The jobs landscape

Published 10:17 am Saturday, October 30, 2010

Some observations after spending a couple of hours recently with Western Tidewater’s economic recovery task force:

Phillip Bradshaw, Jim Councill, Mike Johnson and John Smolak are a sincerely optimistic group. One year after International Paper Co. announced the closure of its Franklin mill and five years after the formation of Franklin Southampton Economic Development Inc., they believe that job creation is on the horizon.

In three decades of community journalism, this columnist has spent a lot of time with political leaders and economic developers. I have learned to spot false optimism and have seen first-hand the consequences in communities where it is peddled. The optimism of Western Tidewater’s leadership strikes me as genuine.


Outside of possible repurposing of the IP campus, which is beyond local leaders’ control and will happen or not happen without regard for the community’s economy, Smolak for the first time offered tangible encouragement for public consumption.

He revealed that Franklin-Southampton is on the “short list” of prospective sites for three or four companies in the wood-products sector. Those projects could create anywhere from 50 to a few hundred jobs each.

That’s encouraging — and exactly the kind of news that needs to be shared regularly with a skeptical public and with the many workers who are trying to decide whether to wait out the economic recovery here or to relocate elsewhere in search of good employment.


The leaders were careful to temper their optimism with calls for patience.

Asked about a reasonable timetable for expecting their job-efforts to bear fruit, they were noncommittal. Councill even bristled a bit at the notion that one might think a different approach to economic development is needed.

Only Bradshaw, chairman of the Isle of Wight County Board of Supervisors, expressed dissatisfaction with economic-development efforts to date. For the record, Isle of Wight is not a partner in Franklin Southampton Economic Development Inc., so he was speaking only of his own locality’s efforts.

The Franklin-Southampton leadership was united in its determination to stay the course. Johnson said he’d put the FSEDI staff up against any community’s anywhere. He said it with conviction.


A mix of patience and high expectations is healthy for a community. The leadership’s patience is prodded by the people’s sense of urgency. My assessment: The current leadership has about a year to produce some results other than an IP announcement on mill repurposing. That announcement should come in early 2011.

The citizenry is restless. The united front of Councill, Johnson and Smolak notwithstanding, political support for FSEDI shows signs of cracking, especially on the Franklin City Council.

The private foundations that have so generously funded FSEDI since its inception will begin to ask some hard questions. Here’s one: If five years is too soon to judge a program’s effectiveness, what about six?