Apr 28, 2021 • 23M

April 27, 2021: No qualifying bids for Belmont Bridge? CACVB considers the make-up of its Board of Directors

The 182nd edition of a regular look at what's happening in the Greater Charlottesville area

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Sean Tubbs
Regular updates of what's happening in local and regional government in and around Charlottesville, Virginia from an award-winning journalist with nearly thirty years of experience.
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Today’s Patreon-fueled shout-out wants you to consider a new adventure this Sunday. The Rivanna Conservation Alliance resumes the tradition of the Rivanna River Race! Contestants will travel 6.8 miles downriver via kayak or canoe from the Rio Mills Bridge to the Rivanna River Company. Registration costs $40 a person or $50 for tandem, and proceeds go to the Rivanna Conservation Alliance.

Don’t have a boat? Rent one from the Rivanna River Company! Visit the sign-up page in the newsletter to learn more and register. It’s all part of the Rivanna Riverfest which runs from May 1 to May 9. 

In this installment:

  • Tourism industry officials want reform of the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention and Visitors’ Bureau

  • Updates on transit planning

  • There are no qualifying bids yet for the reconstruction of the Belmont Bridge

  • Virginia DEQ creates an environmental justice office

  • VDOT wants you to drive slow in work zones - this and every other week!

The long-awaited construction of the Belmont Bridge in Charlottesville will not begin this spring, and City Council might be briefed on Monday about how to move the long-planned project forward. Several firms submitted bids in time for the March 16, 2021 but the city has not released any further information at this time. 

“The submitted bid proposals for the Belmont Bridge replacement are being evaluated by the City staff and its consultant in accordance with the planned project scope,” reads an email from Brian Wheeler, the city’s director of communications. “This evaluation also includes consideration of the project’s planned budget.”

The current bridge was built in 1962, and city staff recommended in April 2009 that it should be replaced rather than repaired. The firm MMM Design was hired to conduct the design process for what was then a project with a $9 million cost estimate. But there was a fierce public debate about whether the bridge should even be replaced, or if a tunnel underneath the railroad tracks should proceed. MMM Design went out of business soon after Council selected to go with a bridge in July 2014. 

Soon after that, the firm Kimley Horn was selected and began a new review in April 2017. Last August, Council voted to authorize $15.26 million in federal and state funding for the project, which by then had a $31 million cost estimate. At least $7.5 million of that amount are city capital improvement funds. The project was advertised for construction bids earlier this year, but the process is now stalled pending new direction from Council. 

“A recommendation for moving forward is being developed, as are possible options,” Wheeler wrote. 

Check tomorrow to see if the item is on the City Council’s agenda for the May 3 meeting. 

This is the way the finances for the project pencil out in Virginia’s Draft Six-Year Improvement Program for FY22. Take a look!

Want to show support for those people who work on road and transportation projects in Virginia? Tomorrow, April 28, is the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Go Orange Day, where people are asked to wear orange to mark National Work Zone Awareness Week. If you do, take a selfie and send it to VDOT in one of two ways:

  1. Email to William.Merritt@vdot.virginia.gov and Lou.Hatter@vdot.virginia.gov Please include names, where the photo was taken and the company's name.

  2. Text 540-717-8376 (be sure to include your name)

Take a look at their gallery to see examples

A road crew poses to ask for you to slow down in work zones (Credit: Virginia Department of Transportation)

Preparations continue for a study of how transit could work better in Albemarle County. Some fixed-route service is provided by Charlottesville Area Transit, which is owned by the City of Charlottesville. Jaunt provides fixed-route service between Crozet and Charlottesville as well as paratransit service throughout the region.

The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission is shepherding a Regional Transit Vision as well as a study of additional service to serve Albemarle’s urban areas. A kick-off meeting for the study will take place in early June. Jessica Hersh-Ballering is a planner with the TJPDC. She spoke at the April 22 meeting of the Regional Transit Partnership.

“This is a project to determine the best way to expand transit service to three priority locations in Albemarle, and those priority locations are Pantops, north 29, and Monticello,” Hersh-Ballering said. “The goal is to apply for funding to implement that service in fiscal year 2023.” 

