A grand homecoming

Published 10:55 am Wednesday, May 25, 2016

For most people, there is no greater joy than returning home after spending time away. My initial reaction upon crossing the county line is always like letting out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding in. After months of tall buildings, unfriendly strangers and unending schoolwork, it’s a relief to escape to Southampton County’s green fields, smiling faces and blissful inactivity.

For years, I’ve treasured my rural homestead for what it offers: a respite from the relentless hubbub of an increasingly urbanized world.

But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to understand what it doesn’t offer: lucrative job opportunities for our youth. Unless you plan on working in agriculture, this county is rather stagnant in terms of job growth. As more and more businesses close their doors in Courtland, Boykins, Ivor and Franklin, opportunities for aspiring business owners and other young people ready to join the workforce are dwindling.

I find it shocking, then, that when Hampton Roads Development LLC presented the Southampton County Planning Commission with an opportunity to bring in larger industries — and thus the jobs we desperately need — the planning commission recommended that the board of supervisors reject the plan and allow the prospective project to die.

The proposed Camp Parkway project involves rezoning a parcel of land located on U.S. Route 58 Business between Southampton County and the City of Franklin from agricultural and residential property to “conditional limited industrial” property.

The planning commission voted against the project 8-1, most of the dissidents citing the location of the new industrial park as their reason for voting against it. However, none suggested an alternative location. One would hope that the planning commission —whose purpose is to pursue and encourage the economic development of Southampton County — would have suggestions for a suitable location for a much-needed industrial boost to our tax base. One would think that the planning commission would understand that Southampton County is staring down the barrel of the largest tax hike in the county’s history and that such an increase would be indefensibly ruinous to our economy.

One would hope that we have installed local government officials that would not bar the doors and consistently impede the entry of new businesses into the county.

The community is already feeling the effects of this obstinate refusal to allow fresh blood in. Every time I visit downtown Franklin, it seems another business has closed. Boykins’ Main Street has practically given up bringing in new business. And practically every time I run into a friend from high school they announce their plans to leave the county to find work.

It appears that the board of supervisors and the planning commission, and the older residents of Southampton County are making every effort to drive the youth — and their hopes of economic success — out of the county with a pitchfork-and-torch-carrying mob. One such disgruntled resident made a comment on The Tidewater News website that, “There are plenty of [industrial workplaces] within driving distance if people at Southampton want to work at such … Go develop somewhere else!” But if those who seek work have to drive 45 minutes to an hour to work everyday, wouldn’t that encourage them to just leave the county and take their tax dollars with them?

The older members of our community are so terrified of change that they won’t let anything grow. Desire to keep Southampton County the rural paradise that we’ve known has only served to stifle business growth and make economic success more difficult to achieve.

I’ve enjoyed the quiet and calm that living in a rural area gives and I want it to continue to offer that haven for future generations. But, as paradoxical as it seems, if we want our slice of rural heaven to continue to exist as we know it, we have to be open to allowing business and innovation in and allow our region to grow economically.

Otherwise, as more businesses die and young people flee in search of more fruitful opportunities, we are going to watch the rural sanctuary shrivel up into a wasteland.

Walter Francis Jr. is a student at American University and is serving as a staff writer for The Tidewater News this summer. Email him at walter.francis@tidewaternews.com.