Some Big Decisions ...

... Lie Ahead For The City

Posted: July 12, 2013

During the coming months, the governing fathers of Harrisonburg will have some interesting decisions to make about major investments for the city’s future.

The city’s fiscal record has historically been one that many like-size cities envy: low tax rates and a controllable level of debt. But with a burgeoning and diverse population that has surpassed 50,000, the Friendly City is no longer a small hamlet in the Shenandoah Valley.

Throughout the years, the city’s financial coffers have benefitted greatly from the growth and expansion of James Madison University. JMU’s students, faculty, and staff pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy each annum, and though growth at the university will likely be more targeted and less dramatic in the coming years, the economic engine of a major university in the heart of the city will continue to churn.

To meet the growing need for public transportation, the city is investing some $15 million for a new facility for that department. School construction has moved to the forefront again, and it won’t be long before some $40 million-plus is invested in another new school. And, it doesn’t take a math major to project that if the growth in the lower grades of the city school’s holds steady for a period of time, it won’t be too many years before Harrisonburg High School starts pushing its capacity.

If and when that happens, the conversations will be lively. It may be several years out, but if the population of Harrisonburg really does track toward topping the projected 57,000-plus the
Weldon Cooper Center forecast s for 2020 (continuing up to more than 65,000 in 2030 and over 75,000 in 2040), talk of a second high school will be unavoidable. The debate aside, the potential cost would likely surpass $50 million.

With all that in mind, city fathers must make other important decisions while keeping those future investments in mind. The issue of proper space for the School Board was settled with the move to One Court Square. But the Municipal Building, home to city offices and services, is outdated and inefficient. The city has has engaged Mather Architects to assess this need and provide solutions. Somewhere a year or so down the road, look for significant funds to be committed to a project based on their review and recommendations.

Harrisonburg has invested significant resources into revitalizing its downtown; many successes have been achieved. The city is now at a bit of a crossroads as to whether taxpayer money should be involved in any major investments or not. Two projects floating through the deliberation process bring this to the forefront.

Last year, the city received an unsolicited proposal for a conference center and hotel, as has been noted on this page. The possible location has been revealed to be at the corner of Cantrell Avenue and Main Street. A feasibility study is underway. What involvement, if any, the taxpayers have in the continuation of this project must be very carefully reviewed before any financial commitments are made by the city.

The same must be said of any plans for an urban park on the land next to the Turner Pavilion downtown (and for disclosure, right across the street from the Daily News-Record building). We look forward to the feasibility study on this matter, and we are glad to see private funds paying the way for the work to date.

The government must take care of items like public safety, schools, and transportation. And, yes, it must invest as needed in economic development. But, outside those core areas, the market must decide whether a project is feasible. City Council simply needs to keep that in mind moving forward.