Sunday, November 27, 2022

City Council Candidates Q&A: Paul Freiling

Vice Mayor Paul Freiling is vying for his fourth term on Williamsburg's City Council. (Nicole Trifone/WYDaily)
Vice Mayor Paul Freiling is vying for his fourth term on Williamsburg’s City Council. (Nicole Trifone/WYDaily)

WYDaily sent an identical questionnaire to each candidate running for City Council.

Paul Freiling, the city’s current vice mayor who is currently serving his third term, is among a field of five candidates vying for three seats on council.

Freiling’s answers are unedited and presented below.

The election takes place May 3.

Read a completed questionnaire from the other candidates:

1. What do you feel are the three major issues facing the City of Williamsburg right now? What are your ideas on how to address those issues?

The three major issues, in no particular order, are the economy, the economy, and the economy.  My three issues all deal with economic activity because that is what will drive the revenue that will allow us to accomplish all of the other worthy objectives we share.  If we don’t have strong, reliable revenue sources for our community and the capability to adapt to changing circumstances, our ability to meet our other needs and wants becomes severely compromised.  More specifics on the means for addressing these issues and my other priorities can be found in other questions throughout this survey.

  1. We suffer from a fickle national and worldwide economy. Events and circumstances elsewhere can have a deleterious effect on consumer confidence and travel tendencies, which, if headed in the wrong direction, can hurt our local tourism-based model.  If the business environment declines, so will our revenues, which will limit our ability to apply needed resources to all other issues. Consequently, we need to work even more cooperatively with the College of William and Mary, the Chamber and Tourism Alliance, Colonial Williamsburg, other area attractions, the local business community, and our regional partners to strengthen and diversify our economy in order to make the most of our tourism offerings when the travel market is strong and to help insulate us if/when the market becomes soft.
  2. The constant and recurring need to retain the many businesses that have built our local economy and the necessity of recruiting new and different businesses to this community to appeal to the needs of a broader demographic. One major way to address this challenge is by taking advantage of our educational capital and enhancing our own school system in order to meet the needs of our children and their families, to provide a talented, employable workforce that can contribute to the economy, and be a draw for new businesses and/or encourage business expansion.  Additionally we should take the steps necessary to capitalize on our central location in a future mega-region that will eventually extend from Richmond to Virginia Beach.  Williamsburg is an ideal hub for the intra-regional commercial activity that is sure to come about as a result.  Some of the areas we are exploring and should continue to explore include transportation improvements, enhanced technological capacity, and adequate commercial spaces.
  3. The City is limited to nine square miles with only 10% of that area dedicated to commercial use. With the exception of Riverside, we do not have large open areas available for development as our neighbors in the counties do.  Our best approach here is to focus on encouraging and facilitating quality redevelopment of currently under-utilized properties that is in keeping with the character of our City.  This will then help create more dynamic and vibrant downtown and midtown areas.  We should also look at the range of housing options we offer and seek options that will capture some of the creative class graduating each year form W&M, as well as provide reasonable choices for young professionals and empty-nesters.  This type of housing can also be ideal for older residents, who want to age in place.  Small, maintenance-free accommodations within walking distance of services, entertainment, and public transportation are desirable across the age spectrum.

2. Talk about the relationship between the city and college and what changes, if any, you would like to see. How can you achieve those changes through City Council?

The current relations between the College and the City are excellent.  City staff and College staff meet monthly to review any issues and to update each other on current projects and future plans.  Outside of these meetings, the lines of communication are open.  The College generously and voluntarily pays a fee in lieu of taxes out of consideration for the benefits of City services, primarily Fire and EMS.  The College and the City work cooperatively on a large number of community and College events.  The College even arranges for gatherings during Homecoming weekend where the economic development authorities from all three jurisdictions are invited to meet with alumni who may want to relocate or expand their businesses here.

The College facilitates opportunities for City staff to have access to students to let them know of their responsibilities and neighborly considerations if they are going to live off campus.

At the student level, the City has very good relations with the Student Assembly, the elected campus representatives of the student population.  Meetings of the Student Assembly leadership occur each semester with City staff and the Mayor and Vice Mayor.  The Student Assembly is also very good at communicating upcoming matters of interest.  They also send a representative to the monthly meetings of the Neighborhood Council of Williamsburg.  Representatives from the College, the Student Assembly, and the City all meet as part of the Neighborhood Relations Committee.

The College’s graduate programs, including the Law School, Business School, and School of Education all have programs and centers dedicated to serving different segments of the community that play a vital role in aiding some of our most vulnerable and supporting some of our most ambitious and entrepreneurial residents.

