Hampton City Council candidates focus on crime, economic development and flooding as top issues

·5 min read

Seven residents have plans to address what they see as the city’s biggest issues if elected to one of the City Council’s four open seats in November.

Each one said crime must be tackled, and proposed varying approaches.

Mentorship is one path, according to candidates Christopher R. Mathews, a 32-year-old former aviation mechanic who is using his GI Bill to go to college locally; Hope L. Harper, a property control specialist with Northrop Grumman who was also campaign manager for Commonwealth’s Attorney Anton Bell; incumbent council member James A. “Jimmy” Gray Jr.; and treasurer Christine Snead, a former council member.

Harper said she had good mentors, such as when she worked in a Hampton City Council member’s office as a 15-year-old intern, adding that such opportunities are important to forging positive connections and opportunities, as well as getting an early start learning about what the community needs.

Mathews agreed that positive influences play an important role in reducing the chances for community violence. He said he is piloting a mentorship and tutoring program at Virginia Peninsula Community College.

Former state delegate and Hampton school board member Martha M. Mugler, 61, and Randy C. Bowman Sr., 57, said mental health, families and police also will play a role in reducing the violence.

“When we see someone that is developing or has issues, we need to make sure they have resources we can point them to,” said Bowman, who owns Bowman’s Soul-N-the Wall restaurant.

Harper and Bowman are in a special race as Michelle Ferebee, who was appointed this year after Christine Snead was elected city treasurer will end her term Dec. 31, according to the city website. The winner will serve the seat’s remaining two years. The other candidates, 39-year-old U.S. Army contractor Marlin R. Manley, and incumbents Steven L. Brown and Gray, are running for three open seats on council. Councilwoman Eleanor Weston Brown is not seeking reelection.

Brown said council does have action plans to address the violence, such as working with the Harvard University and John Hopkins University to find the root causes of crime and how, with families, to best teach kids how to resolve conflicts at a young age.

“It’s going to take a whole village to resolve and reduce the crime we’re seeing in our community and region,” Brown said.

Like Bowman and the other candidates, Manley said he wants to bring more businesses into the area so residents do not have to travel for services or goods. One example the he cited was how Hampton has a strong motorcyclist community, yet there are a lack of repair shops.

Mugler said bringing in more businesses outside of the defense and tourism industries would help make city employment and revenue more resilient to changes in those sectors.

“We’re at a point in Hampton where we need to think outside the box a little bit,” Mugler said. That includes more restaurants, retail and manufacturing that can dovetail with employers like NASA’s Langley Research Center, she said.

Zoning can be “bureaucratic” in some areas and may be limiting business growth, according to Mathews.

Bowman said strengthening business incubators, which help connect potential entrepreneurs to resources to start and grow an enterprise, would help attract businesses and give area natives opportunities to stay in their home community.

Gray said the city has made many improvements over the years. He cited more affordable housing and improvements in the school system, which earned 100% school accreditation in 2019 and increases in graduation rates.

Gray, who grew up in Portsmouth, said he brings a “unique perspective” to council as he has served in various leadership roles since being named chief of the fire department in 2004, then working in the city manager’s office, which included as a liaison for the School Board.

“All council members bring different skill sets and different knowledge to the table and I think my knowledge of development of plans and policy over the years” benefits the city, he said.

Brown, who once lived in public housing, said the city’s push for more higher-end housing and development around Buckroe Beach is positive, but much still must be done in neighborhood revitalization and infrastructure.

Manley said he also wants more economic development so the city can generate greater revenue instead of property taxes. The Hampton real estate property tax rate was reduced to $1.18 per $100 of assessed value from $1.24 per $100 of assessed value in the most recent budget, according to city budget documents.

“I think we need to really start putting more investments in the businesses,” Manley said.

Many of the candidates agreed the city should do more outreach to ensure residents are informed about proposed changes and available resources. Gray said when he first came to work for Hampton in 2004, one of the city’s strengths was the neighborhood and commissions, some of which have declined over the years, partly because of the budget cuts caused by the Great Recession and have not recovered. Similarly, he said it’s not just about gutters or lights in neighborhoods, but also making sure the city has the infrastructure to deal with flooding.

Mugler said there are lots of good plans that City Council needs to throw their full weight in order to preserve the natural beauty of the area with its tree canopies and natural shorelines.

Preserving downtown Hampton is also important to keeping the character of the historical community, according to Harper.

Mathews said community groups and volunteers who help with beautification take reduce the burden on the city for such efforts, according to Mathews.

“It’s a very diverse city that has a lot of history,” Mathews said.

Ian Munro, ian.munro@virginiamedia.com