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Halifax prepares budget for vote

$100 mil cost cap for proposed Mecklenburg County school complex is elusive goal

After scaling back building’s scope, construction budget still comes up millions short

Let’s go relay


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Never ending story, con’t / May 18, 2017
Our long national nightmare … continues. On Monday, The Washington Post reported blockbuster news: President Trump, at an Oval Office meeting last week with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, blurted out highly classified, highly sensitive information to a couple of guys named Sergey.The intelligence apparently involves an ISIS plot to weaponize computer laptops on commercial airlines; the threat was passed on in confidence to the U.S. by an ally with access to some of the terrorist group’s deepest secrets, according to The Post. (The New York Times subsequently reported that the source of the intel was Israel.) Before you shout “fake news,” be advised that Trump (as usual) ignored diplomatic protocol and common sense in divulging this information to the Russians, nor was the source of the intelligence told in advance that a loose lip sharing agreement would apply. This is what happens when you have an idiot in charge at the White House.

“I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day,” Trump reportedly told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, according to an official with knowledge of the exchange who spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity. (The other Russian official present at the meeting was Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.) Okay, let’s pause right there and address the inevitable battle cry of “fake news!”: It’s true someone could have easily made up these words and attributed them to Trump based on nothing more than this is how our president speaks on a day-to-day basis. Just Trump being Trump. But if you were to pull the same stunt with any other president — pin on them the blowhard boast, “I get great intel, I have people brief me every day” — people would laugh in your face. Of course the President of the United States gets intel briefings every day! With our current occupant of the White House, however, the inclination is to nod “uh-huh” at every demented Trumpian statement and action as they are reported in real time, then stare at your feet to see if rock bottom is in sight yet.

I’m sorry, I just had to jump on this latest bizarro White House incident, coming so soon after the previous one with the ouster of FBI Director James Comey. We’ll move on to other topics in a jiff. But first, a question: When will Trump’s defenders — and by this, I primarily mean elected Republican officials in Congress — stop running interference for the most ethically depraved, staggeringly incompetent, dangerous and defined-by-its-lies presidential administration in American history? Life is not going to get any better so long as the Twitterer-in-Chief sullies the Oval Office. Plainly, there’s no one inside the building who can say “no” to the POTUS.

And honestly at this point, thinking of Trump as nothing more than a raving imbecile may be selling him short. The president’s possible Russian connections need to be aggressively investigated, with the chips allowed to fall where they may. Law-and-order types are fond of saying that people who have nothing to hide shouldn’t fear the truth. Good point. The same words should apply in this situation.

The naming of a special counsel, the formation of an independent commission to look into possible Trump-Russian ties: either option would represent an undeniable step forward for the country. Obviously. Plainly. So who’s still willing to stand in the way? Congressional Republicans? Talk radio hosts? Fox News? This won’t end well for the wool-over-the-eyes crowd. Continuing obeisance and obstructionism in the service of backstopping this White House could destroy the Republican Party’s electoral fortunes for a generation. Does the Grand Old Party really think it’s a good idea to yoke itself to the human anvil that is Donald Trump?

UPDATE: Sigh. This column was pretty much polished off on a Tuesday morning, then by Tuesday afternoon the New York Times came out with a new, perhaps even more explosive scoop: Donald Trump attempted to get FBI Director Comey to drop the agency’s investigation of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and alleged Trump campaign ties to the Russian government. Bombshell after bombshell. What the heck is this, Dunkirk?

Later in the day, the Times published an op-ed column with the unlikely title, “A Criminal President?” Here’s the lead-in: “After the revelations of the past 24 hours, it appears that President Trump’s conduct in and around the firing of the F.B.I. director, James Comey, may have crossed the line into criminality. The combination of what is known and what is credibly alleged would, if fully substantiated, constitute obstruction of justice.” The piece wasn’t written by Michael Moore or some lefty blogger, but rather by Richard Painter and Norman Eisen, respectively the chief White House ethics lawyers for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

“... the evidence strongly suggests that the president acted corruptly...”

Suffice it to say this is not a sane — nor safe — moment for the United States of America.