Students contribute an enormous amount to the welfare of this community through their volunteerism.  From tutoring and mentoring in our public schools, especially Matthew Whaley Elementary School, to preparing and serving 10,000 meals to the underprivileged, to raising money for local charities, to registering possible bone marrow donors, each year more than 6,000 students participate in community service projects.

While it is no exaggeration to say that Town-Gown relations are as good or better now than they have ever been, that does not mean there aren’t still opportunities for improvement.   One of the key concerns of residents in neighborhoods around the College continues to be the proliferation of rental housing.  In the majority of cases, these relations are all very good.  There are some outliers, though, mostly related to evening entertainment and adventures, and we need to find a better way of dealing with some of these neighborhood issues, while still being welcoming and understanding of all.  Parking is also a resulting challenge in some of these neighborhoods.

I believe we also have great opportunities to leverage even better the mutual assets of the City and the College for the benefit of the community for the purposes of tourism promotion and overall economic development.  The College has space for festivals, sporting events, and educational symposia that could possibly be utilized further in bringing new visitors to our community.  While they also may want to house many of those visitors on campus, there are still collateral benefits for all sorts of City businesses and opportunities to encourage some of these folks to return as part of the transient or leisure segment.  We have made some progress in tapping into the market comprised of alumni and families of students, and there is more we can do there, too, including better cross-marketing.

The College’s significant educational resources also have potential to be brought to bear as a recruitment tool for new businesses.  Not only does the College produce highly educated and qualified potential workforce, but they have the capacity to provide other services that can have a meaningful impact on local businesses.  Virginia Tech has such a program in place that would be worth exploring.  Of course, and such effort would need to fit in with the College’s mission and strategic plan, and funding would need to be considered.

3. What is your vision for the Arts District? What steps need to be taken to achieve your vision?

When the Arts District was first envisioned, there were a number of different thoughts about how it could look and operate.  One thing was abundantly clear, arts districts are different everywhere.  There was no one recipe for success.  Williamsburg would have to create its own model from the ground up.  As more research was undertaken with the consultant Artscape about varying demands and desires within the community, the plans evolved.

Eventually the City settled on creating a district that would provide some tax breaks on increased tax revenues derived from the creative economy or arts-oriented businesses locating within the district.  The intent was to draw more business to an underperforming area.   It is important to note that prior to the establishment of the Arts District designation, the current area had a disappointing 20% commercial vacancy rate.  The current vacancy rate for this same area is now 6%.  We also have businesses that have told us they had no interest in being in the Arts District, but located here simply because we had one.  They shared that it demonstrated a commitment to grow our creative economy; and they appreciated that.  From an economic development standpoint, the Arts District has had success.  My vision is that it will be even more economically successful as it matures.

In the Williamsburg version, the arts are more than paintings and sculpture.  The term arts-oriented business was defined very broadly to include visual and performing arts along with certain professional work such as architects, computer work, and graphic artists.  It also includes culinary arts.  This is an important distinction to keep in mind as we consider the future of the area.  In order to attract a more robust creative economy we will also need to develop the type of housing stock these people will seek.  (For elaboration on this point, please see my third issue in the answer to question 1.)

The Arts District has its own section in the Economic Development Authority’s strategic plan and, consequently, an associated task force.  Some of the short-term ideas currently under consideration include: exploring possible roles for the Super 8 property, updating the district’s web presence, building upon year one of the outdoor sculpture exhibitions with an enhanced display in year two, seasonal events with an arts focus, and a review of the incentive program to see if it is sufficient.  In the longer term some ideas under consideration are distinctive lighting and sidewalks, different paint and architectural guidelines, enhancements to the streetscape, and rentable studio space as well as performance space.

We also need to look at how well we are promoting opportunities within the Arts District for live/work space.  It is one of very few places in the City where artists and other creative people can do certain types of work in the same place where they live.

4. Members of the James City County Board of Supervisors have not been in agreement regarding the need for a fourth middle school in Williamsburg-James City County Schools; the current City Council members agree there is a need. Do you believe the school division should move forward with its plans? Explain.

Yes, I absolutely think we, as a community, should move forward with this plan.  The school division has a stated priority that school occupancy should ideally be at 85-88% of each facility’s capacity in order to have optimal educational environment.  While this goal is laudable, it is not always practical because of financial considerations, but it does set a good context for a discussion about the need for a fourth middle school.

The capacity of the proposed fourth middle school has been value engineered from 625 students down to 608.  If we take the low projection for student enrollment provided to the school board, and if we assume 90% occupancy at the other three middle schools, above the school system’s ideal target range, the new school will open with 469 students in the 2018-19 school year or 77% occupancy.   And that is the low projection.

