Charlottesville economic development staff Hollie Lee & Chris Engel

Charlottesville City Council has endorsed the initial recommendations for a program to promote job creation and financial self-sufficiency for residents.

As the culmination of a nine-month planning effort by five city departments, the council directed city staff to place a greater focus on the elimination of barriers to self-sufficiency, such as the absence of basic literacy, workplace skills, transportation and childcare.  

Councilors also plan to confront the greater challenges of private-sector job creation and the need for improved affordable housing options.

Chris Engel, the city’s director of economic development, presented the team’s report to the council at a meeting Thursday at CitySpace.

“Our focus is on creating opportunities to move lower-income city residents towards self-sufficiency through employment,” Engel told councilors. “We want to specifically align economic development and workforce development.”

Engel said almost 30 percent of families in Charlottesville do not earn enough income to cover the full costs of basic necessities and almost 20 percent live in poverty.

“You can do training, but without a job at the end, you are wasting your money on training,” Engel said. “We believe you have to work it from both ends … The creation of jobs, and an environment that is conducive to the creation of jobs, is of key importance.”

In the audience were people who have devoted decades to local workforce development efforts, as well as newcomers championing alternative approaches.

“We have been discussing since the 1990s how to break the cycle of poverty,” said Rudy Beverly, a former chair and current member of the Piedmont Workforce Network board. “What’s different is we have a lot more synergy today. Having all these different departments in the city talk about this is very refreshing.”

Ridge Schuyler is a more recent activist championing family self-sufficiency. He is the director of the Charlottesville Works Initiative, a new program of the Greater Charlottesville Area Development Corp., a nonprofit created by the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Schuyler co-authored the 2011 Orange Dot Project report, named after the census map color depicting where families in poverty live in Charlottesville.

“The jobs created will largely be private-sector jobs; government can’t create the jobs,” Schuyler said. “The challenge is to create or identify jobs within the reach of people and position them to get those jobs.”

Schuyler has advocated for the creation of a professionalized peer-to-peer network where “team leaders” in low-income neighborhoods would connect people to resources and job opportunities.

Councilor Dede Smith indicated her support for the peer-to-peer network.

“With Charlottesville Works, we have a lot of research into what has been shown to work and why,” said Smith. “Any monies that we use, we need to be really careful that they are evidence-based.”  

Engel said that the peer-to-peer program is an example of something not typically run by local government and that the city might partner with an existing nonprofit.

The council endorsed six immediate action steps.

First among them was to support upcoming redevelopment proposals in the “heart of the orange dot,” the area around the Ix warehouse complex, Friendship Court and several Charlottesville Redevelopment & Housing Authority properties.

A community meeting on the Strategic Investment Area plans will be held at the Jefferson School City Center at 6 p.m. Wednesday. Architects and transportation experts from Cunningham Quill Architects were hired by the council to develop a neighborhood plan for the area between Avon Street and Ridge-McIntire.

Two other recommendations endorsed by the council revolve around budget priorities. Workforce development will be made a high priority throughout the city’s budget process.

Also, the council directed that the Agency Budget Review Team, which reviews funding requests from outside agencies, place a high priority on programs that aim to move people toward self-sufficiency. That could lessen funds available to programs supporting natural resources, arts, culture and recreation.

The council also supported the creation of a Workforce Advisory Council; the reclassification of an economic development staff position to include workforce responsibilities; and the establishment of satellite workforce center in downtown Charlottesville. The Virginia Workforce Center is currently headquartered on Hydraulic Road.

“Setting up the Workforce Advisory Council will be particularly helpful guiding the rest of the work,” said Engel. “There is a lot of work ahead, and this is a good first step.”

“I want to commend the leadership of the city … for making this a priority,” said Frank Friedman, president of Piedmont Virginia Community College. “The only way to make progress is to make something like this a priority and not point fingers like it’s someone else’s job.”

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