By Colin Whitmore
The candidates running for office in Buena Vista acknowledge the challenges the city must face going forward, but are optimistic about the future.
Four candidates are running for three seats on city council and incumbent Mayor Bill Fitzgerald is running unopposed.
Incumbent council members Steve Baldridge, Lisa Clark, and Stanley Coffey seek re-election while Cheryl Hickman hopes to unseat one of them.
All Buena Vista candidates will attend an open forum, which will function like a debate, at Parry McCluer Middle School on Oct. 24 from 6-8 p.m.
Baldridge is a practicing lawyer in Buena Vista and a professor at Southern Virginia University. Lisa Clark is the principal of F.W. Kling Elementary School. Stanley Coffey is a Buena Vista Rescue Squad member and retired worker for the Lexington Water Treatment Plant. Cheryl Hickman is a nurse and administrator at Havenwood Assisted Living in Rockbridge County.
All candidates cited revenue generation through an increased business base as one of their primary concerns for Buena Vista going forward.
Buena Vista’s revenue struggles are partially due to the ongoing financial burden of the Vista Links golf course, which was built by the city in 2004 yet didn’t generate enough revenue to cover its financing costs. Another factor has been the steady decline in manufacturing jobs; next month, Northwest Hardwoods will close one of its two facilities in the city, which will put 30 more people out of work.
Raising property taxes is the only other simple way to generate revenue, and city officials say taxes are already very high for the state of Virginia. Buena Vista’s property tax is currently $5.85 per $100 of assessed value while Lexington’s is only $4.25.
“If we’re not able to generate more revenue, it’s going to come down to either raising taxes or cutting services,” said Clark, who has been on City Council since 2012.
Clark hopes the city will not be forced to raise taxes, but says she is aware that there are certain services the city must provide. “We are already operating city government on the bare minimum right now, so it’s going to be difficult,” she said.
Perception of the city government is another thing Clark says she wants to focus on.
“We’re trying to increase awareness, especially of the positive things that are happening,” she said. “Even with our bare-bones budget, a lot of good things are happening here.”
Clark cited as one of the good things the previously vacant industrial park, where Columbia Gas purchased six acres for $122,000 in June. The company plans to open a mobile operating development facility there in December and employ about 12 people. Mayor Fitzgerald said he expects some of the employees at Northwest Hardwoods to work for Columbia Gas once the lumber company closes.
As an elementary school principal, Clark says she would consider education her primary area of expertise on council. “Our school system is a very positive thing in this community that we’re all very proud of,” she said.
Steve Baldridge, who has been on council since 2011, says his specialty is legal expertise and economic planning. Although he has been in Buena Vista since 1998, Baldridge says he often provides an outsider’s perspective to local situations and helps connect individuals not originally from the community.
Baldridge agreed with Clark on what many of the main issues facing Buena Vista are. “The main thing is trying to engage in community revitalization while having a very limited budget,” he said.
One of the problems, Baldridge says, is not that Buena Vista has been fiscally irresponsible, but that expenditures for family services, courts, and jails have all gone up and are nearly double what they were four years ago.
Baldridge says that one thing he has repeatedly proposed to help boost the community’s economy is the construction of a hotel in Buena Vista.
“We now have clearly enough business travelers whose destination is Buena Vista,” he said. “That alone would sustain year-round business and you combine that with the growth of the college and it makes total sense to build a hotel.”
Stanley Coffey, who was appointed to council as Mayor Bill Fitzgerald’s replacement in 2018, describes himself as an advocate for the people. “I’m a hometown boy, I don’t pull punches, I say what I have to say, and I’ll stand up for what I believe,” he said.
Coffey says he sees himself as a people’s advocate because he is always around Buena Vista talking to different people and hearing their thoughts on different matters.
“My door is always open, I’ll always answer my phone or talk to whoever I see when I’m out, and the people know it,” he said. “I enjoy being a local connection that people can look to.”
Coffey says one of his main concerns is preventing tax increases. “The people can’t continue to be taxed and survive in this town,” he said. “We need to make cuts, and there are places where we can make cuts but someone’s going to have bite the bullet and make that call.”
Coffey also cited the industrial park and GoBV as positive developments in the city that need more publicity. “Hopefully with those two developments, we can start to increase our revenue and get it where it needs to be in order to do better work on things like infrastructure,” he said.
Cheryl Hickman, the only candidate who is not an incumbent, agrees with Coffey that council needs to work to prevent tax increases.
“We cannot continue to break the back of the taxpayers,” she said. “We need to be more business friendly and consider removing unnecessary business restrictions.”
Hickman decided to run for office because she wants to give back and unite a community that she says is frustrated with its government.
“We need to bring the community back to together,” she said. “People in this community will give you the shirt off their back, but as far as government is concerned, they are so disgruntled.”
Hickman says that if elected, she will work to bring people together by increasing transparency and working on creating a better youth outreach program.
“I’ve never been involved in government before, but I want to do my part to help,” she said.
Mayor Bill Fitzgerald, who was elected in 2017, is running unopposed this cycle.
“It’s easier to run unopposed, but you don’t learn much,” Fitzgerald said. “If you’re running unopposed, it’s hard to get a feel for how the people really feel about you and the work you’re doing.”
Despite running unopposed, Fitzgerald has put many yard signs up around Buena Vista. “As the mayor, you never want people to forget your name,” he said. “You’d be surprised how many cities and towns there are where people don’t know who their officials are.”
Fitzgerald said his first term has been busy.
” I’ve done a lot of work related to education, bringing businesses in, the golf course, taxes, and everything.”
In his next term, Fitzgerald says, he must be aware of everything that needs to be done and avoid becoming narrowly focused.
“If I promise someone something and only focus on that, then if you’re not careful, you wind up neglecting a lot of other important things that also need attention,” he said.
Despite there being only four council candidates for three spots and him running unopposed, Fitzgerald says he thinks the election will tell city government something valuable about how the people feel.