By Hendley Badcock
We hear about it a lot. We constantly experience it. We sometimes oppose it and resent it. And sometimes we need it more than anything else.
For the past two years, Buena Vista City Manager Jay Scudder has welcomed change to the city that has suffered some serious financial trouble. Though Buena Vista still faces a number of hurdles, Scudder has set a tone of rethinking and reorganizing in what he calls a “city in motion.”
From reconfiguring Buena Vista’s budgeting to focusing on city cleanup, Scudder is tackling revitalization bit by bit.
“I don’t have all the answers, but I have been very engaged in this business,” Scudder said. “From the day I came in to, it’s been all about change. That’s how I learned this business—to change a city. How do you change a city? Improve it on several fronts. That’s all I’ve ever known, and that’s kind of the way I look at things.”
Since the 1980s, Buena Vista has changed drastically.
Council member and lifelong resident Lisa Clark remembered how thriving the manufacturing town once was.
“Downtown was full of shops and full of stores,” Clark said, listing grocery stores, drug stores, Peebles, Catos, and other clothing retailers. “With the floods that came through and with manufacturing leaving Buena Vista, a lot of the jobs went with it. So we were kind of left to do the best we could with what we had.”
Clerk of Council Dawn Moore also reflected back on the bustling town.
“You didn’t have to leave Buena Vista to buy anything,” she said. From car dealerships to ice cream parlors, the city had it all.
The flood that sank the economy
The Election Day flood of 1985 drove manufacturers, and countless employees, away from the city. Stores started closing and the overall economy slowed.
Since then, Buena Vista has also seen change in its administration. In 2010, the city replaced both its police chief and economic development director.
Brian Brown, former economic development administrator of Roanoke, took over the role as director in Buena Vista.
Brown said the state of the local economy at that time was dire as a result of a number of issues.
“I came at the height of the recession,” Brown said. “We were losing industry, we were losing business… They had announced the default on the golf course loan. So, morale as well as faith in the city government was sort of shaky.”
In 2011, a year after those appointments, Jack Gross took over as interim city manager for several months after Tim Dudley’s five-year service. By the end of the year, the city had hired Scudder.
[pullquote] I came at the height of the recession…We were losing industry, we were losing business… They had announced the default on the golf course loan. So, morale as well as faith in the city government was sort of shaky. ~ Brian Brown[/pullquote]
According to a WSET-TV report in 2011, members of city council said they wanted “someone with extensive expertise in municipal government” to fill the role of city manager after they asked Dudley to resign.
Clark was newly elected at the time and was a member of the committee that hired the new city manager. She said Scudder’s experience and enthusiasm made him a good fit to help the city through this transitional process.
“I think one of his strongest features he’s brought to the city has been his knowledge of finance,” Clark said. “He’s kind of looking at it from the outside. He’s bringing a lot of experience from other areas and so he’s seen things work in other areas that he’s been able to apply to Buena Vista.”
Working through governments
Though his earliest jobs as a retail broker took him as far as Wall Street, Scudder has now clocked 26 years of municipal government experience in Virginia. He has worked both on the creative, innovative end of city development, as well as the administrative end.
Scudder said he started his municipal career in Lynchburg and then moved to Bedford City to head up economic and industrial development and planning.
Next, he worked on a number of revitalization, sustainability, and development projects in Gloucester County. Scudder stepped into his first managerial position as Patrick County Administrator in 2008. He filled the same position in Fluvanna County in 2010.
By the end of the next year, he would be gearing up for the transition to Buena Vista.
Taming the elephant in the room
The first issue he encountered was the fallout from Vista Links, a golf course built by the city in 2004. After the national recession hit in 2008, the city couldn’t pay what it owed on the $9.2 million in bonds it had issued to pay for the project.
“We weren’t being looked upon well from the state because of the default [on the Vista Links loan],” Scudder said of Buena Vista when he arrived. “[There was] a lot of turmoil about the financial situation… There was a lot of concern about departmental efficiencies. Rumors, you know.”
Scudder said he knew he had to start biting away at the debt, which he often refers to as the elephant in the room. He said he brought in new ways to question every departmental bill and whittle away any extra expense.
