Windsor’s growth not keeping pace with region

Published 6:19 pm Friday, October 26, 2018

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Downtown district suggested to make town more self-sustaining


Windsor’s share of Western Tidewater’s total population and economy has shrunk significantly from 2000 to 2018, and is projected to continue to do so through 2023 unless the town can find new ways to attract younger people and their dollars.

This was the conclusion of an economic comparison report that Planning and Zoning Administrator Ben Sullivan presented to the town’s Planning Commission on Wednesday evening.

According to Sullivan’s report, the population of Windsor was 2,369 after the annexation of land from Isle of Wight County in 2001, and by 2018, that figure had risen by less than 400 to 2,718. Smithfield, by comparison, started the millennium with a population of 6,424, and gained over 2,000 new residents for a total population of 8,428 in 2018. By 2023, Smithfield is projected to gain roughly another 300 residents, while Windsor is projected to gain less than 100.

By comparison, the unincorporated areas of Isle of Wight County began the millennium with 29,728 residents. By 2018, that figure was 38,020, and by 2023, the county is expected to gain nearly 2,000 more residents. The City of Suffolk began the millennium with 63,677 residents and now has an estimated population of 94,678. By 2023, Suffolk is expected to cross the 100,000 mark with a projected 102,096 residents.

Sullivan’s report also said that Windsor’s median age is expected to increase at a faster rate than Smithfield, Suffolk or Isle of Wight County. Currently, the median age of a Windsor resident is 42, which is about the same as Smithfield’s and one year below Isle of Wight County’s. By 2023, Windsor’s median age is projected to increase by 4.4 years, while Smithfield’s is only projected to go up by 2.1 years, and the county’s, by 2.8 years. Suffolk’s median age, currently at 37.7, is projected to go up 1.4 years to 39.1 by 2023.

“While this in itself should not be alarming, if population and aging rates stay the same, then Windsor will experience a net decrease of people of working age in the labor force by 2023,” Sullivan’s report concluded. “This is a unique phenomenon in the four examined areas. Additionally, from 2000 to 2010, only Windsor stayed flat in civilian labor force participation rate.”

On the positive side, the report found that there is more money per person in the town, a smaller percentage of the town’s population living in poverty, and a large increase in the quality of housing units in town now, compared to 2000.

“But the issue seems to be that Windsor is not attracting people at the same rate as its neighbors,” Sullivan stated in his report. “It is unreasonable to expect Windsor to build as many homes as Smithfield or Suffolk, but if these trends continue then Windsor’s portion of the population and economy will continue to shrink. It will at best be a place where people might find a moderately priced home.”

Commissioner Larissa Williams said she did not feel that Windsor’s slow population growth was necessarily a bad thing, and said a lot of residents may like living in a small town. Responding, Sullivan said he was not suggesting that Windsor try to become Suffolk.

“I have no desire to promote that, but I will say that I would like to be able to see us keep pace with our neighbors … a bit of my concern has been that if this trend continues, Windsor itself would become irrelevant.”

Glen Willis, the Town Council’s representative on the Planning Commission, suggested that instead of comparing Windsor to Suffolk, it might be more helpful to compare Windsor with Ivor or Wakefield. He also questioned whether more residents and more residences would necessarily translate into economic development for the town.

“In 2008 or 2009, Holland Meadows finally got on its feet, and they are finally getting started on phase two,” Willis said, referring to the housing development off of Shiloh Drive. “I would have thought that due to the population and demand, it would have attracted business, and it did not.”

Sullivan then suggested that what he felt the town really needed to become self-sufficient — which he defined as having a good number of opportunities for residents to live, work and play without needing to go outside of town — was a walkable downtown district, complete with offices, restaurants, residential areas and hangout locations such as a movie theater and/or bowling alley. There are no movie theaters west of Suffolk in the Western Tidewater area, Sullivan said.

Upon hearing this suggestion, Williams suggested the proposed downtown district be a historic district and include a used bookstore, coffeehouse and/or theater capable of hosting plays. Willis added that the location for such a district should not be on the Route 460 corridor.

Commissioner Glyn T. Willis IV, who is also running for mayor unopposed, said a first step toward creating such a district would be to identify what areas of town would be usable for development given the current Army Corps of Engineers standards for wetlands. He then mentioned the roughly 1,000 acres of land owned by the county’s Economic Development Authority just south of Windsor, intended to form a third phase of the Shirley T. Holland Intermodal Park, most of which was recently discovered to likely be wetlands.

Sullivan then suggested vacant land intersecting both Routes 258 and 460.

“I will work on identifying a few locations in town that would be usable for something like this, and that’s if the town wants it,” he said.