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.