Looking ahead, not behind

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Much has been written of late with respect to the International Paper plant closing and the economic impact that this will have on our area. What follows are some additional ideas to encourage thought among our citizenry. They are not to be interpreted as criticism of any individual or group who may be involved with the current area recovery effort.

The Franklin mill closing presents our area community with one of two choices:

Let events sweep us away and watch our unique quality of life diminish in the process. Or …

Utilize that remarkable “can-do” spirit of our citizenry (two floods and a relocation by IP of much of our middle class to Memphis come to mind) and look upon the mill closing as the catalyst that sets us on a journey to remake and retool our local economy.

The choice is ours, and each of us can and should play an important role in the process.

1. We must redefine who we are as a community and begin to look upon our area as one economic region. A newly created economy will require citizens, organizations and leaders to look beyond the current geographical borders of Franklin, Southampton County and that portion of Isle of Wight that encompasses the mill site.

We must seek a natural geography for our new economy that extends beyond existing geographical borders. We should look not only toward Suffolk but also west of Courtland toward Richmond. We must ask ourselves if separate facilities, including schools and courthouses, and shared tax revenues are optimally designed to attract the businesses that this new economic region would require. Will what has worked in the past necessarily work in the future?

2. What can we learn from other similar small, rural areas that were heavily dependent economically on one primary facility and that experienced a major closing? Nearby North Carolina and, to a lesser extent, parts of Virginia are littered with small towns left twisting in the wind with the demise of the textile industry in the late 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. A few, such as Danville, moved forward and have begun to prosper; most did not. What separated out the Danvilles from those towns that were not successful? A fact-finding delegation of community leaders, sponsored by Franklin/Southampton Futures, went to Danville recently and interacted with its community foundation to begin to find answers.

Fortunately, a beginning blueprint for our economic future has been previously compiled and can be found in the document “A Report of the Franklin-Southampton Alliance,” completed in October 2004. Every citizen should once again make the effort to obtain and read a copy of this report.

While completed in advance of the IP mill closing, it nonetheless was a thorough examination by many thoughtful citizens (the Alliance) of our area’s strengths and weaknesses. A current review and update of this document by Alliance members and the original consulting company would be a logical extension to the economic recovery planning process.

Economic recovery typically does not happen quickly. We must view our efforts as a long-term process with many starts and stops, successes and failures. It is a doable situation, however, as other communities have demonstrated.

Success or failure? The choice is ours to make. We are only limited by our imaginations, our willingness to stay the course and our collective energies.