Buena Vista was able to squeeze some excess money out of these exercises, but city council agreed on the need to raise taxes. Brown said Scudder’s first budget included a property tax rate increase from 93 cents to $1.07 per $100 of assessed value.
“That’s never popular,” Brown said, “but…it was really amazing that the public was supportive of the tax increase, knowing that it needed to be done. Some of the things that are key to be able to be successful is having that public involvement piece and understanding why we’re doing what we’re doing, why we’re taking the direction that we’re doing.”
But change never comes without some controversy, Scudder recalled from a managerial conference he attended recently. And especially in more recent changes, the city is learning that old habits die hard.
[pullquote] That’s never popular…but…it was really amazing that the public was supportive of the tax increase, knowing that it needed to be done. Some of the things that are key to be able to be successful is having that public involvement piece and understanding why we’re doing what we’re doing, why we’re taking the direction that we’re doing. ~ Brian Brown[/pullquote]
In January, city council had to decide if it wanted to stick with its routine of purchasing a number of new police vehicles every three years; . Buena Vista had been replacing its cars more quickly than similar municipalities, such as Lexington.
While Lewis Plogger, city council member and retired police chief, sided with the Police Department and opposed the change, the rest of the Council and citizens saw the need to break that pattern and save at least $60,000.
But when asked about his most controversial decision, Scudder refers to his upcoming project to restructure trash and recycling management.
“When we raised the rate [for waste management]…we found people that hadn’t been paying,” Scudder said. “Those people weren’t happy with it. Hell, they’d gotten by with it for seven years or longer. Decades.”
Scudder has mentioned the issue of trash for around nine months now, if not more. After going out and seeing who benefits from the service and even riding on the garbage truck to learn more about the system, he hopes he can help the city decide on ways to make it more operationally and cost-efficient.
A city transformed
Scudder and the city are making efforts to reevaluate its workings and achieve financial stability.
Clark noted that Scudder helped the city finish in the black this year. And she said the city will find out in a few weeks if Buena Vista has a chance to refinance the city’s debt through the Virginia Resource Authority.
The city has the potential to save nearly $1 million over the next 25 years if the Virginia Resource Authority agrees to let Buena Vista borrow money at a lower interest rate than it is currently paying to settle its outstanding debt.
Scudder said the time to refinance the debt is now. But if Buena Vista is turned down for entry into the Virginia Resource Authority’s spring pool, it can try again in the fall.
“Now we’ve built a good reputation,” Scudder said. “We’re doing things right. We’re financially better – not out of the woods, but better.”
The city’s improving financial situation has brought change to many fronts, from beautification to business.
Brown described some of the city’s goals for cleaning up the city. Over the last three years, a program has been put in place to tear down some of the “worst structures” in the city.
[pullquote] Now we’ve built a good reputation…We’re doing things right. We’re financially better – not out of the woods, but better.” ~ Jay Scudder[/pullquote]
“I brought it to Mr. Scudder and he was able to agree that we should put this in as a way to reduce the blight on our community,” Brown said.
Not only will this destruction increase the overall aesthetics of the town, but also a vacant lot as opposed to a dilapidated building will increase property values for neighboring residences.
Scudder also mentioned the build-up of trash in alleyways.
“If you ride down some of the alleys and take pictures,” Scudder said, “you’ll see almost junkyard looking circumstances when we’re trying to clean up the city.”
Those efforts extend to bettering the city’s recreational parks, too.
“We’re really focusing on that outdoors perspective with the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway, as well as trying to link all of our trail system throughout the region,” Brown said.
Buena Vista has been working very closely with Rockbridge Regional Tourism and with the Rockbridge County, Buena Vista and Lexington Chamber of Commerce to expand its trail system.
“We want to connect the Chessie Trail with Buena Vista’s floodwall,” Scudder said.
Not only are residents acknowledging and participating in the city’s makeover, but the whole area is witnessing the positive transformation.
Glen Maury Park Director Ronnie Coffey said more and more people are enjoying city events. For instance, Coffey said last year’s Nothin’ Fancy Blue Grass Festival saw its largest turnout ever.
“We have our beach music festival, which was nominated… as the beach music event of the year,” Coffey said. “On Labor Day, we had all three candidates, the lieutenant governor, the governor, and the attorney general were all here at Glen Maury Park and spoke.”
