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Ready for the sequel

SoVaNow.com / November 19, 2009
I was thinking the other day about movies that, in classic Hollywood fashion, pit some hopeless, unloved schlub with a heart of gold against an elite, prettified, thoroughly contemptible gang of Kool Kids where — surprise of surprises — the loser triumphs in the end.

Think Rodney Dangerfield in “Caddyshack” ... or Flounder vs. Niedermeyer in “Animal House” ... or Tammy, the unpopular sister of the star football player who runs for class president in “Election,” a terrific little film whose antagonist is the conniving Tracy Flick, played by Reese Witherspoon in what may be the finest depiction of an aspiring politician ever committed to celluloid.

Movies like this are great fun because they portray the social order as we’d like it to be, as opposed to the way it is. In truth, Flounder probably wound up spending a miserable six or seven years on campus, while Niedermeyer, had he not been killed by his own troops in Vietnam, would be chairing the Faber College board of trustees by now. Tracy Flick? No way she isn’t calling the shots in whatever town or city she decided to take over after finishing up her studies. In America anyone, truly, can grow up to be class president.

So why do these movie characters pop into mind? Oh, I don’t know ... maybe it has something to do with headlines in the local news. Hmm, I read a few weeks ago that the latest and greatest thing to hit Halifax County since the cinnamon bun wagon is due to receive another $2 million makeover (not something Reese Witherspoon needs to concern herself with, obviously). Meantime, there’s another effort afoot to rub out the motley little business district leading into town that apparently offends the sensibilities of proper people everywhere. It’s such a natural morality tale that I’m surprised someone hasn’t written the screenplay already.

Riverdale vs. Riverstone: Revenge of the Absurds.

OK, casting Riverdale as the scruffy hero and Riverstone as the feckless heel in this tale is a little unfair. Behind the latest doings involving our Rivertwins are honest motives and difficult choices, so ascribing venality to the major players is a bit like saying Coleman Speece bears a passing resemblance to Caddyshack’s Ted Knight (oops!). I attended the community meeting on Comprehensive Plan 2030 last week at The Prizery, and Speece, the recondite town councilman, was handed the unenviable task of defending the plan’s Riverdale recommendations in a back-and-forth exchange with the Vice-Mayor of Riverdale, Bunny Propst of Riverdale Auto Sales. All kidding aside, it was a great civic debate, well-done by all. I wish Speece and Propst could bottle up that spirit of free and open exchange of views and serve it to every schoolkid in the county.

It’s easy to dismiss the town’s long-term plan for Riverdale — essentially, a slow-moving conversion of the business district into a wetlands park, with the town buying up businesses at fair market value as owners cash in and sell out — and believe me, I’ve seen so many planning studies go straight to the dusty shelf that it’s difficult to gin up much outrage over this one. Speece himself made the point that the town almost certainly won’t have the money to carry out all of Comp Plan 2030’s recommendations, leading one to believe that the most controversial ideas, such as the Riverdale wetlands park, would be the first to go. Propst’s reposte — then why don’t you just take Riverdale out of the plan altogether? — is hard to argue, but I guess there’s something to be said for envisioning a better future even if you think you can’t afford it. But more about that later.

Speece was at his best drawing the distinction between Riverdale and South Boston’s other blighted areas, a divide that arises from the plain fact that Riverdale is always going to be vulnerable to flooding and there’s not much anyone can do to stem its decline if redevelopment is forever cost-prohibitive. All this stuff is straight out of Econ 101. The fact that many (though certainly not all) Riverdale businesses have held their own against the tide (literal and figurative) is a testament to merchants’ fortitude and gumption. Yet you can hardly blame South Boston officials for believing there must be a better way forward for the town as a whole.

