Building Connectivity in Suburbia

Building Connectivity in Suburbia

Sunnyvale, Calif., wants to reinvent a 60's-era industrial office park as an innovation district. It's making progress but suburban sprawl is not an easy habit to break.

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The Great U.S. 460 Swamp

The Great U.S. 460 Swamp

VDOT had loads of warning that wetlands could kill the U.S. 460 project but the state charged ahead with a design-build contract that everyone knew could explode.

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Coming up: Car-Lite Burbs

Coming up: Car-Lite Burbs

A California developer is teaming with Daimler AG to bring buses, shuttles and ride sharing to an Orange County community -- with no government subsidies.

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Putting the “Garden” in Rain Garden

Putting the Garden in Rain Garden

Soon Virginians will start spending billions to meet tough storm-water regs. Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden wants to show how we can save the bay – and look really good doing it.

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Tech Insurrection

Tech Insurrection

Smart cities, says Anthony Townsend, will be forged by geeks, activists and civic hackers through bottom-up technological innovation.

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Support Your Local Goat Herder

Goats at work. Photo credit: Goat Busters

Goats at work. Photo credit: Goat Busters

by James A. Bacon

A common reed plant, known by the scientific name of Phragmites australis, introduced into the United States in the 18th century from Europe, has invaded the eastern marshes of North America. Like many invasive species, Phragmites out-competes native marsh plants. When the reed establishes expansive mono-cultures, plant diversity declines precipitously. And when plant diversity declines, so does the diversity of insects and the rest of the food chain dependent upon the plants.

Over the past five years, land managers and private organizations have treated more than 80,000 hectares of marsh with herbicides at a cost of $4.6 million per year to control Phragmites. Mowing and burning the plant hasn’t proven economical, given high labor costs. And insect control often does greater damage to native strains than to the invasive plant.

In desperation, the marine science and conservation division of Duke University tested a new technique for controlling the plant: grazing goats. At a fresh water marsh in Beltsville, Md., the scientists penned goats in enclosures where they had little but Phragmites to eat. While the goats didn’t eradicate the plant pest, they substantially reduced its biomass — from 94% of ground cover to 21% on average — allowing native species a better chance of competing, investigators concluded.

Across the country, government authorities are discovering the virtues of goats for clearing unwanted brush, even tending lawns. The hardy ruminants have an appetite for plants that other animals shun.

There is a small but active goat industry in Virginia. The Virginia State Dairy Goat Association lists 33 members. Jack & Anita Mauldin’s Boer Goats page lists 34 goat farms. My impression is that most goat products fall into the organic or artisanal agriculture category — goat meat, goat cheese, goat milk, maybe some goat wool. But perhaps the most interesting enterprise is Goat Busters, based in Afton, which specializes in land clearing. As its website says, “Goat Busters is quite simply the most environmentally sensitive method to clear land or control invasive species vegetation ever, short of going out and hand-pulling each and every little weed.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Virginia government, businesses and property owners need to Get Goat. They should more aggressively explore the use of goats as a tool for clearing brush and controlling invasive species. Transporting the goats and setting up the pens is more labor intensive than attacking a patch of brush or Phragmites with a Bush Hog or a tankful of herbicides, but goats don’t compact the soil and they don’t leave behind chemical compounds laden with heavy metals. They do leave behind fertilizer, enriching the soil.

In economic development parlance, substituting locally raised goats for imported herbicides and rotary mowers is called “import substitution.” The practice keeps money in the region, supporting local enterprises and jobs. It’s hard to imagine the goat industry transforming the face of Virginia agriculture, but every little bit helps make our rural counties more economically viable.

Spotlighting the Wrong Victims

Graphic credit: Times-Dispatch

Graphic credit: Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

Black students comprise 39% of the public school student population in Henrico County but account for 80% of all the kids arrested for offenses committed in schools. That disparity, combined with the fact that black students are disproportionately suspended from Henrico schools, is something that some people find disturbing, according to the Sunday Times-Dispatch. Although the article does not explicitly describe the difference as an injustice, the headline entitled, “School data show racial disparity in Henrico,” certainly implies that it is. In the progressive/liberal worldview “disparities” between the races are ipso facto evidence of discrimination.

