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Opinion

Finding the future

SoVaNow.com / January 17, 2019
All of a sudden there’s an outbreak of topics around town to talk about — is it just me, or does the conversation about Henrietta Lacks High School seem like it happened six months ago? — but first, I need to backtrack: last week, I wrote about the passing of our editor and my mother, Sylvia McLaughlin, and recognized people who contributed their talents and thoughts to what was a beautiful funeral in her memory. And because this is naturally a genre where important people always and forever go unmentioned, I, of course, failed to identify two individuals who each deserve a ringing “thank-you.”

The first is the Rev. Dr. Ridge Cullum, pastor at Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax where Mom’s service was conducted. Ridge could not have been more gracious to our family, and his good cheer and hospitality will always be remembered even if the deadline that hung over last week’s column robbed a certain someone of his (feeble) powers of recollection. The second person is Jane Carlton Confroy, who arranged for Mom’s burial at St. John’s Episcopal Church, next to the graves of her grandparents who raised her as a child growing up on Route 832 (now Route 57) near Polecat Creek. I always loved that Polecat Creek is part of our family history. We all deeply appreciate Mrs. Confroy and St. John’s Episcopal allowing us the privilege of uniting our family members in the afterlife.

It’s been a rough go in recent days and weeks, as happens when a loved one dies. However, it’s times like these that remind a person of all the excellent qualities of a small community. I know my own feelings on this subject are obscured at times, as this column inveighs and cajoles and nags and whatnot — the job requirement of the opinion page writer is to express opinions, after all — but certain things, while occasionally overlooked, remain fundamental: Everyone in town has been beyond wonderful. It’s a big reason why I’m happy to live here and proclaim Halifax as home. I and the other members of our family and staff of the N&R cannot thank everyone enough for the kind words and condolences that continue to flow our way each day. It’s been a great source of comfort.

It’ll be awhile before we adjust to the new normal. In the meantime, bear with us as we find our way forward.

On that note, onto (a few of) the topics of the day:

» Lost amid the School Board’s vote Monday night calling for construction of a new high school was a separate debate about a seemingly mundane matter: school buses. ED-7 trustee Monty Lowery — who dissented on the board’s endorsement of a new $100 million HCHS, calling the move premature — had some quite interesting and on-point observations to make regarding another school board practice: purchasing new propane-powered buses via lease-purchase financing agreements. As Lowery correctly noted, it’s costly proposition: the lease-purchase avenue drives up the cost by almost 40 percent compared to paying cash for new buses, and in dollar terms this is nearly half a million dollars that the School Board could save. It’s a significant sum by any measure.

The problem? There’s a reason why these arrangements occur — among local governing bodies, within your household — and it’s called “no money.” Just as a person might run down to the rent-to-own store to pick out furnishings for home sweet home (put aside the fact you’ll pay a premium for that dinette set), school divisions sometimes have little choice but to enter into lease-purchase agreements for replacement school buses. Adding a million dollars-plus to the budget for recurring school bus purchases is not something that the Halifax County Board of Supervisors has been willing to do — and to be fair, the supes have their own money troubles to worry about. Lowery is almost surely correct in pointing out this is an expensive deal for the county. But it’s different matter altogether to find a way to do otherwise.

The same logic applies to a new school: Delay and inaction carry costs just as surely as does building a new facility to replace HCHS. The current facility has worn out its welcome and it was fundamentally flawed to begin. I think the School Board is right to want a new building, insofar as the county will be saddled with a suboptimal high school if it tries to renovate the current building. (And by the way, ignore those who say all we need to do is slap on a coat of paint and install new carpeting. The problems are much, much bigger than that.) Which brings us to our next subject:

» Last week, a consultant with Market Street Services, Matt DeVeau, made a compelling presentation on some of the steps that Halifax County must take to reverse its recent decline. DeVeau’s firm was tasked by local leaders with writing a Community Assessment for use in developing a growth strategy plan for the future. The Assessment is a dense read (I’m still working on it) but well worth the slog: you can download it at 
halifaxvastrategies.com.

Words like “economic development” and “growth strategies” have been shot through with so many failures over the past decade or two in Halifax County that it’s tempting, perhaps even understandable, for people to tune out this discussion entirely, but consider this: In the course of a fairly lengthy presentation of the Community Assessment, not once did DeVeau talk about the stuff we associate with the Industrial Development Authority, our lead dog in the growth and employment hunt (another recent topic in the headlines that I won’t be getting to today.) There was no mention of shell buildings and business parks, only stuff that really matters: the quality of the public school system, the functionality and attractiveness of school buildings (especially the high school), the vibe and energy of downtown districts — everything that belongs in the category of a community’s quality of life.

By contrast, the county’s investment in stuff like the Southern Virginia Technology Park (formerly Riverstone) and Advanced Manufacturing Center (Daystrom), while perhaps not entirely irrelevant, leaves little impression. It always bears mentioning that a lot of this stuff was paid for by the Virginia Tobacco Commission, that misbegotten bunch, but just imagine the good that could have been done if, say, the $20 million or so that went into Riverstone had been invested in the downtown core of South Boston (and the Town of Halifax!) Instead we have a site on U.S. 58 which most people barely notice driving down the highway.

There’s no going back on decisions that are done and gone, but DeVeau was quite clear that Halifax needs to spend its money more wisely than it has in the past. The same goes for the Tobacco Commission, which despite its past failures still has a big role to play in revitalizing the quality of life of the region. If only someone could talk our Tobacco Commission overlords out of the habit of stocking up on shell buildings and larding out corporate welfare. For many years I have written that the Tobacco Commission should help counties pay for new school facilities, a thus-far ignored approach to revitalizing communities. Judging from DeVeau’s remarks, it sounds to me like the folks at Market Street may feel the same way.

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