GNC Annual Meeting, May 30, 2018 – Charles V. McPhillips
We are grateful to Mayor Andy Berke of Chattanooga for flying in this afternoon. So he and I probably have different cities in mind when I rejoice that we woke up this morning in the greatest city in America. Don’t laugh: some of you had to drive here.
I look forward to hearing from Mayor Berke about the incredible progress Chattanooga has achieved in recent years in harnessing the power of innovation, the power of technology, and the power of talent and places densely located in an innovative district to generate new business opportunities and new career opportunities for Chattanooga’s citizens.
Of course, we have made great progress in Norfolk over many years, and of late, in leveraging our history and our historic assets to build a better looking future.
Speaking of leverage, The Virginian-Pilot ran a story the other day about our City being in debt. The article suggested that this debt may impede our progress on important civic projects, including some near and dear to our hearts at GNC – for example, the CTE School and the re-development of the St. Paul’s Quadrant. The article also warned that we may face future tax increases even beyond the 10¢ hike in a real estate tax rate just approved by City Council.
Although I am not looking forward to receiving next quarter’s tax bill from the City Treasurer, I applaud the courage of our City Manager, this good Mayor and his colleagues on City Council in doing the hard but right thing – that is, to pay our bills, and that includes answering the capital calls for past and current investments in our City’s future. For the most part, these investments have paid off handsomely for the Norfolk taxpayer. (I didn’t see any mention in the article about how our tax base in downtown Norfolk has vaulted from $318 million in 1999 to over $1.5 billion today. There would be a lot more potholes in our neighborhoods without the tax revenues these investments have generated.)
Having lauded our City’s leaders, I must respectfully plead for no more tax increases that might damage our City’s competitive position in incubating, accelerating and attracting new businesses. To the full extent we can afford to do so, we must continue to invest in our future, but we also cannot afford to be known as a high-tax or anti-business city in the eyes of the entrepreneurs and employers we must count on to invest private dollars and thereby employ our residents. A successful businessman himself, the Mayor certainly agrees with me on this score. Knowing him and his colleagues as I do, I have great confidence in their stewardship of our City’s finances.
But let’s face it — we at the Greater Norfolk Corporation have also accumulated quite a debt since our founding in 1977. We owe a debt to the legacies of former Mayors Roy Martin, Vince Thomas, Joe Leafe, Mason Andrews and Paul Fraim – all of whom looked to GNC as an essential partner in making that progress happen in Norfolk. Similarly, we are in debt to business and civic leaders such as Henry Clay Hofheimer, Frank and Jane Batten, Josh Darden, Harvey Lindsay, Harrison Wilson, Father Joseph Green, Reverend John Foster, Arnold McKinnon, Bob Stanton, Vince Mastracco, Tommy Johnson, Harry Lester, Ulysses Turner and many others for the legacies they have left us by dedicating so much of their professional and personal lives toward improving Norfolk. Heck, even though some of them ended up living in Virginia Beach, their dedication to Norfolk was profound, and we must repay the debt we owe to their examples.
So I stand on tall shoulders indeed when I thank you for the great honor of leading GNC for another year. Mercifully for you, Charity Volman and Ed Amorosso have agreed to get in the chute to replace me soon. My remaining time is therefore short, and I beg you to support me on this last lap of a race against the very little time we have to leave our own legacy to the future of Norfolk.
The first turn on this last lap must be St. Paul’s Quadrant. A year ago I stood before you and implored my good friend, our fine Mayor, to take down the inhumane, the dehumanizing projects located in St. Paul’s Quadrant, a mere 15 minute walk from where we gather. Not so that the business community could make a buck, but so that the poor long quarantined there could build better lives for themselves, freed from the crime, the drugs, the grinding poverty, the debilitating dependency and pervasive hopelessness afflicting so many warehoused in these projects. Mayor Alexander: I salute you and your colleagues on Council for your leadership in offering a better future for our neighbors currently trapped in these projects, and I pledge that GNC will be a dependable partner to you and the City in turning those 200 flood-prone acres of poverty and despair into sunnier uplands of opportunity and inclusion.
On the second turn of their lap, we must continue to do everything within our power to develop, attract and retain the talent necessary to spur economic opportunity for everyone in Norfolk. We simply must reverse the brain drain that has sent too many of our sons, daughters and grandchildren to seek careers and raise families elsewhere. This is important to all of us, and it is especially important in our African-American and other minority communities. We need all of these good folks to complete their educations and then come home to build a greater Norfolk.
On the third turn of this final lap, we simply must complete the work started by Maurice Jones and carried forward by the grit and savvy of Tommy Johnson, with the support of this Mayor and his predecessor, to stand up a world class Career and Technical Education School that will prepare many of our youth to pursue the lucrative and fulfilling careers that 21st century employers are dying to offer them. We also must stand ready to support our potential partners in bringing a Governor School-quality institution to the greater Norfolk area so that our most ambitious and academically accomplished youth have educational opportunities comparable to what their peers in Northern Virginia and Richmond enjoy today.
And on the final turn of this lap, we must bring alive the Norfolk Tech Trail – our innovation district — for reasons that will be better understood after you hear from Mayor Berke about the early success and future plans for Chattanooga’s innovation district. Of course, the Norfolk Tech Trail connects St. Paul’s Quadrant to our most important academic, medical and business anchors, while straddling an Elizabeth River Trail that will soon become, thanks to your support, the best, most iconic urban riverfront trail in the country – a local treasure of national significance. (But enough on the Elizabeth River Trail, as I pray that it will soon be the subject of a victory lap.)
Finally, in my dash to the finish line, I am haunted by the fact that this great City, teeming with opportunities, culture, history, beauty and civic devotion, is also home for the 3 in every 10 Norfolk children who dwell in poverty. Most of these poor children are born into single-parent households headed by a single mother, lacking the education or other resources essential to propel their dependent children into an adulthoods of independence. And the fact that up to 17 of our 45 schools lack accreditation, while none in Virginia Beach are so poorly regarded, is simply unacceptable. Progressive school districts in New Orleans, Denver, Indianapolis, Camden, New Jersey and even Washington, D.C. have turned their public schools around in face of demographics just as daunting as ours, by moving to a 21st century model of decentralizing control, curtailing bureaucracies while investing school principals with the autonomy to run their schools, giving families real choices, and making school leaders accountable to the public authorities that charter them and the parents empowered to choose where to best educate their children. Fortunately, we do not need to raise taxes or defer important civic projects in order to address these twin problems of poverty and poor schools. These are business problems we can tackle, not by spending more money, but spending what we have more wisely; not by simply feeding a man with a fish, but by teaching a man to fish; and not by consigning great swaths of our people to futures of dependency, but by equipping them to make well educated decisions about their personal futures and the futures of their families, and in doing so change the future of Norfolk.
So, like you, I love this City, and like you, I love this City so much I want to change it — by building on the progress we have made together over the past 40 years. By continuing to invest in our future, while being good stewards of our current resources. And by paying the debts we all owe to those individuals I named earlier, among others. So, just as they did, we must work together, and selflessly, to give everyone in this City a chance to succeed. Indeed, let’s make every child born in this City the odd’s on favorite to win the race.