To do that, the study will need to be completed, including public review, in order to apply for a demonstration grant by next February. 

Albemarle Supervisor Diantha McKeel is the chair of the Regional Transit Partnership.

“I just have a comment, Jessica,” McKeel said. “I looked at that February date in February and thought, wow, that is a tight timeline but I’m sure you all have figured it out.” 

The University Transit System is a member of the Regional Transit Partnership and they updated community officials on the results of a recent passenger survey. The pandemic skewed ridership last year, with almost 90 percent of people taking shuttle routes to the Health Complex, a figure that was 57.25 percent in 2019. Academic routes usually make up just over forty percent ridership, but that dropped to ten percent last year. 

An image from the recent UTS ridership survey (download)

The University Transit System is completely separate from Charlottesville Area Transit, but does offer some service on some streets in the City of Charlottesville.

“We are the public provider on 14th Street, Grady, Rugby, Arlington, Massey,” said Becca White, the director of Parking and Transportation at UVA. “People who have been around long enough know that CAT used to serve some of those corridors and were able to concentrate elsewhere while UTS agreed to be the public provider on those corridors.”

However, Charlottesville Area Transit said they are in talks with UTS about whether that will continue.

CAT Senior Project Steve MacNally told the Regional Transit Partnership about upcoming capital projects, including the potential for a transit hub and park and ride lot on U.S. 29.  They’re looking for a suitable two acre lot. 

“I’ve been busy looking at some vacant or unoccupied properties, looking at right of way issues, the access to those, and a number of other criteria,” MacNally said. 

CAT is about to begin work on two studies of its own. One will look at the need for future facilities and a more dedicated look at the park and ride possibility with the firm Kimley Horn. 

In response to a question from White, CAT director Garland Williams said he has not been in touch with anyone from the University of Virginia Foundation, which owns many properties in the 29 North corridor, including the North Fork Research Park.

“This is our kickoff to bring all those elements together, so the study is really going to look at whether the corridor itself is ripe for transit,” Williams said. “We do believe that it is.”   

Williams added this could help CAT increase ridership which would in turn bring in more funding. 

“Initially we have looked at potentially the airport to [the University of Virginia] as the initial corridor of looking at, kind of the route, but that’s up for discussion as we’re working with our consultant,” Williams said. 

The work by Kimley Horn is separate from the work being done by the TJPDC on behalf of Albemarle County. Williams said the work is complementary and will function together. A third transit-related land use study in the same geographical area is a potential relocation of Albemarle school bus fleet to land somewhere in the U.S. 29 corridor.

Christine Jacobs, the interim director of the TJPDC, said the conversation was a sign of the role the Regional Transit Partnership can play. 

“I think this is really exciting because there’s a lot of synergy and coordination that is occurring between some of these corridors and I just want to make sure I remind you that the PDC we will also be doing through the MPO in their North 29 study corridor from Airport Road all the way up into Greene,” Jacobs said. 

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has opened a new Office of Environmental Justice. Renee Hoyos will serve as the first director of the office, which will oversee the implementation of an environmental justice program at DEQ. The office stems from an executive order from Governor Ralph Northam from 2018. A report from Skeo Solutions and the Metropolitan Group completed in the fall of 2020 further outlined how the office might work. 

Hoyos most recently served as the executive director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network. Hoyos will work with Jerome Brooks as the Environmental Justice Coordinator. Brooks has been at DEQ for a decade and a half as the manager of the office of water compliance and director of the office of air compliance coordination. Even before the creation of the office, Brooks has been serving as DEQ's environmental justice coordinator for the past 13 years. 

You’re reading Charlottesville Community Engagement and time for another subscriber-supported public service announcement. It’s becoming more and more safe to go out and check out live music. If you’re interested in going out and hearing people who have been waiting to get out and play, check out the Charlottesville Jazz Society and their running list of events! The Charlottesville Jazz Society is dedicated to the promotion, preservation and perpetuation of all jazz, and that the best thing you can do now is to go check out some music.

