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Numbers games / August 08, 2019
There aren’t many ways in which Halifax County and California are alike, but I can think of one: there was a time when you couldn’t read news about the Golden State without being bombarded by warnings of its imminent bankruptcy. Here’s a typical headline from Oct. 3, 2009, in The Guardian newspaper: “Will California Become America’s First Failed State?” With the benefit of a decade’s worth of hindsight, let’s venture a simple answer to this simple question: No.

In Halifax County, of course, the local variant of this phenomenon tends to center around the community’s steady population loss (in which we are hardly alone), but the upshot is more or less the same: We are all going to hell in a handbasket, so please let’s not entertain any ideas that might reverse these admittedly challenging trends, especially if it means actually doing something. Better to wallow and moan and enjoy the comfort of an armchair that we scored from the new furniture store down the street.

Speaking of which, for a community practically on its deathbed, we sure do seem to be experiencing an uptick in business investment. I don’t want to make more of this than warranted, but have you noticed? Sheetz has just rebuilt its store on Bill Tuck Highway, replacing a facility that seemed perfectly serviceable to the ordinary consumer eye, but hey, what do I know. South Boston has seen a state-of-the-art auto dealership go up on the same highway (CrossRoads Ford), the in-town dealership has reopened (Terry Auto), Microsoft and Mid-Atlantic Broadband are erecting a three-story office building on Wilborn Avenue, and other enterprises large and small are popping up here and there. One of the community’s unheralded success stories is the revitalization of Seymour Avenue, whose previously forlorn state has mostly faded from memory. On one end of the commercial zone, the going-out-of-business funeral home has been beautifully rebuilt and revitalized by Michael and Jane Lyon (Brooks Lyon Funeral Home), while on the other end, there’s a successful motel (Quality Inn) and Cajun restaurant (Badeaux’s) where once all you saw driving by was a blighted and barely functioning 1980s-era lodge. In between, the street’s longtime medical clinic has reopened (the PATHS community health center) and other shops and businesses have updated and expanded. These developments and more besides evoke the priceless line from the Black Plague scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “I’m not dead yet!”

Which brings us back to California, Halifax County and the ties that bind Silicon Valley to Tobacco Road. Why, after all, was California — today the world’s fifth richest economy, if separated out as an independent state — supposedly going broke a decade ago? The answer is actually pretty simple: the state was experiencing genuine fiscal distress, caused almost entirely by anti-tax zealotry that hamstrung the state’s ability to raise revenue. Once saner heads prevailed and do-nothing politicians were swept out of power in the state legislature, state government finances recovered and California’s leadership — in both the public and private sector — got stuff done. Again, I don’t want to overstate the case here, because nothing is 100 percent clear-cut and Halifax County truly bears no resemblance to Ventura Boulevard or Disneyland. But counterproductive attitudes exist everywhere, and if your outlook is reflexively woe-unto-me, you’ll find plenty of company wherever you happen to reside.

California’s experience is relevant to the question now facing Halifax County: how do we prove the naysayers wrong about the community’s future? The big issue on the table is the future of Halifax County High School. What, after all, should we do about a frankly embarrassing building in which so much of the community’s image — to say nothing of our children’s well-being — is vested? The School Board and Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg have been wrestling with this question for more than a year and have done fine work to bring important issues to the forefront. The Board of Supervisors has been playing catch-up in this debate to some extent, but board members did decide to commission their own study, independently of the School Board, to develop options for HCHS. That study was the main focus of the Monday night board meeting in Halifax.

The details of the presentation by OWPR Inc. of Blacksburg, the board’s selected architect, can be found on our front page, so I won’t regurgitate the details here. The short version, from Randy Jones, CEO of OWPR, is this: Halifax County is saddled with a bad high school facility that, sure, can be renovated, but the cost won’t be much different than it would be with building a new school, and there are certain deficiencies inherent to the 1970s-era construction that will never be washed out no matter much bleach you apply to the stain. Jones didn’t so much as utter the point out loud, but it was pretty clear where the gist of his commentary was aimed: Halifax County badly needs a new high school, and by “new,” he meant new — not renovated.

Without getting bogged down in the precise numbers, there’s roughly a $15-20 million price difference between a new school and a renovated HCHS. The latter approach might extend the lifespan of the building for another 35 years, while a new school could be expected to last 50 years-plus. You don’t have to be math genius to know that a 35-year facility costing $73 million is of less value than a 55-year facility costing $92 million. You don’t have to know any math whatsover to know that all these dollar figures are very large. But if the deed has to be done — and everyone who looks at the matter seriously agrees the high school is a mess — shouldn’t we strive to get the biggest bang for the buck?

In less than three months, voters will be asked to approve a referendum to enact a one-cent local sales tax, a reasonable way to raise money for school capital projects without imposing an excessive burden on taxpayers. (A good portion of the revenue will come from outsiders passing through the county and buying stuff along the way.) If enacted, the sales tax will generate in the neighborhood of $3 million to $3.5 million, which would go a considerable distance towards paying for a high school upgrade. If the Board of Supervisors would spend less time grousing about the expense of fixing up HCHS, and more time finding a way to apply the sales tax to online purchases originating within Halifax County (a seemingly doable proposition), then the need to hit up other fonts of local revenue, i.e. property taxes, would be all the lesser. All this stuff takes is a balanced state of mind, one that recognizes the imperative to act and weighs carefully the various tradeoffs involved — none greater than the need to make much-needed community investments that must be paid for somehow. In the business world, it’s a well-established rule that sometimes you’ve got to spend money to make money. Will the voting public recognize the same?

It’s a short time from now to Election Day, Nov. 5, and many big decisions about the future of the high school remain in flux — most notably, the question of whether to build a new facility, or try to do something with the one we have. We’ve offered our thoughts on this question in this space many times, and will do so again, but let’s set aside the point for the time being and return to the question of how Halifax County should provide for our own future. Do we heed the naysayers’ self-fulfilling prophecies of gloom and doom and resign ourselves to a high school facility to match? Or should we do something? Those who jump into the debate over the high school have an obligation to explain why a do-nothing approach makes sense, and where it’s ever succeeded before. Because I’m guessing this is the last debate in the world they actually want to have, and all the nipping around at the tougher questions on the table with the high school doesn’t change this fact. Pray tell, what are the advantages of defeatism? The road to oblivion takes longer?

It’s never too early to remind the county’s voters that they — we — hold the future in their/our hands. I wish the powers-that-be had their act together at this point and could present a well-developed, soup-to-nuts design for the high school to offer voters along with the sales tax referendum (a plan could yet materialize, we’ll see) but whatever emerges from the HCHS upgrade process, it’ll be far superior to what we have now. All at an affordable, though certainly not zero cost. Our leadership has experienced some difficulty in getting on the same page, but on the matter of the sales tax, the logic in its favor is so overwhelming that not even the School Board and Board of Supervisors have been able to find a way to disagree. The question is: will the people of Halifax County see matters the same way?

For the community’s sake, let’s hope we get another simple answer to a simple question: An emphatic “yes.”

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