Williamsburg could join statewide group of cities

Contact Reporterwwright@vagazette.com

Williamsburg could join several other cities in Virginia through a Richmond-based organization that attempts to wield their collective power in the state's General Assembly.

That organization, Virginia First Cities, counts other Hampton Roads cities as members, including Portsmouth and Newport News. Kelly Harris-Braxton, who has a law degree from the College of William and Mary, runs the statewide advocacy group.

Starting Virginia First Cities came from a frustration Harris-Braxton found while working in local government. She worked as director of Intergovernmental Relations and Assistant City Attorney in Richmond until 2005.

"I worked in local government," she said. "Staff got tired of feeling like they were banging their heads up against the wall and not getting what we wanted."

She made a presentation to Williamsburg City Council members in a June meeting, and said that part of the power the group holds lies in its numbers.

"Most cities have similarities," she said. "There's an interest in developing our community, for example, and poverty is growing in many places. Those are issues these cities have to address in the years to come."

The group pushes for urban economic development and education policies addressing at-risk children, among other goals. One common interest is helping low-income and underemployed people find jobs and other resources to help them build wealth.

"Poverty eradication is a big problem in our cities," she said. "And if you don't attack it the right way, you don't get anywhere."

Newport News, Charlottesville and Hampton are all represented, along with several other cities around the state.

"It's a pretty good peer group," said vice mayor Scott Foster. "A lot of those localities are known for pretty responsible management."

City manager Marvin Collins met Kelly Harris-Braxton at a meeting earlier this year. She said he expressed interest in the state advocacy group at that point.

"He came up to me and asked, 'Why aren't we in yet?'," she said.

In 1999 — their first year — staff from Virginia First Cities pushed through 14 pieces of legislation on blight alone.

"That was when we said, 'OK this might work,'" she said.

As state legislators change, Virginia First Cities tries to tailor its approach to what it thinks will be well received by members.

"Some of the issues depend, in all honesty, on who the administration is at the time," Harris-Braxton said. "You can imagine where I'm going with that. There are times you make progress, then other times, you wished could have done more."

Cities pay yearly dues to be in Virginia First Cities. Each place is charged according to its population. Williamsburg would pay $12,814 annually for its membership, Harris-Braxton said.

"Williamsburg is a very respected locality statewide," she said. "It's situated very well with legislators, and we think the group could take advantage of that."

Wright can be reached by phone at 757-345-2343.

Virginia First Cities

Website: http://virginiafirstcities.com/

Member cities:

Charlottesville, Danville, Hampton, Hopewell, Lynchburg, Martinsville, Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Richmond, Staunton, Winchester

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