George Leonard, head of the Planning Commission, jumped into the conversation at one point, and that’s where things got interesting. Basically Leonard’s argument for Comp Plan 2030 was “first impressions matter.” By this logic, some folks form their opinion of South Boston somewhere between the stretch from the tattoo shop to the falling-down shack next to the car wash, and this is a problem for the town’s future. The market-based solution would be to encourage gentrification of the commercial district, but the economics cannot be made to work with flood-plain development restrictions in place. Which leads back to the argument that maybe it’s best to just let Mother Nature and the Corps of Engineers have their way and nudge Riverdale businesses to higher ground. Meantime, the town can worry about keeping the weeds from overrunning the place after all the residents leave.

Could South Boston ever really overcome the odds against Comprehensive Plan 2030 and turn its appealing visions into reality? I doubt it, but the enterprise does raise questions that are worth chewing over. First and foremost is that old standby: What do South Boston and Halifax County need to do to grow the local economy? Is it really the case that we lose out on new jobs because would-be captains of industry get off the plane at RDU, travel up Route 501, approach South Boston and decide to turn around at the sight of the first bad paint job in Riverdale? I certainly wouldn’t dismiss the scenario outright, and think it’s important to try to fix everything and anything that might diminish our community in the eyes of visitors. But how high should Riverdale rank on the list of policy prescription needs and wants? Above or below ag/forestal districts?

The irony here, of course, is that Halifax County is nearing the $25 million mark for investment in a business/industry technology park that seemingly was designed with an eye toward making sure corporate muckety-mucks would never need to get their tires dirty by having to drive into town at all. Believe it or not, the early design for Riverstone included its own dry-cleaning operation. Among the many other follies rolled up into that project is a vision of a corporate Shangri-La, completely set apart from and oblivious of the rest of the community. Who were we trying to kid? It’s as if the grand concept for Riverstone was to bring in a bunch of high-tech executives who would commute from the Triangle while their kids attended fancy-schmantzy magnet schools and their wives shopped at the outdoor mall, leaving woebegone county residents pining for jobs at the technology park’s laundry mat. Where were laid-off textile workers supposed to fit in this grand design?

The county has applied for $2 million in additional grant funds to renovate and equip an unused section of the Technology One building, apparently one of the few remaining items on the checklist before we can bring a Fortune 500 company to Riverstone. If such a thing happens, it will be an enormous win for the county, the IDA, the supervisors and all else involved. (The project is supposed to create 11 jobs paying around $50,000-$80,000 per, with the future prospect of Company X establishing some kind of manufacturing operation that could employ a hundred more — if everything works out with the initial research-and-development unit). I’m certainly prone to viewing Riverstone with sneering disregard after so many years of unrealized promises, but the county has two choices here: It can write off the project or double down, and our leaders have chosen the latter. Perhaps the effort will finally pay off. We can only hope.

Yet questions will remain. If indeed Riverstone turns out to have a second, more successful act, will the returns truly justify the investment? Or will the opportunity costs be so great — and other possible needs left unmet — so as to permanently relegate Riverstone to the status of cautionary tale? It’s almost touching the way in which we enthusiastically line up behind the best-laid plans of mice, men and IDAs when so many basic components needed to create a prosperous community go begging around here. Just to state the obvious: $25 million could have purchased a better-than-average industrial park (consider Danville’s success in recruiting new industry if you think such assets are unnecessary) with a fair amount left over to plow into the schools, which aren’t what they should be all claims of progress notwithstanding.

And then there’s Riverdale, the red-headed stepchild in our allegedly pro-business community. Can anyone honestly rule out the possibility that money will become available for Comp Plan 2030 after living through a decade in which $25 million was plowed into Riverstone? (With the help of the Virginia Tobacco Commission, natch). You’d think we could envision better uses for the funding, but the track record of the local economic development community gives pause. I don’t actually think that Comp Plan is without merit, nor do town officials deserve to be cast as the villains in this movie (Tracy Flick, obsessive-compulsive that she is, never would have done as fine a job as the Town of South Boston did this weekend helping merchants clean up after the latest flood). The risk here is getting caught up in boundless possibilities without appreciating that misplaced priorities can lead to squinched realities. Only in the movies do people seem to not care much about going over budget.









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