The city of Hopewell, Virginia, is found where the Appomattox River meets the larger James River
The Appomattox River flows past Hopewell to join the James River, right. After a history of environmental pollution, the city is working to capitalize on its restored waters. (Photos by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Standing on the deck of Ban Rafey’s house above the Appomattox River one can spot blue herons hunting along endless wetlands and hear fish periodically splashing out of the water. The scene makes it hard to imagine what her hometown looked like in the early 1970s.

Back then, Hopewell was still known proudly as the “chemical capital of the South” but its revered local industry was beginning to bring environmental degradation to the nearby Appomattox and the James River. As a high school cheerleader during that time, Rafey can recall the taunts that opponents used.

“One of them was ‘I smell, you smell, we all smell Hopewell,’ Rafey recounts. “And then there was ‘Bobby socks, knee socks, nylon hose. Here comes Hopewell, so hold your nose.’”

“We’ve lived through that, and it was kind of an embarrassment.”

The Appomattox flows past the northern edge of Hopewell, where recreational fishers boat past scenic wetlands.
The Appomattox River, lined by wetlands, provides Hopewell’s supply of drinking water.

In the decades after World War I, when the chemical company Dupont first manufactured explosives at the confluence of the Appomattox and James rivers, Hopewell’s rapid rise was tied to industries that eventually extracted a heavy environmental toll. In the summer of 1975, pollution issues that had only garnered attention at the local and state level erupted into national awareness when a toxic pesticide known as Kepone was revealed as the source of a mysterious illness afflicting dozens of workers at its manufacturing plant with tremors and other symptoms. The facility had also been dumping tens of thousands of gallons of Kepone waste daily into Bailey’s Creek, causing fisheries in 60 miles of the lower James River to be shut down for up to 13 years afterward.

“When we were young, we would go into Bailey's Creek with our little paddle boat or something, and it was just—you could smell it,” says Matt Balazik, who grew up in Hopewell in the 1980s and is now a research scientist at the Virginia Commonwealth University Rice Rivers Center. “It was…almost like a dying area.”

The Hopewell Wastewater Treatment Plant has been critical to the long-term recovery of not only the James River but the city of Hopewell itself.
Bailey’s Creek, once ground zero for industrial waste pollution, flows past the Hopewell Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility, now known as Hopewell Water Renewal, completed in 1977 and upgraded most recently in 2016 to treat additional nitrogen waste from industry. The plant has been funded by a combination of city, state and industry partners, and is unique in its ability to treat both residential and industrial waste. “We’re one of five or maybe 10 plants in the country that can do what we do,” said Jerry Byerly, director of Hopewell Water Renewal.
Though industry remains prevalent in Hopewell, environmental regulations have eliminated the foul smell and cleaned up the city's rivers.
LEFT: Ban Rafey, a lifetime Hopewell resident, remembers the industrial smell that used to greet fresh visitors to the city. TOP RIGHT: Industrial facilities line the James River in Hopewell. BOTTOM RIGHT: Laboratory technician Reese Phillips conducts water quality tests at the plant. Phillips began as an apprentice while still a student at Hopewell High School, a program that the plant resumed after a hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Though 1975 cast a shadow on Hopewell, officials at that time were already laying the groundwork for the river’s long recovery. That same year, construction began on a new wastewater treatment plant, completed in 1978, that is one of only a handful in the country that can handle both domestic and industrial waste. In a turnaround spurred by the Clean Water Act of 1972, the river ceased to be a catch-all dumping ground for all types of pollution.

Today, Hopewell continues to recover, and efforts to not only reduce pollution but increase access to the river are improving the outlook of the community. The city still ranks near the bottom statewide for health outcomes and quality of life, and the poverty rate is nearly twice the state average. But the natural appeal of Hopewell’s waters is creating opportunities to improve the health and livelihoods of roughly 23,000 residents.

“I just think it's a slow and steady improvement and you're really starting to see it now,” Balazik says.

For a long time, pollution kept Hopewell residents away from its waters. Even after the rivers’ recovery was well underway, limited access made it hard for many to fish, boat, paddle or otherwise enjoy themselves. Local leaders began to acknowledge that people needed a stronger connection to the water if the city was going to fully reap the benefits.