» Let’s move on:

Speaking of the New York Times, the Grey Lady published a business story a few weeks ago of regional interest, about the impact of cloud computing on the bottom lines of America’s biggest technology companies. In their latest profit reports, Amazon, Microsoft and Alphabet (parent company of Google) received big boosts in their quarterly earnings from their cloud computing services units. Microsoft, of course, operates its cloud (in part) out of its Boydton data center, a Borg-like entity that’ll probably swallow up half of Mecklenburg County someday.

A common pitfall in life is learning the wrong lessons from success. There isn’t a locality in Southside Virginia (or much anywhere else) that wouldn’t love to claim a cloud computing operation on par with the Boydton Microsoft data farm. Indeed, for years Halifax County geared its economic development strategy around the notion that technology companies could be brought in to raise up the county from its low-end manufacturing past. This was the idea behind Riverstone (since renamed the Southern Virginia Technology Park.) Yet despite the enormous amount of money that was sunk into Riverstone, Halifax County lost out on the Microsoft project to a neighbor that had nothing more than an empty, long-idle industrial park to offer. With the case of the other major data center in the area — the Hewlett-Packard facility in Clarksville — the story is even worse: that economic windfall came about because some hustlers out of the D.C. area purchased the abandoned Russell Stover factory in town and found a tenant for the building, all without much (if any) help from the local economic development apparatus. Moral of the story: Who knows which bets will pay off in life?

Which brings me to a different point: If we are to make speculative investments to attract new businesses — as I certainly believe we should, the paragraph above to the contrary — some basic principles ought to apply. Rule one, don’t get too cute. As Riverstone was developed, we heard a lot about its gee-whiz features, such as raised floors and modeling and simulation computing equipment (about which we don’t hear much nowadays). Rule two, which really is the antithesis of rule one, the smartest investments are those that offer the broadest impact, such that they are tailored to the needs of a broad segment of the population rather than the elusive companies of the IDA’s dreams. This is why we spend money on new schools and transportation networks and job training programs: Lift up the community as a whole, and interesting things could just happen that no over ever planned for.

By my count (compiled a long time ago) the investment at Riverstone has approached $30 million, with the money mostly supplied by the Virginia Tobacco Commission. It hasn’t been a complete failure, insofar as the park serves as home of Faneuil, which runs the Dominion call center, along with two smaller call center operations and Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative. But here’s a counterfactual: What if we had taken that money and invested it instead in South Boston’s core rather than its outskirts? What if we had revamped a downtown site for these same companies to operate out of, rather than shuffling them out to former pastureland on U.S. 58? (The Tultex building would have been ideal for this purpose).

I know what you’re thinking: Sure, Captain Hindsight, tell us another. And sure, I’ll happily concede that predicting the future and unwinding the past come with more or less the same odds of success. But this long rumination is basically meant to serve the purpose of pointing out that the Town of South Boston is doing a smart thing downtown with its efforts to revive the old John Randolph Hotel. If it happens, success will probably come in ways we can’t fully anticipate. What we do know, though, is that the fruits would be widely shared: repurposing the Randolph as a boutique hotel (the current plan) would help downtown merchants and restaurants, it would boost the image and esteem of South Boston and all of Halifax County, and it would likely act as a magnet for other business enterprises, especially in the leisure and hospitality sector.

Bringing the Randolph back from the dead also would represent a continuation of things we’ve managed to do well, as opposed to the best-laid plans (cough, Riverstone cough) that don’t ever seem to pan out. What are these big successes, you ask? I’ll name four: establishing the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center and The Prizery at abandoned downtown sites, and repurposing the buildings that now house the Taylor Lofts and New Brick Exchange Apartments. The Randolph is a heavier lift insofar as a hotel operation of any size may require a relatively high upfront capital investment to sustain. (South Boston recently was awarded a $475,000 grant to entice someone to come in and take over the building.) Whether the dollars amounts are sufficient under the current plan remains to be seen. But the underlying concept is sound, even if the numbers aren’t there yet. Sometimes you get lucky and land a billion-dollar computer data operation with the millions you’ve sunk into the cowpatch. The rest of time, you’ve got to plan for a future that doesn’t move in straight lines.As long as we’re taking chances, we ought to plan for the eventual payoff, if it comes, to take place in the heart of town.

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