- The Washington Times - Monday, April 10, 2006

Nonprofit brings all sides together on environment

PORTSMOUTH, Va. — From the upper floors of City Hall to the marshlands around Paradise Creek, the Elizabeth River Project is leaving its mark on this city.

After 15 years, the eight-employee organization has become a powerful force in the region, counseling residents, city governments and local businesses on how to do better by the river while tackling major projects.

Nowhere is that more evident than in Portsmouth, where the organization’s executive director, Marjorie Mayfield Jackson, seems to be everywhere at once.

In the past year, the Elizabeth River Project has negotiated a compromise between industry and residential neighborhoods on the north shore of Scotts Creek, presented plans for a 40-acre city park near the Cradock section, advised Portsmouth on a proposed trash port, and worked with APM Terminals to develop a nonprofit trust to offset damage that the company’s new cargo terminal is expected to create.

Now, City Manager Jim Oliver wants the group to advise the city on environmental issues connected to Portsmouth’s 20-year plan for waterfront use and development, and he’s considering the nonprofit group’s suggestion to plant native flowers at city entrances.

“There’s no grand plan of involving them,” Mr. Oliver said. “Most of it has just been natural. But what’s the harm? It’s the principles they represent that really are important.”

Mrs. Jackson was living in Portsmouth on Scotts Creek when she and three friends dreamed up the Elizabeth River Project in 1991. They worried about the toxic river bottom, where fish contracted cancer and where pollutants had destroyed much of the natural habitat.

For the first five years, the group enlisted representatives of waterfront industries, tourism, government and residential neighborhoods to co-author 14 long-term goals for the river and its tributaries.

It was that partnering of industry, recreation and environmentalism that civic and business leaders say bred trust and earned respect for the nonprofit organization.

“It’s a pretty simple principle: You bring everybody to the table and work until you can find common ground,” Mrs. Jackson said.

The agency created the River Stars program to encourage businesses to participate, offering publicity to companies that undertook projects to enhance the environment and reduce pollution. The agency also began projects, building oyster beds and creating marshlands throughout the region.

In many ways, the organization’s philosophy of avoiding the pointing of fingers and celebrating even the smallest success makes it a good fit for the small city, Miss Jackson said.

The nonprofit group has made its own contributions to the city.

The Elizabeth River Project has gathered $1 million of the $1.4 million it needs to purchase a 40-acre tract of vacant land behind the Cradock neighborhood. The site would be among the city’s largest parks.

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