'It's the river, stupid'

Hopewell's environmental appeal for fishing and other activities is enhanced by access provided at the Riverwalk, walking distance from downtown.
LEFT: Chris Shifflett fishes with his fiancee Chelsea Kaleita at City Park in Hopewell.. "He's actually disabled...so this is his, like, therapy," said Kaleita, who visits the river to fish just about every day with Shifflett and their two children. "It's a natural meditation for us; especially for him." TOP RIGHT: The Riverwalk currently spans 1,736 feet of Hopewell riverfront. MIDDLE RIGHT: A bumble bee visits blooming pickerelweed growing in wetlands along the Riverwalk. BOTTOM RIGHT: A red-bellied cooter visits the James River beneath the Riverwalk.

On a hot July day, Marvin Johnson drives a little over five miles from his home in Prince George, arriving at City Park in Hopewell before 7:30 a.m. in order to beat the heat. Once there, he steps onto the Riverwalk for his usual four laps back and forth, walking over two and a half miles on the one-third-mile boardwalk.

He stops to take video and pictures of two red foxes visiting the bank of the James. He says he once filmed a family of deer along the water—a buck, doe and fawn all together.

“You get to walk the river edge and see nature,” says Johnson, who started using the Riverwalk for exercise in March and comes six days a week.

“I love it,” Johnson says. “I wish it was longer.”

The Riverwalk has proven extremely popular, garnering roughly 60,000 visits in 2021, measured by trail sensors monitored by the Friends of the Lower Appomattox River (FOLAR). In fact, the city of Hopewell has already funded the second phase of the Riverwalk, which will nearly double in length and connect to a second entrance at Hopewell City Marina.

But twenty years ago, according to former FOLAR chairman Wayne Walton, public river access in Hopewell was pretty much limited to the marina and City Point, a unit of Petersburg National Battlefield that is owned by the National Park Service.

“Hopewell sits on the two most famous rivers in the country, two of the most famous rivers,” Walton says. “And we were not taking advantage of the water.”

Wayne Walton's efforts as both a volunteer and local official helped spur additional investment in local parks and public access to the James River.
Wayne Walton, seen at City Park, is a lifelong resident of Hopewell who championed its rivers as a chair of FOLAR and a city council member. His initial volunteer efforts at City Park led to wider support from the city and organizations such as the Cameron Foundation and Randolph Foundation. “[I] probably ask forgiveness better than permission to do things, you know, to get it kicked off,” Walton said.

In 2003 he started cleaning up City Park, where invasive vines had made the shoreline of the James unusable.

“Pretty much by myself, had a lawn mower, just cut through the kudzu,” Walton says. He and his wife, Ann, hauled out broken glass and other trash. Over the course of about 15 years, he attracted thousands of volunteers and corporate donations of materials like stone for trails.

Walton and another key advocate for the park, FOLAR’s first chairman Richard Taylor, “took out thousands of tires,” says Paul Reynolds, a FOLAR board member and chairman of the Hopewell Planning Commission. Paul and his wife Craig are regular kayakers who moved to Hopewell four years ago, lured by its revitalized natural appeal. “[City Park] was the place not to go…and Wayne saw the possibilities.”

Walton says the park allows low-income residents a place they can visit easily, for free, where “they can bring their kids down here and safely swim.”

When Walton was elected to the Hopewell city council in 2008, he pushed for projects like the Riverwalk. His attention-getting slogan: “It’s the river, stupid.”

After Walton and others literally cleared the way, additional efforts by the city took shape at City Park. Today it is home not only to the Riverwalk, but a nature-themed playground and a small patch of native meadow plants have taken the place of trash and vines.

Reducing stormwater pollution and protecting green space

The Riverwalk complements other environmental projects that have improved quality of life in Hopewell. Once the second phase of the Riverwalk is completed, for example, it will connect to the Riverside Park Greenway, a 1,100-foot forested trail constructed alongside a 2,200-foot stream restoration. Someone walking from downtown Hopewell could enter City Park, follow the Riverwalk to the marina, and then continue along the Greenway into the adjacent neighborhoods.

The Riverside Park Greenway project was funded in part through a grant by the Chesapeake Bay Program, administered through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund. Two additional NFWF grants have allowed the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) to establish and continue an initiative it calls the Hopewell Restoration Project.

Johnny Partin, Hopewell’s vice mayor, stands along a restored section of Cabin Creek at Mathis Park. In addition to his official efforts to improve environmental assets in Hopewell, Partin has participated in over 100 cleanups and enjoys walks through Mathis Park and elsewhere in the city. “When I come out here walking myself, I've seen a handful of folks and they thoroughly enjoy it,” Partin said. “They love the green space out here, they love the environmental work that we're doing. They also love the fact that we're trying to put in more trails, more walking areas, and trying to protect some of our green space here in the city.”
A pileated woodpecker feeds its young in a dead tree, known as a snag, that provides habitat above the restored stream at Mathis Park.

