Fighting the Decay on Jefferson Davis Highway

by | Jun 27, 2018 | COMMUNITY NEWS

Until the completion of I-95 through central Virginia in 1958, the Jefferson Davis Highway comprised the economic backbone of the region. All north-south traffic from Maine to Florida flowed along Route 1 and brought with it the wealth which supported a corridor of bustling manufacturing, small businesses, and vibrant communities.

Kim Marble, President of the Jefferson Davis Highway Association (JDHA)—a community organization that has been working to improve the corridor for over 25 years—fondly remembers her childhood growing up along the area’s popular drive-in theater, many restaurants, swimming lakes, and even a Planter’s Peanuts shop; however, Jeff Davis’ golden era came to an end after I-95 made the thoroughfare redundant. As Marble recalls, “Lifestyles sped up, home and retail developments sprang up further west, and the Corridor began to decline.”

Sixty years later, Jeff Davis is home to the deepest and most intransigent pockets of poverty in Chesterfield County—a prosperous part of the state with an average median income nearly fourteen thousand dollars higher than the overall Virginian.

I-95, the Powhite Parkway, and Route 288 have all pushed development further south and west across the county, gobbling up pristine farmland in favor of subdivisions and strip malls. Chesterfield’s population has quintupled over the decades since the county’s first interstate, and its Board of Supervisors has been frenzily stoking that expansion by channeling Chesterfield’s resources into the necessary infrastructure for new development: roads, water, sewer, schools, and firehouses, etc.  

Route 1 residents’ cries for investment in the corridor have long fallen on deaf ears as greenfield development is cheaper and easier than the complicated and less glamorous task of revitalizing older areas. A plan to improve the fate of Jeff Davis in the 1990’s was implemented half-heartedly at best. However, neglecting the area also comes with costs; the low property values along Jeff Davis are a drag on the county’s coffers while thousands of far-flung Chesterfield residents waste time and money on frustrating commutes to work in Richmond.

The economic and environmental absurdity of ignoring that part of Chesterfield, which is most strategically located next to the region’s economic powerhouse, may have finally dawned on county leaders, but will the recently approved Northern Jefferson Davis Special Area Plan be a first step toward the area’s revitalization or just another empty promise?

Marble, for one, is hopeful, saying, “I like that [the plan] is ambitious, innovative, and pushing the envelope of what could be. I also love the fact that it could possibly raise the ceiling on the hopes and dreams of other struggling communities.” If Chesterfield County prioritizes the corridor’s revitalization, she believes Jeff Davis could become, “a thriving family-friendly, multicultural, innovative, charming, and walkable corridor where people desire to live, work, and play” within a decade. The plan certainly holds a lot of promise, outlining mixed-use and mixed-income communities, fresh streetscapes, and a 3,800-acre Technology Zone which county leaders hope will attract private investment into the area.

Marble hopes the enthusiasm surrounding the new plan will build momentum towards a full rejuvenation of the corridor. The JDHA has been working with county and community leaders for over two decades to plant the seeds of a new start for the area. So far, their accomplishments include the designation of the corridor as an Enterprise (now Technology) Zone, the founding of BizWorks—a non-profit small business incubator—the Historic Route 1 designation, and the installation of new streetlights and banners celebrating the region’s history. Many residents hope the 400th anniversary of the Falling Creek Ironworks next year will draw further attention to Jeff Davis’ many assets.

Despite the promising signs of a new direction for and renewed interest in their community, many Jeff Davis residents worry that the new master plan will remain just that: an unimplemented vision of what their corridor could become with the right support. The Board of Supervisors recently approved their FY2019 budget including $25,000 in federal grant funding to the JDHA to support a part-time executive director position; however, this represents just one quarter of the requested funds. Marble hoped to use the additional resources to hire two new part-time positions that would, Pursue permanent grant funding, to support existing neighborhood associations, and to improve communications with the more than 12,000 residents and business owners located along the corridor.”  

The development of the 3,800-acre Technology Zone has also proved worrisome. The two billion dollars of private investment and 2,000 new jobs Chesterfield County has been promoting on the site by 2020 would come from Vastly–a Chinese-owned company which recently changed it name from Tranlin, Inc. following a firestorm of bad press after it failed to repay a $5 million dollar grant from the state due to unexplained project delays. Vastly’s plans for a paper mill on the site began to falter after it failed to acquire the necessary environmental permits in a timely manner. Although Vastly has promised to produce its paper with an as yet undisclosed new “green” technology, some Jeff Davis residents fear the new paper mill would be just another example of environmental injustice–the all too common phenomenon in which local governments or companies pack pollution and environmentally detrimental infrastructure into low-income and/or minority communities.

One of Jeff Davis residents’ key concerns has been the lack of a timeline in the plan. There’s nothing stopping county leaders from beginning several long-term processes that will be key to the revitalization of Jeff Davis such as rezoning or developing funding strategies for big ticket items like the streetscape project, yet locals haven’t heard of any action on either front so far. Chesterfield County Planning Commission Chairman Gib Sloan has assured that a timeline will be the first priority of the steering committee he is currently putting together. Jim Holland, the county supervisor for the Dale District in which Route 1 lies, has requested quarterly updates on the plan’s implementation with the full backing of the Board of Supervisors.

Two critical developments indicate the Board of Supervisors mean business this time around. A county-commissioned transportation study due out this year could call for a new partnership with GRTC to bring public transportation to Chesterfield in the form of bus routes along Route 1 and Route 10. Finally, the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust recently received approval for a large community development block grant from Chesterfield in the amount of $500,000 for FY 2018-19. Kirk Turner, director of the newly minted Department of Community Enhancement for the county, believes the land trust could be a key tool to neighborhood stabilization and the creation of long-term affordable housing along Jeff Davis.

In the meantime, Marble hopes Chesterfield County will begin to signal its commitment to the corridor’s rehabilitation through a series of short-term fixes. The county could take the lead in fundraising for the 400th anniversary celebration of Falling Creek Ironworks and the rebuilding of the historic old stone Bridge at Falling Creek. After ownership of its building changed in November, Place of Miracles Cafe—a non-profit feeding warm meals to needy families in the area—has been trying to convince the Board of Supervisors to allow it and a band of other non-profit groups to use the now vacant Perrymont Middle School as a base from which to serve the community. Lastly, Chesterfield’s Economic Development Authority could turn its focus from the “Matoaca Mega Site” and instead prioritize investment and assistance to existing business along Route 1.

Marble recognizes that revitalizing Route 1 will require sustained engagement from Chesterfield’s leaders and says local residents and clergy have been, “praying for a change of heart in and toward the corridor for a few years now.” She hopes that, “Citizens who live in more stable regions of the county will begin expressing their concern and support for areas in need of revitalization” to county leaders to encourage them to see the resurrection of Jefferson Davis through. Though she understands the concerns of both sides in Virginia’s battle over Confederate-named places, she hopes the substantive change of fighting poverty, increasing affordable housing, and improving transportation along the corridor won’t get drowned out by the debate.

Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon is a born-and-raised Richmonder who holds a master's degree in urban planning from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and a bachelor's degree in international politics from the American University in D.C. Wyatt is an urban planner and community organizer working to foster safer, more sustainable cities and greater civic participation in local government.

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