Jeffrey Richardson began work in late October as the new Albemarle County Executive, replacing interim Executive Doug Walker. We talked with him to hear his history, perspective on the job and thoughts on what lies ahead.
Welcome, Jeff! Tell us about your professional experiences prior to moving here.
Two places really sum up my professional career. Most recently I served for four years as the executive of Cleveland County, North Carolina, a predominately rural area about 45 minutes outside of Charlotte, which is one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. I also worked in city management for over 16 years in Asheville, NC, during a period of significant growth. I was able to focus quite a bit on economic development in both of those areas.
The county’s Economic Development Director position has been vacant for over a year. How do you approach hiring a new EDD?
I would think that the right person for that job is someone who has seen and experienced economic growth and success in urban areas, and who understands communities which have a tremendous heritage and beauty and rural character as this one does. It takes a special kind of person who can be creative about what type of economic vibrancy will work here. One unique aspect of this community is a thriving top-tier public university that drives research and entrepreneurship, and another is the beautiful rural character of the place, with its development zones and protected rural areas. The traditional economic development model of setting up pad-ready parcels for large industrial companies to come here may not resonate as well with the community as other models might. We’ve got to have a director who can be adaptable and flexible, and success here will look very different than it might other places.
Virginia’s independent city model sometimes causes friction between Charlottesville and Albemarle. How will you approach your first major issue—the potential County Courthouse move?
I believe the taxpayer expects levels of government to get along, and I believe they like to see local government do its best to not duplicate efforts and to not be territorial. I’m excited about collaboration with the city. With respect to the courthouse move, it’s challenging to get up to speed on a very complex issue at this point in its life. Outside consultants have moved the process along to where the Board may decide to give some more specific feedback as to what to explore further or they may decide not to, but I don’t think there will be a final decision by the end of December.
Public-private partnerships are both an art and a science, and in a strengthening local economy there are opportunities. These consultants are looking at what some potential opportunities might be in that Rio Road area, and we’re looking for something that has a high-performing tax value—something that gives us the most bang for the buck.
How do you see the role of the Executive vis-à-vis that of the Board of Supervisors?
Our role as staff is to generate good data and good answers to their questions and concerns under what-if scenarios, and to provide guidance within legal boundaries and ordinances, both answers and options to consider. In the end, they will decide, and my role is to make sure that we share ideas and experiences on best practices. As an advisor, I make sure there’s a good public reason for it and it makes sense to me. A lot happens in public, as it should, so we need to be streamlined and clear. Government by its nature is risk-averse, and the public expects us to be frugal and conservative.
The most recent fiscal year ended in a budget surplus. What does that mean for you?
Last year revenues outpaced revenue projections, which is a great thing. It means the economy is doing better than projections, there were more housing starts, more natural growth, and expenses were a little better as well. The surplus is put into capital projects for one-time expenditures, to be able to do some of those projects that often get put off. We are a destination location with an excellent quality of life, and we have 1 to 2 percent growth per year in the county, so again we have a strengthening local economy with great prospects.
What is your view on our county’s land use planning and regulation structure?
These land preservation decisions were made in 1980, so there’s a rich history here. I’m way too new in this job to be able to say much other than it really serves to protect the natural beauty that we have once we get out of the development zones. This community has a wow factor in how it looks that makes it very different from a lot of other places. We have a rich urban area, and you can drive out and pretty quickly get into the natural beauty of some beautiful corridors. Without protections, we would not be able to keep the aesthetics of what we appreciate about this place. That puts some significant expectations on the development areas and makes it more important to study what our development zones will look like and what is that best use for those areas. We need to find options that generate a good return on investment and help the community to remain affordable. I don’t come in with ambitions to be some sort of change agent; I want to listen and I want to help.