Top stories in 2017 unfold further in 2018

A cold winter’s morning offers a perfect opportunity to reflect on events in 2017, especially those that we’ll still be talking about in 2018 — and beyond.

And there is plenty to talk about.

» Colonial Williamsburg’s restructuring clearly is a top story for the year. Mitchell Reiss, the board and leadership of the organization finally did what no one previously had been willing to do: look their challenges square in the face and make the necessary changes.

Letting people go, giving up facets of your work that had been a source of pride — upending the status quo — are painful and difficult. Reiss couldn’t undo past decisions to, for example, build and operate hotels, so he had to find a way to remove those distractions, those drains on the organization’s energy and resources and refocus on that which CW does best: share history.

They deserve — and have — our support for not being afraid of change. That said, they still have a long road ahead of them and we’ll keep reporting on them — the good and the unflattering — and we’ll continue to share what we learn with you.

» It’s been a while since the words “tourism development fund” have been freely bandied about and I suspect it’s because city leaders are busy figuring out how to collect and allocate the money, as well as coming up with a few more projects that could make a “generational change” to area tourism. At least we hope that’s why.

The idea for the fund came up at a January 2017 council retreat. By August the group had approved an additional 1.5 percent taxes on meals, 3 percent on rooms (while dropping the $2 room charge), and a 3.5 percent admission fee on things such as concerts, museums, movies and admission to Colonial Williamsburg.

Money raised would go into a separate fund that would pay for as-yet unspecified tourism improvements.

Along the way, many citizens and this newspaper repeatedly called for more transparency in the process — public hearings on what they planned — and stronger efforts to come up with a regional approach to tourism.

In the end, council did what it always intended to do, albeit delayed a few months because of the persistent questions.

The city is in a tight spot. Other tax revenues aren’t growing to keep pace with demand and officials seem to be holding off on property tax increases until they get to bigger capital projects, such as police and fire stations. It also has to pay its share to open a new middle school in the fall.

The tax increases are scheduled to take effect July 1, 2018, but there is a City Council election in May, and that could well be the final referendum on the tourism development fund.

» One of the most intriguing stories of the year has been the sale and plans for redevelopment of the Williamsburg Shopping Center and the Monticello Shopping Center. Broad Street Realty, a Bethesda, Md.-based firm, has done similar make-overs in other college towns, such as Columbia, S.C.

The idea to create a large living-shopping-entertainment area there is a good one and the city is on board with making streetscape improvements — many of those ideas developed in concert with citizens — along Monticello Avenue to better unify and show off the area.

There is one thing about this project we’d do best not to lose sight of: While the idea of having student housing in the Midtown area has been in the city’s planning documents for years, the residential aspect of this project is aimed squarely at students, a lot of students. Sure, young professionals and recent grads are invited to come along, too. But campus will, in reality, extend all the way to Monticello Avenue. Richmond Hall — the dorm formerly known as the Days Inn — will be a mere stepping stone to the corner.

Yes, the school of education is right behind the new Midtown development, but that many people living together will change the nature of the neighborhood.

Some of that is good. But for a town that has been described alternately as a college town with a lot of tourists or a tourist town with lot of students, city leaders need to keep this in their sights.

» We’ve spent a long year wrangling over school redistricting. Interestingly, the must-do work to prepare for the opening of James Blair Middle School in the fall has drawn relatively little debate, but the thought of redistricting the high schools brought the expected uproar.

The Williamsburg-James City County School Board decided that sheltering in place was the best remedy for the high schools. They’ll get some trailers at Jamestown High School, see if they can get some money to expand there and work on the other two high schools down the line.

There are 15 school buildings (James Blair will make 16) and more than 11,000 students in the district; aren’t there other ways to seek relief?

Some folks offer that the specific kind of block scheduling at the high schools doesn’t make the best use of space. Is that true? Someone recently sent in a Last Word comment suggesting we flip the intended use of one of the middle and high schools. Could something like that work?

I don’t know if either of these are reasonable remedies, but reasonable people are suggesting ideas other than construction; those could either be answers or offer a springboard to more creative ideas.

» After fighting years of objections, Dominion Power finally got the green light from the Army Corps of Engineers in June to proceed with stringing a power line from the Surry Nuclear Power Plant to Skiffes Creek. The Virginia Marine Resources Committee and James City County followed suit and the Corps issued the final permit in July.

Dominion began limited construction on the foundations for the towers in November, but still faces a legal challenge in Washington from environmental and historic preservation groups that say the Corps didn’t follow the law when it issued the permit.

» College of William and Mary President Taylor Reveley announced in April that he’ll retire in June 2018. What makes this a potentially very important story depends on who is chosen to replace him and how that might change campus dynamics.

» Two violent incidents here this year — the July shooting/standoff with authorities at Ebby’s Auto Painting & Collision Repair and the pipe bomb that exploded near Merchants Square in October — remind us that no place is immune from mayhem.

» Finally, the most uplifting story of 2017: Juan Spence, a Warhill High School student who was horrifically injured in a car accident in May. After spending 64 days in VCU Medical Center in Richmond, he returned home in July, went back to school in September, was crowned homecoming king in October and hopes to start college in the fall. Juan — and his family — are inspiring examples of faith and family.

While each of these stories made a splash in 2017, all promise more in 2018. Stay tuned and Happy New Year.

Bellows is editor of the Virginia Gazette. You can reach her by phone at 345-2347, by email at pbellows@vagazette.com or @peggybellows on Twitter.

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