Fighting for Diverse Community's Future

Fighting for Diverse Community's Future

Neighborhood Resource Center, and hiring site supporters and opponents make their opinions known at the May 13 public hearing.

At the town's initial public hearing on the proposed FY 2004 budget on April 22, discussion of the Herndon Cultural Arts Center dominated the public discussion. Last week, another major Capital Improvement Project (CIP) took center stage in the council's second budget hearing.

With the arts proponents absent from the five-hour proceedings, attention turned to a temporary day laborer site and a permanent Neighborhood Resource Center (NRC).

Council member Connie Hutchinson proposed an amendment that would have removed the $950,000 slated for land acquisition for a permanent NRC on Alabama Drive from the CIP budget. Only Councilman Dennis Husch went along with the motion. "I don't oppose supporting the NRC," said Hutchinson. "What I do oppose is the spending of funds to purchase the land to build on when there is a glut of empty space around."

Hutchinson added that she was not convinced, as some have argued, that it is in the town's "best interest" to purchase and build a permanent NRC.

For his part, Husch said the town should not "go alone."

"The permanent site is great if [Fairfax County] pays half," he said.

Ultimately, Husch and Hutchinson were defeated in their attempt to clear nearly $1 million from the CIP budget.

While the proposal was defeated, all five dissenting council members agreed that the county should partner with the town to build a permanent site. "I could not support this measure," said Vice Mayor Carol Bruce. "It would send the wrong message to the county. If we back out, it looks as if we are giving up."

Mayor Richard Thoesen agreed. "This amount of money is just a marker," he assured the council and the standing-room-only audience.

IN ADDITION, the council also agreed to transfer $35,868 to a grant to Reston Interfaith to fund an interim day laborer site at the old Herndon Lumber Yard. In a 6 to 1 vote, Husch was the only council member to vote against the transfer, saying that it too should be paid for by Fairfax County. "It may be a good idea — may be," he said. "If the day laborer site is established, I am concerned it will attract additional day laborers from outside of Herndon and I am not convinced it will solve the problem."

Councilman Harlon Reece voted in favor of the grant to Reston Interfaith. "These hiring sites ought to be handled by nonprofits," he said. "The problem is not going to go away anytime soon."

Reece was not alone in his assessment. "We have no choice," Councilman John DeNoyer said. "It is a move in the right direction."

Before the council had a chance to comment, the public got its chance to weigh in on the NRC and the hiring site. Supporters and opponents lined the packed hall last week. Many opponents came sporting buttons reading "Keep Herndon Legal," a reference to the day laborer situation. All too frequently, the debate resembled a high-school student council election with the two sides trying to clap louder with each successive speaker.

"There is no question that the First Amendment is alive and well in Herndon," the mayor said after more than three-and-a-half hours of public input.

"MANY, MANY PEOPLE will benefit from the day laborer site," said Esther Johnson. "I expect to benefit from it. I would hire people if a site were more controlled. Surely, I can't be the only woman in Herndon who needs to move a sofa down a flight of stairs."

While some proponents of the day laborer site, like Johnson, appealed to the practical uses of such a facility, others appealed to a greater good in promoting the benefits. Sara Ince of Reston Interfaith read a letter from Herndon resident Francine DeFerreire-Kemp, president of "Diversity Works!," a consulting and training company. DeFerreire-Kemp served as the moderator for Herndon two multi-cultural summits. Day laborers, whom she called the "brick and mortar" of the nation's economy, have the "right to be treated with respect," said DeFerreire-Kemp, who is Hispanic. "If handled correctly, it will be an opportunity not only to talk of best practices but to live them.

"The future of Herndon is a multi-cultural prism," she added.

But it is exactly that prism and what it represents that many in the audience on Tuesday objected to, and they had buttons to prove it.

Dennis Baughan, who lives on Alabama Drive, told the council that he had walked the streets of the Chandon subdivision near where the proposed permanent NRC would be housed. "They feel like they have been abandoned by the town, abandoned by the council," Baughan said.

Clearly frustrated, Baughn said it was not the job of the town to be in the social service business. "Reston Interfaith does a wonderful job at that," he said. "I honestly believe that if we empower those guys, they can do it on their own without throwing more money at the problem."

OTHERS WERE more blunt. Mary Burger agreed that the town should steer clear of the spending "money we don't have." "When the Town of Herndon is the largest business in our town, that's just wrong," Burger said. "We, the taxpayers of Herndon, need to take back our town."

But Burger saved her harshest language for the day laborer site. "No to relocating the day laborer site in my backyard," Burger, who lives on Wood Street, said. "And believe me, Chief [Toussaint Summers, Jr.], you will be hearing from me because my garden hose doesn't get them all of the time."

Burger wasn't alone in her assessment of modern-day Herndon. Carole Broadbent, a frequent council critic, blamed the town for its "open-door" immigration policy and warned the council that continued "white-collar, middle-class flight" was a legitimate concern for the town. "The NRC should be abolished. The squalor along Alabama Drive looks like a couple of bunker bombs landed there," she said. "It's time for legal citizens to take the town back."

Herndon resident Bernie Miller said he sees similarities in Herndon today and Baltimore 50 years ago. "Baltimore was a happy town in 1950, it is devastated now because all the white property owners had been driven out," Miller said. "This is what will happen here. I don't understand why the Town of Herndon has to be in the employment business. How did you get in that line of work? This whole place has changed."

After enduring speaker after speaker decrying the NRC and the day laborer site, Jeanie Schmidt, the founder of the Herndon Free Clinic, took to the podium to defend the work of the resource center and the programs it offers, from Head Start to English Speakers of Other Languages classes to voter registration. Schmidt said she doubted any of the opponents had ever walked through the doors of the center, a center she lauded for its help in making her clinic dream a reality. "Sorry this is a very emotional topic for me," she said, composing herself. "[The NRC] is a very wonderful place. I don't care if these children are legal or illegal, they are sick kids. We are all colors. We are black, brown, yellow. We are helping each other — neighbors helping neighbors."