Tag Archives: James A. Bacon

Bacon Bits: Rural Development Edition

Seeding entrepreneurship. The Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority has approved $180,000 in seed-capital grants up to $10,000 for businesses that have been operating less than a year and have fewer than 10 full-time employees. The new businesses are projected to create $770,000 in total private investment and create 135 full-time and part-time jobs. Assuming the businesses deliver on their investment and jobs — not to be taken for granted — this looks like a promising approach to economic development. Since it started two years ago, reports the Bristol Herald-Courier, 53 businesses receiving micro-grants have generated $3.1 million in private investment and created 542 full- and -part-time jobs. Beats subsidizing an out-of-state company to build a light manufacturing plant and then shut it down 10 years later.

Addressing the doc shortage. Southwest Virginia has a chronic shortage of doctors, nurses and other health care providers. The United Company Foundation in Bristol is issuing a $1 million challenge grant to the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine in Blacksburg to lower medical school debt for doctors who agree to practice in Southwest Virginia, reports the Roanoke Times. Two $40,000 scholarships will be awarded this spring to third-year medical students. After they complete their residencies, they will be required to work for three years in the region.

To plug the broadband gaps, first you have to find the broadband gaps. Continue reading

More Unaffordable Affordable Housing

The Lawson Companies., a Virginia Beach multifamily development company, is planning to construct a $19.25 million, low-income housing project in South Richmond, reports Richmond BizSense. The apartment complex will have 96 units, for an average cost of $200,000 each. Rent for two-bedroom apartments will average around $1,000 a month, while three-bedroom units will go for $1,100.

“We see this project drawing a lot of families,” said Freddie Fletcher, a Lawson development associate. “It’s a good market over there for families looking for an affordable, Class A apartment.”

The Virginia Housing Development Authority (VHDA) is providing financing for the development. The article does not say whether or not the $1,000-a-month rent will be subsidized from vouchers or other public funds.

The project appears to be similar to many other lower-income housing projects in Virginia. Lawson Corp. has $290 million in ongoing development across Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia, and is looking to do more deals in the Richmond region. Continue reading

Floods, Roads and Risk Management

Storm-related road repairs in Northumberland County. Photo credit: Virginia Mercury.

In a blog post yesterday (“Risk and the Fisc”), I cited an Old Dominion University study that guesstimated that Katrina-scale hurricane could cause $40 billion in damages and lost economic activity in Hampton Roads. The cost to the Commonwealth of coping with such a disaster, said Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne, “keeps me up at night.”

Today comes news that the cost of repairing road damage in the aftermath of Tropic Storm Michael is estimated to be $25 million. Six months after the storm hit Virginia, 17 roads around the state are still under repair, reports The Virginia Mercury. That’s the damage from a tropical storm, which generated a fraction of the rain, wind, and storm surge associated with a Class 5 hurricane.

Crews have been fixing pipes and washed-out roads, mostly inland where heavy rains caused flash flooding. Continue reading

Does Facebook Solar Pay Its Own Way?

Dominion Energy has announced the construction of six new solar farms — three in Virginia and three in North Carolina – to offset the electricity demand of Facebook data centers in the two states. The 590 megawatts of new renewable energy generation will be enough to power 147,000 homes at peak output.

The partnership will support Dominion’s goal of having 3,000 megawatts of new solar and wind energy in operation or under development by 2022 and Facebook’s goal of supporting its  global operations with 100% renewable energy by the end of 2020. (See the press release here.)

In the abstract, I’m all in favor of generating electricity with clean, renewable energy sources like solar. But I’m still trying to understand the implications of the solar rush for grid stability and ratepayers. Continue reading

Risk and the Fisc

As the Northam administration’s point man in negotiations with the New York bond-rating agencies, Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne spends much of his time worrying about the Commonwealth of Virginia’s credit-worthiness. The state nearly lost its sterling AAA bond rating last year. It was a close thing, he says. Even now, he adds, Virginia isn’t out of the woods.

Layne sees many things that could go wrong. The economy could slip into recession and projected tax revenues could decline. A stock market crash could boost unfunded pension liabilities by billions of dollars. The politicians in Washington could get serious about dealing with the $22 trillion national debt, curtailing the defense spending that undergirds Virginia’s economy.

The risk that “keeps me up at night,” says Layne, is of a Category 5 hurricane ripping through Hampton Roads. An Old Dominion University study published late last year found that a Florence- or Katrina-scale hurricane would cause $17 billion in wind and water damage and another $25 billion or more in lost economic activity. The state would be on the hook for evacuating and sheltering hundreds of thousands of  residents, cleaning up tens of thousands of truckloads of debris, and repairing state-maintained roads and other infrastructure, even as disruption to Virginia’s second-largest metropolitan economy cost millions of dollars in state tax revenue.

