VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — Is there truly something toxic in the water of Virginia Beach? More specifically, in the culture of Virginia Beach?
The word “toxic” has been thrown around to describe the dynamic inside the City of Virginia Beach for several years. Mainly, since a subset of victims of the 2019 mass shooting at the Municipal Center asserted that a toxic work culture may have contributed to the shooter’s motive.
But in the past month, it’s been front and center after city native and superstar Pharrell Williams cited “toxic energy” as one of the reasons he won’t be bringing back his Something in the Water music festival to the city’s Oceanfront in 2022.
In a letter to the city manager, Williams wrote that for “far too long [the city] has been run by — and with toxic energy.”
He gave examples of where he believed the toxic energy was at work, including the mass shooting and the “narrative” surrounding the death of his cousin at hands of Virginia Beach police in March 2021.
However, what he hasn’t done is reveal who he believes to be the source or sources of that energy.
At his recent “Elephant in the Room” business symposium at Norfolk State University, Williams did highlight a point that business owners have a large role in helping steer the narrative.
“The business owners pretty much contribute to which way the wind blows around here,” Williams said. “You feel that breeze. There are business owners that made that decision already.”
In Virginia Beach, those with tourist-centric businesses have long wielded significant power. The tourism industry in the city contributes well over $100 million annually to the city tax base.
In recent years, Williams has become more heavily involved in the tourism community of his hometown, both as a producer of Something in the Water and part of the team redeveloping the former Dome site.
Williams has expressed frustrations with being a part of that community, however.
“The rest of the success that’s happening outside of our region is investing in cultural difference. What we tend to be scared of, they are throwing hundreds of billions of dollars at,” Williams said.
While again, Williams didn’t point to specific instances, one longtime business owner agrees with his assertions.
“You know, every Fortune 500 company in the United States is bending over backward to tout their diversity and how inclusive they are. And somehow we seem to be on the back foot when it comes to that subject,” Richard Maddox, a former City Council member and longtime owner of a Dairy Queen at the Oceanfront, said in a recent interview. “You’ve got people that quite frankly are concerned or afraid of race because of fear and ignorance.”
Maddox said the relationships among various resort business owners have never been warm and fuzzy.
“The resort has always been divisive,” Maddox said. “We haven’t positioned ourselves as a welcoming city.”
He believes the resort is now in a crisis, with a lack of leadership to unify different interests.
“The culture we had as a resort, the culture of getting things done, the culture of developing and evolving with a product people want, has gone by the wayside,” Maddox said.
In the last year, more than $3 million has been invested to try to address concerns business owners have raised.
Bruce Thompson, CEO of Gold Key PHR, who has invested more than $1 billion in hotels and restaurants at the Oceanfront himself, thinks it’s the different visions for the Oceanfront that are a key issue.
Thompson contributes regularly to political campaigns and keeps no secret about his desire to be at the table when decisions are made.
“There is very little leadership, guidance, plan that anyone can follow,” Thompson said. “We have to coalesce around a common vision. Not your vision, Pharrell’s vision, Bruce Thompson’s vision.”
When asked why he doesn’t step up and try to find the cohesive energy, Thompson said he doesn’t feel he will be taken seriously by his fellow business owners.
“There is a natural thing that comes out is, what are they trying to sell? There’s a total lack to trust. There’s a total lack of trust,” Thompson said, conceding that in itself could be considered “toxic.”
When looking into why there might be a lack of trust, Thompson admits he will work against ideas he doesn’t believe will work.
“I deeply, deeply care, about this Oceanfront and what’s going to happen long past [when] I’m here,” Thompson said.
Thompson said he understands Williams’ frustration and believes they all truly want to see the Oceanfront be successful.
“The only way we’re going to heal you guys is together,” Williams said. “We have to have a plan and we can’t keep doing the same thing.”
City Mayor Bobby Dyer believes he has found one.
He points to the IDEA Commission he started back in February that is charged with promoting inclusion, equity, and accessibility. In a recent op-ed, he said the city “remains committed to promoting a level playing field and providing opportunities for ALL in our community.”