A Special Place for 200 Years
Chapter 9

Blacksburg Politics and Government:
Highlights after Incorporation

by Kenneth Singletary


The Town Sergeant

There is an amusing, if subtle, sub-plot in the early records of the Blacksburg Town Council. The town was legally incorporated by the General Assembly in 1871, and council began recording official minutes, which are on file in the municipal building today. The incorporation meant that Blacksburg had the rights and freedoms-and responsibilities-of a town. It must have been a proud accomplishment for Blacksburg's leaders, the result, no doubt, of months and perhaps years of planning and work. But right away their problems started.

Immediately upon receiving their incorporation, the town leaders met. Council members and a mayor were duly elected. And a town sergeant was appointed. His duties would be many and varied, ranging from protecting public safety to collecting taxes. Part constable, part administrator, and truly part jack of all trades, he would almost certainly be the busiest and most harried town employee.

He lasted only a few weeks. Town council minutes, which are disappointingly silent on the matter, do not say why he quit. But seeing to road construction, monitoring unlicensed dogs, and keeping tabs on prisoners, as well as doing anything and everything else that needed to be done, at any hour of the day or night, probably became old sooner rather than later, even if he did get to wear a badge or special hat.

So town council set about finding a new town sergeant. Taking a cue from his predecessor, this understudy town sergeant also did not last long, quitting within a few weeks. His successor remained on the job for all of a matter of months. The image of these three commiserating about the tribulations of being the town sergeant over drinks together at a comfortable watering hole is difficult to avoid. (In a move that speaks volumes about the job and perhaps the people in the town, council requested future town sergeants to limit their drinking, at least while working.)

In their never-ending quest to find a sergeant who would stay on the job for longer than a few months, council members tried a new tack. They appointed a new candidate, apparently without bothering to ask him if he wanted the job. He was not at the meeting and did not know he had new employment. When he learned of his new job, he wasted no time; he quit two weeks later at the next meeting. (William Tecumseh Sherman, the famous-or infamous-Civil War general is credited with saying, "If nominated I will not run. If elected I will not serve," to his fellow Republicans at about this time. It would have been so much more fitting for this Blacksburg resident to have said it-or shouted it on every street corner.)

In time, council was able to solve its town sergeant problem. One way council did so was by eventually eliminating the job and distributing the town sergeant's responsibilities to other departments. Taken as a whole, however, Blacksburg's early days as an incorporated town were marked by people who were dedicated to public service and who stayed on the job for years, often working quietly and efficiently and perhaps relatively anonymously, if town council minutes are any indication of their performance and style.

Such is Blacksburg's governmental heritage, and it lives today. Town employees and leaders are noted for their competency, friendliness-and longevity on the job. The town itself has earned a statewide and nationwide reputation as a progressive, responsive, pro-active community. Notably, citizen interest and participation in town affairs can be high, and Blacksburg goes out of its way to keep residents informed, through a newsletter, telephone and electronic information resources, the televising of town council meetings, and the open-door policy of town leaders and employees.

The Early Years

Government and politics during Blacksburg's early years lay in the hands of a few people, partly because only a small number of people lived in Blacksburg and its surroundings and partly because the privileged, educated, and landed people-like the Prestons and the Blacks-kept their grip on decision-making positions in the town. Other town residents certainly had more day-to-day concerns on their minds. The threat from Indian attack was either a real danger or a clear memory for many of them during the town's beginnings. Beyond that, earning a living no doubt took all of their time and energy. Many of these people, of course, were hardscrabble, uneducated farmers and workers. When William Black successfully obtained his petition to found a town on sixteen blocks that he was willing to donate, Blacksburg's first board of trustees included the town's important people, whose family names turn up in town records and histories throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: John Black, James P. Preston, John Preston, George Rutledge, Edward Rutledge, and John Henderson.

In time, these landed families extended their influence beyond the New River Valley. William Preston's son became governor of Virginia. His daughter was the wife of a governor and mother of another.

Still, Blacksburg remained a sleepy, small town. Its population in 1830 was 150. Its economy centered around farming and, to an extent, serving the needs of travelers, many of whom were heading west toward the Cumberland Gap and then toward the fertile and available lands of Kentucky and beyond. Christiansburg may have been a bigger way-station for such travelers, but Blacksburg straddled part of the Wilderness Road as well. That the town catered to travelers-and to settlers-was a testament to the policies and civic atmosphere established by the town's leaders. By 1850 Blacksburg had 270 residents, sixty-three of whom were slaves.

By 1870, the year before the town's incorporation, Blacksburg had grown even more. It had three churches-Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian-three hotels, two tanyards, a pottery, and many stores and workshops. In 1874 Blacksburg expanded for the first time beyond the town's original sixteen blocks. In 1871 Christiansburg's Montgomery News Messenger lamented the fact that Blacksburg was making impressive civic additions, while Christiansburg apparently was not: "Our sister town of Blacksburg is going far in advance of us in the way of corporate improvements and conveniences. The main street of the town is now lighted by lamps eficient [sic] and kept up by private subscriptions of the citizens." In Blacksburg Town Architecture: Understanding a Town, Donna Dunay mentions another aspect of life in Blacksburg in the 1870s that indicates the thinking of town leaders. The street lamps the people in Christiansburg apparently so envied are now gone, destroyed when college students went on a rampage in the late 1870s after the town permanently closed Blacksburg's saloons. These business establishments did not begin to reopen until a large influx of students poured into town after World War II to study at Virginia Tech under the GI Bill.

