Sunday, December 10, 2023

City Council Candidates Find Much Common Ground, Few Differences in Forum

(From left to right) Vice Mayor Paul Freiling, Greg Granger, Elaine McBeth, Barbara Ramsey, Benming Zhang.
(From left to right) Vice Mayor Paul Freiling, Greg Granger, Elaine McBeth, Barbara Ramsey, Benming Zhang.

For the first time in this election cycle, voters had a chance to see all five candidates running for City Council side by side in a public event Wednesday night.

During the League of Women Voters of the Williamsburg Area Candidates Forum, the five candidates – Vice Mayor Paul Freiling, college professor Elaine McBeth, lifelong resident Greg Granger, William & Mary alumna Barbara Ramsey and William & Mary senior Benming “Benny” Zhang – disagreed on few issues facing the City of Williamsburg.

On May 3, voters will be tasked with choosing three of the five candidates to serve on City Council for a four-year term.

All candidates praised the city for its low tax rate while offering top-notch services, touted the high quality of life available to citizens, and agreed the City Council – with the help of city staff – has done a good job of steering the city through the Great Recession.

Now that the city is ready to move beyond the recession’s ripple effects, the candidates all offered their vision for Williamsburg’s future with few disagreements on basic issues: the city should support Williamsburg-James City County Schools, work to make the city a more attractive location for diverse businesses, and put policies and funding in place to help spur tourism.

The candidates touched on different strategies for tourism, with Freiling and Ramsey vocalizing the need to continue to look at sports tourism as a growth area. Both support having the city, along with regional partners, look into whether an athletics fieldhouse would be a viable method for giving sports tourism a boost.

Zhang is pushing to create a tourism zone – a state designation – that would help incentivize tourism-related businesses to locate within the city’s borders, while Granger and McBeth both advocated for City Council’s continued support of regional tourism efforts.

The Arts District proved to be one of the few topics that divided the candidates.

Zhang was the harshest critic of the Arts District, saying the city’s vision for it “has largely failed” and that City Council needs to lay out specific strategies for creating a vibrant Arts District. He said he believes the city can look at the likely opportunity to redevelop the area of the Williamsburg Shopping Center and the Super 8 property as a first step in reshaping the Arts District.

Freiling, who served on City Council when the Arts District was created, touted the Arts District’s success in reducing the vacancy rate in that area – between the Richmond Road-Monticello Avenue intersection and Brooks Street – from more than 20 percent to 6 percent. While the district will continue to evolve over time, it has proven to be successful in moving businesses into that area of the city, he said.

McBeth said she believed the city has several programs to support the Arts District, but its growth stalled during the Great Recession. Regardless of the economy’s comeback recently, she argued the city’s Architectural Review Board could look into loosening the restrictions in that area to help give arts businesses what they need to be successful.

Ramsey urged the city to create a way for the Arts District’s success to be measured so that the city can better make decisions to help it evolve.

“In looking back to some of the information on the founding of the Arts District, I noticed that it determined the where, the who and the what, but there was no report card or sense of measurement,” Ramsey said. “I think it’s imperative for that to be part of the discussion on the Arts District.”

Granger criticized the choice of location, saying he believed the designation should have been put in the Merchants Square area. He also said the city could provide tools to help the art community find success by allowing the necessary infrastructure that would encourage people to park within the Arts District and then walk around. Beyond that, he said he believes the Arts District has to take shape on its own.

“The city has not created an Arts District. The city designated an area as a place to get tax incentives for a burgeoning arts district,” Granger said. “It’s incumbent upon the artists to create an Arts District.”

Thursday night’s forum was the first and only chance for voters to see all five candidates on the same public stage, though four of them participated in a town hall at the College of William & Mary on Wednesday night; Ramsey was unable to attend because of a scheduling conflict.

Election Day is May 3.

Read WYDaily’s series of profiles on each of the candidates:

WYDaily also conducted a questionnaire with the candidates, all of which will publish Friday.

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