Early this fall, Regina Williams, city manager of Norfolk, Virginia, assembled a small group of her peers from nearby jurisdictions. The topic of the meeting was hardly earthshaking. “We need a new pistol range for our police department,” she told them, “and I’d read where Virginia Beach needs a new pistol range, so why should we all be building new pistol ranges?”
Williams may or may not get her regional range. And even if she does, the accomplishment will probably be little noted nor long remembered, as she herself admits. But the move was pure Williams: reaching across boundaries to try to solve a problem in a creative way that makes good fiscal sense and that accrues to the benefit of many, not just a few.
In her four years as Norfolk’s city manager, Williams’ most fundamental goal has been to connect city government to the widest possible range of constituencies — neighborhoods, educational institutions, civic organizations and business interests alike — in the name of policies and projects that work for the whole city, and even the Tidewater region.
”Norfolk has been having a strong run, and it’s getting stronger,” says Dee Carpenter, editor of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot. “It wouldn’t be fair to say that Regina is the cause of that, but she is definitely playing a role.”
And in that role, the 55-year-old Williams has to bring an array of skills to the job — manager, mediator, facilitator, diplomat. “We had a little bit of a ’town and gown’ problem,” says Marie McDemmond, president of Norfolk State University, the largest historically black college in Virginia. “So we began talking to city officials about how we might build a closer partnership. Once Regina arrived, that relationship became very close, and she worked with us on defining what NSU needed in order to be an even greater contributor to the community and the region.”
Now, NSU and the city are partnering on a huge new technology research center on 25 acres of land adjacent to the current campus (a center, not incidentally, that will be on the tax rolls). Meanwhile, NSU has negotiated a deal to acquire another 13 acres and a 240,000-square-foot building from the city that will serve as lab space for its health and nursing school. McDemmond credits Williams with “a quiet determination. She listens to people. And then she has a way of putting what she’s heard into action.”
When Williams arrived in Norfolk from San Jose, “we were suffering from the impression that we were investing too much in downtown at the expense of neighborhoods,” says Paul Fraim, Norfolk’s mayor for the past decade. “And we talked with our new city manager about focusing on neighborhoods, and Regina took that to heart and she initiated in-depth discussion with civic leaders to make sure community concerns were reaching the highest level of government.”
The result of such discussions has been a remarkable set of initiatives aimed at rebuilding — literally, in some cases — the city’s neighborhoods. Specific projects range from the restoration of the Attucks Theater in a historically African-American part of town to an ambitious effort to build four new libraries and four or five new recreation centers in neighborhoods over the next 12 years. Broader initiatives have included everything from acquiring derelict properties for redevelopment, to helping create a community development credit union giving low-income residents access to reasonably priced lending.
Funding such projects in tough fiscal times also has been a Williams hallmark. Through a combination of refinancing old debt on better terms, floating municipal bonds at a time of low interest rates and some tough management on the budget side, the city has been able to pull the money together. Nor does Williams see neighborhood redevelopment and downtown rebuilding as an either-or proposition. “We have plans for another office building as the market indicates,” says Williams, “and we’ve got new hotels coming in. It’s that sort of economic development and expansion that drives your ability to do the community development stuff.”
It’s a balanced approach that has allowed Williams to thrive. “We have some strong political personalities in Norfolk and there’s strong intra-regional competition,” says the Virginian-Pilot’s Carpenter. “Regina successfully operates in that environment. She gets things done and doesn’t need to be in the limelight for it to happen.”
— Jonathan Walters
Photos by Bill Geiger