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Loud and clear

SoVaNow.com / November 16, 2017
Among the messages from the Nov. 7 election: All politics is local. Also, write-in candidates sometimes do win. In ED-6, the raging question of where to put a trash convenience center likely played a central role in bringing down an incumbent member of the Halifax County Board of Supervisors. If you ran a survey of the most pressing issues on voters’ minds, solid waste disposal might normally fall somewhere between punctuation and public service programming on the list of uppermost concerns. Yet Turbeville’s green boxes were a huge issue in the just-concluded campaign for local office. Moral of the story: Don’t mess with places where folks live.

What’s the next under-the-radar, out-of-nowhere controversy just waiting to go off? How about cutting down all the trees at the courthouse square? At a meeting of the supervisors last week, a consultant on the Courthouse Renovation Project discussed plans to build a new rock wall to replace the brick perimeter at the historic courthouse. Allegedly, the grading work means the stately trees in front of the building must go. In this discussion there was no mention of earthmoving machines backing over the Confederate statue, but give it time.

Tuesday night in Halifax, Council member Jack Dunavant offered assurances that the Courthouse trees will stay. The dependability of Dunavant’s information aside, the only reaction I can offer on the entire matter is “you’ve got to be kidding.” I’m no architect, but there’s an entire subspecialty of the profession devoted to environmental preservation in the construction process. If the Board of Supervisors hasn’t familiarized itself with this field of study, it should. Otherwise, more than one member might find himself Giordano’ed out of office when the next batch of vote returns comes in.

The casual disregard for protecting the historical integrity of the original courthouse building and grounds is of a piece with local government’s off-and-on interest in building up and enhancing core community assets. The biggest mark against county decision makers was the long-ago choice to sink tens of millions of dollars into Riverstone Technology Park, which supposedly was going to be a high-tech mecca bringing hundreds of high-income jobs to Halifax County. It hasn’t turned out that way, of course, although the U.S. 58 site (now called the Southern Virginia Technology Park) does serve as home for customer call centers and Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation. Imagine if instead we had used all that money to redo downtown South Boston buildings for similar purposes. You certainly could have accommodated the same outfits that came to Riverstone. In fact, tech clusters are thriving in urban downtowns across America. And Amazon’s not putting its second corporate headquarters out in a cornfield, if you get my drift.

Hindsight is 20/20, but it’s hard to get around the feeling that the decision to build Riverstone out on the highway, out of sight and out of mind, was driven in part by the feeling that tech industry muckety-mucks would turn up their noses at being part of a small town business district. Its various shortcomings notwithstanding, Riverstone would have been a much more palatable proposition had it been overlaid onto Tultex, J.P. Stevens or Burlington, or a good chunk of downtown South Boston, just to mention a few never-were possibilities.

In the same vein, I’ll give the Town of South Boston credit: The business challenges of running a successful boutique inn in our little downtown may prove to be insurmountable, but the town deserves props for its efforts to revive the John Randolph Hotel. I hope the dollar figures somehow work out and South Boston gets something akin to the Craddock Terry Hotel in Lynchburg that we can all brag about. Meantime, two of the better things to happen in town over the years are the restorations of the Taylor building (as apartment lofts) and the New Brick Exchange Warehouse (ditto), with both buildings terrifically repurposed. Same of course goes for the higher ed center and The Prizery. The town has been much better than the county in restoring and revitalizing established assets, although more always can be done in this department. Last plug of the morning: the SoBo StartUp! entrepreneurial initiative was a brilliant piece of work. Kudos to all concerned, especially our new downtown businesses.

The courthouse is never going to be a business magnet or revenue generator in the same way a business incubator or an industrial park — or even a new school — can be. Yet, even though the courthouse renovation is an expensive project and the returns are purely intangible, the matter deserves more care than the Board of Supervisors has given with its lowest common denominator approach to the problem. (Or lack of approach, as the supervisors’ continued inability to decide what to do with the atrocious Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office building demonstrates.) Redoing the courthouse redesign isn’t in the cards at this late date. But shoring up various weaknesses in the current plan is not too much to ask. If supervisors were surprised by the political ramifications of trash strewn on the ground in Turbeville, wait till they get a load of what’ll happen when and if someone trashes the historic heart of Halifax County.

***

On your next trip to Danville, take a moment and duck into the new Spectrum Medical building, on Bridge Street in the city’s River District. The building is better known among locals as the old Dan River Fabrics Research Building, and the renovation is spectacular: a model of what can be done to bring sturdy but forsaken buildings back from the dead. Along with the medical offices, the building houses a restaurant overlooking the Dan River, along with shops and community spaces. A visit is well worth your time if only to view the display of artwork on the rough-hewn interior brick walls: the exhibit includes reproductions of old Dan River Fabrics print ads that ran in Life magazine, The New Yorker and other publications around the middle of the prior century. Lastly, there’s a local connection with the project: J.E. Burton Construction was the general contractor, and what an incredible job by them.

Danville has its problems, but the city’s work to revitalize its old tobacco warehouse district is something we would do well to emulate. And let’s not overlook another fantastic asset in the city: the River Trail along the Dan River. Maybe someday we’ll follow through on our own long-discussed plans to build the Tobacco Heritage Trail all the way out to Pittsylvania County and link up with trails leading into the city. One step at a time, naturally: progress has been painfully slow on adding another mile-plus to the tobacco trail here in town. The work is essentially paid for, and a four-mile trail is an upgrade over the existing 2.5 miles, so there’s a lot to be thankful of. If there’s one downside with projects like these, however, it falls in the no-good-deed-goes-unpunished category: four miles makes you wish for eight, then 16, then 32 ….

To the question of “Why can’t we have nice things?”, a good part of the answer has to be “you have to be demanding first.”

***

Today’s edition of the News & Record is our final mass-mailing of the year as we prepare to close out our annual subscription campaign. (The deadline to sign up and save big bucks on a year’s subscription is Dec. 1. The price is $14 for county residents.) Our thanks go out to everyone who has responded to our campaign, including hundreds of new subscribers who’ll be getting the newspaper in the coming year. We pledge to do our best to make your time reading the paper well-spent indeed.

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