Team Buena Vista
Similar milestones have been reached in the business sector.
Three years ago, Buena Vista’s unemployment rate reached 10.5 percent. Since 321 new jobs were added to the manufacturing sector, that rate has dropped to 6.5 percent.
“That brings more people here and more shopping here,” Brown said. “Even though some of the jobs are from Rockbridge transferring in, it still allows people to eat lunch here; it helps our restaurants.”
With more jobs bringing people in to spend money, there’s the potential for a greater draw for services to pop up downtown.
Katrina Ulrich and Tracey Anfinson, owners of TNT’s Good Ta Go, opened their “home-cooking” to-go lunch and dinner business last May.
“We would have never thought Buena Vista,” Ulrich said. “I don’t think we could’ve picked a better spot because Buena Vista is a down-home town. And that’s what we’re here for. We’re the first kind of business that’s been like this in Buena Vista.”
Since opening shop, they have also been exposed to community pride.
“People are a lot happier than they used to be,” Anfinson said. “Everybody I knew at one time was moving away from Buena Vista…[but] we plan on being here a long time because of the community feel.”
A positive attitude is what locals thrive on. Brown said the community has always carried a lot of pride.
“I grew up here,” Brown said. “I can tell you the spirit of this community is strong. They will pull their bootstraps up and they will fight ’til the ends of the earth to do what they know needs to happen for their community.”
Rather than getting bogged down in the negatives, the city as a whole has taken steps to recreate itself. In setting that tone, City Hall has put into place a new tagline: “Buena Vista, Come Change Your View.”
“It’s actually been kind of energizing,” Scudder said about working for an understanding and interested community.
Ulrich and Anfinson said they could not have asked for a better city manager and city staff to work with.
“He may have the title of city manager, but he still gets to know the individual business owner on a one-to-one basis,” Ulrich said.
They said Scudder stops by for lunch at least once a week.
“He’s a good fella,” Anfinson said. “He talks to us on our level to where we can understand exactly what he’s trying to get across. He doesn’t try to buffalo you and shoot things over your head.”
Open door policy
The city staff embraces the interest in and transparency with the public.
“You could go and talk to anybody down [in the Municipal Building],” Anfinson said. “They’ll talk to you. It’s [not] like you go in a big city and they’ll push you out the door.”
Government employees feel the same way about Scudder.
“He’s always got an open door,” Coffey said. “And he’s willing to listen to anybody who has an idea or has a complaint… If it’s a complaint, he’ll try to fix it and if something’s a good idea, he’ll try to do it.”
Scudder also opens the door for always promoting the positives of the city, a move he’s made since his very beginnings as city manager.
Scudder recalled an interview he did with a Roanoke news station when he first arrived to Buena Vista.
“They wanted to focus on the golf course default and all the financial problems,” Scudder said. “I took them up to the Double Top at the park on a beautiful spring day and we talked about some of the positives that had happened recently. And they’re looking at this beautiful spring day and the sun shining and the backdrop of the city and mountains and it’s a beautiful scene… I did that intentionally.”
Showcasing the positives, paired with flaunting a good image, is a huge component of Scudder’s approach.
“If we can show that we are making improvements,” Scudder said, “[and say], ‘Hey, we fixed these people’s street that was a mess. We did some paving; we made some improvements of the park. We did the bathhouses. We did the road. We did the campground.’”
None of these are large capital projects but they still make a difference, Scudder said.
“Change is never without controversy”
Undoubtedly, there are going to be “hiccups” along the way, whether citizens oppose a policy change or increased rates, or whether a council member and the city manager are at odds. But City Hall agrees that these kinks will work out in the best interest of Buena Vista.
“While decisions aren’t always popular, I believe this community will always bond together and fight to make it happen,” Brown said.
Scudder falls back on reason and positivity to promote his motions for necessary change in Buena Vista.
[pullquote] While decisions aren’t always popular, I believe this community will always bond together and fight to make it happen.” ~ Brian Brown[/pullquote]
“It’s [about] being realistic and optimistic and, in some ways, being a motivator to have a ‘can do’ attitude,” Scudder said. “We can make this situation better. As [City Councilmember] Larry Tolley said in a meeting recently, maybe Buena Vista hit the bottom and now we’re on the way up.”