The era of Suffolk

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 29, 2004

Editor’s note: Today’s installment of Horizons includes reporting on the 30th anniversary of the merger of Suffolk and Nansemond. Former Mayor Andy Damiani, a council member at the time of the merger, wrote the following essay about the merger for The Virginian-Pilot on the 25th anniversary in 1999.

By Andy Damiani

Thirty years ago, with great ceremony, we planted the seed of a merged city.

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We spent the first 10 years cultivating and pruning our great concept in anticipation of the fruits it would bear. And now we are ready for the Great Harvest -to pick the grapes and to savor the wine of our endeavors and to continue to grow and strengthen not only as Virginia’s largest city, but also as Virginia’s most livable city. Without a doubt, this is the Era of Suffolk.

Some say marriages are made in heaven – others prefer to give credit for merger to the annexation judge. In any case, the union between Suffolk and Nansemond required community support, determination, political courage, and a lucky roll of the dice.

From the very start, the merged city was faced with what seemed to be an insurmountable task of structuring a professional municipal government capable of carrying out not only the merger mandates, but also to put in place the mechanism for a smooth transition to the future.

One may ask about the political component to merger, especially in the early stages of negotiations. The councils did quite well considering the often-stressful conditions. Acting on the instructions of the annexation court, which gave the two cities 45 days to work toward a consolidation agreement they believed the citizens of both cities would accept in referendum.

Soon after the favorable merger vote, the 10-member join city councils – five from Suffolk and five from Nansemond – met as the official city council of Suffolk from January to July 31, 1974. The council had to not only consider for adoption many items that were in conflict with the two existing charters but to carry out the provisions of the consolidation agreement and the new charter.

Because of the unusual demographics of our combined city, coupled with the diverse philosophical views of council members, our task was extremely difficult. The most urgent items facing council that required immediate consideration were five important categories. They included taxation, education, delivery of municipal services, council representation and elections.

New elections were ordered for May 1974. All six borough seats were up for grabs at that time and all borough elections were to be held at the same time. Borough terms were staggered – two and four year terms initially. The terms chosen by council were decided the old fashioned way – by drawing straws.

It is interesting to note that the 1974 city council elections attracted 16 candidates for seats in all boroughs. Voter interest in Suffolk was very high then. In fact, the total votes cast in all boroughs was a staggering 11,091. Contrast those numbers with the total votes cast (8,898) for all boroughs in 1996 (3 seats) and 1998 (4 seats). How does one explain the 2,193 vote differential?

Another statistic that begs an explanation is the school pupil population differential between the 1974 merger enrollment of approximately 11,700 students (stated in the study report) compared to the 1998 enrollment of approximately 11,300 pupils. Is there a reasonable explanation?

It was during the first two years of merger that council had to address our most critical and basic needs. Some of those were the following: Obsolete schools – we closed seven and constructed three – purchased from Portsmouth part of their water distribution system – joined Hampton Roads Sanitation District – began extending sewer systems to needed neighborhoods – eliminated thousands of outdoor privies, constructed three new fire stations, purchased the 1,200-acre Lone Star Lakes property, enlarged the industrial park, initiated airport improvements and adopted our consultants’ first managed growth policy plan.

In the early years we had an extensive menu of needs on our plate; however, very limited financial resources available to carry out our program. To deal with this situation, council instructed our city manager to aggressively apply and fish for state and federal funds. He did just that, successfully receiving more than $24 million in grant revenues during that period.

During the 10th anniversary ceremony, former Gov. Mills E. Godwin cited that the first 10 years of merger as the most eventful decade in the life of our people. He reminded us that Suffolk was a better place to live that it was before the merger. He stressed to the audience that consolidation had not been a cure-all for Suffolk’s problems nor did the leaders promise one. He predicted then that he thought the city would grow as fast as it deals with its many problems. I believe that during the past 25 years the city has grown as he predicted – maybe too much, some say.

In closing, let me emphasize that the many physical accomplishments made during the past 30 years should not be measured by bricks and concrete alone, but by the dedication and accomplishments made through a common effort by our many civic and service clubs, festivals, churches and various neighborhood groups. Together they have enhanced our favorable image and community pride giving Suffolk the quality of life we all deserve.

Again, this is the Era of Suffolk.