Embracing the differences

Published 10:02 pm Monday, March 7, 2011

As the city of Suffolk begins the process of redrawing the boundaries that mark the divisions between boroughs, the changes that have taken place here during the past few decades — and especially during the past 10 years — are laid out in stark detail.

A city whose urban center was once an economic hub surrounded on all sides by farms as far as the eye could see is ever more strongly led by the suburban center that formed in North Suffolk with the intersection of travel patterns, migration from overcrowded and high-traffic areas of Hampton Roads and availability of land at reasonable prices. And during the past 10 years, the transition of North Suffolk from its former agricultural base has moved beyond bedroom communities into industrial and commercial centers that today account for a large proportion of the city’s economic and employment base.

No longer can downtown Suffolk claim to be the city’s sole economic engine. Today, it shares that responsibility with Harbour View and the increasingly built-up Route 17 corridor. And while North Suffolk continues to grow, even in the face of a slow economy and the uncertain future of U.S. Joint Forces Command, downtown Suffolk continues to founder, meaning that the city increasingly relies on the success of North Suffolk in order to fill its tax coffers.

Email newsletter signup

Similarly agriculture no longer holds the title of king of the hill in Suffolk. Today’s economy depends on a variety of industries ranging from warehousing to defense contracting to medical services to retail. Farming remains important to Suffolk, but its footprint here shrinks every year, along with its relevance to the community. And as the mix changes, the pressure on the city to protect the interests of encroached farmers will rise.

As the city works through the redistricting process, citizens should pay attention to the way these changes will manifest themselves on Suffolk’s electoral map. Because of the need to balance the population among seven electoral boroughs, several of those boroughs will encompass huge, sparsely populated areas of the city; the remaining two or three will be tightly drawn, while incorporating heavily populated neighborhoods.

The resulting friction is likely to define the politics of Suffolk for much of the first half of this century, and there is little that can be done at this stage to avoid it. However, cognizant of the potential problem, city leaders and planners should start now looking for ways to help Suffolk’s two sides find common ground. Such an approach will ensure that the tug-of-war for the future of Suffolk doesn’t devolve into a true clash of cultures.