A July 4 Metro article incorrectly reported that the Silver Cos. donated land for playing fields in Fredericksburg. The land was city-owned, and the Silver Cos. agreed to create ball fields on the land if it could use dirt from the site for a construction project. (Published 7/20/04)
For decades, Fredericksburg's two heavily minority neighborhoods have been political footballs, as officials blamed one another for the lack of recreational options for the children of Mayfield and Bragg Hill.
No playing fields. No swimming pool. No youth center. Just an unlighted basketball court and a ballfield that has never been opened because of concrete and other debris found in the soil.
But in a matter of two weeks, a new city resident has rewritten the rules of an old debate.
A little more than a year after quietly moving into a small, summer kitchen house downtown, Doris Buffett, philanthropist and sister of multi-billionaire investor Warren Buffett, has given more than $3 million for youth centers in Mayfield and Bragg Hill -- needier neighborhoods with the city's highest percentages of black and Hispanic youth.
Buffett, 76, says the gifts, announced last month, grow out of the philosophy of her private foundation, the Sunshine Lady, which is funded with her inheritance from her mother. The organization doles out millions through dozens of friends across the country whom she's designated "sunbeams." Those 130 people -- including two in Fredericksburg -- find worthy recipients, defined by Buffett as having had "bad luck."
The gifts have triggered a new round of recrimination over the lack of public spending on the Bragg Hill and Mayfield neighborhoods. After talking about it since the 1980s, the city purchased some land in 2000 across from Mayfield and plans to build a community center with indoor and outdoor pools, but the money hasn't been appropriated, and even optimists say it won't be done until after 2006. Bragg Hill has no general public space or activities for youth.
Rebecca Currie, who teaches nursing in Fredericksburg and is one of Buffett's "sunbeams," said the symbol of the city's disregard is in Bragg Hill, where there is no stoplight to help children get out of the complex and cross the street through heavy traffic.
"They don't do anything for those kids -- it's pitiful," Currie said. "Doris has come in, and in one month done something that should have been done so long ago, so many times over."
Some residents say city officials purposely ignored the less affluent, minority neighborhoods in favor of the quaint downtown.
"They most definitely ignore us. It seems like they put everything ahead of us," said Edmonia Mercer, 68, who grew up in Mayfield and now lives in Bragg Hill, where she was baby-sitting for her 6-year-old granddaughter, Nykelle Tyler, one day last week. "Kids here don't have any play areas; that's why they play in the street."
Others note that Fredericksburg has come out of tough economic times only in the last decade and hasn't been in the position to spend much money at all until recently.
Still others say there is no problem.
"Nothing's been stalled. Everything is pretty much on schedule," said Joe Wilson, who just ended a four-year term on the City Council and didn't run for re-election. He thinks the issue of amenities has been politicized, including the ballfields across the busy road from Bragg Hill.
The Silver Cos., a locally based developer, donated land in the late 1990s for playing fields -- as long as the company could use dirt from the fields for a mall project and replace it with dirt from its construction site. Soon after, the ballfields weren't settling, and residents found wire, wood and concrete in the ground. The fields remain closed.
"I think there was a lot of exaggeration," Wilson said. "Then again, I came from a part of the country where before football games we picked up rocks and threw them aside, so it's all in what you're used to, I guess."
Buffett lived in Fredericksburg for six months as a teenager in the 1940s, when her father represented Nebraska in Congress, and she said she always dreamed of coming back to retire.
"I felt as a girl that I had been abducted at birth and taken to Nebraska but really belonged in Fredericksburg," said Buffett, who tried to make her return in the mid-1980s but married -- not for the first time but for the last, she said -- and left Virginia after a year. Now, single again, she has purchased a four-bedroom, 228-year-old home downtown and has taken temporary quarters until it's renovated. This summer, however, she's in Maine.
Buffett said her parents never made much money, but her father created a trust fund for her mother before his death in 1964 and, under Warren Buffett's management, it had grown into the millions by the time she died in 1996. It was left to Doris Buffett and her sister.
Even as a nonresident, Buffett gave money for years to smaller projects in Fredericksburg. Then, shortly after moving to Fredericksburg in March 2003, Buffett became interested in the fact that the city had no public pool and in the fact that officials have been talking about it for more than 55 years. "I thought -- I'm going to build that pool," she said. When she found out that the city planned to build a pool, she switched her attention to something specifically for children: a Boys & Girls Club.
Last month, she announced that she would give the city $2.5 million for a club to be built across the street from Mayfield. The city-funded community center is expected to be built next to the club. Fredericksburg already has a chapter of the Boys & Girls Club, but it meets in an former school building that has no air conditioning and is available for only a few hours a day because the school houses offices and other programs.
Two weeks later, the foundation declared that Buffett would build a 20,000-square-foot gym, game room and "wellness center" in Bragg Hill. No cost estimate was given, although Wilson put it at "a few million." The facilities will be attached to the nonprofit Bragg Hill Family Life Center, which since 1997 has held classes, counseling and other services for families in need. The Buffett addition will break ground in the fall.
Both projects have renewed debate about why the city hasn't funded youth recreation projects in Mayfield and Bragg Hill.
The city's outgoing mayor, Bill Beck, said his predecessors had the authority to do projects in both neighborhoods but simply didn't move on it. He also noted that Bragg Hill was in Spotsylvania County until the mid-1980s, when the city annexed the land.
Xavier Richardson, a Buffett "sunbeam" who is a member of the board of the Boys & Girls Club, said he thinks there is simply a competition for resources in Fredericksburg, as growth creates more demands for services and increasing commercial tax revenue creates more opportunity to provide them.
"It's just recognizing the need and then organizing it and finally funding it," he said of what's taken so long to get projects going. "The city hasn't always been in the position to do as much as they are able to do now. There are more financial resources and people willing to partner with the city. The city shouldn't be expected to do these things alone."