Pharrell hosts forum to discuss future of Virginia Beach, Norfolk

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NORFOLK, VA (WAVY) – The same month that Virginia Beach superstar and native Pharrell Williams announced that he would not be bringing his music festival back to his hometown due to “toxic energy,” he hosted a event aimed at changing this energy.

At an event titled ‘Elephant in the Room’ at Norfolk State University on Thursday night, Williams brought together business leaders from Virginia and the ‘national scene’, as well as community leaders from Hampton Roads to discuss “who we were, who we are and who we would like to be.”

Specifically, Williams said he wants executives at financial institutions to communicate what will inspire them to invest in Virginia Beach and Norfolk to help them reach their full potential. This is an idea he had following the death of his cousin, Donovon Lynch..

Williams recently made waves when he wrote a letter to Virginia Beach city manager, Patrick Duhaney, stating that his music festival, “Something in the Water”, would not return to the city’s oceanfront in 2022 – and maybe never again.

He cited “toxic energy” running the city, but during the event he declined to go into details on what might bring the event back.

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

Nutric means “someone who supports and promotes the growth and development of others”, according to a definition by Dr George Everly Jr., a Johns Hopkins psychologist.

Instead, Williams wanted to have a discussion about why substantial new investment might not come here in the first place.

He said companies’ agendas now focus on diversity, inclusiveness and equity.

“The rest of the success that occurs outside of our region invests in cultural difference,” said Williams. “What we tend to be afraid of is that they throw away hundreds of billions of dollars.”

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

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

The forum started with a discussion of the two cities’ past with racist policies.

Dr Cassandra Newby-Alexander, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at NSU, said that at the beginning of the city of Virginia Beach, it was known as the “Sunset Town”. This meant that African Americans were not allowed to take to the streets after sunset.

“We know that if you had too many blacks in Virginia Beach, the police would start arresting blacks, for loitering, for suspected criminal activity,” Newby-Alexander said. “And while there isn’t this attitude among the leaders of Virginia Beach today, this culture makes it difficult to change.”

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

“I got a little dumb because it’s uncomfortable… I’m a kid from Virginia Beach and bleeding for Virginia Beach, I love this place and it makes my stomach ache,” Sadrick-Wilson said. “It’s nothing that I have ever learned in school and nothing that I have never heard of in this community that I love so much.”

Williams went on to acknowledge that the topic was “heavy” saying that being black in Virginia “you wake up with this severity every day”.

However, in the follow-up panels, executives from large real estate development companies, global investment firms, and even the senior manager of the company that has an investment in the LA Dodgers spoke about the region’s promises.

“Based on the fact that you have incredible talent, you have very, very strong universities, you have an incredible location,” said Shai Zelering, Managing Director of Brookfield Real Estate Group.

“If Green Bay can have a soccer team, then this area could possibly have a soccer team,” said Ari Untracht, senior manager of Eldridge.

The panel speakers also included:

  • Dr Cassandra Newby-Alexander, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, NSU
  • Craig Robins, CEO of Dacra and Real Estate Developer
  • Deirdre Love, Executive Director of Teens with a Purpose
  • Drew Ungvarsky, CEO of 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

“It is about them who have a reminder for [business owners] to see what will make these big financial institutions come here and invest money and not just our communities but our businesses, ”said Williams. “The only thing we need to do is do what’s right for our people. “

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

“The white rulers from Virginia Beach in particular came here to Norfolk State. Not knowing what it was. And what they got is an incredible awareness of racial justice over the past decades here in this region, ”said Rubin.

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

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


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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