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SoVaNow.com / June 25, 2014What do you do about a problem called NIMBY?
In Lawrenceville this week, citizens gave the federal government an earful about plans — now shelved — to establish a child immigrant detention center on the campus of Saint Paul’s College. The Department of Health and Human Services had struck a deal with the board of the defunct college to use its facilities for housing “unaccompanied alien children” (UACs), the official term for tens of thousands of youths who have fled their Central American homes for the U.S. With the influx of children stranded at the border reaching crisis proportions, HHS turned to Saint Paul’s, which offered immediate access to dormitory-style housing, albeit within buildings that are badly in need of uplift.
So the feds made a generous offer to pay for campus renovations and — for all intents and purposes — to bail out heavily-indebted Saint Paul’s with a hefty $180,000 monthly rent. The response from the community was equally straightforward: Thanks but no thanks.
It’s hard to be surprised by any of this. The cash side of the HHS-Saint Paul’s equation was clear, but not much else is. Who are these children, and how does the federal government propose to take care of them? How long was the college, and by extension Lawrenceville, supposed to serve essentially as an immigrant refugee center? What guarantees could be offered to the surrounding community that its health, safety and welfare would be protected? When the term NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) comes up, usually it’s in the context of explaining — and often, belittling — popular fear of the great unknown. But backlash isn’t always an irrational reaction.
There were questions on top of questions about the plan for Saint Paul’s and about the immigration crisis itself, and officials with HHS and other federal agencies did a miserable job of anticipating and answering the numerous concerns expressed by local residents. So after saying it’d move forward with the idea only if the affected communities were on board, the Obama Administration has pronounced the Saint Paul’s deal dead. Score one for small-D democracy, I suppose.
Yet it’s hard not to feel, at least a tad, that the collapse of the deal represents something of a blown opportunity for the area. I’d be willing to bet Brunswick County officials feel this way — after all, they knew about the HHS plan for Saint Paul’s and said little ahead of it blowing up into a huge controversy. (To be fair, it’s not certain they understood the full scope of what HHS had planned.) You can rest assured that Saint Paul’s board is disappointed by the outcome. How many more chances will the college have to dig its way out of a $5 million mountain of debt and become viable again, perhaps once more as an institution of higher learning? Maybe a knight will ride in from somewhere to restore Saint Paul’s to viability. Usually, though, knights are found only in fairy tales.
I’ve witnessed enough episodes of Southside Virginia being given the door-mat treatment to appreciate the hostility that Brunswick residents harbor toward the detention center. All too often, the region has been treated as a dumping ground for things that no one else wants — with just enough money thrown in to defuse local opposition. I feel the same way about uranium mining; who would dare deny the legitimacy of a like-minded outlook in Brunswick? This episode underscores the importance of engaging entire communities in decision-making processes, since it’s entire communities that stand to be affected. Yet from the feds’ perspective, perhaps that’s what seemed to have happened: They negotiated an agreement with the college trustee board, gave a heads-up to local officials, and got minimal feedback until the public caught wind of what was going on and rose up in protest. It may be that there was no way people were going to be receptive to the idea, regardless of how judiciously it was presented, but you do have to wonder.
So: It’s back to square one with Saint Paul’s.
Or is that a box?
I was walking Monday around downtown Clarksville on a mercifully crisp summer afternoon when what to my wondering eyes should appear but democracy in action: Lisa Burnett, owner of Century 21 On The Lake, ducking into businesses to collect responses to a survey that she had distributed concerning Clarksville’s once-a-month classic car cruise-ins. It’s a bit of a sore subject among some merchants in town who aren’t exactly wild about the event. Rather than be defensive, however, Burnett, a cruise-in sponsor, was out and about soliciting input. Duly noted: This is how community dialogue is supposed to work.
