Wright honored as Norfolk’s Downtowner of Year

News source: hamptonroads.com

By Harry Minium
The Virginian-Pilot
© May 15, 2012

W. Randy Wright has never lived downtown and only worked there as a city councilman. He began his political career by running against the city’s establishment and its focus on revitalizing downtown.

Once elected, he pushed for tax cuts and more funding for neighborhoods such as Ocean View, which angered some of the city’s movers and shakers.

But Wright very quickly became a supporter of the revitalization of downtown. He threw his support in 1994 behind the then-controversial MacArthur Center shopping mall and later took on a passionate crusade to bring light rail through downtown to the Virginia Beach border.

Now, his name will be added to a noteworthy list of Norfolk leaders who have been named Downtowner of the Year.

The annual award, which Wright will receive June 27 at a banquet at the Norfolk Waterside Marriott, is given by the Downtown Norfolk Council to business and political leaders influential in improving downtown.

“If it were not for Randy Wright’s tenacity, we would not have light rail,” said Cathy Coleman, the Downtown Norfolk Council’s president and CEO.

Mayor Paul Fraim described Wright as “the face of the effort” that brought the transit system to the region.

Looking back on his early days as a councilman, Wright said he never wanted to hurt downtown – he just wanted more money for the city’s suburban neighborhoods.

“I always believed that downtown is everyone’s downtown, just like the beach in Ocean View is everyone’s beach,” he said.

Wright cast a critical vote to spend $100 million of public money to help build the mall. He also helped bring the battleship Wisconsin downtown and voted for the cruise ship terminal and a renovation of Town Point Park.

His support of The Tide, a $317 million light-rail line that connects the city’s medical center through downtown to Newtown Road, also helped cost him his council seat.

He was defeated by Tommy Smigiel in 2010. His loss came shortly after more than $100 million in light-rail cost overruns were made public. Smigiel said Wright was too focused on downtown and not enough on Ward 5.

Wright said light rail was only a part of the reason he lost, but he acknowledges the cost overruns, which are now estimated to be about $87 million, were fatal in that election.

“I knew the political risk when I took on that project,” he said. “People told me I had to be crazy to take it on because light rail is not anywhere near Ward 5.

“But I have no regrets because we defined the future of Norfolk and this region for the next half a century with the creation of light rail.”

Wright was nominated for the honor by two former award winners – Alan Nusbaum, chairman of the board of S.L. Nusbaum Realty; and attorney Peter G. Decker Jr., who penned his nomination letter in November, shortly before he died on Feb. 3.

The Downtown Norfolk Council is a private, non-profit group composed of hundreds of business, civic and political leaders that seeks to promote downtown.

Harry Minium, (757) 446-2371, harry.minium@pilotonline.com

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