“If they don’t know they have a problem, they have their eyes closed,” said Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, executive director of the Virginia ACLU, which has made an issue of the differing rate of school suspensions in Henrico. “The numbers don’t lie, and the suspension rates are disproportionate as it relates to African-Americans, and I think we see that the arrest rates are as well,” said Tyrone Nelson, a black supervisor from the Varina district.

There are two very big problems with the article. First, it provides no evidence whatsoever that black students are disciplined more harshly than whites for comparable offenses. That evidence may exist somewhere but the article doesn’t provide it. Second, the article follows the standard victimization narrative of troubled black  youths suffering from a system that is stacked against them. But it totally ignores the invisible victims of disorder in the schools — classmates, disproportionately black, whose educational experience is disrupted by the misbehavior. If we want to understand the “disparities” in educational achievement between the races, differences in school discipline is a factor worth exploring.

The incidence of disorderly behavior in schools is tightly correlated with the socio-economic characteristics of the student body. Families from “disadvantaged” backgrounds are more likely to suffer social disorders arising from economic insecurity, substance abuse, domestic violence and the lack of a biological father in the house. Youths raised in such an environment — especially adolescent males — are far more prone to disruptive and violent behavior at home, on the street and in school.

According to our trusty tool, the Virginia Department of Education  SOL Assessment Build-a-Table, 65% of all economically disadvantaged students in Henrico County are black. Insofar as kids who get in enough trouble at school to get suspended or arrested are economically disadvantaged, more than half the so-called racial disparity disappears. A more refined look at the data — I would point to the presence of biological fathers in the household as a better indicator of a family’s ability to impose social norms on rebellious adolescent males — could show that the disparity disappears entirely. Conceivably, a closer look will show no such thing. We won’t know until we do the research. What is reckless, irresponsible and inflammatory is to assume, as a default proposition, that any differences in suspension and arrest rates reflects discrimination by schools and law enforcement.

Under investigation from the hyper-politicized U.S. Justice Department for the “disparity” in school suspensions, Henrico County authorities have been making an effort to cut that disparity. As the Times-Dispatch notes:

In the 2012-2013 school year, the number of suspensions in Henrico County schools dropped to 7,604 from 9,165 the year before, a 17 percent reduction. But the share of suspensions going to black students remained stubbornly high, rising almost half a point to nearly 77 percent.

Unless we’re willing to attribute some kind of subtle racism or prejudice to Henrico County principals and teachers — many of whom are black themselves, especially in the schools where discipline problems are the greatest — the logical conclusion is that the rules and procedures for administering discipline isn’t the problem. The kids are the problem.

There is, in fact, an injustice in this story. The injustice just happens to be the precise opposite of what is commonly asserted. The real problem is that disruptive behavior in the classroom has a negative impact on teacher morale and makes it harder for well-behaving students to learn.

Source:  Virginia Department of Education

Click for more legible image

How prevalent is disruptive behavior in Henrico classrooms? According to the “Discipline, Crime and Violence Annual Report, 2012-2013,” we know that discipline issues are a big problem. Henrico County logged more than 7,200 disciplinary offenses during the 2012-2013 school year. Highlights are shown at left.

These are just the offenses that were recorded for the record. It goes without saying that many fights, scuffles, bullying and lesser offenses take place out of the sight of teachers and administrators, and much of the disruptive behavior in classroom is simply ignored because teachers learn that reporting it or complaining about it is a waste of time.

Who suffers from this behavior? The three high schools that account for the overwhelming majority of the arrests are overwhelmingly black. That means the students suffering from the disruption, bullying, scuffling and assaults also tend to be black. The well-behaved, law-abiding black kids who go to school and want to study find it more difficult to learn because the teachers are spending classroom time dealing with problem students instead of teaching.

There is important secondary fallout from the discipline problem: Teachers find it demoralizing. Teacher burn-out accounts for much of the high turn-over in schools serving low-income student students; teachers with experience and seniority seek employment in schools where they don’t have to contend with discipline issues. The result: teachers in schools serving low-income populations tend to have less seniority, maturity and experience teaching challenging student populations.

Making an issue of “disparities” in arrests and suspensions based on the paltry evidence presented by the Times-Dispatch is a gross injustice to Henrico school and law-enforcement officials who are trying to preserve a decent learning environment. Such articles distract from the far bigger problem of school discipline. If the T-D, the ACLU and other do-gooders want to help struggling black kids mired in under-performing schools, perhaps they should start by asking what effect the breakdown in discipline has on the kids who want to learn.

