Pivotal time for OLF foes

Published 9:04 am Saturday, November 7, 2009

Opponents of an outlying landing field in Western Tidewater have had this newspaper’s strong editorial support since the Navy first suggested several area sites as possibilities more than two years ago.

The OLF, as currently proposed, would create a lot of headaches and few, if any, economic benefits for the host community.

OLF opponents face a defining moment, however, in the battle for the hearts and minds of the citizenry at large.

Last month’s announcement that International Paper Co. will close the region’s anchor employer, the Franklin paper mill, by spring has community leaders and citizens alike deeply concerned about Western Tidewater’s economic future.

In the months ahead, the leadership charged with building a new economy and new identity for the region will, if wise, evaluate every opportunity and possibility for job creation, large or small. They owe as much to the thousand-plus mill workers who will be unemployed in a few months and the untold thousands of others whose jobs could be affected by the mill’s closure.

Some have dared to suggest that the looming economic crisis should cause the community to rethink its opposition to an OLF.

It’s a legitimate discussion, and OLF opponents should think long and hard before attacking those who simply advocate thoughtful consideration of the project.

While sympathetic to their cause and in general agreement with their points, this columnist has never been comfortable with the occasional shrillness of the anti-OLF message — from questioning the integrity and motives of the United States Navy to personal attacks on those who have a different viewpoint.

Neither does it play well, I suspect, with the vast majority of Western Tidewater citizens who are ambivalent on the subject and wouldn’t be personally affected by an OLF located on the sparsely populated western edge of the region. Most all will be affected, however, by the paper mill’s closure.

With domestic manufacturing in sharp decline and jobs generally in short supply, some will argue, effectively, in the weeks ahead that this community can’t be closed-minded about any legal enterprise or job-creating function, whether a coal-burning power plant in Surry County or an outlying landing field. Every pro and con must be examined and a careful determination made on the merits of each proposal.

Such an analysis of the Navy’s current proposal for an OLF will end, we predict, with the same conclusion many of us reached long ago: that the bad outweighs the good.

But what if the Navy offered a more significant military installation to Western Tidewater? What if, as a retired Naval commanding officer has suggested, Virginia’s political leadership faces up to inevitable loss of Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach and seeks a new location for a master jet base, its 10,000-plus uniformed and civilian personnel and its $761 million annual payroll?

Do you think that the 4,000-plus area residents whom economists tell us will be jobless as a result of the paper mill’s closure — and the hard-working business owners who worry about their own survival — wouldn’t want their community’s leadership to at least have a thorough discussion about it?

A final thought for OLF opponents, who run the risk of overestimating the depth of popular support for their position: For the better part of a century, thousands of residents of this community have tolerated a foul odor in exchange for the significant economic benefits provided by the Franklin paper mill. With their livelihoods threatened now by that smell’s irrevocable evaporation, many would gladly tolerate some jet noise for new jobs and a vibrant economy.