If we take the “most-likely” scenario provided, and if we target 90% occupancy in the other three middle schools, the fourth middle school would open with 548 students, or at 90% occupancy.  It would also be projected to be over capacity by the 2019-20 school year.  If we do nothing or delay the school project, the students who are crammed into the other three middle schools will be the ones to suffer in the short term and our community will suffer in the long term.  Every year going forward that we pack students into the three middle schools that aren’t equipped to handle the numbers represents thousands of youth in this community and hundreds of teachers, who are placed at a disadvantage in their learning environment.  Why are spending more than $120 million dollars a year (between the City and James City County) on funding the operations of the school system and yet are not willing to provide the proper facilities.  Don’t we want to maximize the effectiveness of that annual operational investment by providing the proper environment?

From a financial planning standpoint, we should keep in mind that it is likely that we will also need an additional elementary school and another high school in the coming years.  If we put off the cost of the fourth middle school and then try to deal with it at the same time we will need to pay for these additional school facilities, the financial pressure will only be more difficult to handle.

If we don’t have a top-quality educational system and worthy facilities to house it, we will not be able to educate our children in the manner they deserve.  This also has the potential to hinder economic development by limiting the quality of the workforce we can grow.  Additionally, new potential businesses may be hesitant to relocate here if they do not feel the children of their employees will have access to an excellent public education option.

Part and parcel to the construction of the new school must be a plan to remedy the significant disparity in athletic facilities between Lafayette High School and the other two high schools.  An auxiliary gym, proper practice fields, appropriate lighting, and a safe navigable path between Lafayette and the Warhill fields are essential.  The current disparity will only be exacerbated with the loss of access to the assets at James Blair.

5. The city has made building and implementing redevelopment strategies a priority. How much influence should City Council have in reshaping select corridors in the city? What tools are available to the city and how should they be used?

The City’s corridors are among the first impressions that our guests will have when they arrive and their last impressions when they depart on their Williamsburg visits.  We must do everything we can, within reason, to assure that those impressions are as positive as they can be.  This community, both municipally and privately, spends significant sums of money marketing to those guests.  It is far more expensive to acquire a new customer than it is to retain an existing one.  The spending here by our guests is what keeps our economy humming and our real property tax rates among the lowest in the Commonwealth.

As we look to redevelop our corridors there is a role for the private sector and the public sector.  The City’s role should be to provide the proper municipal infrastructure.  This includes properly paved streets, adequate signage, providing means for good traffic flow, pedestrian access through sidewalks and crossing areas, bicycle access and safety, attractive landscaping of public property, and undergrounding of wiring.

The City also plays a role in providing the proper architectural guidelines, which are handled by the Architectural Review Board.  Additionally, it is important that the proper zoning, setbacks, landscaping, and lighting of properties on the corridors is handled through a combination of Codes Compliance and Planning staff, the Site Review Committee of the Planning Commission, the Planning Commission, and City Council.  All of these guidelines, which are intended to preserve and even improve the aesthetic character of the corridors, must be regularly reviewed for effectiveness and practicality.  We must be careful not to become so zealous in our requirements that we unintentionally discourage redevelopment.  It is all about maintaining a balance.

The actual redevelopment of the properties on the corridors is generally left to the private sector.  The City has incentivized the demolition of certain under-utilized properties through the Demolition Grant Program administered by the EDA.  This is a program about which we should discuss whether or not expanding it makes sense.   There may be opportunities for the City to help a willing property owner make an improvement by removing an unwanted or undesirable structure without imminent plans for redevelopment.  In certain rare cases, such as the Tioga Motel years ago, the City has stepped in and purchased the property in order to improve the streetscape.  This latter option is one of last resort, though.

6. In what ways should City Council support local efforts to spur tourism to the area?

Tourism is the foundation upon which our local economy is built.  It has been for decades and continues to be the segment of commerce that generates the greatest amount of activity and contributes the most revenue to our community.  While it is important to pursue economic diversity, it is crucial that we strengthen our tourism economy.

The City has long been a supporter of tourism marketing, contributing more than $2M annually the effort.  This should continue.  Additionally, the City has established a tourism marketing contingency fund that can be used to support other marketing efforts of new or expanded programs that will help grow our tourism numbers.  Some recent recipients have included First Night, Festival Williamsburg, the Harvest Celebration, the Winter Blues Jazz Festival, the Muscarelle Museum of Art, and the Williamsburg Hotel Motel Association.  Grants from this fund are awarded based upon the merits of each proposal.  This degree of flexibility to meet new needs as they arise has proven productive and successful in supporting private sector efforts.

