A new jobs engine?

Published 11:28 pm Friday, December 19, 2008

Those concerned about where Western Tidewater’s people will work 20 or 30 years from now should keep a close eye on our neighbor to the east.

The Suffolk City Council, as soon as next month, will decide whether to rezone land off Holland Road to accommodate CenterPoint, a massive warehousing and distribution complex that would serve the Port of Virginia.

The Suffolk board’s decision will be transformational, whichever way the vote goes.

If the City Council takes the advice of its Planning Commission and gives the project a thumbs-up, the economic impact will be enormous. Conventional wisdom is that the distribution industry doesn’t create many jobs, but CenterPoint would be the exception.

Conservative estimates put the number of permanent jobs created at 2,700; rosier estimates go up to 7,000. That doesn’t include construction jobs during the estimated seven to 10 years it would take to build out the 5 million-square-foot complex.

If Suffolk says no to the project (significant citizen opposition makes that a possibility), get ready, Franklin and Southampton County. Or perhaps southern Isle of Wight. CenterPoint’s developers would almost certainly seek to build their complex a little further west.

I claim no inside information on the company’s strategy, but a westward shift makes perfect sense should CenterPoint get a cold shoulder from Suffolk. The developers feel strongly about being on Route 58, which Franklin and Southampton County can deliver. The additional 15 miles from the proposed Suffolk site near Lakeland High School to the Franklin/Southampton line is nothing in the overall scheme of things. Less attractive ­— but not out of the question — would be the Route 460 corridor, where Isle of Wight officials are aggressively marketing the Shirley Holland Intermodal Park as a distribution hub.

All but the staunchest of the no-growth crowd will find much to like about the CenterPoint project.

The primary reason that many Suffolk residents oppose the project — increased traffic congestion along already-busy Holland Road — isn’t a factor for Franklin and Southampton. Where Route 58 bypass meets the city’s southern tip and the county’s eastern edge is among the localities’ least developed and most sparsely populated space.

Because our homes, businesses and farms are on the western side of a development whose traffic would flow to and from the east, our community would enjoy the benefits of a large industry (the jobs and increased tax base, primarily) without the hassles that have many Suffolk residents up in arms.

As job sources go, warehousing and distribution is about as friendly as it gets for a rural community. Except for the clear-cutting of land that is required, it is environmentally unintrusive: no smokestacks, no chemicals being discharged into rivers and streams and no foul odors.

The biggest inconvenience for Western Tidewater residents would be the truck traffic we’d encounter on our occasional drives to Suffolk, Norfolk and the Beach. I can live with that.

The required infrastructure upgrades would be significant and expensive, not counting improvements to Route 58, which would remain a Suffolk problem even if CenterPoint were built in Franklin or Southampton County. Local taxpayers almost certainly would be asked to help foot the bill for water, sewer and access roads, though one of President-elect Obama’s first economic initiatives — a federal public-works project that’s expected to rival the WPA in scope — might prove to be a very timely source of assistance.

I fully expect Suffolk’s City Council, after a vigorous debate and a few opposition votes, to welcome CenterPoint with open arms. Franklin, Southampton and Isle of Wight residents still would get many of the jobs, and the entire region would benefit.

Whether Western Tidewater should grow is no longer our most pressing economic and political question. In a time when the jobs that historically have sustained our community are vanishing left and right, it’s about creating a new era of gainful employment for those who are already here. Someone might have a better idea about where those jobs will come from, but for now, CenterPoint looks mighty fine to me.