Editorial – Make the best of Port 460
Published 8:32 pm Friday, September 23, 2022
Time will tell whether five Suffolk City Council members acted wisely this week in blessing a radical transformation of the city whose well-being they were elected to safeguard.
Count us among those who are gravely concerned, even as we sincerely hope for the best.
By any definition, it was an extraordinary act of defiance of the public will. The five votes to rezone hundreds of acres at the gateway to Suffolk to accommodate yet more warehouses and 18-wheelers were exactly five times the number of city residents who spoke in favor of the Port 460 project at a City Council or Planning Commission meeting or in a letter to the editor of this newspaper. That number, by our count, was precisely one, not counting the property owner who will be enriched by its sale to a Maryland developer, nor that developer’s paid lawyer.
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We understand, of course, that opponents are always louder than supporters, regardless of the controversy. But this was different. Even as elected officials and city staff touted Port 460’s considerable economic benefits, not a single prominent business or civic leader stood up to say that the project will be good for Suffolk. That’s astounding in a city with a long history of strong civic leadership on worthwhile causes.
Despite lots of lip service Wednesday night about having listened to and considered the consensus of the citizenry, the truth is that the only support for this project came from politically powerful interests outside Suffolk’s borders, primarily the Port of Virginia. In the end, their interest trumped the citizenry’s. And for a cheap price. The port to date has pledged a mere million dollars toward road improvements that will push or exceed $100 million, and even that million from the port is conditioned on a matching million from Suffolk taxpayers. Insulting.
For the record, we don’t begrudge port officials for pushing the project. Additional inland warehouse space is sorely needed if the port is to be the busiest on the East Coast, an achievement that would be of unquestionable benefit to the Tidewater region, which includes Suffolk. Nor do we blame statewide politicians, who are elected by the commonwealth as a whole, for backing the project.
But regional and state loyalties must be secondary for Suffolk City Council members. “We are here to represent the will of the people of Suffolk,” Councilwoman Shelley Butler Barlow implored prior to Wednesday’s 5-3 vote.
Councilman Tim Johnson added, “I know this would be good for our region, but it wouldn’t be good for our citizens.”
Johnson, to his credit, defended the integrity and sincerity of the five council members who approved the rezoning. We concur. It was obvious to us that Mayor Mike Duman agonized over his decision, preferring a further tabling of the matter. We were less impressed with veteran Councilman Roger Fawcett, who arrogantly lectured the packed room at City Hall, telling citizens that “you have convinced yourselves” that the project is bad, apparently all of them lacking the wisdom of Fawcett himself to conclude differently.
We have a much higher regard than Fawcett for Suffolk residents, as expressed succinctly by Johnson: “The people of this city are not stupid.”
Now the important work begins to maximize benefits and minimize risks from a monumental remaking of the U.S. 460 corridor, and it’s incumbent on Duman, Fawcett, Donald Goldberg, Lue Ward and LeOtis Williams to personally work to ensure the positive outcome they predicted with their votes Wednesday night.
That should mean, at minimum:
- Working the halls of power in Norfolk, Richmond and D.C. to demand regional, state and federal funding for all necessary road improvements. Suffolk taxpayers cannot bear the burden alone. The trucks are coming, despite zero commitments to date for road construction funding. Port 460’s elected supporters must fix that.
- Making a plan to help ensure that the vast majority of jobs during both construction of the warehouses and their ongoing operation are filled by Suffolk residents rather than commuters.
- Passing a moratorium on warehouse construction in the city limits, reversed only by majority vote of this or a future City Council. With this approval of Port 460 following a warehousing frenzy along Holland Road over the past decade, Suffolk has now more than done its part for the Port of Virginia. There must be no more trampling of the citizenry in the name of regional progress. If one of the five council members who blessed Port 460 wants to begin to restore a now broken trust with the citizenry, he or she should make the motion next month for such a moratorium. Suffolk deserves an innovative, bold strategy for economic development going forward. Warehousing was fine for a period, but it’s now a lazy way to create jobs and build a tax base.
- Permanently fixing a broken process that allowed a massive project such as Port 460 gain irreversible momentum before some elected officials, much less the citizenry, knew it was happening. In short, city staff proved to have far too powerful a role in pushing through a deeply unpopular project. Elected leadership must quickly reassert itself.