No Easy Route on the Jeff Davis Highway

jeff_davis_highwayby John Szczesny

Kudos to the Richmond Times-Dispatch for putting a human face on Chesterfield County’s plan to revitalize the Jefferson Davis Highway corridor. The RTD’s Pathway to Poverty feature is a sobering look at how poverty and homelessness have made life a daily struggle for so many in the area. It also begs the question of how Chesterfield’s plan will impact the lives of these individuals and families.

The visible signs of blight along the roadway make it easy to overlook how the surrounding area buzzes along as a hive of industrial activity. Not far from the trailer parks and run-down motels exists the most vital cluster of manufacturing employment in the Richmond metro: Dupont, Philip Morris, Kaiser Aluminum and other companies will soon be joined by Chinese-owned Tranlin Paper, which state officials expect to create 2,000 jobs at an average salary of $45,663. There is also the massive Defense Supply Center Richmond (DSCR) complex, scheduled for further expansion by the feds. And just a few miles to the south is the Amazon fulfillment center in Chester which opened in 2012.

County officials deserve their share of credit for these economic development successes. Through incentives and other means they have created an environment conducive to business and job creation.

Yet the industrialization on the edges of Jefferson Davis Highway has not done much to improve conditions for the 11,000 residents in the County’s study area, where 30% of the population lives below the poverty line. Chesterfield officials have gone a long way to offer assistance and resources for corporations in the Bermuda district. It is only fair that they offer a similar helping hand to area residents by connecting them with the employment opportunities in their own neighborhood. Workforce training programs would be a win-win for employers and job-seekers, and would help bridge the skills gaps needed for these positions.

Perhaps the thorniest issue for County planners is what to do about land use. It will be tempting to call for zoning revisions to invigorate the Jeff Davis area with new housing and retail projects. Redeveloping underutilized properties along the corridor would make economic sense, create jobs, and boost county tax coffers. But allowing these changes would probably also lead to the demolition of the motels and trailer parks where some of the poorest residents live, often just one missed rent payment away from homelessness. A redevelopment plan that throws these people out on the street without a suitable housing option is immoral and unacceptable.

Chesterfield has taken a noble first step in developing a plan to reverse the decline of the Jefferson Davis Highway corridor. It is now imperative for county officials to make future decisions with an eye towards improving the lives of area residents as opposed to just the built environment.

John Szczesny is a Chesterfield resident, urban planner, and telecommunications consultant.

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12 responses to “No Easy Route on the Jeff Davis Highway

  1. I, too, read the Times-Dispatch piece on the Jefferson Davis Highway. While it provided a lot of information, I didn’t see that it contained much insight.

    Here is the problem with almost all redevelopment & revitalization plans — attracting investment and upgrading real estate properties in a particular locale does almost nothing to alleviate poverty. Poor people remain poor. Successful revitalization efforts simply drive up real estate value and rents, which displaces the poor. Revitalizing the U.S. 1 corridor will drive the poor into crappy neighborhoods nearby, which then will suffer the usual social pathologies of poverty and accelerate the decline of property values in new places.

    The only way to attack poverty is directly: by focusing on the poor people themselves. That, of course, is exceedingly difficult. Fifty years after launching the War on Poverty, we still haven’t figured out how to do it.

    The single greatest thing we can do in the public policy realm is to create economic conditions conducive to job creation. Some of America’s current poverty is situational — people are poor because they can’t find work. If they can find jobs, some will climb out of poverty. That won’t solve all poverty, however, because some poverty comes from a deeply ingrained, inter-generational culture of poverty which cannot be solved simply by giving someone a job.

    If Chesterfield County justifies its Jeff Davis Highway revitalization plan on the grounds of bolstering its business and tax base, then fine — although, if it simply displaces poverty and creates new run-down neighborhoods as a result, it may be a waste of time. If the county justifies it on the grounds of bring more jobs into close proximity to the poor and jobless, it might be marginally useful. If the county justifies it on the grounds of attacking poverty itself, then it is totally misdirected.

  2. re: ” It is only fair that they offer a similar helping hand to area residents by connecting them with the employment opportunities in their own neighborhood. Workforce training programs would be a win-win for employers and job-seekers, and would help bridge the skills gaps needed for these positions.”

    so I disagree with Jim and give credit for this recognition.

    re: ” The only way to attack poverty is directly: by focusing on the poor people themselves. That, of course, is exceedingly difficult. Fifty years after launching the War on Poverty, we still haven’t figured out how to do it.”

    that’s simply not true – and it’s more partisan blather.

    we KNOW WHAT WORKS – it’s not jobs to folks who are unqualified.

    it’s educating people so they are qualified for jobs.

    educating economically disadvantaged children who are products of generational poverty is not easy – it’s hard. It’s harder than educating kids of well-educated parents. It costs more money and takes more resources –

    yet we play this game of saying “it’s not our fault and we should not have to pay for these kids because their parents are uneducated and poor because they chose that path.

    and we do this:

    ” More Than 40% of Low-Income Schools Don’t Get a Fair Share of State and Local Funds, Department of Education Research Finds”

    and we ignore this – pretend it’s not true.

    you cannot have economic development if your native workforce is not educated to the level needed to get the jobs that are created.

    the key to real economic development is an educated – an employable workforce.

    that means our education system has to produce that workforce – and to be held accountable for doing it .

    and they cannot do it when the rest of us are purposely ignoring the challenges the school systems face in educating the economically disadvantaged.

    we want to blame teachers and blame the parents – and walk away saying inane things like ‘ it has not worked”… like that’s a good excuse.

    more than 1/2 the kids do not go to college. that’s more than just the economically disadvantaged.

    more and more of the jobs in the 21st century workforce require high levels of competency in language, math and technology – even for “industrial” jobs… that employ robots, 3d printers and other automation.

    one half the kids are not graduating with minimum levels of competency in the core academics that are needed to perform these jobs.

    it is our responsibility to deal with this – not blame and not walk away.

    real grown-ups – regardless of their political stripes KNOW that this IS our responsibility.

    let’s stop evading it.

