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A decision to lend his hand at the polls during the 2012 presidential election sparked Benming “Benny” Zhang’s interest to remain involved in public service at the local level throughout his four years at the College of William & Mary.
Weeks away from graduation, 21-year-old Zhang is now balancing his preparation for final exams with his first political campaign – a path he said began that day at the polls, though he did not know it at the time.
Zhang, who is the managing partner of the LLC that owns the Goodwin Street home he lives in and rents out rooms, is one of five candidates vying for three seats on council.
His first Election Day as an eligible voter was spent at the Williamsburg Community Building with fellow elections officers, whose commentary and passion about the City of Williamsburg made Zhang realize the importance of local government and how it affects citizens’ everyday lives far more than the federal politics that he had been spending his time consuming.
Zhang soon began attending City Council meetings and was appointed to serve on the city’s Public Housing Advisory Committee, a volunteer board that offers its input to the Williamsburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
He also sits on the government affairs committee of the Greater Williamsburg Chamber & Tourism Alliance and is a member of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation Revolutionary Society.
If elected, Zhang plans to support a continued focus on economic development and advocate for improved transparency from the city government.
Zhang said he sees redevelopment as not only smart, but likely necessary, for the city to boost its economy.
“It’s almost a misnomer when you hear economic development with Williamsburg. It really means economic redevelopment just given that we’re so land-limited,” Zhang said.
He wants City Council to “continue to be bold” as it adopts land-use policies so that businesses have their best chance to thrive. As a City Council member, he would recommend the city look into creating tourism zones, which would be a state designation that offers incentives for tourism-related businesses.
Though Zhang believes tourism zones would be successful in the city, he emphasized the city would need to develop a long-term strategic plan, with the input of businesses leaders and community members, at the same time.
“Rather than just adopting the ordinance [to create] tourism zones, we need to know exactly what we’re going to do with it,” said Zhang, who offered Newport News’ process for adopting tourism zones – they reached out to business leaders for input and developed a specific plan – as an example of tourism zones being successfully implemented.
Zhang’s focus on gathering input from the community and local leaders extends beyond the tourism zones, as he would like to see the city achieve better transparency by developing successful communication strategies.
While he does not believe the city is actively shutting out public comment in any way, Zhang said he believes the city could be more creative and proactive to receive feedback from a wider range of people.
The city has had two recent successes with proactive communication that Zhang would like to see continue: The Williamsburg Police Department recently partnered with a student organization to host a forum on drunken driving, and the City of Williamsburg sent out a survey as part of the ongoing downtown parking study.
Both efforts gave residents and students easier access because the conversation was brought to them instead of relying on them to come to officials, Zhang said.
He would like to see ideas for achieving greater transparency make their way into both the comprehensive plan, which will soon be updated, and the next biennial Goals, Initiatives and Outcomes document.
“When you see me as a council member, you’ll see me proactively reaching out to people in the community for their input, especially because I recognize that I’m not a longtime Williamsburg resident,” said Zhang, who grew up on Long Island. “I have a deep appreciation for the tradition and for the history of Williamsburg, and I’d be remiss if I never asked those people for their input on the city. Because it’s very much their city.”
Zhang may not have grown up here but he said he plans to live here for years to come – win or lose. He plans to apply to William & Mary’s law school and intends to stay long after he receives that degree, as well.
“I love it here. I can’t say that my freshman year I would’ve ever envisioned that I would want to stay here, but throughout my four years I’ve really learned to love this community,” Zhang said. “First, I think the quality of life here is unparalleled to anywhere else. And second, this is the place I really matured as an adult, as a person. I really view Williamsburg as a home.”