tobia also said it will start to operate with one fire engine staffed by firefighter EMTs and firefighter paramedics, and they will apply for federal grant funding “to defray the personnel costs for three years.”

“So if we were successful in achieving that safer grant funding, we would be able to hire the personnel on grant funding for three years, which would give you, the city leaders, time to plan for taking on the expense of the personnel,” Tobia said. 

Jones said that he thinks this “really moves our city to the top of the charts in another category.”

Downtown 2040 update

The council also heard some of the analysis of community members’ responses to the Harrisonburg Downtown 2040 plan. 

Representatives from Interface Studio, the Philadelphia-based city planners who have been helping with the project, reported that some suggestions focused on creating more welcoming entrances to the city, possibly by erecting a mural on the poultry tower at the northern end of town, and creating a new urban park on the back lot behind city hall. 

One point that resonated especially with Reed and Jones was the need to welcome Harrisonburg’s broad diversity to downtown with an intentional focus on the history of the city — and gearing programming toward minority groups and people of color.

As it stands now, a newcomer “would not ever ever imagine how diverse we are as a community,” Romero said.

He also said it’s a great opportunity to take a piece from what other communities have by making the center of Harrisonburg the beating heart where people have places to come and socialize.

“I think we lack spaces where people can actually socialize,” Romero said. “We need to have spaces where people feel like they don’t necessarily just have to come directly to go shopping or to go eat.”

Reed said the importance of programming showed through during the city’s first official Juneteenth celebration this summer, in large part thanks to Kirsten Moore, owner of Magpie Diner, which hosted the main public celebration. 

“For that event alone, we pulled a lot of people of color who would not necessarily be coming downtown,” Reed said. “And for me, being from Harrisonburg and knowing what downtown used to be back in the day, I do feel that programming is a big piece of it and is something we should be doing.”

She also said with the courthouse looming large in downtown, some people have bad memories with the judicial system, which is another possible deterrent.

Ande Banks as interim city manager

And the council also approved appointing Alexander “Ande” Banks, the deputy city manager, as interim city manager, effective Jan. 1 when City Manager Eric Campbell officially steps down. 


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