Virginia General Assembly to convene legislative redistricting session

April 3, 2011

In the middle of a golf and country club community in Gainesville, where rows upon rows of neat new homes sit on what was farmland less than a decade ago, it can be easy to forget there’s another Virginia.

In the other Virginia, schools are being closed as communities age. Older homes sit vacant with “for sale” signs out front and no prospective buyers — and it has been that way since before the recession.

Over the past 10 years, Virginia has grown by more than a million people. More than one in every 10 Virginians didn’t live in the state a decade ago.

But that eye-popping growth masks a regional reality: The state’s population shifts have been uneven.

Parts of the state, mostly in Northern Virginia, look a lot like the dynamic and diversifying Sun Belt states of the Southwest. And other parts of Virginia have more in common with the Rust Belt of the Midwest.

In response to the 2010 Census, the Virginia General Assembly will convene its once-a-decade special legislative session Monday to redraw the boundaries of the state’s legislative districts.

When legislators did the same in 2001, they left the 100 House of Delegates districts with about 70,000 people each.

But Prince William County’s District 13, which includes Gainesville, has nearly tripled in size. And in other parts of the state, there are places such as District 91, which includes sleepy Poquoson, some of York County and part of Hampton. Census figures show that District 91 has shed more than 7,300 residents since 2000.

No other place has grown or shrunk as much as the two districts, which are about 140 miles apart.

The General Assembly will spend the week debating incumbency and partisan advantage. The political parties will probably accuse each other of drawing crazy, gerrymandered districts.

But behind their political maneuvering, their real task will be to draw maps that acknowledge the yawning demographic gap that has opened between places such as District 13 and District 91.

Demographic gaps

At 7 a.m. every day, the Poquoson coffee club gathers at its usual spot, a McDonald’s at the center of the bedroom waterfront community. For decades, many residents have worked at Langley Air Force Base, just outside town, the shipyard in Newport News and the naval base in Norfolk, farther south.

The group’s members, most of them retired, joked that newcomer Joe Lorenczi, 80, hasn’t earned his citizenship papers. He moved to Poquoson in 1971.

Most of the members, in their 70s and 80s, grew up in the town, which is nicknamed Bull Island, and graduated from high school here. At football games, they chanted: “Bull Island born. Bull Island bred. And when I die, I’ll be Bull Island dead.”

According to the census, 13 more people have died than have been born in Poquoson in the past decade. In neighboring Hampton, a built-up community whose northern neighborhoods also vote in the shrinking District 91, the story is one of migration — 17,500 have moved away since 2000.

Both are common realities in the parts of Virginia that are shrinking, including swaths of southern and western Virginia: People are aging, and they’re moving away.

The opposite is true in places that are growing.

In Prince William, births exceeded deaths over the past 10 years by more than 49,000. In that time, 71,500 people moved to the county. Nearly a third of the people in District 13, which includes part of growing Loudoun County, are younger than 18. In District 91, that figure is less than a fourth.

Ann Wallace lives in a townhouse less than three miles from one of Gainesville’s few remaining farms.

When she moved in 14 years ago, her home was in the first wave of development off Heathcote Boulevard. At that time, none of the neighboring gated communities or businesses were there: No 7-Eleven. No dry cleaner or shoe repair shop. No golf course or country club for those older than 55.

“If you wanted to go to a grocery store, you had to go to Manassas or Warrenton,” said Wallace, a flight attendant. “Now, we have a Wegmans.”

She was sweeping the street one recent afternoon when a neighbor who was returning home shouted out her car window: “I guess I left my garage door open.”

“I’ve been out here,” Wallace said. “There’s been no robbers.”

The two women laughed.

“She’s an original like me,” Wallace said after the woman pulled away.

One coin, different sides

Dick Otero of the Haymarket and Gainesville area office of Growth Coach, a national chain of business growth coaching franchises, is responsible for helping small businesses become economically competitive.

When he moved his office into a multistory building in Heritage Village Plaza in District 13, he was one of the first two tenants. Now eight businesses are listed on the directory.

