362 is more than 273

by Joe Fitzgerald

Take our word but not our numbers, Bluestone Town Center (BTC) backers seem to say

The moral of this story is: what the City Council doesn’t know won’t hurt the HRHA.

When I first heard about the scope of the BTC, I did some quick arithmetic and came up with an astronomical estimate of how many new K-12 students it would generate. I was wrong; the total was merely stratospheric.

Perhaps unwilling to accept the blog post of an ex-mayor, HCPS created its own model and discovered my revised numbers were pretty close. (For the record, proving me right is not why they created it.) They came up with a model that said 322 new students.

Worth noting, HCPS provided two sets of numbers. One was if they applied their model to 900 new housing units in Harrisonburg, and the second if they applied it to 900 in the southwest corner of town. The difference wasn’t significant. What was significant was the effort to share all relevant information.

In October, HRHA pointed out to HCPS that 60 of its units were for seniors, so HCPS reconfigured the estimate. (Because there’s a hell of a lot of H’s in this history, let me help: HRHA is Harrisonburg Redevelopment Housing Authority, and HCPS is still Harrisonburg City Public Schools. HRHA is partnered with EquityPlus, or EP, to apply for a rezoning to build BTC.)

The new estimate from HCPS was down to 273. A little more than half an elementary school.

HRHA reached out to the Virginia Housing Research Center at Virginia Tech to get a better estimate. The estimate they got was 362 new students, 30 percent higher than the HCPS figure.

“Significantly more than our projections,” superintendent Michael Richards said at the February 21 School Board meeting, in an almost British level of understatement.

Let’s be generous here, and refer to EP, HRHA, and the VHRC as the applicants and their consultant.

At the February 14 City Council meeting, the Community Development staff presented the lower HCPS numbers they’d been presented before the January 17 Planning Commission meeting. The applicants didn’t say anything about their numbers.

Speakers referred to the HCPS estimates. The applicants didn’t say anything about their numbers.

Backers of BTC said some growth in the schools was going to happen even without BTC. The applicants didn’t say anything about their numbers.

The applicants brought their consultant to the microphone to offer to answer any questions. But the applicants didn’t say anything about their numbers.

Anybody starting to see a trend here?

The figure of 362 students was handed out on paper at the meeting, but apparently not included in the City Council’s packet of information. It’s true that City Council members could have, in the middle of the longest and most complex meeting in anybody’s memory, stopped to read the report from the applicants. But there’s a fire hose of information on a project this size. Pulling out a single drop of data in the middle of a meeting is difficult, unlikely, and borders on the impossible. Is it fair to ask if the applicants knew that?

School impact is the issue that immediately affects every taxpayer in the city. Our taxes are going up to pay for a high school. The School Board is talking about how soon we’ll have to build another elementary.

Is it fair to ask if the applicants intentionally sat on the higher estimate from their own consultant?

There are many questions about BTC. Answers from the applicants include, “you have my word,” “we’ll work that out,” “we may be able to buy that farm,” and “developers have worked with rock before.” On school impact, the applicants had real data. They slipped it in during a record-length meeting. They didn’t say it out loud.

I’m sure they had a reason.

Joe Fitzgerald is a former mayor of Harrisonburg. This column is republished with permission from his blog, Still Not Sleeping.