There’s a backstory. Last week, the managers of Virginia Avenue Mall, Barbara Martin and Mary Horn, penned a letter to this newspaper pointing out the problem with shutting off downtown on the first Saturday afternoon and evening of each month to host the cruise-ins. To their enormous credit, the Virginia Avenue Mall proprietors made a contribution to the debate that was positive, constructive and appreciative of others’ efforts to promote Clarksville as a shopping and tourist destination — a never-ceasing pursuit. The tradeoff involved with the cruise-in is pretty basic: The event promotes Clarksville and plants one more reason in people’s minds to visit, at the cost of scotching a busy retail day for stores and restaurants along Virginia Avenue.
One thing I learned a long time ago about downtown festivals and events: Not everyone loves ‘em. No less a gravitational force than Clarksville’s Lakefest celebration, which draws tens of thousands of people to town (no crowd inflation necessary), draws grumbles from some quarters for being insufficiently attuned to the needs and desires of downtown businesses. On the question of More vs. Less festivals, I tend to lean towards the former, inasmuch as I don’t have to do the heavy lifting involved nor does my business depend on keeping traffic flowing through streets in town, which festivals sometimes impede. It’s easy to like the idea of big celebrations but it’s another matter entirely when they serve to keep people from walking through the door and filling up your cash register. In other words, what do I know? I just work for the newspaper.
What is heartening to see, however, is the business community working through its differences to come up with a solution that reasonably satisfactory to everyone. On that note, last week’s Viewpoint letter about the cruise-ins points to a larger problem that exists throughout the county: the inadequacy of our public spaces. Of all of Mecklenburg’s towns, South Hill may be best situated on this score, with the development of its downtown Market Square and recent improvements to Centennial Park, a stone’s throw from the retail district. (The park’s new outdoor amphitheater is an especially nice addition.) Chase City, meantime, has a wonderful downtown asset in the Estes Center, and we can only hope the effort to transform the demolition site at the corner of Second and Main into a pocket park proves successful. Both towns could benefit from more such facilities, of course, and as you venture out into the county, one question positively begs to be asked above all others: Why is there no public park on Lake Gaston?
Clarksville, however, is conspicuous not only for its absence of a downtown square, but also for having no easy way to access its greatest asset: Buggs Island Lake. Oh sure, there’s Occoneechee State Park, across the water. But why isn’t there a park within short walking distance of the commercial district where people can enjoy a picnic, take a stroll, or admire hot rods and classic cars parked about the grounds? Of course, Clarksville did try to build a waterfront park with the Cove Project, which petered out for a variety of reasons — the sluggish ministrations of Town Hall being among them. That was a long time ago, though.
With Clarksville’s decades-long annexation project now complete, and Mecklenburg ramping up its tourism-building efforts under energetic new leadership, might it not be time to dust off the plans for the Cove Project and see what, if anything, can be done with them?
Staunton River State Battlefield Park hosted a wonderful event this weekend with the large-scale re-enactment of Southside’s only Civil War battle, the June 25, 1864, clash between Confederate and Union forces at Staunton River Bridge between Halifax and Charlotte counties. Growing up in the area, it was virtually impossible to miss tales of the fabled “Battle of the Old Men and Young Boys,” a reference to the too-young and too-old volunteers who flocked in from the countryside to fortify the Confederate garrison defending the bridge from Union cavalry. Men and boys from Mecklenburg were prominent in the rag-tag volunteer force that held the bridge, then part of the Danville & Richmond Railroad that supplied Lee’s army supplied the siege of Petersburg.
Boyd Tavern served an enlistment station for Confederate troops during the Civil War, and a boys academy in Clarksville famously sent young irregulars to the fight at Staunton River, but relatively little attention is given to other facets of Mecklenburg’s involvement in the war: the skirmishing at Christiansburg (modern-day Chase City) and at Mount Horeb Church between Chase City and South Hill, where Confederate Gen. Rufus Barringer’s North Carolina Brigade encountered a federal troop column. Last week, The Sun produced a special section on the Battle of Staunton River Bridge sesquicentennial — a monumental effort indeed — but it’s basically impossible to know everything there is to know about local experiences during the war. Got an interesting story to tell about Civil War soldiers and local action? Please let us know — we’d very much like to include the information in future editions.
And, by the way, in case you haven’t heard, Mecklenburg County celebrates its 250th anniversary next year. Hoo boy …..