In 2021, under one of the grants, CBF worked with the city to restore Cabin Creek at Hopewell’s Mathis Park, reducing erosion and stemming silty floodwaters that used to cascade across a parking lot and flood a playground area. Cabin Creek collects water from nearby neighborhoods and the Hopewell High School campus before flowing through Mathis Park to the Appomattox River.

“Just imagine a scoured creek bed that ranged anywhere from five to 10 feet deep,” says Johnny Partin, vice mayor of Hopewell. “There was just total erosion going through—trees, falling over, everything messed up.”

Partin—who Walton says is his younger “clone”—has participated in over 100 trash pickups around Hopewell. For morning walks, he and his friends make frequent use of its parks, including a new mulched trail along Cabin Creek.

“When I come out here walking myself, I've seen a handful of folks and they thoroughly enjoy it,” Partin says. “They also love the fact that we're trying to put in more trails, more walking areas and trying to protect some of our green space here in the city.”

Partin says the Mathis Park project is the one that pushed Hopewell past its goal for reducing pollution under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, the federal framework for limiting the flow of harmful nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment into the Chesapeake Bay.

A family enjoys a nature-themed playground at Woodlawn Park in Hopewell
Kaliah, 2, uses the slide while visiting Woodlawn Park with her twin sister Kali and mother Tia Curry and brother Nas, 3, in Hopewell, Va., on June 9, 2022. The family visits "just about every day" and getting the kids to leave is the hard part, Curry said. At the same time that the park received new trees from Hopewell Tree Stewards, the playground was updated to evoke the city's connection to the Appomattox and James rivers, according to former Hopewell mayor Jackie Shornak, who hopes a pollinator garden will be added in the future.
Hopewell Tree Stewards has planted hundreds of trees around the city.
LEFT: Erin Kelley of Hopewell Tree Stewards stands where several young trees were planted at Riverside Park to help absorb stormwater runoff from a nearby paved area before it reaches a stream leading to the Appomattox River. Kelley received training from Tree Stewards when it was a grant-funded program of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, but now serves as leader of the independent nonprofit. In late April, the group hosted a Hopewell Family Arbor Day with over 200 attendees and 71 participating organizations, groups and businesses. “We have a lot of stormwater issues going on in the city of Hopewell,” said Kelley, who pointed out that trees do more than just soak up tens of thousands of gallons of water, like providing cooling shade to overheated city streets. “It saves power because it does that—makes it more beautiful, makes it more attractive to go to the park, so we planted a lot in our parks.” RIGHT: Stephanie Dayberry is a teacher at Woodlawn Elementary School, where Hopewell Tree Stewards and Hopewell Recreation and Parks planted a small orchard of edible trees—its first grant-based project as an independent organization.

In 2018, under the same grant as the Mathis Park work, CBF also began an urban tree planting effort. Trees help soak up stormwater runoff pollution, and an initial tree canopy assessment also showed that the areas of Hopewell that lack trees are disproportionately low-income and also have lower life expectancies. Urban trees can help improve both health and economic outcomes by keeping entire neighborhoods cooler, reducing heat-related illness and lowering energy bills.

To make sure newly planted trees survive to maturity, CBF trained roughly a dozen volunteers who have since spun off into a nascent nonprofit called Hopewell Tree Stewards.

Altogether, NFWF grants have contributed nearly $1 million to restoration efforts in Hopewell. Along with other efforts, including a $76 million upgrade to Hopewell’s wastewater treatment plant in 2016, the stormwater work aims to improve the health of downstream tributaries and the Chesapeake Bay. But it’s also locals who are seeing a change for the better.

“I think it's certainly changing our name and our reputation here in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Partin says. “Certainly, the [environmental] work that's been done over the past 10 years here in the city of Hopewell has really been remarkable.”