Each year the City has lobbied our State Delegate and Senator for increased investment by the Commonwealth in its own tourism marketing efforts.  The City has also shown great flexibility with the allocation of other resources, including police and EMS support, the temporary closure of streets, and the use of City facilities, to the production of events.  The City, through our Economic Development department led the effort to create more events around An Occasion for the Arts, which eventually became Arts Month and is now Williamsburg Fall Arts.  The whole purpose here was to draw more overnight visitors and entice them to stay in our community longer.

The City has been a leading advocate for the widening of I-64 from Jefferson Avenue all of the way to Richmond.  Through the tireless efforts of many, work is now underway on the widening of the highway as far as 199, and it must be seen through to completion.  Through the Economic Development Authority, we have supported RAISE, which works to improve air service through Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport.  We have also financially supported Virginians for High Speed Rail in their state and federal lobbying efforts to promote rail infrastructure and service improvements on the DC to Richmond corridor and down the Peninsula.   Each of these efforts is important we work to make our community more accessible to guests travelling here by a variety of means.

The City has been, for years, undertaking steps to beautify our community through extensive landscaping of municipal properties, and particularly those along the corridors.  For decades now, we have been working to underground the overhead wiring on the corridors, as well.  Again, through the EDA, the City provides an incentive for property owners to demolish underutilized and often unattractive structures, which detract from the visual appeal of our community.  The City spearheaded the wayfinding effort to provide consistent and helpful signage along our major roads to guide our guests in the most efficient manner.

The above list is by no means exhaustive, but it does show that the City already does a great deal to spur tourism.  It is also meant to show that there are many ways tourism can be supported and that there is no one silver bullet.  Can we do more?  Certainly.  All of the above efforts should be continued, and we should look for opportunities to re-evaluate and enhance each of them.  Some additional initiatives that we are already exploring include the promotion of more festival type events, the acquisition of a portion of Country Road to complete a major walking/cycling loop, a bicycle sharing or rental program, and increased sports tourism facilities.

This last point is probably the most significant of the group because it will require the greatest public investment and inter-jurisdictional cooperation.  The City and our two neighboring counties already cooperate on the provision of local recreational facilities for the purposes of promoting sports tourism, but this has primarily been limited to supplemental use of existing facilities built for use by local residents.  The next major step is to join together to explore fully the practicality of the construction of a major indoor sports facility that will be designed to become a sports-tourism destination unto itself, to which local residents would also have access.  No one municipality could likely accomplish this alone so it must be a group effort that includes input from all stakeholders in the community.

7. Name specific goals you would like to set for City Council to achieve over the next four years.

Every biennium City Council, in conversation with City staff, crafts its statement of goals, initiatives, and outcomes (GIO) for the next two years.  Our most recent plan laid out 65 initiatives and 117 specific goals over eight topical areas.  This document serves as management’s roadmap for the implementation of Council policy.  Consequently, it would be impractical list all of the specific goals I would like to see accomplished over the next four years, so I will provide a sampling.  Some of the items below come out of our current GIO document, but I have tried to list only goals that I have suggested or for which I have strongly advocated.

Exploring the conversion of the P3 parking area into a pedestrian-oriented entertainment plaza; the redevelopment of Williamsburg Shopping Center; Route 60 East corridor improvements to 199; the acquisition of land for another City park; sidewalks on Parkway Drive; the implementation of an inclusionary zoning program; enhanced pedestrian wayfinding in the downtown area; review of the demolition incentive program for possible expansion; a commercial redevelopment incentive plan based upon a return of incremental taxes collected; consideration  of policies on food trucks, pop-up restaurants and street entertainment; construction of a multi-use path along Monticello Avenue between Treyburn Drive and Ironbound Road; devise plans for pedestrian railroad crossing alternatives; sidewalk installation along Francis Street between Nassau and South England Streets; implementation of a share/rental program for bicycles; implementation of a better parking management plan that provides the proper amount of vehicle turnover to better support downtown businesses; the acquisition and use of police body cameras; creation of plans for an eventual redevelopment of the Blayton Building; expansion of Cedar Grove Cemetery; development of a Healthy Community Initiative along the lines of Virginia Municipal Leagues “Go Green” initiative; Williamsburg achieving the official designation as a “Runner Friendly Community;” start down the path to free the Williamsburg Housing and Redevelopment Authority from reliance on HUD funding; establish a multi-jurisdictional task force to explore the feasibility of a field house or indoor sports venue; acquisition of the Section of Country Road from the end of South England to the Mounts Bay Kingsmill entrance for use as a municipal park facility; addition of more public trash and recycling containers in our more heavily trafficked areas; implementation of a succession plan for City management; and enhanced City communication to residents via social media and more engaging presentation of information; improvements to the athletic facilities at Lafayette High School; and construction of the fourth middle school.

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