Thursday January 26, 2023
HIGHLIGHTS: City Council Meeting | COMMENTARY: Fredericksburg City Schools Are Moving Forward | Foode Chef Honored | Economic Recovery from COVID | Observed | Looking Ahead
A note to readers: On Tuesday there were four civic meetings of note in three counties. Today I offer highlights of Fredericksburg’s City Council meeting on Tuesday evening. Highlights from Stafford and Spotsylvania are coming soon!
HIGHLIGHTS: Fredericksburg City Council Meeting
Jon Gerlach of Ward 2 framed Tuesday night’s City Council meeting - albeit, not wittingly - when he noted toward the end of the 3+ hour gathering that the city’s population is set to grow by 10,000 to 11,000 people over the next 20 years.
The council’s agenda touched directly and indirectly on this reality throughout the evening.
Will Mackintosh, a professor at the University of Mary Washington and chair of the Economic Development Authority, presented a report on the more than $2 million the EDA has invested in the city over the past year.
Among the highlights:
$1.2 million spent to purchase the existing Visitors’ Center at 706 Caroline Street, a site the EDA is going to return to private hands and, in so doing, add to the city’s tax base.
Investing in sports tourism by helping to fund and bring the Babe Ruth World Series to Virginia Credit Union Stadium. (Yes - The World Series will return to Fredericksburg later this year.)
Continuing to help support the Marine Corps Half Marathon, which attracts some 8,000 runners to the area each May.
Investing in the Virginia Black Business Expo.
$50,000 spent to conduct a feasibility study of how the old hospital at 2300 Fall Hill Avenue could be used.
This marks the EDA’s most successful campaign, and sets the stage for an even-more successful 2023.
To those unfamiliar with EDA, Mackintosh explains the unique role this organization plays in the city’s life: “We do not receive an appropriation of tax dollars. … Our funding comes from independent sources, mostly bond fees derived from issuing tax-advantaged bonds for qualified private projects that are in the public interest.”
A report by at-large council member Matt Kelly on the Potomac Rappahannock Transportation Commission about transitioning to electric buses led to a discussion about the need to develop transitional plans as the city moves in this direction. That plan is required to seek federal funds.
He also discussed a bill filed with the state Senate in the current session - Senate Bill 1137 - that if enacted would “allow a special taxing district” by creating the Fredericksburg Area Transportation Authority, according to Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-17.
Kelly notes that the city needs its own transportation authority to help it secure the dollars needed for major projects. “We did well in this round of Smart Scale [the state’s data-driven prioritization process for funding transportation projects] – lot of small projects approved. What we’ve lacked is money to leverage” the larger projects we want to do.
Though the bill is moving through the Senate, sources in Richmond suggest that it has little chance of getting out of the House.
Given the city’s needs, and the never-ending jams on our stretch of I-95, it’s a good time to start preparing to push for an FATA in the next General Assembly, should SB 1137 fail.
At-large council member Kerry Devine promoted the Arts Council’s pop-up art sale, happening Feb. 3-5, which gives citizens the opportunity to purchase locals’ works. Learn more by visiting Love.fredarts.com.
A good portion of the meeting was dedicated to an update on the wastewater treatment plant the city needs to construct. Though a total cost to build hasn’t been established, a budget of some $150 million is dedicated to this project.
Stricter federal laws about the levels of nitrogen and phosphorous such plants are permitted to emit is driving its construction. According to city representatives, the current plant is operating with “1950s technology.” It will also generate a significant increase in capacity, key to meeting a growing city’s needs.
The entire meeting is archived and available for viewing on Regional Web TV.
Read the agenda here.
COMMENTARY: City Schools - Moving Forward
In August, I published a piece in the Free Lance-Star arguing that Fredericksburg Superintendent Marci Catlett was the right person to lead the city’s troubled school system. There was no shortage of criticism from people who believed someone from outside the system needed to come in, clean house, and push students to do better in the classroom.
That approach might work in business, where leaders can hire and fire who they like. It doesn’t work in schools - especially those struggling to reverse years of subpar academic performance.
Traditional public schools work best when leaders seek buy-in from the community, reach out to local leaders and tap both their resources and their experience, and then use these people’s ideas and talents to craft a vision and strategy for leading students to higher academic ground.
Catlett is embracing that collaborative approach. On Wednesday at the fourth of her Superintendent’s Roundtables, some 100 community leaders came together to hear six local leaders talk about the times that they’ve witnessed significant change in working with children.
Rev. Larry Hahn of First Baptist Church Fredericksburg, for example, took attendees back to when his community helped support an influx of refugees from Africa a dozen years ago through “community-based, after school learning.”
