Damiani starts ambitious project

Published 9:32 pm Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Andy Damiani is widely known as a veritable walking history book on the city of Suffolk.

However, Damiani knows that he and the others of his generation will be gone someday, so he is taking steps to ensure the city’s history is preserved for future Suffolk residents.

“Nobody knows the history of the merger,” Damiani said, referring to the 1974 merger of the city of Suffolk and the city of Nansemond. “They know what happened, but they don’t know how, why, the bumps in the road.”

That’s why Damiani is doing a series on his “Roundtable Talk” cable television show on the merger of the two cities. Damiani is taping interviews with some of the people most intimately involved with the merger to preserve the history of the birth of the city. He hopes to put the interviews on CDs to be placed in the archives of the city’s library.

“We created the city 36 years ago,” Damiani said. “We want to preserve that.”

This week, Damiani taped a show with DeWitte “D.J.” Mangum, the former chairman of the board of supervisors of Nansemond County, first and only mayor of the city of Nansemond and first vice-mayor of the combined city of Suffolk. The same insurance business that brought Mangum to Suffolk in the 1960s has since taken him back to Hanover County, but he returned this week to Suffolk to participate in Damiani’s series.

“I think it’s good to look back and see why these agreements are in place,” Mangum said. “I still think it was the right thing to do.”

Damiani already has taped a show with James Hope, the first mayor of the consolidated city of Suffolk, and hopes to do one with Tom Underwood, who was on staff at the time.

“It was an unusual consolidation,” Damiani said.

Mangum recalled the circumstances surrounding the consolidation. Before the consolidation, the city of Suffolk was surrounded by Nansemond County. In the early 1970s, however, the city of Portsmouth began looking to annex the northern portion of the county, so Nansemond became a city in order to prevent annexation by Portsmouth.

“We were hoping it would discourage Portsmouth,” Mangum said.

Soon after Nansemond became a city, talk of Suffolk annexing Nansemond began to arise — but not all were fond of the idea, as Mangum recalled.

“The people of Suffolk thought they were a step above” the people in the rural areas, Mangum said. “It was pretty generally known that was the way they felt.”

Residents in the rural areas were no more excited, worrying if they would wind up paying for services that only “Old Suffolk” residents would get — a concern that many still share today.

However, annexation began to look like a good idea, Mangum said. The tiny city of Suffolk was losing its revenue through people moving outside of its boundaries, and taxes on those still there were escalating.

“We knew they couldn’t make it on that basis,” Mangum said.

A panel of judges considering the annexation issue directed Suffolk and Nansemond to talk about the issue for 45 days — and talk they did, according to Mangum.

“We would meet every day from five o’clock until one or two in the morning,” Mangum said. “We had five guys on Suffolk and five guys on Nansemond who were conscientious, and looking out for the good of the people at that time.”

The 10 representatives spent their evenings poring over financial statements and hammering out details such as hunting areas, taxing districts, and water and sewer systems — all issues that routinely still crop up in City Council meetings, Damiani said.

Once the merger plan had been developed, the agreement had to be sold to the people, Mangum said. Town hall meetings were held across the soon-to-be city.

“I really think we had a good agreement,” Mangum said. A two-thirds majority vote was needed in a referendum to merge the two cities, and the people voted overwhelmingly in favor of it, Mangum recalled.

When the taping for the segment was completed on Monday, Damiani asked Mangum if he had any regrets about the merger. Mangum supplied only one — that he hadn’t campaigned aggressively enough to win re-election after the merger.

“What I needed to do was work on some of these sticking points,” Mangum said.

Damiani’s programs air on Charter channel 13 at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. each day. The show with James Hope is currently running, and Mangum’s session will begin running in about a week.