The Commonwealth faces huge risks, both short-term and long-term, but few of those risks are accounted for in Virginia’s $21 billion-a-year General Fund budget. The state’s “rainy day” fund and cash reserves are too paltry to buffer the budget from a fiscal shock of any magnitude. Under many scenarios Layne can contemplate, balancing the budget would require horrendous spending cuts.

“There’s no one looking into the future,” Layne says of the state’s biennial budget cycle. “Nobody’s looking beyond two years.” If revenue shortfalls loom more than two years out, he adds, “the attitude is, we’ll deal with that in the next budget.” Continue reading

NoVa Transit Projects Got Highest Congestion Scores This Round

Smart Scale congestion scores for Top 10 Northern Virginia projects. Only the top seven received regional transportation funding in the most recent round.

Yes, it’s true that most of Northern Virginia’s regional transportation funds were dedicated to mass transit projects in the last round of funding, says Deputy Secretary of Transportation Nick Donohue. But six of the seven projects that did receive funding scored highest in congestion mitigation under the state’s Smart Scale scoring system.

The only project getting funding without a top congestion-mitigation score — a second entrance for the Crystal City Metro — scored high in other criteria, particularly the environment and land use. The Crystal City Metro, incidentally, is tied to the Amazon HQ2 project, one of the biggest economic-development projects in Virginia’s history, although Donohue says that economic-development benefits did not drive the funding for that project. Continue reading

Antifragile Urbanism, Skin in the Game, and Building What Works

Michael Mehaffy

One of the most important movements to emerge from the late 20th century was New Urbanism, a critique of autocentric suburbanism and architectural modernism that argued for human-scaled development patterns. The most important philosopher to emerge in the early 21st century is Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of “The Black Swan,” “Antifragile,” and “Skin in the Game,” among others. I have drawn from the ideas of both for this blog. Now, I’m delighted to see a short, readable essay that synthesizes the two.

In an article published in Public Square, “Beyond resilience: Toward ‘antifragile’ urbanism,” Michael Mehaffy applies Taleb’s concept of antifragility to the building of better places. If you’re looking for detailed policy proposals, this essay is not for you. If you’re looking for more fruitful ways of looking at policy proposals, then you will be  rewarded. Continue reading

Affordable Housing: Thinking Outside the Container

Sheila Gunst shows off the kitchen in a modified, 320-square-foot shipping container.

Sheila Gunst estimates that there are 33 million cargo containers around the world, half of which are empty. Many of the empties languish in United States because China ships $400 billion more in trade goods to the U.S. every year than the U.S. ships back. After making multiple trans-oceanic trips, used containers stack up in port cities like Norfolk by the thousands.

And therein lies a business opportunity. The shipping lines can recycle them as scrap metal… or sell them to someone like Sheila, an interior designer living in the Richmond area, who dreams about refashioning them into inexpensive dwellings. Continue reading

Mugged by Reality: Sedgwick Gardens Edition

Lawrence Hilliard moved to Sedgwick Gardens to escape the ghetto. Then the ghetto came to him. Photo credit: Washington Post

A conservative, as the saying goes, is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. Well, it appears that a large number of liberals in the affluent Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C., have been mugged by reality. Whether they become conservatives remains to be seen.

In a social experiment that could have implications here in Virginia where the idea of mixed-income housing is all the rage, the D.C. Housing Authority increased in 2016 the maximum value of vouchers to 175% of fair market rent as set by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That meant, according to the Washington Post, that vouchers could be used for one-bedroom apartments renting at up to $2,648 per month.

At Sedgwick Gardens, a historic Art Deco apartment complex overlooking Rock Creek Park, one-bedroom apartments rented for about $2,200 per month in 2017. The apartment complex, located in D.C.’s predominantly white Cleveland Park neighborhood, is, as the WaPo puts it, “a bastion of urbane liberalism where only one in 20 voters cast a ballot for President Trump in the 2016 election.” The reaction of many Sedgwick Gardens inhabitants to the influx of tenants directly off the streets, however, was less than warm, tolerant and embracing. Continue reading

Is Smart Scale Working Like It’s Supposed to?

