Fans of “A Prairie Home Companion”, that all-weather mainstay of public radio, became well acquainted with the manners and customs of Lake Wobegon, MN, the mythical “little town that time forgot, that the decades cannot improve”. The venerable scribe of Portsmouth, Ms. Ida Kay Jordan, would be right at home there, too, spinning her yarns about fabled Portside-on-the-Elizabeth, the enchanted venue in which, by her account, all people were truly created equal and good times were enjoyed by all. (See her latest homage in the May 7, 2017, edition of the Portsmouth Currents or online at KEEP THE NEW PORTSIDE “SIMPLE, FUN”.) With substantial support from city council for a Portside resurrection and a possible handout from the Virginia Port Authority for some or all of the $750,000 projected cost, she might well see a new structure rise close to where its predecessor stood.
Like its big sister across the river, though – the former Waterside, now Waterside District — Portside II has little chance of fulfilling the high hopes to which folks nostalgic for those “good old days” cling. Both environments have changed since the original structures went up but not in ways that will reduce their dependence on public subsidies for survival. Fortunately for Norfolk, it has much larger reserves with which to cover its losses; Portsmouth, however, will just wind up even poorer when the logical consequences of illogical actions play out.
Reasonable individuals might wonder what makes throwing scarce resources at losing propositions like Portside and the recently shuttered Virginia Sports Hall of Fame and Museum so attractive at the same time we underfund our public schools and public infrastructure. Cletus Kassady, a Facebook “neighbor”, offered some rather clear-eyed comments on the issue in response to a friend’s posting. In his postings he called Portside “a distraction” and “reactive”, decrying our lack of “visionaries to put us on a path to do anything other than what other cities do.” He questioned city priorities, as well: “My biggest issue is, why in the world are they intently working on ‘finding’ the funds for [Portside] and not funds to handle more pressing need in education and public service.” Spot on, Mr. Kassady. We wish that more citizens would peer behind the curtain and recognize the distraction for what it is.
Our last election changed a few faces on city council and reshaped the alliances, but it did not cure the institutional blindness that has been a trademark of most prior councils over at least the last twenty years. Portsmouth cannot fulfill its potential until our schools are enabling all our students to fulfill theirs. By no means will dumping money into our schools correct their problems; neither, however, will chronic underfunding. If council emerged from its February retreat serious about facilitating dramatic school improvement, it needs to realign its financial support to its stated objective. No less than endeavoring to eliminate poverty in our city, another adopted goal, making the educational system successful will be an arduous climb. Building oversized Quonset huts, or squared-edge equivalents, for parties at the edge of the river, though, isn’t going to get us to the top of Mt. Trashmore, let alone to the summit of Mt. Everest. They need to equip themselves mentally and physically to scale the heights. As our city manager phrased it, it is time to “review, reflect, refocus, and restore”, Mayor and Council Members.