On a recent day, movers pushed furniture and boxes through the hallway. Another company was moving in — a sign, Otero said, that new businesses are continuing to come to the area. Through his work, he said, he sees that high-tech companies, federal contractors and minority-owned businesses are still being lured to the county.

“I see Prince William County as a model for the resurgence of the economy,” he said. “This could be seen as a petri dish for how America is going to come back.”

It’s hard to be as optimistic in District 91.

Poquoson has been trying to sell a piece of land directly across from its town hall for years. Gordon Helsel, 64, who moved to town from Hampton at 6 and, except for a stint in Vietnam, hasn’t left, spent 15 years as mayor before he was elected the district’s delegate last month.

He said he’d love to see a government contractor build offices like the one where Otero works on city property. But a shrinking federal government isn’t handing out new contracts in this corner of Virginia.

“It’d be an enormous boost,” said Helsel (R). “We just aren’t getting it.”

In some ways, the economies in District 13 and District 91 are two sides of the same coin — one minted by the U.S. government. Both regions rely heavily on military and federal spending.

In the past 10 years, growth in government spending has exploded in Northern Virginia. The government’s dime has helped feed the Dulles high-tech corridor and a mid-decade economic boom that largely cushioned the region’s economy in the depths of the recession.

But James Koch, an economist at Norfolk’s Old Dominion University, said government spending in the Hampton Roads area hasn’t been keeping pace.

“What the Lord giveth, the Lord can take away,” said Koch, who is a former president of the university.

Koch said the region leans so heavily on one industry — the government — that minor changes can have major ripple effects in the local economy. That gives it something in common with other parts of Virginia that have shrunk, such as Danville and Martinsville, whose economies were hit hard by the closure of factories.

Military installations can make it hard to count people because their population is transient. Planners in Hampton say they think the census overcounted the number of airmen stationed at Langley in 2000, which would mean that the district’s population loss may be somewhat smaller than it appears.

But census officials, who usually adjust the numbers when errors are tagged, did not alter their figures in District 91.

The beckoning suburbs

Part of the story, in the growing and shrinking parts of the state, has been the continued lure of the suburb.

In urban Hampton, where empty land is scarce amid built-up neighborhoods, Fran’s Florist has served the same blue-collar clientele at the same little shop on Mercury Boulevard since 1979.

The shop does fine, said owner Betty Earley. But she said she has watched as the new stores and new homes have steadily pressed outward from Hampton to growing suburban areas in the region.

“They cannibalize the towns to build the outskirts,” she said.

Communities on the outskirts of the Washington area, such as Prince William and Loudoun, have attracted newcomers from all over the world, propelling a racial dynamism not seen in all corners of the state.

In District 13, more than eight in 10 residents were white in 2000. Now the district is 17 percent Asian, 12 percent Hispanic and 11 percent black. It is 66 percent white.

“You would go down certain streets, and it was like the United Nations,” Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), who has represented the area since 1992, said of the especially booming years in Loudoun.

The new arrivals are like Mohamed Anwar Alimam, 70, who strolled past a row of townhouses during his afternoon walk one recent day while children getting home from school sped by.

Alimam and his wife, Hanan Mridin, moved from Syria in 2004 to live with their daughter and her husband, who is from Egypt. Alimam said he wanted his grandchildren to know their culture and to learn Arabic.

“We have a good relationship with everyone here,” he said. “You can come in the afternoon and look at the people and their kids outside playing together.”

The boundaries of District 91 were drawn by Republicans in the House in 2001 to include largely white neighborhoods in the racially mixed city of Hampton.

The goal was to ensure GOP control of the district as well as that neighboring districts included enough black voters for minorities to hold a majority in those, a requirement for Southern states under the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Ten years later, the district’s racial breakdown is similar to what it was then — whites still make up more than 76 percent of residents.

In the next week, General Assembly will have to tackle the state’s shifting populations head-on.

Stable areas that have long had their own state delegate or senator will find themselves lumped in with neighboring communities. In Northern Virginia, House leaders have proposed adding three delegates.

They have proposed that District 13 include only a sliver of the Prince William region it once covered — and none of Loudoun. They have suggested District 91 pick up more of densely populated Hampton.

The outcome, regardless, will be a change for everyone.

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