Retrofitting Suburbia — Henrico Edition

Regencyby James A. Bacon

Regency Square Mall, a failing, 39-year-old shopping mall in the heart of the prosperous “West End” of Henrico County, is expected to go up for sale by year’s end. While the sale likely will prove distressing to bond holders — nearly $70 million in loans are 70% secured by the mall, which is appraised at only $25 million, reports the Times-Dispatch — a change in ownership creates a tremendous opportunity for Henrico County to reinvigorate a major commercial district.

While Regency enjoys an excellent location and serves an affluent market, it faces tough competition from two newer, pedestrian-style malls: Short Pump Town Center and Stony Point Fashion Park. Regency has zero pedestrian appeal — it is a boxy building set in a vast parking lot, and it is largely surrounded by strip shopping centers, some of which are themselves getting long in the tooth. It is no longer a place where anyone enjoys spending time.

I know Regency well — it is located a couple of miles from my home, and I shop there by necessity. Despite a superficial design makeover a few years ago, the place has little appeal. The problem is that the mall and the commercial area surrounding the mall were designed in the 1970s heyday of autocentric suburbia. Everything has been sacrificed for the comfort and convenience of the automobile. There are sidewalks in the area but no one uses them; the design violates every tenet of walkability. Ironically, the Regency Square area doesn’t even work well for the automobile. There are so many ill-timed stoplights that driving through it is a nightmare — to be circumvented if at all possible.

Henrico County officials seem to understand, at least conceptually, the need to redevelop sections of the county along more urban lines, with mixed uses, higher densities and walkable streets. So far, though, they have been reactive, responding to private-sector proposals such as those emanating from the owners of the Innsbrook office park and the Libbie Hill redevelopment project. Regency Square provides an opportunity for the county to be proactive, to create a different vision for the 25-acre mall property and the larger commercial district of which it is a part.

The entire area needs to be transformed, and Regency has the critical mass to make it happen. Like the old Cloverleaf Mall in Chesterfield County, Regency Square needs to be torn down and the property re-developed from scratch. A fresh vision would allow for higher densities, mixed uses and walkable, bikeable streets connecting with adjacent residential neighborhoods. The vision would extend to adjoining commercial properties, which property owners likewise would be encouraged to re-develop.

Redevelopment would be good for the county — the same land mass would generate significantly more property tax revenue while requiring little more in the way of county infrastructure or services. Redevelopment would be good for property owners — higher density and mixed uses would make their land far more valuable. And redevelopment would benefit neighboring home owners. Instead of adjoining an unwalkable, congested and aesthetically ugly retail zone, they would adjoin a vibrant area that would provide them more convenient access to amenities and, most likely, increase their residential property values.

There is no time to lose. If Henrico wants to revitalize this important area, it needs to signal now that it is serious so that the mall ends up in the hands of an owner with the expertise and financial wherewithal to undertake a major re-development project, not some bargain-hunting bottom feeder. The county should convene a gathering of stakeholders — property owners, merchants, residential neighbors — to forge a new vision for the area and discuss how that vision might be achieved.

Good Luck With McAuliffe’s Ethics Panel

Image: Verdict Reached In Corruption Trial Of Former Virginia Governor McDonnell And His WifeBy Peter Galuszka

Despite the obvious need, Virginia still has done very little to address its monumental problems with ethics reform. The latest endeavor was announced yesterday by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, but it seems too much like just another panel.

And panel it is. McAuliffe has created the 10-member Commission to Ensure Integrity and Public Confidence in State Government. The good news is that it is bipartisan and seems filled with reasonable people, including Christopher Howard, president of Hampden-Sydney College and Sharon Bulova, chairwoman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

Leading it will be for Lt .Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican who has shown good sense in recent years and got screwed over by party hardliners who maneuvered to get former Atty. Gen. Kenneth Cuccinelli, a wild man, to run and lose in the 2013 governor’s race. His Democratic counterpart will be Rick Boucher, a former legislator from southwest Virginia.

The plan is to present a package of reforms that will deal with gift-giving and donations to politicians, and redistricting, or possibly redesigning some districts away from the madness that some, and mostly Republican legislators have created.

