All five candidates for Williamsburg City Council shared the stage at the College of William and Mary’s Sadler Center Thursday night for a debate hosted by the Student Assembly.
The event, moderated by outgoing President of the Student Bar Association Zack Dimeola J.D. ’10, allowed the candidates to explain their opinions on issues ranging from the modified three-person rule to environmental sustainability.
The candidates were asked five questions, which had been submitted by students prior to the event. The questions were selected based on their relevance to issues affecting the student body, and were not provided to the candidates beforehand.
“I believe more people need to be included in the process to make it better,” Planning Commission Chairman Doug Pons said in his closing remarks, emphasizing a common theme to the night’s answers — that greater cooperation between the College community and the city will improve neighborhood relations and, in turn, the city.
On issues that have historically divided students and residents, such as noise ordinance and the three-person rule, the candidates seemed to be in agreement that improving the discourse will do a large part in resolving disagreements.
“Improving neighborhood relations will improve most of the problem,” Scott Foster ’10 said in regard to the noise ordinance. “What needs to happen is a measure of reasonable enforcement.”
Although the event was only modestly attended by students, the candidates tailored their answers to the student body — emphasizing the importance of the College to the city and the community.
All candidates expressed an interest in bringing a greater number of student-friendly businesses to the city, citing the incoming Triangle Retail Project that is to be built next to Wawa on Richmond Road as an example.
“This is first and foremost a college town,” planning commission member Sean Driscoll said.
Bobby Braxton, the only incumbent in the race, said that another mixed-use project similar to the Triangle Retail Project is being explored for the property currently occupied by Mama Mia’s Deli, which closed in 2007. David Dafashy, a physician at the College’s Student Health Center, said that he would explore redeveloping parts of downtown to resemble Prince George Street.
The candidates did differ in their approach to improving the city’s revenue stream, which has been severely affected by the declining tourism industry.
“We’ve got to tailor ourselves … to expanding nightlife,” Driscoll said. “We’ve got to make it a very vibrant place.”
Driscoll said that by making use of existing music venues, like Lake Matoaka Amphitheatre and Kaplan Arena, the city could bring in the crowds associated with bigger musical acts.
Dafashy and Foster both said that the College could be better utilized in bringing tourists to the city.
“I think we’ve got to take advantage of our captive tourism audience,” Foster said. “25,000 people came through our admissions office last year.”
Foster added that targeting visitors who come to the city for sporting events and graduation could also keep tourists in town longer, increasing the revenue from meal and hotel taxes.
“We really need to get our tourism players to advertise in a collaborative way,” he said.
Pons presented a similar plan, saying that local businesses need to learn to compete externally to bring tourists to the city. Although he agreed that large events are an important component in bringing tourists into the city, he said that it is important that the city not put itself in a role where it is stepping on the toes of business owners.
“We need to bring back the core summer season,” he said. “From there, it’s the private industries’ job to create weekend events.”
Braxton said that although city revenue has suffered, Williamsburg remains financially secure — citing self-imposed budget cutbacks from city departments and cost-cutting measures with new municipal building projects.
“I know a lot of folks think we’re pretty tight, but we are,” he said. “And look at us — a lot of people still look to Williamsburg as a model.”