A Young Leader in an Old Town: Williamsburg Councilman Benny Zhang

By Dan Moran

Last Thursday, I had the honor of talking with Benny Zhang, a member of the City Council of Williamsburg, Virginia. This was not the first time I spoke with Benny; as a fellow recent graduate of William & Mary (in our opinions the finest college in the Commonwealth of Virginia) I experienced his inaugural campaign first-hand when he persuaded me to vote in my first Virginia municipal election.

I opened our conversation by asking him what he found to be the most surprising challenge in his time as a City Council Member. He responded that it was the amount of collaboration required with his colleagues – the other council members, the mayor, and the vice mayor. Going in he knew teamwork was essential, but the extent of it and the complexity of bringing together their diverse views and priorities surpassed his expectations.

The young councilmember offered some uniquely Williamsburg challenges he has faced.

  1. Besides W&M, the town is anchored by Colonial Williamsburg (CW). These two special interests are vitally important, and CW’s recent decline in tourism profit requires a response by local government. But what should that response look like?

The City recently proposed and passed the largest tax increase in its history under a new initiative called the Tourism Development Fund. There are three increases that go into effect at the start of the next fiscal year – on meals, hotels, and entertainment like concerts, tours, movies, etc. Benny cast the lone vote against.

  1. Architectural regulations. The historic town has a three-story limit city-wide, with few exceptions granted. Despite this, the city government is working on a midtown development project, which will include a 5-story complex that features a mix of residential and commercial space in hopes of drawing young professionals and students.

Benny spoke of a goal to loosen some of the historic aesthetic standards for houses, which significantly drive up the cost of home ownership. He is also hoping to make Williamsburg more affordable by working with local zoning authorities to allow owner-occupied duplexes.

One already successful venture has been the Williamsburg Tourism Zone, which provides rebates for new businesses that come to the city to reinvest in overhead. It is a policy that shows faith in entrepreneurs and small business owners in the Tidewater area.

I also inquired Benny about his experiences as a member of the American City County Exchange (ACCE) attending its conferences and meetings. He said “It is a great resource for local officials who have interest in finding ways to use free market principles.” At the ALEC Annual Meeting in Denver, he loved the opportunity to have policy discussions with council members from across the country and saw that other localities had similar issues, even if they were from states as different as Alaska or Texas.

The chance to interact with state officials at conferences was highly valuable too, as the two levels of government are closely tied in Virginia. The more they can understand each other’s priorities and duties, the more effectively they can serve the people they represent.

Through ACCE, he says that he has been given the opportunity to show that despite his age, he is knowledgeable and articulate about policy, and that is what truly matters. Though some people are skeptical of his youth, as he is just 23 years old, by maintaining a professional demeanor and building off his past experiences, he has not only stayed afloat but has proven himself a capable civil servant.

Benny leveraged his youth and perspective as a student during his campaign, and he is embracing that identity as he works to keep his campaign promises. He told me his election alone reflects how important students are to the city, and that as the second student candidate to be elected since 2010, student representation is not a fluke.

Transparency in the relationship between the city’s population and its various authorities is important for both sides, so the city council is working to build connections between the groups. The City Council already livestreams all of their meetings, and Benny would like to see the same done for the Economic Development Authority. They wield a fair amount of authority and money and meet at a time that is inaccessible for most, so Benny believes they should be easily watched by taxpayers as well.

Further, the City Council is trying to increase openness with the police department, which is particularly important to students. Rolling out various programs like Coffee with Cops will allow students and other residents to have more positive interactions and further develop CW’s community spirit.

Balancing Williamsburg’s future as a prosperous modern city world while keeping its endearing historic essence is a difficult task. However, I am encouraged by Councilman Benny Zhang’s focused efforts built upon free market principles. He wants the city to support its people in their diverse individual goals and for everyone outside of it to see what a wonderful and unique place it is. With a committed young leader like Benny, I am confident that old Williamsburg has many good years to come.