All five candidates for Harrisonburg City Council met electronically for a town hall discussion hosted by the James Madison University Center for Civic Engagement and Dukes Vote along with the JMU College Republican and Democrat groups on Wednesday.
Incumbent Mayor Deanna Reed and fellow Democratic candidates Laura Dent and Charles Hendricks, as well as independent incumbent George Hirschmann and Republican Kathleen Kelley all answered questions on pressing local issues.
Reopening And Business
Dent, a technical writer and adjunct professor at JMU, said COVID-19 restrictions should remain in place.
“I think until we have a vaccine broadly available, we’re going to have to continue the precautions,” Dent said.
She also spoke about creating a high-tech jobs hub in Harrisonburg because people in many tech careers can work remotely.
Hendricks called local business the “backbone” of the community and said following scientific guidelines will help businesses reopen safely.
The city’s higher business taxes make it less competitive than the county, according to Hirschmann, a retired television weatherman who also spoke about streamlining the process of starting a business in Harrisonburg.
“So we’re losing a bit of business in that direction and it also seems to take a little bit longer to apply for a business zoning and permits and whatever is involved in that than what it does in the county,” said Hirschmann.
He also floated the idea of giving new companies a two- to three-month tax break.
“Just as an incentive to get them into the city,” Hirschmann said. “We’ve got a lot of empty storefronts downtown and we’d like to fill those up.”
He also said businesses should not be opened “prematurely” during the pandemic.
Kelley, a physician who specializes in alternative and integrative medicine, also said a change in tax could help, specifically reducing the meals tax for the first few months.
However, Kelley also said that under 10,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the U.S., when the actual figure is over 217,000, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I think we can safely reopen and let people wear masks if they want to wear masks,” said Kelley, adding she would encourage members of the public to wear a mask in a crowded area.
Reed, who works for an after-school program, said City Council has shown its support for businesses impacted by the pandemic by allocating $750,000 in federal money for business grants and forgiving over $100,000 in business loans. The loans were given out at the beginning of the pandemic.
“The bottom line is in order for us to get our businesses back on track, we must get a handle on COVID, and the only way we can do that is to follow the CDC guidelines and wear a mask, wash our hands and practice social distancing,” Reed said.
JMU And The Pandemic
Hirschmann said he was glad to hear from the presidents of JMU and and Eastern Mennonite University at the Sept. 23 City Council meeting. He said the keys to the relationship between the city and JMU are communication and transparency.
“I wish they had [spoke at City Council] about two months earlier because I think people were really curious, and then at that point the students were coming back,” he said.
Open and honest communication between JMU, EMU and the city is mutually beneficial, and the pandemic has shown how much the three rely on each other for success, according to Reed.
“The city cannot solve problems like the pandemic, even affordable housing and transportation, alone,” she said. “Our higher education institutions have expertise and resources that can help us move forward as we solve these problems together.”
Dent described JMU’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic as mixed. She said the school allowing Open Doors to operate the shelter at Godwin Hall was positive, but the wave of local virus cases caused by the students’ return was negative.
“The roller coaster of [virus cases] is unnerving to the community,” she said.
Hendricks also spoke about the mutual benefit of positive and clear communication with EMU and JMU.
“What is good for EMU and JMU is good for Harrisonburg and what is good for Harrisonburg is good for EMU and JMU,” he said.
Education And HHS2
Reed said she was proud to vote in favor of building the new high school. She said overcrowded or under-resourced schools are a disservice to students.
“While the project is delayed, understandably so, during the pandemic, I am committed to ensuring that construction will happen,” Reed said.
Reed and Dent said education should remain the top budget priority, and Dent also voiced her support for the second high school.
Hirschmann said he thought the project, estimated at about $100 million, could have been done $50 million to $80 million cheaper, but agreed the school system needs more space. He said money saved on the project could be used for other purposes, such as teacher raises.
“I truly believe the teachers need a raise and they’re working even harder now teaching virtually,” he said.
Kelley agreed with Hirschmann. She also said council should look again at expanding the existing school.
Every year, Hendricks said, construction costs rise about 1% to 2% and additional delays will only increase the cost of the new high school.
“The money we invest in the school is money we will save in the future,” said Hendricks, principal architect at Gaines Group Architects.
Reed said the results from the city’s ongoing housing study, zoning and subdivision ordinance project and ordinance advisory committee will help council make the most well-informed decisions on how to address the lack of affordable housing in the city.
“We have too many people and families who struggle with a lack of affordable housing on a daily basis,” Reed said.
Hendricks said a confluence of factors such as tariffs, the 2008 economic collapse and high demand have caused the housing crunch.
“Working with developers to allow for higher density development with the inclusion of affordable and workforce housing options could provide the solution to overcome some of these problems,” Hendricks said.
Dent said the city should look into a long-term homeless shelter, a position Kelley and Hendricks both spoke about.
Kelley said the city could look at buying the former church at 25 Maryland Ave. with Open Doors to use as a shelter, clinic and retraining site for the homeless. She also said developers should be asked to set aside a certain amount of units of new student developments for local affordable housing.
The candidates said addressing the challenges of translating skills of new immigrants to America would open opportunities for new members of the community.
“We have many talented and skilled people in our community who cannot do what they are trained to do,” Hendricks said.
This challenge is due in part to language barriers, according to Hendricks. He also said city boards and commissions should reflect the racial makeup of the city.
A way to help with the language barrier many new immigrants have to overcome would be a “pen pal” type system that would pair new immigrants with the elderly in the community to share stories and help the new arrivals learn English, Hirschmann said.
“The elderly would love it and they would certainly gain from the communication with the kids, the kids would learn from the older population in the city,” he said.
When she was 17, Kelley said, her neighbors who didn’t speak English brought over a $400 turntable wondering why it was playing so quiet. The family was not told they needed to buy a receiver and speakers, she said. Kelley and the family returned to the store and got the money back after the discussion.
“These are the kind of things [immigrants] run into that they can be easily taken advantage of and to have a family that mentors them or fosters them, that would be a really good way to get them assimilated quicker,” she said. Kelley later said she wants immigrants and residents to share the American dream and for immigrants and refugees not to feel isolated.
If reelected, Reed said, she would continue her work supporting the immigrant and refugee community, and many are part of the city’s asset-limited, income constrained employed population.
“They are working hard, but often in low-wage jobs that leave them under financial pressure no matter how hard they are working,” she said.
Dent said new immigrants and refugees in the city should be made to feel safe, and safety nets, such as legal services, are important for immigrants and refugees to be able to access.