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The U.S. Navy could spend up to $400 million to build new housing in Newport News for sailors who are stuck aboard ships undergoing maintenance — and the state is poised to kick in up to $40 million to get the ball rolling.

The housing is part of a slate of efforts by the Navy aimed at improving living conditions after a string of high-profile suicides by sailors living on ships undergoing maintenance at Huntington Ingalls Industries’ shipyard in Newport News.

And state and city officials are hoping the big investment can help jumpstart development of Newport News’ flagging downtown.

“Something of this size and of this magnitude … could really help invest funds in an area that has been historically neglected,” said Del. Cia Price, who lives in and represents downtown Newport News. 

Price introduced the $40 million budget amendment that was adopted as part of the House of Delegates’ budget.

She recalled her parents’ stories of a thriving downtown filled with shops and restaurants that were largely gone by the time Price was growing up there. Now, there’s little downtown but the shipyard and government facilities.

Newport News won a $30 million federal Choice Neighborhood Initiative grant in 2019 that has helped redevelop public housing near downtown. Price pointed to that project and said the potential for a federal investment more than ten times that would be “huge.”

“We're talking about truly transformative,” Price said.

Price also sponsored legislation now headed to the governor's desk that would provide incentives for development in areas with a large military presence, like downtown Newport News.

The details of the Navy housing project are scant, including what exactly would be built and how much the federal government would spend.

Navy Spokesperson Sandra Gall said only the Navy is committed to "ensuring our sailors and their farmilies have what they need" and that its working with the city and Newport News Shipbuilding to explore "mutially beneficial options in order to best meet the wellbeing and needs of our Navy Team."

"We are grateful to the House of Delegates attention as we tackle the complex housing environment and look forward to working with Virginia General Assembly," Gall said in a statement.

Price's budget amendment says Virginia would match 10% of the federal outlay for Navy housing in Newport News, up to $40 million.

“This might be kind of a once-in-a-lifetime shot and we definitely want to show that we're behind the project so the Navy knows that we're serious,” Price said.

But the $40 million is not a sure thing yet.

The proposal was added to the House of Delegates’ budget late in the process and was passed by the House. 

Negotiators from the House and state Senate are now hammering out a compromise budget between the two chambers’ competing spending plans. Once they’ve got a single budget and it’s approved by both sides of the General Assembly, it heads to Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who will either sign off or veto it.

Price said she’s talked with fellow legislators, including senators, who say they understand the importance of the funding and the project.

Newport News intergovernmental affairs director, Jerri Wilson, said the Navy wanted to see some skin in the game from the city and state.

“We believe that the state commitment is pivotal to the decision, or definitely could be the thing that causes the Navy to say ‘yes, we're going to do it here’ as opposed to doing it in some other community and bringing people in by bus,” Wilson said.

She said sailors based on ships docked in Newport News were surveyed and indicated they’d prefer to be close to the yard and avoid a long commute.