Young Virginia Beach voices deliver historic preservation message to governor, lawmakers in Richmond

High school students Justin Burns, Madeleine Penree and Sean Diment speak with state Del. Jay Jones at the Capitol in Richmond on Thursday, Feb. 8, during a visit by a group representing the Virginia Beach Historic Preservation Commission. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

RICHMOND — A few members of a group from Virginia Beach made use of their time while they waited in a conference room for the governor. People who meant to speak in support of historic rehabilitation tax credits settled into the nicest chair in the room, the one at the head of the table, and took pictures.

There were lots of pictures throughout the day for members of the Virginia Beach Historic Preservation Commission who ventured to Richmond during the Virginia General Assembly session this past month.

In addition to talking up the credits, which help suport projects that preserve historic structures, the trip was also about young members, high school students who are doing real work for the commission in Virginia Beach and who, in Richmond, spoke on its behalf. 

The commission has two members who are high school students selected from applications from around the city. They are Commissioners Madeleine Penree and Sean Diment, both 17. With them on the lobbying trip was Justin Burns, 18, a member of a student leaders subcommittee to the commission formed because of the number and quality of applicants to serve as commissioners.

They were with prominent folks, including elected Virginia Beach officials, but the teenage participants did most of the talking when Gov. Ralph Northam joined them, introduced himself, reclaimed his chair and mentioned his own Hampton Roads history.

“Now we’re living in Richmond, obviously,” Northam noted. “Life takes unexpected twists and turns.”

“We’re talking today about the restoration tax credit,” said Diment, who attends the Ocean Lakes High School Mathematics & Science Academy and lives in the Tallwood area.

“Okay,” Northam said.

“We wanted to give you some tangible examples,” said Penree, an Oceanfront resident who attends Bishop Sullivan Catholic High School.

“Good,” Northam said.

Penree noted there is one such example near where she lives.

“Does it start with a C?” the governor asked, smiling.

“It does,” she said. “That Cavalier Hotel is beautiful.”

The discussion continued, with Northam offering that such tax credits can benefit rural areas, not just urban ones. 

“You all did a very good job giving an overview,” Northam said. “Rosemary, are you talking to some of the legislators?”

“Yes,” replied Virginia Beach City Councilmember Rosemary Wilson, the council liaison to the historic preservation commission. “I couldn’t think of better ambassadors than our young people.”

Gov. Ralph Northam speaks with the students about the tax credit during a meeting in his offices. Northam also discussed their college plans, as well as the applicability of the credits to rural areas in addition to the commonwealth’s urban centers. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]
Sean Diment got in a selfie in the governor’s chair before the meeting with Northam and student representatives of the Virginia Beach Historical Preservation Commission. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]
Burns, serving on the commission’s student leaders subcommittee, supports the commissioners, documenting historic spots and putting data in an online application, among other things. 

He is 18, a Bayside High School student looking at colleges and more. He’s running for a Virginia Beach School Board seat. 

He’s been to Richmond before. He worked with the staff of state Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, about two years ago. He remembered how “on the go” it is here. His work with the commission is meaningful, he said. “Students must be involved to know their history.”

After meeting with Northam, they walked across the Capitol Square, stopping for a group photo, then pressed on for a tour and a visit to the House chamber.

“Have you been to Richmond before?” Mark Reed, the city’s historic preservation planner, asked Penree while they walked. 

“This is my first time,” she said.

In the house gallery, awaiting a midday session, Reed explained that the commission in recent years has had young members among the body that does the work of identifying and preserving historic elements of the city, considering designations, documenting. 

Of late, the body’s work has had a bit more public attention. Another commission subcommittee is considering concerns about a Confederate monument on public property at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center.

But this trip was about supporting government incentives that help preserve pieces of the past. And about having the young commission members participate in the governmental processes that determine whether such programs live or die.

“They’re an integral part of the mission, and they can tell why preservation tax credits are important as well as any of the commissioners,” Reed said in the gallery. “What better representatives could we have? … We were excited they could officially get a day off school to assist.”

State Del. Joe Lindsey, D-Norfolk, was among the lawmakers who stopped to speak with the student representatives of the commission. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]
State Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, introduced members of the Virginia Beach Historic Preservation Commission during a visit to the House of Delegates Chamber at the Capitol. Davis is seen here later in the afternoon, looking up to see the result of a vote. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]
The meeting began, and early business included introductions of visiting groups. State Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, recognized them, and they stood.

In the Capitol rotunda, discussions continued amid the hubbub of the day. The students spoke with a few local lawmakers.

“That one is an easy fit for me,” said state Del. Joe Lindsey, D-Norfolk, said after hearing the pitch from Diment.

A moment later, state Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, asked, “You’re running for school board, aren’t you?” 

“Yes,” Burns replied.

“Good luck.”

State Del. Steve Heretick, D-Portsmouth, met the students, too.

“So,” he said, “welcome to the Capitol.”

“Are you familiar with the preservation tax credit?” Diment asked.

“Absolutely,” Heretick replied. “I voted for it in the past.”

A few days after the visit, the governor released a statement in which First Lady Pam Northam touted the findings of two studies supporting the economic impact of the tax credits in Virginia.

One study, by Virginia Commonwealth University, found that $4.5 billion in investment might have been lost without the incentives. The other study, by the nonprofit Preservation Virginia, found that the incentive in 2014 helped support thousands of jobs and generate $3.50 for each dollar invested.

In an interview, Wilson said the visit to Richmond was special because the students experienced the place, as well as time with the governor and lawmakers.

“It was just such a wonderful day to watch these students, like sponges, absorb it all,” she said.

And Penree, following her first trip to Richmond, said the experience was amazing. She was glad to see the place where government happens. She was impressed that the officials, even those stopped in passing, seemed to really listen to what they had to say.

Life takes unexpected twists and turns, as a Virginia governor once said.

Penree hopes for a future in international relations, perhaps as a diplomat. But her path may bring her back for another visit to Richmond, the place where a commonwealth is governed.

“Hopefully,” she said. “Definitely.”

The students walk at the Capitol with Virginia Beach School Board Member Sharon Felton, who also serves on the city historic preservation commission. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

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