New James City county administrator shares thoughts on county's economic development

Staff writer

With just over two months under his belt, James City County Administrator Scott Stevens says there’s potential in revitalization efforts near the marina and in Toano, plenty of ways to address the county’s water needs and that he wants to keep elected officials in the driver’s seat as the county considers these and other projects.

Stevens was hired by the Board of Supervisors in August after a months-long search for a county administrator, in August, and he started his three-year contract on Oct. 1. An engineer and Navy veteran, Stevens comes to James City with years of experience in local government posts in North Carolina. Most recently, Stevens served as city manager of Goldsboro, N.C., a city of about 35,000 residents to the southeast of Raleigh.

A North Carolina native, Stevens is married with two sons, and earned degrees from North Carolina State University and East Carolina University.

The Virginia Gazette sat down with Stevens recently to learn about his initial experiences, goals and thoughts on several major projects underway in the county. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What got you interested in pursuing this job opportunity with James City as the county administrator?

My grandmother lived in York County. So I’ve been coming here my whole life. I spent summers here, weeks here, holidays here.

When I saw an opportunity here for a position similar to what I was doing in North Carolina, I had an interest in applying. Then as I was asked to interview and talk to the Board (of Supervisors) … they appeared to work well together. That’s a plus in my job. Not a requirement but a plus. Then looking at the community and learning more about James City County and what I would say is good, steady growth in population and finances, we’re in great financial condition. To be one of the few communities in the country to have a AAA bond rating from all three rating agencies is a big deal.

I’m in a community that has development but in minutes I can be in a very rural part of the county. I enjoy that.

All those reasons are why I wanted to be here. It’s familiar to me, I enjoy the area and the more research I did the better and better it looked.

You’re been on the job for almost two months. How has it been so far?

You have a lot of things you’re told about a community or you think you’ve done your research, but you don’t really know what you’ve done to yourself until you get there. One of the good things is what I thought and what I’ve been told has been true.

I’ve met with about 80 percent of our full-time employees … employees across the county seem happy to be at work, like what they do, think that if they’ve got to work, this is a good place to work. And their camaraderie is good across departments.

I’ve met a number of community members and constitutional officers. Everybody has been extremely welcoming and trying to help me get up to speed. They seem to have a really good handle on what they’re doing in service to the community. Many community leaders have been here many years … it’s been really nice to become part of that group.

What would you say are your primary goals for your first year on the job?

What I have evolved into believing is that the administrator’s role is to gather from our supervisors what they see as the vision for the community and try to move it forward.

It’s trying to make sure that group knows where it’s heading. The strategic plan … will be a guiding principle for the decisions and recommendations I make.

I want to work hard to maintain what people believe I should be — and that is responsible and approachable. While I can’t always say “yes,” I can help them understand why we are where we are.

The county has been working toward increased economic development in the southwest, namely improvements at James City County Marina and Amblers House. What’s your role in that effort and how do you hope to see that effort develop?

That general area has a lot of potential. I think it’s a really good opportunity to allow public access to the water. That’s been a surprise to me in James City County. We have a lot of water … but we don’t have much public access to it. There are not many restaurants, particularity outside the Kingsmill area that I know of, where you can sit at the restaurant and look at the water and eat lunch.

I think the Jamestown Beach area in particular provides an opportunity for us to do something that benefits the local community as well as being something of a check mark for visitors.

(The area) is a unique spot and ... there are a lot of reasons to go, but once you’re there and you’re done, then what? I think this (marina) property we have gives us an opportunity to create another reason to be there. I think the more reasons you have to be in an area, the more successful all of those things will be.

The county’s groundwater withdrawal permit will be curtailed by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in the near future, and the county anticipates greater demand for water in the coming decades. What’s your take on that challenge and how to address it?

What we’re going through is important for the future. The good news is we have plenty of water, there are a lot of sources. It’s just at what cost? What makes the best sense for James City County?

We’ve talked about the SWIFT project. That’s one where I think there’s possibility. That would make more groundwater available (by injecting treated wastewater into the Potomac Aquifer, where the county sources its groundwater).

The other option is doing our own surface water plant using the Chickahominy as an intake site. Again, that gives us another choice. The site seems to have plenty of water in terms of availability but it’s a long way away from our distribution system. So it’s a pretty good cost to get it back to most of the county. But I think that’s another option that’s worth pursuing.

A third option that has been discussed is Newport News. They have a lot more capacity than they have demand today.

I think we’ll have some discussion over the next three to six months with Doug (Powell, James City Service Authority general manager)’s board that will give them some options and some up-to-date costs … we’re on a path that had already started before I got here and we’ve re-energized that.

Affordable housing has been identified as a need in James City by county officials and a task force is working on how best to address the issue. Do you have any thoughts on the problem and what role local government has to play in addressing it?

Part of it is attracting jobs that offer people more money. As wages go up, so does the cost of rent or home ownership. So that’s not the overall solution.

I don’t think government paying for subsidized housing forever is a good solution, either. I think there’s a time for that. I think people expect that for a period of time.

I really think the role of the local government is to try to develop an environment where the private sector can make it work.

If you can’t make a business case for it, one that’s going to give a developer an opportunity to make money, then it’s going to be hard to have the private sector address the problem.

A couple of Toano natives are spearheading an effort to revitalize the town with a proposed historic district and proposed commercial development to recreate the bustling small-town feeling Toano had up until the mid-1960s. Recognizing that the project isn’t a county effort, what do you think of the idea and what are your thoughts on what, if anything, the county could, or should, do to support it?

I think there’s value in it. The county has not weighed in on that. It’s one of those areas where there are folks on both sides of that issue. If you had 10 property owners and all 10 were absolutely in agreement that they want it to be a historic district, then I think the Board (of Supervisors) would likely get more involved in helping it get there.

It’s one of those things we play out and see what happens. And if it’s successful and it meets the criteria to be a historic district, then I think it does provide some opportunity for those who want to reinvest there.

Anything else?

If people need me, I do see a big part of my role as advocacy. Coming out to communities and speaking at community events or community groups. If people have questions about what we’re doing, I want to help them understand why we’re doing something.

I do want to be that advocate where I can be and encourage folks to find me.

To reach Scott Stevens

Phone: 757-253-6603

Email: scott.stevens@jamescitycountyva.gov.

Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, jojacobs@vagazette.com, @jajacobs_

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