Merger memories

Published 7:04 pm Saturday, January 25, 2014

Men recall work that led to current city

At the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 1974, the combined city of Suffolk went from a mere voter-endorsed theory to a municipal reality and changed the political geography of Hampton Roads forever.

The population of the city of Suffolk doubled overnight as it took in more than 400 square miles of land that previously had been the city of Nansemond and, shortly before that, Nansemond County. But it didn’t happen just in that one second — it took a lawsuit, a judge’s order, months of late-night work sessions by two city councils hashing out every detail and a voter referendum that garnered the approval of nearly 76 percent of the 12,066 voters. It remains the largest independent city in the state and at the time was the fourth-largest in the country.

Forty years on, some of the main figures involved in the merger recently reflected on the process and the results for Andy Damiani’s “Roundtable Talk” show. It airs on Charter channel 13 at 8 a.m., 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. every day.

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“I don’t think there’s been another consolidation of that kind since Suffolk and Nansemond successfully did it,” said D.J. Mangum, who was mayor of the city of Nansemond and, prior to that, chairman of the board of supervisors of Nansemond County. “I think we had the right people involved at the right time to get it going.”

The short-lived city of Nansemond, only a year and a half old at its demise, was formed as a legal maneuver to fend off annexation challenges from Suffolk and Portsmouth. While tiny old Suffolk — a cramped doughnut hole with nowhere to go — eyed land surrounding it in the county, Portsmouth, also desperate for land, had set its sights on the area that is now known as Harbour View.

“There were rumors about Portsmouth wanting to take Nansemond County,” Damiani said. “That was a move to block Portsmouth. Really, it was a clever move, and it caught Portsmouth off guard.”

The day before the new city formed on July 1, 1972, Suffolk filed a lawsuit to annex the part of the county it wanted. But a city cannot annex part of another city without the voters’ consent. Therefore, Nansemond’s move blocked both Portsmouth and Suffolk.

However, a three-judge panel hearing the lawsuit ordered the two cities to negotiate. A merger began to make more sense.

“I felt strongly that consolidation was the way to go,” Mangum said. “Suffolk wouldn’t survive very long if they didn’t get anything on the annexation. The little core city of Suffolk would be the asset for the nucleus of a consolidated city.”

There was a lot to consider. Utilities and other city services, debt and zoning, and how to combine the two governments already in existence were among the things that had to be hashed out.

After the successful vote later that year, the merger officially took place as the calendar turned to 1974. A ceremony was held Jan. 2 with remarks by Gov. Mills E. Godwin, a county native.

Four decades later, the change has worked out for the best, said the three men who were involved in the taping of Damiani’s show.

“I think a lot of good people worked very hard over the years to build the foundation we have today,” said Tom Underwood, who was assistant city manager for the city of Nansemond at the time. “Good government doesn’t start with any one council, and it doesn’t end when they leave. It’s a continuous growth.”

Mangum said he thinks “more progress could have been made if they had followed more carefully the things that were outlined,” because later councils made some changes over the years, he said.

But, he added, “I think it was a successful venture, and I think it was beneficial to both jurisdictions. I think Suffolk will continue to make a name for itself. At one point in time, Suffolk wasn’t even considered part of the Tidewater area. Things have changed.”

Damiani said nobody involved in those late-night meetings could have anticipated how much growth would follow.

“We knew there was going to be growth, but not that much,” he said. “The results are not perfect, but I think everybody’s probably in agreement it was the proper thing to do.”