A needed conversation

Published 11:27 am Saturday, April 9, 2011

Good for Don Blythe.

Amid much ado about the trivial in Franklin city government — from whether City Council members get an office at City Hall to long, tedious debates over whether and when city workers get to drive city-owned vehicles — Blythe is trying to spark some discussion about a topic that matters.

One could easily quibble with the mechanics and methodology of the Franklin city councilman’s pursuit of answers about the community’s economic health. Whether he’s asking the right questions of the right people is debatable. What’s not is the need for a substantive public discussion about the critical economic crossroads at which Western Tidewater sits.

Six years into an unprecedented financial investment in job-creation efforts and a year-and-a-half since the announcement that the region’s anchor employer was closing, the silence from the Franklin City Council and Southampton County Board of Supervisors on economic development is deafening.

The refusal by elected leadership to simply evaluate the effectiveness of job-creation efforts and to measure the results of the millions of public and private dollars spent on those efforts since 2005 is mystifying.

People on both sides of the economic-development debate should welcome such a discussion. Supporters of Franklin-Southampton Economic Development can tout its accomplishments and justify its continuation to a skeptical citizenry. Critics can offer ideas for making it better.

The two sides’ shared desire for a vibrant jobs economy that puts local folks to work and attracts newcomers to the community is ideal common ground on which to convene.

One year ago, when the city’s and county’s initial five-year funding commitment to their joint job-creation effort expired, was the perfect opportunity for a thorough evaluation and community conversation about economic development, what has been accomplished and what is needed going forward. Our newspaper did its best to spark that dialog by reporting in depth on the topic, including much of the information Blythe is now seeking. It was a balanced series that explored the successes of FSEDI and shed light on how the agency spends it money.

Elected leadership’s response: silence. Until last month, that is, when Blythe tried to get the conversation going.

Here’s hoping the City Council, which worked itself and the community into a tizzy over the Navy’s proposed use of Franklin Municipal Airport and spent untold hours and multiple meetings debating the fine print of a vehicle policy for employees, will put at least as much time, energy and passion into assessing and improving the city’s economic health.

STEVE STEWART is publisher of The Tidewater News. His e-mail address is steve.stewart@tidewaternews.com.