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Five North Carolina cities have at least doubled in population since 1960; five Virginia cities have all contracted. What’s going on?
Look first, if you would, at the accompanying chart, showing the phenomenal growth of several major North Carolina cities over the past 50 years and the concurrent dead-in-the-water status of several would-be-major Virginia cities.
The chart is courtesy of national development consultant and former Roanoke city council member Brian Wishneff, updated since he used it in 2007 to present, along with fellow councilman Sherman Lea, a plea for increased state funding for Virginia cities. The root of the huge disparity between the cities of the two neighboring states, according to Wishneff’s research, goes back to 1959 and 1979 respectively.
In 1959, North Carolina passed legislation allowing for involuntary annexation of contiguous, urban-character lands by cities.
In 1979, Virginia passed legislation ending what had been a robust pattern of annexation of lands by cities, highlighted locally and most recently by Roanoke City’s taking of 43 square miles of Roanoke County into its boundaries, population total and tax rolls in 1976.
Meanwhile Charlotte, roughly twice the population of Roanoke in 1960, has swollen to more than seven times our size, owing not only to population growth but to the addition of just under 300 square miles of land, in little pieces at a time, since 1980 alone.
So it’s fairly straightforward, no? Go to Richmond, get the nation’s only system of independent cities undone and then restore those cities’ right to take on additional lands, not only to end their population stagnation, but also to assure that surrounding counties help support the urban-core services and amenities they now enjoy without anteing up. Simple, right?
Well, of course not. In fact, while there is hue and cry in North Carolina to end annexation, there is not a peep in Virginia about reestablishing it. And affluent counties surrounding poor cities would oppose it strongly.
The modest and reality-acknowledging proposal from Wishneff and Lea a few years back is worth restating if only to demonstrate the baby steps needed to get Richmond thinking about helping its strangling cities:
1. Receipt of an additional 1/3 of 1 percent of state sales tax receipts collected in their frozen borders.
2. Establishment of downtown cultural districts with state funds, matched locally, going to cultural entities.
3. Exemption from state sales tax for any art (painting, sculpture, music, writing, etc) produced and sold by artists within the cultural district.
Tiny steps toward overcoming what Wishneff sees as the root of Virginia being the most populous state without a major-league professional sports franchise.