The impetus, naturally, is the first-ever conviction of a governor for corruption. Three weeks ago, a federal jury gave a resounding “guilty” on felony charges against Robert F. McDonnell and his wife Maureen. The U.S. Justice Department stepped in because Virginia’s state ethics laws were so ridiculously lax no one could ever have made the case. There had been lots of “gee, I don’t see a smoking gun” jabber on this blog and elsewhere, but, hey, why not poll the jury?

Just as the McDonnells were being indicted last January, the 2014 General Assembly considered ethics reform but did squat. It made accepting more than $250 in gifts verboten and expanded disclosure requirements to immediate family but the Republican-led led legislature left in a pile of loopholes. “Intangible” gifts, such as African safaris or trips to the Masters golf tournament are A-OK.

What’s needed is a real ethics commission with subpoena power. McAuliffe’s action was quickly derided by such leading lights of ethics reform as House Speaker Bill Howell and Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment. These two Ayatollahs of the Status Quo claimed that McAuliffe was a “latecomer” to an issue that they obviously have done nothing to improve despite their many years in office.

GOP Party Boss Pat Mullins took an irrelevant swipe at McAuliffe’s perceived ethics problems long before he was even governor.

Redistricting is just as important as ethics and I’m glad it is being addressed. Many Virginia districts have been gerrymandered to keep a particular party in office in ways that  protect the status quo and prevent change. Of 100 House of Delegates races in 2013, “only 12 to 14 were competitive,” notes Leigh Middleditch Jr., a Charlottesville lawyer and a founder of the Sorenson Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia, told me earlier this year.

Stephen Farnsworth, a political analyst at the University of Mary Washington, has studied gerrymandering for years and believes it negates general elections in favor of party primaries where a handful of hard right radicals can dominate.

This is especially true in some rural districts where tiny cadres of activists, again mostly Republicans, dominate the picks for primaries. It doesn’t matter what the general public thinks or wants. A narrow minority worms its way in power and becomes beholden not necessarily to the party overall, but a little slice of it.

That is why so little gets done.

The very fact that leaders like Howell and Norment are in place and the primary system will make McAuliffe’s efforts very difficult. One wonders if you could go outside the diseased legislative system and forced change through the courts.

It worked before against such Virginia travesties as Massive Resistance. Something to consider.

Millennials Want a New Kind of Suburbia

Image credit: Demand Institute

Image credit: Demand Institute

by James A. Bacon

The Millennial Generation (18- to 29-years old) will be a predominantly suburban generation, contends a new study by the Demand Institute based on a survey of 1,000 Millennial households. Significant majorities of the younger generation aspire to owning a single-family home and consider automobiles a necessity, while a 48% plurality expresses a preference to live in the “suburbs” over an urban or rural environment.

These findings, the authors contend, contradict “myths” perpetuated by advocates of smart growth and urbanism that Millennials “all want to move to the city and rent; they don’t want to own things; they won’t need cars anyway — and there will be a massive slump in demand because they are all going to be living single in their parents’ basements for the foreseeable future.”

Phew! It’s hard to know where to start with this. The study does provide a useful benchmark for what Millennials are thinking and it reaches at least one very interesting conclusion. Unfortunately, the analysis totally clouds the debate by misstating what smart growthers and urbanists are actually saying and by what employing what our old friend Ed Risse terms “core confusing words.”

The Demand Institute does make some useful observations. While there are only 13.3 million households headed by Millennials today, young people will emerge from their parents’ basements. Their number will swell to 21.6 million households by 2018. Almost four in five expect their financial situation to improve within the next five years, and three out of four plan to move. The reasons they list for wanting to move: 71% for a better home or apartment, 59% for more privacy or space, 50% to establish a household, and 48% to own, not rent. While Millennials have delayed family formation, 30% are married today, 64% expect to be married within five years, and 55% expect to have children within five years.

Three out of four Millennials believe home ownership is important, and 60% plan to purchase a home within five years. When they do rent or buy a new home, 61% want more space. Sixty-two percent want to either rent or purchase a single-family dwelling for their next home.

Here’s where it gets interesting for those following the urban vs. suburban debate: Millennials’ locational preferences are:

48% suburban
38% urban
14% rural

Those who say it’s important for their next home to be within “a short drive” of grocery stores, restaurants and retail outnumber those who say it is important to be within walking distance by more than two to one. Meanwhile, 88% of Millennials own a car, down only one percentage point from 2001.