Check them out in the link in the newsletter.  

To close out the show today, a long look at the April 26, 2021 meeting of the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau, a public body that since 2018 made up of appointed and elected officials from Albemarle and Charlottesville.

The CACVB was originally formed in 1979 and exists today to serve as a clearinghouse for information on tourism, as well as to discuss strategies for how to market the area. Different entities in the community want to bring in more visitors for different reasons. 

At the beginning of the April 26 meeting, Susan Krischel is with the Ix Art Park, a centrally-located and flexible destination space. The organization has put together a new campaign called Charlottesville Excursions with $20,000 in funding from the Virginia Tourism Office to attract people in neighboring states to come to the area to experience the many arts in the community.

“We are such a strong and vital arts destination that we wanted to position Charlottesville as a city to come and really immerse yourself in arts,” Krischel said. “We thought that that not only could help spur economic activity here in Charlottesville. It could also encourage tourists to come back to Charlottesville.” 

The Ix Art Park partnered with the CACVB, the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville, the Bridge Performing Arts Initiative and the Quirk Hotel Charlottesville on the project. The latter would offer a discount during the duration of the campaign. 

“This campaign is going to run every weekend in September and October of this year and this would be an example of what we might suggest to someone who comes in for a four-day weekend,” Krischel said. 

For most of its history, elected officials did not serve on the CACVB’s governing body. Until 2004, there was a Tourism Council that advised the tourism agency’s executive director but that was abandoned at the time in favor of a larger Board of Directors. In 2017, city and county officials both to add more oversight and altered the make-up of the Board to allow two elected officials from both Albemarle and Charlottesville. 

Albemarle Supervisor Diantha McKeel said the program is exciting, but noted that much of the presentation was centered on Charlottesville. 

“I understand the city-centric nature of the proposal,” McKeel said. “What was your outreach to Woolen Mills or Stonefield, some of the areas that are really close by but not in the city?”  

Krischel responded that the Ix Art Park is small, and personnel limitations forced them to focus on their immediate environment. 

“Some of it quite frankly came down to what we were just physically able to manage,” Krichel said. “We’re a small organization so we really felt we needed to keep it as close to the downtown center as possible just because we thought that was what we were able to manage.”  

Krischel said the program could grow if it is successful. She said arts organizations have not been showcased to potential tourists.

“So this is sort of stepping our toe in the water to a more comprehensive arts campaign but I truly hope this will be a first step toward something that will be more permanent and long-term,” Krischel said.

Supervisor Ann Mallek said she wanted the Ix Art Park’s program to highlight fall festivals and to put a spotlight on excursions into Albemarle.  

“And certainly everyone of those wineries and breweries that people mention, many of them have art galleries and have resident studio people there,” Mallek said.

Krischel said she would be happy to consider adding that information, but they’ve used up all of the $20,000 in funding so far.

“If you think that there are arts organizations that would  like to be involved in this and would like to be willing to do a little bit of the footwork to get them involved and to help us tie them in, we’d be more than happy to speak to them,” Krischel said. “I think it’s just a lack of knowledge as to who everyone is and what’s going on.” 

In February, the CACVB Board talked about the exploring ways to change the working dynamics of the Board to reflect best practices used by similar entities across the country which seek to market themselves as destinations. 

An informal work group has looked at the issue since, including City Council Heather Hill. They looked at four other groups in Virginia and concluded the make-up of the CACVB skews heavily to government representation. Of the 15 members of the Board, eight are elected or appointed officials from Albemarle and Charlottesville. 

“”We see ourselves as pretty unique in this position of being quasi-governmental with board oversight,” Hill said. 

The work group on the working of the CACVB Board presented this slide as part of the discussion

The working group met with industry representatives to find out what people thought about the CACVB and its ability to promote tourism.

“There’s just a sense that there’s not enough dialogue among the sectors and just being able to have more of those seats at the table so they can kind of be a conduit for that sector dialog that can happen across the region,” Hill said.

