I sat down with the hotly contested Dogtown Dish Mayor Poll winner-Jack Berry. This was my first meeting with Jack, as I had never met him before. I asked him a handful of questions. Some are about Manchester and others are about RVA in general.
We are approaching a big decision for a new Mayor and we need to know our candidates. This election is make or break time for Manchester. Our neighborhood has seen no attention from the city for way too long. The next Mayor needs to focus on Manchester and make the necessary investments to take the neighborhood to the next level. This is what Jack had to say…
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Lynchburg, leaving to attend the University of Virginia, then George Washington University for a Master’s Degree in Public Administration. My mother was a school teacher and my father worked in city government. Both were civil rights leaders and were very involved in affordable housing ministries. I’d like to think that their values rubbed off on me.
In what area of the City do you live?
My wife and I have owned two houses in Church Hill, then moved to the near west end, then Doswell and Ashland, before moving to our current home in Willow Oaks in 2001. We are currently renovating a house in the Fan (1899) that has been vacant for 20 years and we will move there in August. We have paid a lot of real estate commissions over the 35 years we have lived here!
In your career, what is your proudest accomplishment?
I am especially proud of my role as the CEO of Venture Richmond in organizing and producing the Richmond Folk Festival. The event is a model of creativity, authenticity, diversity and flawless execution. I believe the event marked a turning point in RVA’s recent history, as it helped prove that Richmond could do big things really well. I believe that it has been a great boost for our sense of community pride, and tons of fun for everyone.
Tell us why you believe you are qualified to be Mayor?
Richmond is facing some major challenges, and we need someone who is a proven leader who has been successful managing large complex organizations (Richmond and Hanover) as well as small entrepreneurial non-profits (Richmond Renaissance and Venture Richmond). I was the Richmond City Budget Director (at age 29), then Deputy City Manager for Finance, and Hanover County Administrator. I was a leader in putting together major multi-jurisdictional deals including a regional water supply contract and the Greater Richmond Convention Center. I led the restructuring of Richmond’s ambulance service following a crisis involving the previous service provider. I have a track record of attracting talent, motivating and bringing forward great employees and achieving high levels of performance. I have earned a reputation for honesty, capability, humility and unity.
What is your priority list for the City if you are elected Mayor?
The first job is to build a high-performing city government organization that will earn the respect of citizens by providing basic services well. Residents expect a local government that is honest, transparent, efficient and effective. That means fixing problems that have plagued city government, like managing the money, producing financial statements on time, maintaining streets, handling bulk trash, cutting the grass and protecting children in the care of Social Services. Public education is the foundation of every great community. It is the ticket to freedom for many children. The City must value its teachers, take care of school buildings and create pathways to employment for students. Poverty is an obstacle to learning and reflects ongoing injustice in our community. I support the City’s community wealth building initiatives including housing, transportation, community policing, and public health outreach. One of the most successful economic development strategies that we can promote revolves around attracting millennials who, in turn, will attract companies and generate start-ups. If we continue to make RVA attractive to young people we will create a city that everyone will love, regardless of age. Quality of Life is an important priority because the best cities are walkable and bike friendly communities that celebrate the arts, outdoor recreation and an active, healthy lifestyle.
Manchester has seen virtually no basic maintenance from the City in decades, let alone infrastructure improvements. However, private developers, business owners, artists, and residents are flocking to the area and investing in Manchester. Can you understand that Manchester stakeholders are frustrated and feel they are being ignored by the City?
Manchester has been ignored by the city. The streets and sidewalks are in shambles. Instead of applying a proper structural asphalt overlay to the streets, the City has recently started applying a cheap slurry seal to streets in Manchester. Why are the standards lower in South Richmond? A primary responsibility of city government is to provide the public infrastructure that enables a community to develop and thrive. The City has not kept pace with the rapid, private sector development of Manchester. The City should proactively encourage the development of Manchester as a mixed-use community by providing public improvements in concert with the numerous private investments. The City wants residential development but so far hasn’t shouldered its basic responsibility for streets, sidewalks and crosswalks. The frustration that stakeholders feel is understandable. Converting an area with industrial uses and vacant lots to a thriving residential community doesn’t happen overnight, but investments by the City will enhance the tax base and produce an excellent rate of return, so should be accelerated. The City government must become action-oriented and speed up its decision-making processes to keep up with a rapidly changing city and world.