Late 1800s and early 1900s

William Edward Garnett's "A Study of the Blacksburg Community," published in the August 1935 Bulletin of the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station, provides a wonderful glimpse of life in Blacksburg during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Garnett devotes much time to the history of the town and to its economic base, public health, education, recreation, and other daily matters, offering specific details, often about individual people.

By the 1930s, he writes, the state and counties had taken over many of the functions and duties that towns in Virginia once performed. No longer were towns required to operate schools, maintain and build large roads, or administer local justice. "Hence, the primary functions of the town government are limited to building streets and sidewalks, administering the water and sewer systems, furnishing police and fire protection, and the administering of town finances," he writes. Indeed, the town spent $7,037 on street maintenance, construction, and lights in fiscal year 1934, or almost 27 percent of its $26,316 budget. The second largest expense, 23. 5 percent, was interest on notes and bonds. The third largest expense, 14 percent, went for water and sewer service.

Garnett allowed himself to say that the one aspect of the town that needed the most improvement was its tax system, which "has many inequalities. Property of approximately equal value was found in a few instances to vary as much as 100 percent in its tax assessments." Moreover, of 459 magisterial districts in the state, 378 had a lower tax rate than Blacksburg's $2.25 per $100 valuation.

The visual appearance of the town benefited from Depression-era relief efforts. Workers maintained streets, the cemetery, school and college grounds, vacant lots, and abandoned buildings. The improvements were much needed, in part because town leaders had not devoted themselves to civic aesthetics, in Garnett's estimation. "Rapid progress is being made in improving the town's ten miles of streets, while the landscaping work on the college grounds is greatly improving the already beautiful campus. These improvements will no doubt stimulate home owners to further beautify their premises as well as stimulate civic interest and pride," he wrote.

Garnett also lamented the lack of other civic involvement. Voters at that time still had to pay a poll tax, and "only 37 percent" of county residents over the age of twenty-one did so in 1933. In the 1931 county-wide elections, 45.3 percent of potential voters showed up at the polls. In the 1934 elections for Blacksburg Town Council and mayor, one-third of the electorate voted. The cost of conducting the 1932 election in Montgomery County was ten cents per capita, higher than that of sixty-six counties in the state.

Post-World War II

If Blacksburg's government before the war was characterized by diminished responsibilities and duties and by civic involvement that was not widespread enough to suit Garnett's taste, the town since then has taken a more pro-active role, and citizens have demonstrated their commitment to Blacksburg's welfare and future.

Land-Use Regulation

Perhaps the biggest function the town has assumed-and the one that might impact residents the most-is governing land use. Blacksburg uses a zoning system that identifies and regulates how land and real property can and must be maintained and used. Broad classifications are for residential, business, agricultural and industrial uses. The purpose of the zoning system is to maintain standards of living, property value, and commerce by separating disparate land uses. Thus, each type of land use is assigned and confined to a distinct geographical area, though, of course, there are many instances of overlap and mixing, sometimes because of long-standing uses of specific properties.

Determining land-use policies and procedures fall to the town's planning commission and planning department. The planning commission, comprised of experts, leaders, and residents who are appointed to their seats, makes its recommendations on land use to town council. Council usually accepts and follows those recommendations. The planning department studies land issues and provides information to the planning commission and town council.

BITE

Perhaps the most profound event in Blacksburg's civic life has centered around an interest in town affairs by a large and diverse group of people. That interest is best exemplified by the town's 1981 BITE (Blacksburg In The Eighties) Conference. The conference resulted from the work of hundreds of people who came together to consider all aspects of town life and governance. Many of the responses were honest, personal, and frank.

Conference organizers surveyed residents about their views of and hopes for the town. Residents researched and wrote issue papers on citizen participation, economic development, education, energy and environment, health and human services, housing, planning and land use, town-Tech-county relations, transportation, and sense of community. Participants formed committees to consider a variety of subjects, ranging from youth services to fraternity housing to Blacksburg's townscape. The responses from residents covered, seemingly, every aspect of town life: when a neighborhood merits street lights, the need to stop spot re-zoning, limiting town government to basic needs, and hundreds of other ideas, notions, and observations. The BITE Conference clearly was a moment of ubiquitous citizen involvement , and if it did not cause an invigoration of resident participation in town affairs, it exemplified the growing willingness of citizens to play a role in their community. Indeed, by the 1990s more than half of the town's registered voters routinely went to the polls.

Democrats, Republicans, and Other Parties

The Democratic and Republican parties traditionally have been active and visible in the town. Both county parties (they are county-wide rather than exclusively Blacksburg-wide) benefit from the presence of politically aware and interested people in the area, making the parties larger and stronger than they otherwise might be. The Democrats and Republicans open local offices during key elections, distribute information, and enroll new members. Both parties nominate candidates for local seats for the House of Delegates and state Senate in all elections. Candidates are prescribed from running as members of a party in town council elections; therefore, they are not nominated by local parties, although they often receive strong, if tacit, support from one or the other.

