Southampton’s identity crisis

Published 9:48 am Saturday, October 9, 2010

Robert Barnett, with candor befitting a newly retired civil servant, sums up Southampton County’s economic reality well.

The county’s leadership “knows that they’re going to have to start mixing residential use with commercial use in order to ever bring industry in,” Barnett, Southampton’s veteran director of community development, told a reporter when asked for his assessment of the county’s economic future. “You have to have both. If you don’t have the workforce, then industry is not coming here.”

Barnett speaks the truth.

I think he’s right that county supervisors recognize the reality, but they — like the citizens they serve — remain conflicted between wanting to keep things just like they’ve always been and taking necessary steps to ensure a viable economy for the community they love.

That inner struggle leads to inconsistencies like:

• Adopting land-use taxation a few years ago to curb commercial and residential growth, then turning around and spending millions on a new sewer system that contemplates the same growth land-use taxation sought to control.

• Building a state-of-the-art elementary school on the outskirts of Franklin to accommodate future residential growth, then refusing to let the developer whose generosity helped make the new school possible build homes and retail shops on adjacent land.

• Hiring a Beltway lawyer to keep a Navy training airstrip out of the county, then signing a “Declaration of Interdependence” with metropolitan Hampton Roads, whose economy desperately needs the military generally and Naval Air Station Oceana specifically.

I’m not suggesting hypocrisy in any of those cases. I believe that the county — both its leadership and citizenry — truly is torn between clinging to the past and embracing a new future.

For decades in Southampton, the past has been the present. “Oddly enough, the county hasn’t changed a great deal,” Barnett said, reflecting on his two decades in county government.

The closure of International Paper Co.’s Franklin mill — the region’s anchor employer — now requires Southampton County to confront a new reality: Change is coming, for good or bad. The future can honor the past and cherish the traditions and values that shaped it, but the past can no longer be the future.