Like it or not, change coming

Published 7:56 am Saturday, October 8, 2011

With the Virginia Port Authority having agreed to kick in a cool $5 million a year, a new Route 460 between Suffolk and Petersburg is no longer a question of if but when.

Gov. Bob McDonnell declared the highway a priority project even before he was elected Virginia’s CEO, and he’s followed through, working tirelessly to see it come to fruition, despite questionable economics. Even an innovative public-private partnership was going to require huge tolls from motorists for the project to cash-flow. Big bucks from the Port of Virginia make the math work much better, so expect construction to proceed at lightning speed.

Candidates for the Southampton County Board of Supervisors were asked about the new 460 at a recent forum, and while nearly all of them said the limited-access highway would hurt Southampton County, a couple of hopefuls made a valid point: It’s coming whether we like it or not, so we better get busy preparing for it.

Though certainly true on the topic of Route 460, it’s advice that Franklin and Southampton County would be wise to heed on several fronts.

Even as Western Tidewater grapples with its own economic future, the world and region around us are changing.

As much as many would like to prosper as a largely agrarian economy, just as we have for generations, national and global economic forces beyond local leadership’s control make such an outcome difficult, if not unlikely.

Conventional economic wisdom is being challenged.

One supervisor candidate made the point that jobs create houses; houses don’t create jobs. He used the point to make his case against residential development in the county.

I used to agree, when manufacturing and agricultural jobs were plentiful. I’m not so sure anymore.

Take, for example, the practical effects of a new Route 460.

The jobs beneficiaries will be metropolitan Richmond, metropolitan Hampton Roads and Windsor. For other localities along the route, the new highway very likely will kill more jobs than it creates. When the highway first opens — and for who knows how many years thereafter — an 18-wheeler won’t even be able to get off the highway in Southampton County. A long-range plan calls for an off/on ramp in Ivor, but the skeptic in me believes that’s just a bone to pacify rural opponents.

About the only way Southampton County could benefit in the short run is to offer affordable housing and a terrific quality of life to people working in Windsor, where the Shirley T. Holland Intermodal Park and an adjacent industrial “megasite” that McDonnell is pitching to carmakers and other large employers will likely explode with job activity when the new highway opens.

In an economy that is more and more service-oriented, jobs increasingly are created where the people are.

Franklin and Southampton also would be wise to keep an eye on western Suffolk and what’s happening there. Fifteen minutes from the Franklin city limits on Route 58, CenterPoint, a massive warehouse and distribution park, has landed its first two tenants in Ace Hardware and the Navy Exchange Service Command. In an improved economy, objective observers predict, the complex will employ 7,000 people.

Yet, a developer who is neck-deep in the CenterPoint project told me recently that he’d never heard of, much less from, some of the key economic players in Franklin and Southampton County.

Change is coming. The question in Western Tidewater is whether we prepare for it and make the best of it — or get run over by it.

STEVE STEWART is publisher of The Tidewater News. His email address is