“Before you can instruct,” he told the group, “you must connect.”
That comment drew a sustained applause.
Connecting is what Catlett has been doing, and from this network is coming the structure that Fredericksburg City Schools will use going forward to instruct students in ways to reach their dreams.
Just some of the changes being implemented to turn things around that were highlighted on Wednesday:
Using retreats to ensure the administrative team is clear on the direction and expectations before them
Engaging in a comprehensive assessment of district and student needs
Enhanced professional development
Constructing a detailed school improvement plan
Involvement in the Virginia is for Learners Innovation Network
Engaging Virginia’s Bridging the Gap program
And this is just a taste of the changes profiled at the meeting.
Some may well dismiss this work, preferring instead to wait until the latest round of SOL scores are released.
The changes Catlett is implementing are going to take time to have the impact that those whose look only at short-term, deeply flawed metrics like SOL scores, want to see. But rising test scores are sure to come.
They’re going to come because Catlett has her eyes firmly focused on what matters - not outcomes, but community buy-in; not best-in-class educational programs, but individual student need; not demands that teachers “make sure students pass tests, or else,” but thoughtful, synchronized support and tools that empower teachers to meet their students’ needs.
These foci will lead to better scores, not because they lead to better test prep, because this is how effective learning happens.
I challenged Catlett in August to become a recognized innovator in Virginia within five years. On Wednesday, she more than proved herself up to the challenge.
The critics, to be sure, will still be there - pointing at test scores, demanding instant improvement, blaming teachers, calling for outside leaders to come in and shake things up.
The next time you hear this, take them to Route 3, point them toward Spotsylvania County Schools, and have them take a look at what demanding improvement while denigrating teachers and public schools gets you.
They’ll come around to what Catlett is accomplishing.
Even more than I was in August, I’m convinced - Catlett’s Crew is turning this ship to calmer seas.
Foode Chef Honored
Mathematics has the Fields Medal, literature has the Pulitzers, politicians have the Nobel Peace Prize, and chefs have the James Beard Award.
Now, Fredericksburg has a chef recognized by the James Beard Foundation as one of America’s finest.
Joy Crump of Foode on Princess Anne Street has been named a semifinalist for this prestigious award in the Best Chef Mid-Atlantic category. Finalists will be announced in March, and the winners recognized in Chicago this June.
This recognition comes as no surprise to anyone who has feasted on Crump’s tomato pie or fried-green tomatoes (we’re partial to tomatoes). And then there’s the shrimp and grits, and … well … we’re getting hungry. (If those dishes don’t tempt your palette, check the menu.)
Congrats to Crump and her entire team at Foode. It’s about time the rest of the world gets to experience what we locals have been feasting on since 2011.
Of course, there’s one downside to this accolade - plan ahead when visiting. Fredericksburg’s best restaurant is about to get even more crowded.
Though still visible in our rearview mirror, COVID and the carnage it caused are receding - finally - from our view.
Apparently, it’s receding faster in Fredericksburg than in many surrounding areas.
A news release from Fredericksburg Regional Alliance reports that employment in the Fredericksburg region now exceeds its pre-COVID levels.
During the first quarter of 2020, there were 134,839 people working in the region. At the end of the second quarter of 2022, there were 138,396 people working; a net gain of 3,557 employees.
While this is great news, there is one notable anomaly - our unemployment rate of 3.1% is slightly higher than it is for Virginia as a whole (2.8%).
The explanation, according to Dr. Lance Gentry, a UMW business professor, lies in the fact that regions outside of Fredericksburg haven’t bounced back as quickly. Therefore, people who live here but worked outside the region and are now unemployed because of COVID are inflating our unemployment rate slightly.
“Our local unemployment figures,” Gentry said, “largely reflect our former commuters who are currently unemployed. Hopefully the outlying regions will catch up to the Fredericksburg region soon, and then the unemployment numbers will go down.”
If you’re passing by 525 Caroline Street and catch the unmistakable whiff of fried chicken coming from inside this lovely old brick building with white columns, trust your nose and stop.
On New Year’s, the Hot Chikn Kitchen opened, dishing up Nashville-style chicken sandwiches and a side of fries to die for.
Place your order with Brandon, if he’s working (a good bet), then take your order to one of the high-top tables at Water’s End Brewery in the same building and enjoy a spicey treat.
Just goes to prove, when walking downtown, keep your eyes peeled - and your sniffer clear - both can lead you to some awesome finds.
Watch for pieces on Renwick Courthouse, Black History month, and so much more!
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