Among the study’s main conclusions: “The suburbs are going to remain important destinations for young families, but the ideal suburban location for Millennials may not be the same as it was for previous generations. Communities that can offer the best of urban living (e.g. convenience and walkability) with the best of suburban living (e.g. good schools and more space) will thrive in the coming decade.”

Very good. I believe that to be true. One of the great challenges of the next two or three decades will be urbanizing the suburbs, or, to be more precise, to replace the “suburban sprawl” pattern of development characterized by large lots, segregated land uses and autocentric streets with a more traditional “urban” pattern of small lots, some mixed-use and walkable streets.

The authors confuse the issue, however, by their indiscriminate use of the words “suburbs” and “suburban.” They do not differentiate between close-in suburbs where single-family dwellings have small lots and walkable streets and the far-flung “exurbs” on the metropolitan fringe where single-family dwells have large lots and rely exclusively upon automobiles. I would argue that while Millennials assuredly seek to live in communities with good schools and reasonable taxes, they are far less interested than previous generations in living in the “exurbs.” However, it is impossible to prove or disprove that argument with the way the authors constructed the survey.

As for dispelling the “myth” that all Millennials want to live in the city, rent an apartment and give up their cars, the authors have created a straw man. I don’t know of anyone who says “all” Millennials want those things. But the Demand Institute’s own data suggests that a significant number do. Thirty-six percent of Millennials say they expect to continue to rent multi-family housing over the next five years; 24% say they want the same amount of space, and 15% want less space. Thirty-eight percent say they prefer to live in an urban environment. As for transportation, 48% say they take mass transit at least once a week, 22% say they walk and 15% ride a bicycle. I would suggest those numbers represent a major shift from previous generations. It would be nice to compare those preferences with those of Generation Xers 20 years ago. The Demand Institute data would mean far more if we could put it in a generational context.

Bacon’s bottom line: In actuality, there is a big shift in Millennial preferences compared to those of previous generations. A big percentage of Millennials prefer urban lifestyles and a bigger percentage prefer a “best of both worlds” approach typical of the older, denser suburbs. There is little evidence here that Millennials are craving an “exurban” lifestyle of big houses on big lots in locations that make them dependent upon cars for long commutes. The study missed a chance to make that clear.

The Fickle Patterns of Population Growth

Map credit: Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service

Map credit: Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. (Click for bigger image.)

Image credit: Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service

Image credit: Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service

Except for a brief period during the Civil War, the population of Virginia has increased steadily as long as anyone has kept track. But the pattern of growth varied as the nation evolved from an agriculture-based economy to an industrial economy and then to a knowledge-based economy. Many once-dynamic jurisdictions have gone into decline and, bucking the overall statewide trend, have lost population.

Hamilton Lombard with the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service has published a fascinating map showing the decades of peak population for Virginia’s cities and counties, as seen above. While roughly half the state’s cities and counties reached peak population last year in 2013 (no numbers yet for 2014), large swaths reached their apogee decades ago. Indeed seven counties saw their glory years in the 1800s. Amelia County’s heyday was 1790.

Lombard’s article traces population growth through the tobacco era, the New South industrialization and the rise of independent cities. A couple of patterns strike me from my eyeballing of the map:

  • Many of Virginia’s larger “cities” — Norfolk, Richmond, Portsmouth, Roanoke peaked in the 1960-1970 era before urban decay white/middle-class flight set in.
  • The coalfields of Southwest Virginia reached their zenith in the 1950s after decades of growth in the coal industry, although a couple of counties didn’t peak until the coal revival of the 1970s.
  • Much of Southside Virginia peaked in the 1920s-50s, although a couple of mill towns — Danville and Martinsville — and their neighboring counties continued growing until 1980.
  • Not all growth has been concentrated in the Washington, Richmond and Hampton Roads metropolitan regions. The Interstate 81 corridor stretching between Winchester, Roanoke and Bristol has provided a secondary locus of population growth (with the main exception being Rockbridge County).

Bacon’s bottom line: Beware ye, exurban counties, who think ye shall grow forever. Fortunes change.

