IOW: Rt. 58 plan a concern

Published 9:18 am Saturday, November 21, 2009

ISLE OF WIGHT—Efforts to widen a section of Route 58 have been touted as a way to help the region recover after International Paper closes its Franklin mill next spring. However, some Isle of Wight officials say the project will benefit Suffolk more than the hardest-hit communities.

“I can see indirectly it will help, but to me it’s more serving Suffolk than it is Isle of Wight and Franklin,” said James Brown Jr., chairman of the Isle of Wight County Board of Supervisors.

In recent weeks, Democratic Sens. Jim Webb and Mark Warner and U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., have thrown their support behind efforts to widen a stretch of Route 58 between downtown Suffolk and Franklin from four to six lanes. They all contend the project has the potential to generate thousands of jobs, and they’re using the closure of IP to drive the proposal.

“It’s serving CenterPoint,” said Windsor District Supervisor Thomas Wright, referencing the multimillion-dollar project that was approved earlier this year in Suffolk on Route 58. “It’s not serving the Isle of Wight citizens.”

IP and its related industries account for 6.4 percent of the county’s total budget, and the county stands to lose between $5.2 million and $6.2 million in revenue by the 2012 fiscal year. Even if the project creates jobs to help replace those lost at IP, it does little to help rebuild Isle of Wight’s tax base if the companies don’t locate within its borders.

Judy Begland, president and chief executive officer of Opportunity Inc., said she understands that different communities will be affected in different ways.

“We keep talking about the regional, but we also recognize that with each jurisdiction there are different impacts, both on the tax base and the job piece,” she said.

Begland said it is best to “come up with multiple plans … where we can all maximize our assets to sell, I think is probably really positive.”

Lisa Perry, Isle of Wight’s economic development director, questioned the government’s facilitation of infrastructure improvements for a private developer “versus helping the community that is suffering the most because of our revenue situation.”

“We, as a community, have invested for 10 years in an intermodal park up here on 460 that is a direct competitor to that CenterPoint private developer down there,” she said, referencing the Shirley T. Holland Intermodal Park near Windsor.

While support is building for Route 58 improvements, planned improvements to Route 460 have stalled as the state faces a multibillion-dollar revenue shortfall.

“I don’t think the congressmen and the senators are purposefully putting us in that situation,” Perry said. “I think there needs to be more of a strategic discussion at a higher level.”

Newport District Supervisor Stan Clark said the Shirley T. Holland Intermodal Park’s development is “still years away.”

“CenterPoint is further ahead,” he said. “There’s enough synergy for the port expansion to take in CenterPoint and everything we’ve done in Isle of Wight and more.”

Perry agreed that the port expansion could handle both projects, but added, “We don’t need to be at a competitive disadvantage now.”