One Hopewell

Jasmine Gore, former Mayor and current Hopewell council member, stands at City Point Park.
Jasmine Gore, a former mayor and current council in Hopewell, worked with the city’s Director of Development and Planning on grants that spawned the One Hopewell Initiative. “Now we have a full emphasis on social determinants of health, looking at it through a covid lens and looking at how can we improve those stressors,” Gore said. “Education, job attainment, housing, transportation, child care, home ownership, your physical environment, crime in your environment—all those things impact your health.”
Jennifer Murphy-James is coordinator of the One Hopewell Initiative.
Jennifer Murphy-James, coordinator of the One Hopewell Initiative, stands outside of the city offices in Hopewell, Va., on July 22, 2022. One Hopewell is a grant-funded program that is focused on improving health equity by addressing social determinants of health such as access to healthy food, clean water and economic development. "[Hopewell and neighboring Petersburg] rank on the bottom for the state of Virginia in many, many areas, such as rates of diabetes, heart disease, obesity and also lifespan, " Murphy-James said. "And so one of the goals of the One Hopewell initiative is to look at policies...within the city and also policies within organizations that operate in the city.”

Despite Hopewell’s environmental gains, the progress has yet to translate into improved health and economic outcomes for all of the city’s residents. To help close that gap, local leaders are increasingly recognizing the intersection between environmental and social challenges in order to find new ways to address both.

Jasmine Gore, a Hopewell council member and former mayor, uses the federal response to the covid-19 pandemic through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) as an example of thinking holistically in order to identify additional resources.

“How can you go get this ARPA fund to do an infrastructure project that might address what you’re doing with the watershed—but then also improve the community so you can hit two things at one time?” Gore says, “You have access to that pool of money because you're looking at it from that angle.”

Gore, who is also the current chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Local Government Advisory Committee (LGAC), champions an effort called the One Hopewell Initiative, shaped by grants from the National League of Cities and the Cameron Foundation, to address the social determinants of health in a comprehensive way.

“When it comes to social determinants of health, that is all factors that influence where you are born, grow, live, work, play and age,” Gore says. “So that is your environmental factors. It is your work. It is your education. It is your housing. It is your access to transportation. It is all of those things that tie into how long and how well you live.”

Revitilizations on East Broadway have helped increase local economic development in downtown Hopewell.
The Hopewell Downtown Partnership, which has collaborated with the One Hopewell Initiative, works to revitalize downtown areas like East Broadway by encouraging new businesses and increasing foot traffic. Among its efforts, the nonprofit has rehabilitated historic storefronts and organizes regular events, including a farmers market and street festivals during the summer months. TOP: Lifelong Hopewell resident Homer Eliades, 23, paints the storefront of Artisan Alley, a new business owned by his father and sister on East Broadway, near a new mural commissioned by the Hopewell Downtown Partnership through a grant from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. Two local residents modeled for the mural, which depicts the James River and local wildlife. BOTTOM: Also on East Broadway, Hopewell Downtown Partnership helped secure a $387,000 grant from Virginia’s Industrial Revitalization Fund in 2014 to turn an empty furniture store into Guncotton Coffee shop and Art Gallery. The Hopewell Downtown Partnership has used Guncotton’s event space for its business pitch competition, which awarded $30,000 in 2022.

As you chip away at those factors, a community’s health improves, Gore says. And she sees “plenty of opportunity” for watershed restoration to “impact people's daily lives, even if they don't realize it.”

“One side of the city, I believe, lives ten years longer than the other side of the city,” Gore says. “That is the problem that we are trying to fix, in a nutshell.”

An early accomplishment through One Hopewell was to get Hopewell and neighboring Petersburg added to City Health Dashboard, a platform that provides access to local health data across a range of metrics including everything from income inequality and unemployment to access to parks and healthy foods.

“When you start overlaying those elements, you get to see which communities are in greater need than others,” Gore says.

Officials undertaking watershed restoration efforts should look beyond the immediate impact of their work to also consider effects in communities, Gore says. Maybe fixing an erosion issue also fixes a road that people depend on, or a flood control measure lets children play in their yard without being bombarded by mosquitos.

In that sense, the Riverwalk, the new park trails, and waters that are fishable and swimmable contribute to the same goal of community health as efforts like One Hopewell Initiative’s development of farmers’ markets to address food insecurity, or the Hopewell Downtown Partnership’s efforts to revitalize a prosperous business district near the river.

“One of the things I've been advocating since I've been on LGAC, especially as chair, is looking at equity and diversity as it comes to these issues and not only looking at watershed restoration or stormwater or these other things that people are interested in,” Gore says.

“It needs to be more than that.”

At sunset, City Park fills with visitors drawn to the James River.
Drawn to the James River, Mikayla Moore carries her daughter Madison Friedline while visiting City Park in Hopewell, Va., on June 9, 2022. It was Moore's first time visiting the park, which is easily filled with visitors on a weekend evening with nice weather.

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