– JAB

The Other SOL Scandal

Source: VDOE SOL Assessment Build-a-Table

Source: VDOE SOL Assessment Build-a-Table

by James A. Bacon

The new, tougher Standards of Learning (SOL) test scores have Virginia’s political establishment in an uproar. Too many children are failing to achieve basic proficiency. Dozens of schools seem institutionally incapable of improvement. Entire school divisions resemble learning-free zones.

The overwhelming focus of public attention has been on the disappointing pass rates for basic proficiency. In just the latest example, Governor Terry McAuliffe vowed yesterday that all schools in Richmond, Petersburg and Norfolk will reach full accreditation before he leaves office, the Times-Dispatch reports today.

While the failure of thousands of Virginia kids to meet basic proficiency standards is alarming, the failure of even more kids to achieve “advanced” (college-track in upper grades), learning standards is every bit as panic-inducing. But no one seems to be paying attention.

If students fail to achieve proficiency in reading, writing, history, math and science, they will not qualify for the vast majority of jobs opening up in the knowledge economy. The numbers suggest that as many as one-fifth of Virginia kids will be consigned to the economic margins.  Likewise, the inability to achieve advanced, college-path standards, suggests that only one out of five Virginia public school students will be prepared for college. Not shown in the table above: Advanced scores for math and science are even lower on average. Virginia students are really unprepared for the so-called STEM subjects required for mastery of technology.

Bacon’s bottom line: We’re not doing ourselves any favors by focusing overwhelmingly on bringing the bottom performers up. We need to improve performance across the board.

Back to the Drawing Boards on U.S. 460

A new environmental impact study (EIS) concludes that it will cost $1.8 billion — $400 million more than estimated by the McDonnell administration — to rebuild U.S. 460 between Petersburg and Suffolk as a tolled, high-speed expressway. Upgrading the highway probably will have to be centered on the existing corridor, Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said yesterday.

The heart of the problem: A 2008 environmental study estimated that the route favored by the McDonnell administration would disturb 200 acres of wetlands. Subsequent investigations pushed that number to 583 acres last year. The latest study pushes the number to 613 acres, according to the Times-Dispatch.

The low-impact alternative along the existing route would  disrupt the least amount of wetlands, make the existing route safer and, at a cost of $974 million, be the least expensive to build. On the other hand, upgrading the existing route  would displace more businesses and provide the least amount of “induced growth.” Also, it would provide the least benefit in terms of travel time saved, potentially making it less valuable as a highway outlet for ports in Norfolk and Portsmouth.

Furthermore, backing out of the deal structure negotiated by the McDonnell administration creates major legal headaches for the McAuliffe administration. It is not known how much of the $300 million paid so far to U.S. Mobility Partners, the design-contractor for the project, can be recouped. Removal of the tolls also could breach the state’s warranty with owners of toll-backed bonds issued to help pay for the project.

Bacon’s bottom line: It amazes me that former Governor Bob McDonnell may go to jail for the misdeeds of Giftgate, which didn’t cost the taxpayers a single dime yet fundamental answers have yet to be answered about who was responsible for the U.S. 460 fiasco, the real scandal of his administration.

A detailed McAuliffe administration review of documents blamed a recklessly aggressive implementation of the U.S. 460 project for ignoring the deal-killer wetlands issue but never addressed who in the McDonnell administration made key decisions along the way. McDonnell? Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton? Senior executives with the Virginia Department of Transportation? VDOT staff? As much as Layne deserves credit for laying out many of the facts to the public, he seemed satisfied with a conclusion that “mistakes were made.” The Virginia press corps, which crucified McDonnell for accepting gifts from nutraceutical entrepreneur Jonnie Williams and doing nothing in exchange, seems supinely content with that explanation.

Tobacco Commission Needs Huge Makeover

tobacco leafBy Peter Galuszka

One more glaring example of mass corruption in Virginia is the grandly named Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission formed 14 years ago to dole out Virginia’s share of a $206 billion settlement among 45 other states with cigarette makers.

I’ve been writing for years about how millions of dollars are doled out with little oversight to economic development projects supposedly helpful to the former tobacco-growing parts of the state from the bright leaf belt around Dinwiddie out west to the burley leaf land of the mountains.

