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What Has Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s Partnership for Petersburg Delivered?
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Commentary by Wyatt Gordon for The Virginia Mercury | When Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced last month that a new mobile supermarket would be setting up shop in the city as part of the one year anniversary festivities of his Partnership for Petersburg initiative, residents’ reactions ranged from celebratory to concern. Would the new tractor-trailer grocery help close a decades-old food desert or was the announcement an omen that the promised brick-and-mortar grocery store would no longer materialize?
Although the optimists won out, the uncertainty is a sign that even after a year, many Virginians don’t know what to make of their white, Republican governor taking such an interest in the commonwealth’s Blackest and most Democratic locality.
In a city like Petersburg, which has long been neglected no matter which party holds power in Richmond, the additional attention has been more than welcome.
“Gov. Youngkin’s staff are in Petersburg every week, and sometimes that meeting turns into two or three meetings each week,” said Sam Parham, the city’s mayor. “We’ve never had a governor here as much as Youngkin has been here. Most governors swoop down on us during election time, and we don’t see them again until the next election.”
Surge of Support
Featuring nine secretariats working across 46 initiatives with 70 external partners, Youngkin’s Partnership for Petersburg is easily the single most extensive engagement between the governor’s office and a locality in the commonwealth’s history. However, arguments erupt when it comes to measuring the impacts of those efforts.
On public safety, the city police department has gone from severely understaffed to just three officers short of a full squad after a three-month state police hiring surge. There are also three additional state prosecutors whose pay stems from a state grant and a group violence intervention coordinator designed to combat gang activity. Besides a 37% drop in robberies, crime statistics on homicides, aggravated assaults, and rape remain relatively the same.
When it comes to health care, the governor boasts a new nonprofit maternal health hub that opened its doors in April, over 236 pop-up clinics and health events ranging from youth vision screenings to prenatal and postpartum care, and the first of six one-stop resource centers coming to localities across Virginia. After being ranked the commonwealth’s “least healthy locality” last year, recent health rankings still show the Cockade City at the bottom of the pack.
On education, the governor’s team helped set up a tutoring service via the Urban League to get 52 Virginia State University students to tutor 438 Petersburg kids, awarded the public school system over $3 million dollars to combat learning loss, and provided funds to the local YMCA to expand before- and after-school care for 189 more children. One of the governor’s signature lab schools is awaiting approval to launch under Richard Bland Community College’s tutelage. Despite those efforts, the city’s public school system only has conditional accreditation with just one elementary school and the high school fully accredited.
Democrats argue that Youngkin’s efforts are nothing more than a governor with national ambitions playing politics in one of the state’s most impoverished places.
“This is a Governor who believes that Diversity Equity & Inclusion is dead and took Martin Luther King out of the history books, and we’re supposed to believe that he suddenly has the best interest of Black people in mind?” said House Minority Leader Don Scott, D-Portsmouth. “No, what he’s really doing is cutting ribbons for projects that the best governor for business in the history of the Commonwealth — Ralph Northam — started. The Governor is once again using the Black community as tools and props for his higher ambitions.”
Such a partisan perspective on the Partnership for Petersburg is unfair, according to Garrison Coward, Youngkin’s senior advisor tasked with leading the initiative.
“This whole partnership has been a bipartisan effort from the jump,” he said in an interview. “No matter whether folks are Democrats, Republicans or independents we need to fix the citizens of Virginia’s lives there. Our real goal here is to make the city self-sufficient so hopefully they won’t need so much assistance. We want to make sure they have the keys to drive their own future.”
Turn around trajectory
To expect 12 months of concerted efforts and initiatives to repair problems that have been decades in the making would be foolish, according to Parham.
“There’s no way anybody can snap their fingers and turn around this decades-long decline we’ve been in,” he said.
“We saw our glory years in the 1980s, and it’s been downhill from there with lost manufacturing, shuttered retail, and residents leaving. Jobs and growth don’t just come from the local level, and for so long we’ve seen so many governors steering resources to the counties. Petersburg had really been that forgotten city.”
Where the Partnership for Petersburg is most likely to leave a lasting impact is on the city’s economic development. From plans for a new downtown courthouse complex to millions in grants to renovate the Amtrak station that serves the city, public money is leading a wave of renewed investment. Even Moody’s has noticed the new growth, upgrading city bond ratings from an A2 to an A1 ranking.
High housing costs in Richmond have caused an exodus of creative types to move the 20 miles south to the once-beleaguered city and set up shop there. The result has been a renaissance for Petersburg’s small business scene with new noteworthy restaurants, an independent bookstore, and a boutique hotel opening up in the city’s historic Old Towne this year alone. Many of the new businesses received $25,000 grants from Youngkin’s Petersburg Founders Fund.
The first graduate of Brightpoint Community College’s new pharmaceutical major, a single mother who previously worked at Walmart, is emblematic of Petersburg’s new economic trajectory, according to Parham. Without the governor’s involvement, he doubts the city’s growing cluster of generics and insulin manufacturing would be where it is today.
“I think the future of Petersburg is going to be in advanced pharmaceutical manufacturing,” he said. “Gov. Youngkin and the Partnership have given us that instant credibility, so people want to come and do business here now.”
Grove of Growth
Besides the long awaited demolition of an abandoned hotel that blighted the city’s skyline for years, perhaps the single most important symbol of the Partnership for Petersburg could be the revitalization of the former Southside Regional Medical Center site. Since Bon Secours acquired the brand and relocated its campus to the city’s far south, the 20 acres which once hosted the hospital have sat vacant.
Spanning more than 500,000 square feet, the Sycamore Grove redevelopment is slated to include 340 new homes, an anchor grocery store, and 400,000 square feet of retail space, according to the request for proposals Petersburg issued earlier this year. Homeownership seminars are already underway to help identify residents who could move into the new housing.
With the clock ticking down until the end of Youngkin’s term in 2025, Mayor Parham feels the pressure to pull together what he believes is “going to be the staple project of the city.”
“I have 18 months to get Sycamore Grove off the ground, so it’s no sleep right now,” he said. “We are working around the clock because we know this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. The next governor will likely have his focus somewhere else.”
Even the current governor could soon have his attention divided between Petersburg and another locality in need of the executive’s assistance.
“Not a day goes by where we don’t get a request from a city to figure out what we can do,” said Coward. “The governor wants us to make sure [the Partnership for Petersburg] is seen as a roadmap to help out other localities. We will hopefully get around to helping out at least one more city, but for right now we are really focused on Petersburg.”
WYATT GORDON. Gordon covers transportation, housing, and land use for the Mercury through a grant from the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The Mercury retains full editorial control. Previously he’s written for the Times of India, Nairobi News, Honolulu Civil Beat, Style Weekly and RVA Magazine. He also works as a policy manager for land use and transportation at the Virginia Conservation Network.
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