  3. LTG: It isn’t our responsibility … for 50 years we have given and given and given and all we’ve done is create more dependency. The horde of illegals is even a testament to that.

    Let us know when you stroke your first check.

  4. JohnB – you stroke that check every day. How do you want to pay and how much do you want to pay?

    see this is the thing – you don’t have the option of not paying.

    you only have a choice as to how much and in what forms.

    REAL fiscal conservatives KNOW THIS and they accept that reality and they know that if we want to improve the economy, reduce entitlements and prison costs – that we have to deal with this issue.

    next time you write your check for local, state and federal taxes -think about this.

  5. Jim: What are the characteristics of the people who are living the “culture of poverty”?
    Larry: What skills are the employers requiring for robots, 3D printers, etc. My guess is that most of the skills are low level and/or easily taught — by the employers rather than the schools.
    Jim: Why wouldn’t the new employers hire people from along the Jeff Davis corridor?

  6. @Fred –

    if you check the link:

    http://www.ed.gov/news/media-advisories/secretary-duncan-urban-league-president-morial-spotlight-states-where-education-funding-shortchanges-low-income-minority-students

    you will see that schools are using Title 1 money for normal school costs rather than for extra teaching help for economically disadvantaged.

    That’s a problem and no one seems to care about it.

    you ask: “what skills” ?

    how about the skills that Chesterfield is pursing with economic development to “create jobs”?

    here’s a WSJ article that explains that very thing:

    “Where the Manufacturing Jobs of the Future Will Be
    Many high-skill factory jobs let young people earn a good living without big college debt”

    ” Many of the positions available require skills that command pay far above service jobs in such areas as retailing and food service. Those skills include programming and operating computer-controlled tools; maintaining and repairing sophisticated machinery, which requires a deep understanding of both mechanics and electronics; and doing specialized types of welding.”

    now how about telling me what schools are providing this kind of training for kids not headed for college?

    our problem is ignorance – ignorance on the part of those who think schools can’t help these kids – not headed for college and so want to abandon them.

    schools should be training kids for the jobs that are available in the local economy – automated manufacturing, tradesmen, medical tech, auto tech, etc.

    we’re screwed up.

    we’ve created a culture and mindset that says the only jobs are for 4-year college and that’s not the reality.

    Germany and other European countries, Japan, Australia, even Canada train their kids for technical careers – that don’t require 4year degrees but DO REQUIRE proficiency in core academics, language, math and technology.

    we’ve turned into a nation of idiots who no longer truly understand the purpose and value of education for all workers.

    we’re willing to walk away and abandon kids who need to have employable skills.. that do exist, can be taught, and do exist in the economy.

    shame on us.

    the greatest country in the world and we’ve turned into a bunch of morons when it comes to education.

    • Larry, I don’t know about what’s going on in your part of the State, but Fairfax County Public Schools are spending Title I, state and local money on students from low-income families to the point where those schools often have average class sizes in the teens, whereas there are other elementary schools in the County with average class sizes in the 30s. If you don’t believe me, ask the Superintendent. Fairfax County offers all students vocational education. And it provides bus service to the schools teaching these courses. As I recall, Cox offers low income families broadband Internet access for $9.95 per month for two years. And will help a family obtain a student-refurbished computer for $65.

      Some kids take advantage of these programs. Others don’t. At some point, don’t we all have responsibility to make decisions that aim for success in the long run?

  7. @TMT – I believe you and Fairfax is an example of a school system where the ED do better than most of their counterparts in other parts of Va. Ditto for VocEd – Fairfax is among the best in Va.

    Title 1 is NOT a program where kids can optionally “take advantage” of. It’s supposed to be totally targeted at kids who are tested as behind.

    Title 1 is intended for grade school k-5 – specifically for kids that are “at risk” AND shown in assessments to be behind.

    it’s not an “optional” program. If the kid is behind – they get the extra help from teachers who have Masters Degrees in the field of learning disabled.

    the problem in many other parts of Va is that the use the Title 1 money not for extra help but for general teaching. The extra help for Title 1 is taken away.

    this is another example of how schools evade accountability for NOT showing what they are spending local money for on a per school basis.

    Title 1 money is intended to SUPPLEMENT spending at local schools. But what more than a few schools in Va are doing – they are using Title 1 funds to SUPPLANT local funding.

    whatever they get in Title 1 funding – they reduce local spending for instruction at those schools.

    People complain about the Feds and Dept of Ed. The reality is that if it were not for the Dept of Ed – there would be NO MONEY for economically disadvantaged kids at all. The fact that the schools divert this money to other uses is a scandal.

  8. @TMT – have you read the links I provided?

    More Than 40% of Low-Income Schools Don’t Get a Fair Share of State and Local Funds, Department of Education Research Finds

    http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/more-40-low-income-schools-dont-get-fair-share-state-and-local-funds-department-education-research-finds

    do you see the organization that did the report?

    Title 1 money is NOT supposed to be used for non-Title 1 purposes – according to the report. when you do that you are undermining the purpose and intent of those funds.

    when you divert those funds to other purposes than help to ED kids who are behind -should it surprise anyone why they stay behind ?

    • I read it. But given the extreme politicization of the federal government by Obama, I don’t necessarily buy the conclusions. I’d like to see an independent audit of the Department of Education’s analysis.

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