The list of maintenance and infrastructure improvements needed in Manchester is daunting. What do you see as the top priorities for Manchester?
I look forward to hearing from residents, business owners and others about community priorities, but I’d say the highest priorities are street repairs, sidewalks, safe pedestrian crosswalks, and streetscape improvements including lights, street trees and landscaping. The highest priorities would be the major streets including Hull Street, Commerce Road and 7th. Traffic calming measures are also needed. Next come public parks, riverfront improvements and better connections to the rest of the city. The redevelopment of Hull Street has enormous potential, but only if the area is clean, safe and well maintained. Again, private and public investment should go hand in hand. The City Government must demonstrate that it cares about Manchester.
It seems as if the City of Richmond’s Police Sector 112 is so geographically diverse being that it is spread across both sides of the River, that the lieutenant in charge is seemingly assigned an impossible task. Manchester seems to suffer as a result. Are you open to redrawing the police sector map, so Manchester can have a more focused police presence?
Community policing, where officers know their territory, know the residents and businesses, and get involved in solving neighborhood environmental issues, has proven to be the most successful approach to reducing crime. Fortunately, the Richmond Police Department is fully committed to community policing and has been for many years. When that attention and leadership is spread across a wide expanse of the city, the focus sometimes is diminished. I will review strategies and resources with the command staff and engage the community in determining whether traditional assignments can be shifted to provide the necessary focus for this rapidly changing neighborhood. That said, I have confidence that RPD is using its limited resources in the most effective manner possible.
Do you see the Manchester side of the City Riverfront Plan being acted upon if you are elected?
The Riverfront Plan includes many creative ideas for changing the environment and perceptions of Manchester. Restoring the Manchester Canal and Walker’s Creek with bike-pedestrian trails would create a highly attractive amenity. Softening the floodwall with landscaped terraces and trails would create better connections to the river. A cohesive urban streetscape and added green space would enhance the look and feel of the neighborhood. A revitalized Hull Street is well within our reach with some attention and care from City Government. Manchester is a gem in the heart of the city and it is time for the City to capitalize on this asset rather than ignore it. The planning has been done. Now is the time to commit to phased improvements.
I often refer to Manchester as a City within a City. It has incredible opportunity for increasing the tax base, jobs, and population growth for Richmond if the City Administration would make it a priority and invest in it. If you are elected, would you be open to creating a Manchester czar, task force, or some form of official representation within the City Administration to focus specifically on Manchester specific problems and opportunities?
Before the change in the form of government, the City had a Neighborhood Teams process that engaged community leaders across the city in providing input to the city on a wide range of issues. Many citizens were actively involved in the Neighborhood Teams and had great influence in the public policy process. I will re-establish some form of this Neighborhood Teams process to empower citizens to affect outcomes in their neighborhoods and to create a mechanism within City Hall to respond to neighborhood issues and be more proactive in finding solutions. There probably won’t be a czar, but there will be focused leadership for Manchester and other neighborhoods. As mayor, I will be highly engaged in neighborhood initiatives and highly accessible to neighborhood leaders.
Anything else you would like to share?
Richmond deserves a CEO that has experience leading large complex organizations. Richmond is a municipal corporation with annual revenues of $700 million and over 4,500 employees. It has enormous challenges. This is not a job for a politician or political operative who has no experience leading a large municipal corporation. We need to de-politicize local government and hire the best people, improve the processes and technology, and demand results. Richmond deserves a mayor you can trust, and a mayor who will unify the community and region. My vision is to make RVA a magnet of opportunity for millennials and families, and a more hopeful place for those that have been left behind. Richmond is on a roll but the City Government is not keeping up. We can make Richmond a high-performing city. I am a proven leader with the right experience That is what the city needs right now, and that is what Manchester needs. Give me four years and I will put Richmond City Government on the right track.