WYDaily.com is your source for free news and information in Williamsburg, James City & York Counties.
Elaine McBeth might be a first-time candidate for City Council, but she is no stranger to city business.
When her two stints on the City of Williamsburg Planning Commission are combined, McBeth has been delving into how the city develops – and redevelops – itself for a total of 11 years. Now McBeth, 54, is one of five candidates vying for three seats on the City Council.
Despite her aversion to step into the political aspect of serving the city, McBeth wants to help bring stability to a council that will have at least two new members with Mayor Clyde Haulman and Councilwoman Judy Knudson choosing not to run for re-election.
She also pointed to the recent appointment of City Manager Marvin Collins and the expected retirements of longstanding department heads, starting with Planning Director Reed Nester this summer, as reasons citizens should be thinking about the importance of maintaining institutional knowledge.
“These are the totally non-sexy issues people aren’t necessarily thinking about when they think about our city government,” said McBeth, who is the associate director of the College of William & Mary’s public policy program and a professor of economics and public policy. “[Collins] needs strong leadership from council members who know a lot about what has been going on and don’t have a serious learning curve.”
Though she said she has enough self-awareness to know she would also have much to learn, McBeth said she believes she can hit the ground running with many of the land-use and development issues because of her experience both as a member of the Planning Commission and as the commission’s liaison to the Economic Development Authority.
If elected, McBeth wants to focus on economic development, education and neighborhoods as a way of protecting or improving the high quality of life already available to Williamsburg residents.
McBeth, an economist, has a particular interest in working to grow the city’s tax base. While she praised the city’s recent focus on redevelopment as a way to attract new businesses and diversify the economy, she would like to see the council hold off on buying any more properties – council’s latest purchase, which has not yet closed, is the Super 8 Motel on Richmond Road – until some already on the books have been sold.
She would also like to explore the idea of shifting that type of control from City Council to the Economic Development Authority, which is how localities typically distribute those powers, to see whether that division of labor better serves the city’s redevelopment goals.
“I also think there are very simple things, low-hanging fruit, that can be done to improve some areas of the city. Like crosswalks in the right places to make the city even more walkable, or streetscaping projects in areas targeted for redevelopment so they’re ready when the market is ready,” McBeth said.
As a City Council member, McBeth said she plans to support those types of projects in the annual Capital Improvements Program to help areas like High Street and Quarterpath build out to their maximum potential now that the city is recovering from the recession.
Regarding education, McBeth believes the best way City Council can have an effect on Williamsburg-James City County Schools decisions is to support the city’s “very capable” school board members.
“We might be a minority player in our partnership with James City County but we’re not paying an inconsequential contribution,” McBeth said. “We need to make sure that what the city residents are wanting for their children is something that is supported up the chain.”
A continuation of her work on the Planning Commission, McBeth plans to remain focused on protecting the city’s “good, healthy, safe” neighborhoods by supporting policies that promote a diversity of neighborhoods throughout the city’s limits.
McBeth, who grew up on Long Island, first came to Virginia for graduate school at the University of Virginia – a choice she made to escape the harsh winters she experienced at Hamilton College in Upstate New York.
When she graduated from the U.Va.’s economics program, she had a job offer from both Merrill Lynch in New York City and the College of William & Mary. For her, the decision to turn down the Merrill Lynch job – despite the significant difference in pay – was an easy one.
“This is where I really wanted to be. This is the lifestyle I wanted to have and the community I wanted to be in,” McBeth said. “People make lifestyle choices, and I was no different.”
Though active in her school community growing up, McBeth credits a scholarship she received to attend Hamilton College as a turning point in how she looked at public service: She received an opportunity that changed the course of her future, so she dedicated herself to providing others with opportunities by offering her economic and public policy skills to the community.
That dedication has led her to a life in public service, both in her career as a professor and as a volunteer for the community, whether on the Planning Commission or with the United Way of Greater Williamsburg and the League of Women Voters.
“I may not be a natural campaigner, but I’m a really hard a worker,” McBeth said. “I am somebody who has worked the trenches for a long time, and an experienced leader who can bring a skill set to City Council that I think could be useful to the city.”