The new economy

Published 10:23 am Saturday, November 28, 2009

A dog-training facility in Walters.

An effort to lure tourists to the back roads of Southampton County and the streets of Courtland to learn about a painful chapter in our community’s and nation’s past.

A coal-fired power plant in Surry County.

None would rate highly in an ideal world of economic development. In Western Tidewater, we face a less-than-ideal world.

Among the many realities to be confronted as the community’s anchor employer, International Paper Co., prepares to close its Franklin mill in a few months is this: The closed-mindedness of the past must succumb if we are to create a vibrant new economy that allows families to prosper and to continue to enjoy the terrific quality of life that brought them here.

Some early signs are encouraging:

* Isle of Wight County supervisors, despite some opposition from neighbors, last week cleared the way for a commercial dog-training facility in an old detention center in Walters that will keep more than 40 jobs in the county rather than let them go to South Carolina.

* Surry Countians, amid a loud uproar from outside environmental groups, continue to keep an open mind about a proposed electricity plant that would create up to 200 jobs in a community starved for gainful employment. When House of Delegates candidate Stan Clark attempted to make political hay of incumbent Bill Barlow’s support of the coal-fired power plant, Barlow trounced his challenger 2-to-1 among Surry County voters.

* Southampton County supervisors this week blessed the pursuit of federal funds for creation of a historic trail to commemorate the Nat Turner slave insurrection of 1831. That’s a progressive step for a board that just a few years ago frowned on a community group’s plan to develop a hiking and cycling trail along the Virginia Beach water pipeline, presumably because of the outsiders who might visit as a result.

The Turner trail, complete with navigational markers, won’t attract a handful of fitness and nature buffs; it will, according to proponents, attract outsiders by the carload and busload.

These won’t be your Midwestern, all-American, Disney-style tourists; they will be Europeans and Africans, long-haired hippies and Ivy League liberals. They won’t necessarily look like us or talk like us.

But they will spend money. They will eat in our restaurants and stay in our hotels.

So-called heritage tourism is big business these days, but it’s not always mainstream Americans who enjoy it.

For six years I lived and worked in the cotton-growing town of Clarksdale, Miss., considered by most historians to be the birthplace of blues music. Throughout the year, blues enthusiasts from around the world make pilgrimages to Clarksdale to see remnants of the ramshackle house where Muddy Waters was born and to visit the “Crossroads,” where, as legend has it, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play blues guitar.

These tourists, many of them foreigners, were conspicuous in their presence on the streets of Clarksdale. A cottage industry of juke joints, inns, memorabilia stores, museums and art galleries contributed to a local economy hit hard by the mechanization of agriculture and the loss of manufacturing jobs over the past half-century.

“The blues is green,” the locals liked to say.

With due respect to Terry McAuliffe, the failed Virginia gubernatorial candidate who, according to The Washington Post, wants to bring an automobile plant to rural southeast Virginia, Western Tidewater is highly unlikely to replace the 1,100 lost IP jobs in one fell swoop, by simply luring another big smokestack to town.

The more likely — and arguably more desirable — road to economic recovery is 25 jobs here and 50 jobs there, from many different sources, resulting over time in a diverse economy that no single corporation can kill.