Growth. As government officials, we are mandated to pursue it and rightly so. The trick, however, is to acknowledge and explore the potential pitfalls of unrestrained growth and get ahead of them early rather than letting them bowl you over, leaving you in a fix, and wondering what happened in the first place!
When a business is thinking of locating to your community, some of the most important questions on their decision maker’s mind are:
· “Will I be able to pay my bills?”
· “Will I be able to make my business model work?”
· “How will this or that locality help make it work?”
There are several factors that come into play when answering the questions above, but a huge factor is going to be the number of customers who live nearby to support the business. Some communities, like New Kent County, are fortunate to have an interstate close by that provides a steady stream of interstate traffic. However, it’s helpful to consider how many people live in your locality throughout the year, i.e., the people who live within a certain radius of that location permanently.
For most people, it’s difficult to answer the question of what comes first, the rooftops or commercial development. It’s a little bit of a “chicken/egg” dilemma. For people in the economic development space, however, we know that it’s the rooftops that are essential to commercial growth. As an economic development director, it’s a good thing when a new subdivision starts because I know it’s going to make it easier and easier to entice those businesses to come in and set up shop here in New Kent.
Another thing to consider, especially with a growing locality like New Kent, is that the more homes that are being constructed, you have people moving in bringing new faces and new ideas. I was driving down the interstate a few days ago and I saw something on the back of a truck. It said, “Old ways won’t open new doors.” It resonated so much with me that I asked my passenger to use their phone to take a picture. Sometimes just because you’ve done something one way for so long doesn’t mean it’s the best way. Don’t get me wrong, it is helpful to rely on the institutional knowledge of a community, some of whose families have lived here for generations, but with new homes, you get new faces and fresh perspectives in the community that, in conjunction with the established community can work together to redirect the way that particular community heads into the future.
It’s no secret that houses cost a community money and the number one factor in those costs is the public-school system. Unless it’s an age-restricted community, most units, depending on what type, are going to bring some school children. During our recent upsurges in growth, New Kent has witnessed the huge impact on the county budget. Those new school children also will require additional libraries, parks and other recreational activities. Add onto that the additional calls for public safety services such as the Sheriff’s department and Fire/Rescue. Though these additional services are necessary and helpful, a small community, if not adequately prepared for this rapid construction, will have to play catch up to meet those needs.
If your community is experiencing similar growth to New Kent, you might have people moving in from larger metro regions who are accustomed to different levels of service for fire, retail or anything like that. Yes, it’s great to welcome them in, but once they locate to your community, they might quickly ask government officials to explain why their previous level of service is not available in their new area. That indeed puts a strain on local services, and it is likely that you’ll hear those opinions voiced amongst the residents. Especially if your growth is accelerated and unanticipated.
It takes a proactive community to look ahead several years (if not 8-10 years) while at the same time examining the trends over the last five to ten years. A truly proactive community will look at the factual numbers such as new housing starts to gauge where things might be in the next few years. Another question to ask is where is the region going? What is happening outside your borders that might generate growth? If any locality has this vigorous approach of proactivity, it’s going to be much easier to meet the needs of the citizens rather than playing catch up. Playing catch up is always difficult.
In New Kent, we got ahead of our growth by planning and saving for our new elementary school, adding and upgrading fire stations, adding a new wastewater treatment plant, securing a surface water withdrawal permit for drinking water and constructing new parks and recreation fields. We are still going through our growing pains and one of the biggest challenges that we face today is the need to provide all residents with reliable high-speed internet.
Yes, in the end, it’s how do you pay for it? It could be a bond referendum for schools or for new parks and recreation facilities. It could be a small ad valorem tax for certain areas of the County to pay for increased access to public utilities. We all know that it’s got to be paid for somehow. It’s all rewarding, but it’s also definitely a balancing act.