May election preview: Broadening Internet options atop goals
One local candidate for Ashland Town Council is running for office at a high-speed pace.
James Murray, 26, a media specialist at Randolph-Macon College and proprietor of a local advertising firm (soon to be called Really Smart Media), is campaigning on bringing more high-speed Internet service providers to the Center of the Universe, as a way to enhance economic development and the quality of life in this small town.
The town only has one high-speed Internet provider in Comcast, and Murray worries about a lack of other options for town residents and businesses.
“The more I talked to people and the more I talked to the town manager, I realized that I really hit on something here that a lot of people care about,” Murray said.
Murray also learned that the town is looking at expanding its communications infrastructure downtown, to make the entire area a WiFi hotspot, meaning wireless, high-speed Internet would be available throughout the district. The proposal was cut out of the proposed budget plan for the upcoming fiscal year, but town officials expect it will come up again in 2016.
While he likes the concept, Murray wonders whether it’s wise to invest heavily when there’s only one service provider in town.
“We’re going from essentially putting all of our eggs in one basket to buying an even bigger basket and putting even more fragile eggs in it,” he said.
Murray said he would reach out to other providers if elected and realizes that the process would likely take years, but overall, it’s a worthy undertaking.
“We don’t necessarily want to find ourselves 10 years down the line with Internet prices that have quadrupled and nowhere to turn,” he said.
In addition to de-monopolizing the local high-speed Internet market, Murray said he wants to make sure the town has a readily accessible source of information for prospective or existing businesses.
Murray also wants to make sure that the town government adheres to Ashland’s comprehensive plan, though he couldn’t point to instances where the sitting council has gone against its long-range vision.
“For quite a few years now, Ashland has been very faithful to its own identity,” Murray said.
However, Murray points to growth projections that forecast another 400,000 people in the greater Richmond area over the next 20 years. He wants to be sure that if that growth reaches Ashland, the town is ready for it instead of being reactive.
Murray first experienced Ashland when he showed up in 2005 as a student. He had accepted admission to the college blind, having applied online while living in Germany. His first impression was mixed and Murray began applying to transfer to another school. He was set to transfer to New York University when faculty intervened and Murray went on to graduate with degrees in drama and English
“I was convinced that Randolph-Macon was the right choice for me and I guess I find myself incredibly lucky and blessed that I stuck with that choice,” he said.
After graduation, Murray moved to Russia where he worked as an advertising intern. When that position didn’t matriculate into a paid job, Murray returned to the states and took a job working in his alma mater’s library, where he’s stayed since early 2010 and has since put down more permanent roots in Ashland. Keeping him here is Ashland’s small-town charm.
“It’s a town that really has its own identity and I’ve been so impressed by that,” he said.
The idea of pursuing elected office isn’t a new one for Murray, who said it’s always been a dream of his. When Murray learned that incumbent James Foley wouldn’t be seeking another term, he was urged to throw his hat in the ring by some fellow co-workers, but wanted to see town council in action, firsthand.
“I should have known from the moment I got in the car to go to the town council meeting that my mind was really already made up,” he recalled.
Since that point, Murray’s been trying to learn more about the issues facing Ashland at the local government level. Along that line, Murray has been following the budget process fairly closely. While he is hopeful there will be a natural upturn in revenues in the future, as is forecast, he said it would be a mistake to sit idly by. In the interim, Murray supports reducing expenditures or seeking out alternative funding sources, like grants, over raising taxes.
“Some decisions might be unpopular but at some point you have to reset the barometer and redefine a level of service that you can provide,” he said.
Murray’s also kept tabs on a still-pending zoning ordinance change. The proposed plan to amend the town’s zoning ordinance as it pertains to downtown businesses is more exclusive than Murray would like to see. While he respects efforts to bolster the retail establishments that generate foot traffic, Murray said there’s also value in allowing office space, which he said could bring a degree of stability to the district.
“Maybe it would be good to have an anchor or two in the B1 district,” he said.
Overall, Murray said he would like to see more discussion on the zoning change, adding that he doesn’t think the proposed set of regulations is really warranted.
“There was discussion of a carrot and a stick,” Murray said. “The stick was very apparent…the carrot I think was missing a little bit.”
Murray also addressed how the college might better fit in with the town. Although ties between college management and the town have strengthened, Murray still doesn’t think the student body integrates into Ashland very well. While he said that providing more information to students and parents – as was the case over “Accepted Students Day” this past weekend – is a good first step, he would support more aggressive measures such as extending complimentary gift cards to incoming students to use at area businesses.
“There’s very real ways to encourage students to get into the town and to spend money, I just think we actually need to make a real effort for it to happen,” Murray said.
Murray did, however, counter perceptions that the student body is in some way an untapped “gold mine.”
“Getting all of the students to come into town wouldn’t fix all of the town’s problems and it wouldn’t fix all of Randolph-Macon’s problems; however, it’s certainly a goal to strive for,” he said.
The 26-year-old candidate is running against two candidates, both in their 50s, one a three-term incumbent and the other with four years experience on town council. He said voters should choose him because town council would be well-served with a younger voice, that he knows how the town works and would dedicate the time it takes to be an effective member of town council.
“I think that I would be a great choice to make sure that the town runs, continues to run and runs well,” Murray said.