By Stefanie Jackson – The New Road Community Development Group held a groundbreaking Tuesday morning in Exmore for the first phase of its Legacy Project, so named because the construction of six new houses in the New Road community will honor the legacy of the group’s former executive director, the late Ruth Wise.
Opening remarks were made by her daughter, Ava Gabrielle-Wise, who filled the position of New Road’s executive director after Ruth Wise died in 2017.
Ava Gabrielle-Wise noted that “a milestone in the history of this community” will be reached when the Legacy Project is complete, as all 30 acres of the New Road community will be filled to capacity with housing.
She felt “grateful to be here to … carry the torch forward” for her mother and the rest of New Road’s original members, of whom at least one is still living – Burley Rogers, who is 83 years old and was invited to the groundbreaking but could not attend due to illness.
Gabrielle-Wise briefly reflected on New Road’s history and “the turmoil we had in the early years with the town and the county and the struggle over getting the infrastructure in,” referring to the previous lack of indoor plumbing in New Road and the failure of local government to provide the historically African American community with public water and sewer service even though it was available elsewhere in Exmore.
Those issues drove the residents of New Road in the 1990s to seek financial assistance and purchase the land they lived on from the absentee landlords who owned it.
“A lot of people don’t realize that New Road … was not a whole government project. We acquired our community, subdivided it, and sold it to ourselves,” Gabrielle-Wise said, “and that was a new model that had not been seen yet at that point and hasn’t been seen much since then.”
“This project is not only about legacy, it’s about innovation and progress,” Gabrielle-Wise said.
The six new houses to be built in New Road “are not like the houses that you’ve seen in the past, and that’s because we’re trying to take the community forward into the future in housing development.”
The homes will feature modern amenities and be built in a range of sizes to suit families with differing housing needs: two tiny homes, two two-bedroom homes, one three-bedroom home, and one four-bedroom home.
Gabrielle-Wise thanked the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development for providing the New Road group Acquire, Renovate, and Sell funding in 2019, which was the catalyst for the Legacy Project.
She reserved special thanks for Chris Thompson, of Virginia Housing, who has been “a solid and steadfast partner through all of our troubles.”
Gabrielle-Wise also thanked Warren Thomas, chief executive officer of RMT Construction and Development Group, of Richmond, and Chris Carbaugh, engineer, Atlantic Group & Associates, of Berlin, Md.
Exmore Councilman G.W. Adkins acknowledged that “in the old days” the Town Council had not acted as an advocate for the New Road community, “but we’ve gone beyond that and we are here, we have the back of everyone in New Road … and we’re here to stay.”
Northampton County Administrator Charlie Kolakowski spoke on behalf of the Northampton County Board of Supervisors and Chair Betsy Mapp about all the public and private partners working on the New Road project:
“The level of cooperation and enthusiasm involved in this project is really, really encouraging. We all recognize the need for a significant cooperative effort to provide affordable and workforce housing on the Eastern Shore,” he said, pledging supervisors’ commitment to New Road and other groups in their efforts to build affordable housing in Northampton.
Thompson thanked everyone present “for bringing us along on this journey with you. … It’s about people, and at the end of the day, we’re going to have six new families that are here. … What I really like is that this is phase one, and so, there are big plans for phase two, there’s phase three, there’s more to come.”
During phase two of the Legacy Project, housing will be built on the remaining undeveloped land owned by New Road. The land is adjacent to the New Road community on the west side of Route 13, intersected by Ruth Wise Road. This project phase will provide housing for 34 families in the form of a three-story, 18-unit apartment building and eight duplexes.
Gabrielle-Wise said she recently closed on an option to acquire another 30 acres near Occohannock Road, which would not be an extension of New Road but a new community with its own name and identity.
Gabrielle-Wise anticipates the design of a master plan for the new community will be completed this year so development can begin in 2023.