At some point in recent years, Blacksburg became a bastion for the Democratic Party. Exactly when this occurred is not evident and may be debatable. The shift toward the Democrats paralleled Virginia Tech's move toward a larger, more civilian university. Today the town consistently votes for Democratic candidates at all levels, from the General Assembly to President of the United States. The high concentration of people related to and interested in education, an issue the Democrats have staked out for themselves, no doubt plays a pivotal role in the town's clear political leanings. All areas outside Blacksburg in Montgomery County vote Republican in a similarly consistent manner.

Third parties have become active in the town, at least for a while and, at times, each in turn. They have advocated and opposed issues and candidates, provided information, taken contributions, and signed up new members. Some have even nominated candidates for office. But none has broken the monopoly the Democrats and Republicans have on town politics and elections.

Considering City Status

The principal local governing bodies in Virginia are counties and cities. Towns, it is said, are bastard children, part of the counties in which they are located but able to make some decisions for themselves and yet not as self-directing as cities. (Traditionally, the General Assembly wrote laws for "cities and counties" and not explicitly for towns.) Several times Blacksburg has considered becoming a city, a move that would have provided it with much more autonomy-for example over its own school system and law enforcement-but also would have cost more in money and headaches.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Blacksburg leaders recognized that the town had a stable and growing population base and, therefore, a predictable revenue stream, and they recognized, too, that the town is a unique place in Southwest Virginia, a place with its own interests and goals. They thought about becoming a city in perhaps the town's most serious investigation of that question. Blacksburg retained Municipal Advisors, Inc. (MAI), a Virginia Beach firm, to conduct a study of changing from town to city status. In its August 1982 report, the firm identified several aspects to consider.

One was the view of many town residents and leaders that their concerns and interests were separate and different from those of Montgomery County. These interests stem naturally from Blacksburg's status as a concentrated urban area (at least relatively so) and perhaps less from the fact that Blacksburg's lifestyles and jobs differ from those of the county. Town residents have wanted more and better services and have indicated a willingness to foot the bill, while county residents might not have needed such services and have not wanted to pay for them. "[B]asic differences in philosophy do exist and undoubtedly foster the desire for greater autonomy on the part of the town in determining its own future without so-called 'county' interference," MAI wrote.

Another consideration offered by MAI was that a change to city status would give Blacksburg greater control over many public services. Montgomery County provided public education, social services, health services, the library, criminal prosecution, real property assessment, animal control, court services and sheriff/jail functions, and refuse disposal. "In many of these areas, town citizens have not only an interest but a desire to influence services, budgets, and program performance," MAI wrote. Moreover, "[a]ccess to the decision making process is equally available to all county residents including those who reside in the town, but differing philosophies with regard to service levels and willingness to provide desired funding would appear to be resolved in the form of rural rather than urban interests."

MAI specifically focused on town control over public education as a reason to change its status. Indeed, according to the firm's surveys of resident desires, such control was rated "foremost among the reasons given for a change to city status." Again, the perceived willingness of town residents to spend more money was seen as an important part of their desire for more autonomy. "It is believed that the conservative budgetary posture of the county board of supervisors is damaging to the county's system of public education. . . . City status, it is believed, will provide town citizens with greater influence over school policy and therefore foster a stronger public school system."

But many citizens did not want Blacksburg to become a city. The biggest reason was that both Blacksburg and Montgomery County would have to raise taxes. Inevitably, services would be duplicated by Blacksburg and Montgomery County, and government operations in both jurisdictions would increase. "Many [people] believe that the town contributes more to the economic well being of the county than it receives in services but would rather shoulder what they consider an inequity than support further duplication of services," MAI wrote. Later in its report, MAI showed that Blacksburg was a net contributor to the county tax coffers. In fiscal year 1982, Montgomery County revenues collected in Blacksburg totaled $3.85 million. Those revenues included personal property, real estate, and sales taxes. The cost of the services that Blacksburg received from Montgomery County was $2.8 million, for a net town subsidy to non-town residents of $1.05 million.

A second reason not to change to city status concerned education. Opponents of the change pointed out that while the quality of public education in Blacksburg might improve if the town were to become a city, educational services in the county would almost certainly decline. "Many citizens believe a separate education system would substantially lower the quality of education of non-city students. These citizens would rather attempt to bring about change in the existing political structure than risk seeing the county school system fall even further behind. Others are not so dissatisfied with the existing school system that they believe separation is warranted," MAI wrote.

Obviously, the town decided not to become a city. This was the most serious consideration the town gave to becoming a city, and it has not done so to such a degree since the early 1980s.


Kenneth Singletary, a former newspaper reporter, now edits and writes for an educational research project in Blacksburg. He is also the editor and publisher of New River Outdoor Magazine.

The Transformation of a
Frontier Political Culture
Blacksburg's Mayors
and the
Evolution of
Town Government


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