A bad reputation

Published 9:35 am Saturday, December 10, 2011

All’s well that ends well, they say, and it couldn’t be truer than in the case of the deal brokered Thursday to keep a planned wood-pellet plant on track for construction in Southampton County.

Thank goodness that Enviva, Southampton County officials and Franklin-Southampton Economic Development were able to salvage the deal and its 65 jobs after a firestorm of opposition to the plant’s proposed location on Shady Brook Trail.

Crisis averted in this case, but the people of Franklin and Southampton County still have some soul-searching to do about this community’s economic future and whether we’re serious about building an economy that keeps our citizens — generations present and future — gainfully employed.

Few people have higher expectations of those charged with recruiting and creating those jobs than this columnist. Our newspaper will continue to hold accountable those elected and appointed officials whom we’ve entrusted to create a climate for economic growth and to make that growth happen.

In fairness to Franklin-Southampton Economic Development, however, the job will only get harder unless the community confronts and begins to correct its growing anti-business, anti-change reputation.

This is not to pick on the fine folks of Shady Brook Trail, who were sincere in their concerns about the Enviva pellet plant’s effect on their quality of life.

As were the rural Southampton residents who didn’t want a Navy aviation practice facility anywhere near their homes.

As were the Franklin residents (this columnist included) who didn’t want Navy prop planes using their airport and buzzing their neighborhoods.

As were the Southampton residents who didn’t want military dogs trained close to their homes.

As were the Southampton residents who didn’t want a high-density residential development near Riverdale Elementary School a few years back.

As were the Franklin residents who didn’t want new apartments built on North College Drive.

On and on the list could go, and a good case could be made against each, but the collective result is a message so clear that we might as well erect a billboard on Route 58 bypass: “Franklin-Southampton County: We’re Closed for Business. Next Stop: Suffolk.”

In a slumping global economy where few jobs are being created anywhere, a rural community that lost its anchor employer less than two years ago has staked out a risky isolationist stance on economic development.

It raises an honest question: Where do we think the jobs of tomorrow will come from?

The pellet mill is about as close to a perfect fit economically as this community will find. It utilizes a natural resource — wood — that is plentiful and creates a supply chain that multiplies the economic impact. It is, by almost any measure, an environmentally low-impact operation.

Yet, if Supervisor Ronnie West, a man of integrity, is to be believed, someone in an official capacity spooked Enviva away from its original preferred site (before Shady Brook Trail and the Turner Tract).

Yet, a detached observer at Wednesday night’s community meeting would have sworn by the way some citizens treated Enviva that the devil himself was trying to set up shop in Courtland.

Except for Southampton’s strategic importance geographically in Enviva’s business model, the company probably would have told Southampton County to take a hike Wednesday night. Other companies that have options on where to locate won’t hesitate to do so — if they ever bother calling to start with.

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