Pharrell hosts forum to discuss future of Virginia Beach, Norfolk

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NORFOLK, V.A. (WAVY) – In the same month that Virginia Beach superstar and native Pharrell Williams announced he would not be bringing his music festival back to his hometown because of “toxic energy,” he put on an event aimed at changing that energy.

Through an event titled “Elephant in the Room,” at Norfolk State University Thursday night, Williams brought together corporate leaders from Virginia and the “national stage,” alongside community leaders from Hampton Roads to have a discussion about “who we were, who we are, and who we’d like to be.”

Specifically, Williams said he wants leaders of financial institutions to communicate what would make them invest in Virginia Beach and Norfolk to help them reach their full potential. It’s an idea he came up with in the wake of the death of his cousin, Donovon Lynch.

Williams recently made waves when he wrote a letter to Virginia Beach City Manager Patrick Duhaney indicating that his music festival, “Something in the Water,” would not be returning to the city’s Oceanfront in 2022 – and possibly never again.

He cited a “toxic energy” that runs the city, but at the event he declined to go into specifics about what could bring the event back.

“We’re not going to discuss that tonight because that’s toxic and I don’t want to be toxin, I want to be a nutric,” Williams said.

Nutric means “someone who is supportive and fosters others’ growth and development,” according to a definition by Dr. George Everly Jr., a Johns Hopkins psychologist.

Williams instead wanted to have a discussion on why substantial new investment might not be coming here in the first place.

He said corporate agendas are now about diversity, inclusivity and equity.

“The rest of the success that’s happening outside of our region is investing in cultural difference,” Williams said. “What we tend of be scared of, they are throwing hundreds of billions of dollars at.”

The outside venue for Thursday’s forum, complete with high-top tables, seafood catering and futons, was packed with hundreds of attendees including Duhaney, Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer, Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander, former Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms and several members of City Council from both cities.

Virginia Beach native Ryan Shadrick-Wilson, the founder of Boardwalk Collective and senior advisor to the Center for Public Health at the Milken Institute, co-moderated the nearly four-hour-long program with Williams.

The forum started off with a discussion on both cities’ past with racist policies.

Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at NSU, referenced that in the early days of the City of Virginia Beach, it was known as the “sundown town.” Meaning African Americans were not allowed on the streets past sundown.

“We know, if you had too many Blacks in Virginia Beach, the police would begin arresting the Blacks, for loitering, for suspicion of criminal activity ,” Newby-Alexander said. “And while there’s not that attitude among the leadership of Virginia Beach today, that culture, it’s hard to shift.”

Several in the audience could clearly be seen squirming in their seats at Newby-Alexander’s comments, including Sadrick-Wilson.

“I’ve gone a little mute because it’s uncomfortable … I am a child of Virginia Beach and I bleed for Virginia Beach, I love that place and it makes me sick to my stomach,” Sadrick-Wilson said. “It’s nothing I ever learned in school and nothing I’ve never heard talked about in this community I love so much.”

Williams followed up acknowledging the topic is “heavy” by saying being Black in Virginia “you wake up with that gravity everyday.”

However, in follow-up panels, leaders of large real estate development companies, global investment companies and even the senior director of the company that has an investment in the LA Dodgers spoke about the promise the region has.

“Based on the fact that you have incredible talent, you have very very strong universities, you have incredible location,” Shai Zelering, managing director at Brookfield Real Estate Group, said.

“If Green Bay can have a football team, then this area could probably have football team,” said Ari Untracht,  senior director at Eldridge.

Panel speakers also included:

  • Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at NSU
  • Craig Robins, CEO of Dacra and Real Estate Developer
  • Deirdre Love, Executive Director of Teens with a Purpose
  • Drew Ungvarsky, CEO Grow Assembly in Norfolk
  • Eric Claville, Public Policy Expert at NSU
  • Glenn Carrington, Dean of Business School at NSU
  • John Martin, CEO of SIR Research
  • Nat Zilkha, Partner, KKR
  • Shu Nyatta, Softbank Opportunity Fund
  • Pusha T, Re-Up Records

“This is about them having a cheat sheet for [business owners] to see what will make these big financial institutions want to come here and invest money and not only our communities but our businesses,” Williams said. “The only thing we need to do is, do right by our people.”

Former WAVY-TV reporter and longtime communications strategist Joel Rubin called the gathering historic.

“White leadership from Virginia Beach in particular came here to Norfolk State. Not knowing what this was. And what they got was an incredible consciousness in racial justice over the past number of decades here in this region,” Rubin said.

Williams said he plans to hold the event again in the future and has no intention of not investing in his hometown, doubling down on his commitment to the redevelopment of the former Virginia Beach Dome site property.

“This is a direct demonstration of faith right here. I don’t know how I can lead any harder,” Williams said.


CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Eldridge’s interest in the LA Dodgers. WAVY-TV regrets the error.


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