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Redevelopment success at Virginia Beach

Most of my life, I have been connected by family to Virginia Beach, Virginia.

That resort city, which hugged some of the best beach front along the Atlantic Ocean, was by turn a charmingly Southern resort to which families from the north flocked every summer to a seedy, dangerous place left increasingly vacant as those same families found refuge in resorts like Hilton Head or Myrtle Beach.

When I finally changed my zip code forever, Virginia Beach was crippled by looting, litter and race riots. The Mason Dixon line of 42 street divided the North End of the beach, with its overpriced but white-owned houses from the South End, with its ramshackle motels and cheap souvenir shops. Crime was at an all-time high at the South End. Twice a year, shop owners braced as the area was overrun with youths who found more excitement in smashing store windows than splashing in the waves.



While tourism didn’t come to a standstill, it fell significantly to alarm merchants and residents alike. As the South End steadily deteriorated, those who lived in the North End simply avoided it all together.

And so it seemed the heyday of Virginia Beach would be but a memory. Paper signs in the windows of motels advertised cheap room rates. Two-for-one meal signs on sandwich boards littered the crumbling boardwalk. Getting a oceanfront room for the night at 9 p.m. on Friday was never a problem.



That’s until the business community got a grip. Rather than compete over the dwindling tourist dollar, businessmen and city leaders created a plan. It was a process fraught with argument, petit jealousies, political maneuvering and just plain sweat.

But it was a plan that worked. Despite clashing egos and small-town mentalities, Virginia Beach reinvented itself. The city redeveloped the 30-block boardwalk, revitalized the beach front, hired more security, set rules, and in general, took charge of their town. The business community reinvested in seedy hotels, revamped tacky souvenir shops and realized the potential for profit in clean, well-supervised beach front. They paid the additional fees and taxes. They helped the city set its sights for the future.

The marriage between business and government spawned many successful projects, including a huge federally funded effort to pump sand back on the severely eroded beaches.

The change for this returning native was awesome. The town that I had once loved and then loathed was a place so different from my memories. I walked the boardwalk daily, taking in the sight of young skateboards and rollerbladers politely giving way to elderly couples taking a stroll. White and black kids built sand castles together on the beach. The old South, where blacks had one end of the beach and whites the other, had truly changed. I could even hear New York accents mingling with “y’alls.”

Virginia Beach had reinvented itself. No doubt it was a costly, mind-numbing process. But the upshot was a safe, clean and fun resort that welcomed all tourists, not just those with lots of money or those with very little.

The moral of the story: The south shore of Lake Tahoe is on the brink of such a change. All the first steps have been taken. Redevelopment is no longer a pipe dream. It is rising from the ashes of yesterday’s ideas forgotten.

But concrete and steel won’t solve the problem of reinventing Tahoe. The real redevelopment comes from the commitment to make South Shore a viable, safe and ecologically sound resort. Reaching that goal is not only possible but essential.

But it will take sweat, bruised egos and lots of drive to get there.

-Claire Fortier appears on Wednesdays.


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