Hill said some representatives said there were power dynamics on the Board that intimidated people from approaching the agency for help and assistance.

Chris Eure, executive director of the Paramount, is another member of the working group. She said she wanted the Board to operate in a way that would lead to more connections, and referenced the presentation from the Ix Art Park.

“I would love to know how the arts could help better,” Eure said. “What nights do they need to be filled? What weeks, what months? And then have all these different sectors perhaps come up with plans for what activities to stage!” 

Eure suggested adjusting the agendas for the meeting to invite more organizations to the table to get feedback from Board members. 

The working group also suggested changing the composition of the Board itself. 

“Overarching, I think a lot of the themes that we were hearing was just that there feels like a disconnect between the work of the Board and representatives in the industry,” Hill said.

Eure said the current make-up of the CACVB came at a time when there was suspicion from government officials about how their tax money was being spent. 

“That’s by and large while we are here because there wasn’t the confidence from the elected officials that their funds that were their tax revenues were being used according to how they thought it should strategically be done,” Eure said. 

McKeel said that was part of the discussion, but not the whole reason why she supported the board realignment in 2018. She said she wanted to expand the kinds of work the CACVB did and it wasn’t just about the money. 

“Every time we asked about vineyards, every time we asked about the work that we are doing in this community around African-American history and some of the trails, every time we asked about something besides one group which was at that time was ‘heads and beds.’ We were told ‘we don’t do that, we can’t do that, we’re not interested in all of that other stuff,’” McKeel said. 

There appeared to be support for reform of the board, but there was a warning about how much the members could do to reform itself. Roger Johnson is the chair of the CACVB Board and Albemarle Economic Development Director. 

“I don’t think we can entertain any Board changes whatsoever,” Johnson said. “That’s part of the operating agreement and outside the scope of what this Board has the authority to do.”

However, Johnson will meet with his counterpart in Charlottesville as well as CACVB Executive director Courtney Cacatian to discuss next steps. 

The meeting then moved on a presentation on Virginia’s tourism industry. The final speaker was Travis Wilburn of Stay Charlottesville. Wilburn went back to the discussion of the Board’s make-up. He said he has spoken with many people who feel the presence of elected officials on the CACVB Board was intimidating. 

“As I speak representing these folks, I personally and honestly fear political retribution for the businesses that I’m involved in, which is exactly how many of your board members feel and fear on a regular basis,” Wilburn said. “We’ve created a toxic environment and we call on you to try and right this ship.” 

Wilburn said data from the Virginia Tourism Office showed that tourism had a $683 million economic impact on the Charlottesville community in 2019.

“That was roughly 6,100 jobs and those are jobs we’d desperately like to bring back,” Wilburn said. “We very much need the help of this bureau.” 

Wilburn cited a letter that Senator Creigh Deeds wrote to Susan Payne last Friday in which he appears to critique the make-up of the CACVB Board. Payne is the president of the Blue Ridge Group and chair of the Virginia Tourism Corporation. Let’s hear Wilburn read Deeds’ words. 

“Several years ago I supported legislation to allow an elected official from both the county and the city to serve on the CACVB,” Deeds wrote to Payne. “I did so to encourage cooperation and work between the public and private sectors.  I understand that membership has grown beyond what was intended, and it seems to me that you have to have more industry representation, so that the people who know the work can guide its growth.” 

In response, Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker said her priority as an elected official is addressing race and labor issues. 

“No matter how you spend it, we have an economy that has been built on a university and tourism that leaves the majority of the individuals who happen to be people of color, Black people and other people of color, to service those industries who can never make it out of poverty wages job even though we’re talking about a [nearly] $700 [million] industry,” Walker said. “That should be unacceptable to all of us.” 

Walker said she would not be silent about her views. 

“Besides the guests on this call, two of the four, I am the only Black person or person of color represented on this screen, so part of Heather and Chris [Eure]’s conversation about how to change that is a very important conversation.”

The conversations will continue at the CACVB’s next meeting. 

Phew. This was a long one. Thanks for reading if you made it this far. Never a dull moment.