There have been no-strings giveaways to absentee tobacco quota holders, a board member sent to prison for siphoning off grant money and the shenanigans of the extended Kilgore family which is very politically powerful in those parts. The commission even figured in the McDonnell corruption trial starring the former and now convicted governor and back-slapping witnesses for the prosecution, entrepreneur and tobacco-believer Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

I revisit the issue in Sunday’s Washington Post and I ask the obvious question of why no one seems to watching the commission. I raise broader ones, too, such as why the commission  serves only people in the tobacco belt. That doesn’t seem fair since the Attorney General’s office represented all of the state in the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement against four major tobacco firms. People in Hampton Roads, Arlington, Onancock and Winchester should be benefit but get nothing from the settlement. They didn’t  because tobacco road legislators pulled a fast one back in 1999 when they set things up.

There needs to be a thorough disassembling of the commission’s current governance structure with many more people far from Tobacco Road included. There’s far too much family and friend back-scratching as it is. It is like watching a vintage episode of the Andy Griffith show but it really isn’t funny.

(Hat tip to James A. Bacon Jr. who spotted the commission as a great story back in the year 2000 when he was publisher of Virginia Business).

So, please read on.

Genius-Free Virginia

geniuses

by James A. Bacon

Economic development has become a game not just of recruiting corporate capital but of developing, recruiting and retaining human capital. Much has been written about the desirability of recruiting members of the “creative class,” the entrepreneurs, scientists, artists and educators who contribute disproportionately to entrepreneurship and economic growth. But how about the super creatives — the 1%, so to speak, of creativity? No one has tracked them…. until now.

The MacArthur Foundation has released data showing the origins and present whereabouts of 897 exceptionally creative individuals in the arts, sciences, humanities and public policy sphere recognized by the Foundation and bestowed with a no-strings-attached $625,000 stipend. The data show two things: (1) MacArthur geniuses are born disproportionately in California and the Northeastern U.S., and (2) they gravitate in huge numbers to California and, to a lesser extent, a sub-set of Northeastern states: New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts.

creativity_on_moveIt is discouraging to see that Virginia is arid ground for producing geniuses. We’ve fallen a long way since the days of the Founding Fathers! Only three MacArthur fellows were born in the state. The silver lining is that the state has enjoyed a net gain of 10 MacArthur fellows due to in-migration. We may not be producing geniuses but at least we’re attracting them. Still, the number residing here still is meager compared to many other states.

The MacArthur Foundation provided little analysis of what accounts for the birthing and migration of geniuses. Perhaps the paucity of super-creative people in Virginia and the South generally reflects a lower quality education system. One wonders, for example, if Virginia’s emphasis on Standards of Learning — elevating the academic performance of the entire student body to minimum standards, which puts the focus on weaker students — will do much of anything to elevate the number of super-achievers.

One also might ask what factors impel geniuses to move. They are far more likely (79%) to move from their state of birth than the general population (30%) or the college-educated population (40%). More than one-fifth of MacArthur geniuses came to the United States from abroad. Scientific geniuses migrate to centers of research excellence. Artistic geniuses migrate to cultural centers. Geniuses in the humanities migrate to communities with top universities. That explains the concentrations in California, New York and, to a lesser extent, Boston, and the exodus of geniuses from Pennsylvania, which creates geniuses aplenty but has trouble hanging onto them.

The handful of geniuses who live in Virginia, I suspect, are found mostly in Northern Virginia, in the orbit of Washington, D.C. Who knows, there may be one or two in Charlottesville. (If someone has the time, they can peruse the list of MacArthur fellows here to see where Virginia’s geniuses are located.) Among the MacArthur Foundation’s main areas of focus, one is “public issues.” Presumably, many of grantees in this field are located in Washington, D.C. (home to 32 geniuses) and the outlying regions of Maryland (15 geniuses) and Virginia (13 geniuses).

What hasn’t been demonstrated is whether the geography of geniuses impacts the economy. Richard Florida demonstrated a clear connection between the creative class and economic prosperity but no one yet has shown a connection between concentrations of MacArthur fellows and economic vitality. Perhaps that’s because no one has studied the issue.

There’s also one other possibility: Maybe the types of people recognized for creative genius reflect the values and worldview of the civic elite in Chicago, where the MacArthur Foundation is located. Are any of MacArthur’s fellows champions of traditional values, fiscal conservatism and free markets favored by the genius-free heartland? It’s worth a study.