Republican legislators in Northern Virginia (the few that are left) are wondering what happened to Virginia’s Smart Scale mechanism for allocating transportation dollars. Smart Scale was established during the McAuliffe administration to score proposed transportation projects on key metrics such as congestion relief, economic development, safety, land use, and the environment. But somehow 84% of the transportation dollars raised through Northern Virginia regional taxes were directed to transit projects, assert Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, and Del. Tim Hugo, R-Fairfax. Only $8 million per year of the $200 million in state funding has gone to highway projects.

“These recommendations are nothing short of outrageous and demonstrate beyond any shadow of a doubt that SMART SCALE scoring is failing,” said LaRock in a prepared statement yesterday. “It is not following the legislative mandates imposed by the Virginia Legislature in 2014. Northern Virginia’s notorious congestion will not go away if 70% of the estimated benefit of projects comes from Land use, Economic Development, and Accessibility, with another 18% from Environment.” Continue reading

Arlington Could Spend $11.5 Million to Do What?

Let’s see now. Arlington County offered $29 million in incentives to land the economic development coup of the decade, Amazon’s HQ2 project. Now, according to the Washington Business Journal, the County Board is considering granting another $11.5 million in incentives to keep the Drug Enforcement Administration in town. Are you kidding me?

Citizens are raising legitimate concerns that the influx of 25,000 Amazon employees will drive up housing costs and displace lower-income residents and make Northern Virginia’s overloaded roads and highways even more congested. I have argued that the benefit to Arlington — increased economic dynamism and diversification — is worth the millions of dollars worth of enticements. But let’s not pretend there isn’t a cost.

Who needs to bribe the DEA when you’ve got Amazon coming? And not just Amazon, but all the vendors, partners, spin-offs, and other enterprises that will become part of the Amazon ecosystem. What does the DEA bring to the table? Economic diversification? Hah! The DEA perpetuates dependency upon the federal government. Economic dynamism? Laugh out loud! The DEA is a government bureaucracy. Continue reading

Virginia’s Decline in Crime

Source: Demographics Research Group, StatChat blog

One of the advantages of living in Virginia is that citizens are less likely than other Americans on average to become crime victims. The rate of violent crimes (seen above ) is about half the national average, according to data published today on the StatChat blog based on 2017 FBI crime data. The rate for property crimes is only three-quarters of the national average. That’s pretty impressive considering that Virginia’s demographics come pretty close to matching the national profile. The Old Dominion is doing something right.

Not that you’d know it by reading Charlottesville’s Daily Progress today. Continue reading

Another Fig Leaf Solution for Affordable Housing

Virginia lawmakers are adding $4 million this year to the Commonwealth’s affordable housing trust fund. While acknowledging that the sum is a “drop in the bucket” when it comes to affordable housing costs — the money would bring the revolving low-interest loan fund up to $9.5 million — the Washington Post cites housing officials as saying that the money “is a sign that the state is paying attention to a growing need.”

I would characterize the $4 million expenditure differently. The political function is to allow the Northam administration and lawmakers generally look like they’re doing something while. in actuality, they are studiously ignoring the underlying problem. The erosion of affordable housing is mostly a supply-side problem, not a financing problem. Continue reading

17th-Century Renderings of Native Virginians

Wenceslaus Hollar, a prolific maker of etchings in the 1600s, has an exhibit dedicated to his works now on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Born in Bohemia, he spent most of his adult life in Germany, Netherlands and England, where he cranked out a prodigious number of works, sometimes of his own contrivance, sometimes copying the paintings of others as etchings. Two renderings, I thought, were worthy of note for Bacon’s Rebellion, for they depicted the indigenous inhabitants of “Virginia” — a term used somewhat more loosely than it is today — before they were displaced by the Europeans. One etching is of the muscular gent above. And the other… Continue reading

ConserveVirginia Makes Preservation Data More Easily Accessible

Virginia scenic rivers. Source: ConserveVirginia. Click for larger image.

The Northam administration has launched ConserveVirginia, a “smart map” that identifies 6.3 million acres of high priority conservation areas. The map draws upon 19 data sets in six broad categories: agriculture & forestry; natural habit and ecosystem diversity; floodplains and flooding resilience; cultural & historic preservation; scenic preservation; and landscape resilience.

“It is time to take a more scientific, data-driven, and accountable approach to land conservation in our Commonwealth — ConserveVirginia is about using the best information we have available to identify our true conservation needs and focus on protecting our limited resources,” said Northam in a press release earlier this week. “When Virginians invest their tax dollars in conservation projects, we have an obligation to ensure those efforts yield the greatest benefits in the most cost-effective manner for the Commonwealth.” Continue reading