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Show time / September 17, 2009
Recognizing as most do that the glass of life sits either half-empty or half-full, I think people would agree the dial of late has swung fairly decisively in the direction of “empty.” The economy is in the dumps, the job picture is even worse, and the national mood is bleaker than most Americans who never lived through the Great Depression are accustomed to. It remains to be seen if We the People have it within us to face the challenges ahead with intelligence, aplomb, fortitude and a sense of purpose and shared sacrifice.

In other words, amid the gloom now is the time to ponder that eternal question: Where have all the cheerleaders gone? Our local business leaders, channeling their inner Mickey Rooney, have provided their answer — hey kids, let’s put on a show! That, of course, would be the State of the Community Luncheon on Sept. 23, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and featuring five speakers: County Administrator George Nester, Superintendent of Schools Paul Stapleton, IDA Executive Director Mike Sexton, Halifax Regional Hospital CEO Chris Lumsden and Chamber Board Chairman Nookie Green.

Let me just say up front that I have mixed emotions about all this. The cheap and easy sentiment is cynicism, which quickly gives way to nagging guilt that maybe one shouldn’t be so cynical, followed by the realization that shopping at Wal-Mart is cheap and easy, too, and that generally works out OK. (That said, I try not to shop at Wal-Mart. I support my local merchants instead.) As a general rule, I think we talk too little among ourselves about the condition of our community, pro and con, and when we do have this conversation it usually takes place against a backdrop of strained politesse that keeps people from getting out of hand but also keeps a lid on robust debate. One would hardly expect a Chamber forum to break free of this mold.

Nevertheless, I’ll be interested to hear what the speakers come up with next week to enlighten the masses. Halifax County has a very robust Chamber, which gives Green a wealth of material to talk about, and the health care business is the one of the few sectors of the economy that’s still growing, so the same should hold true for Lumsden. Both Mike Sexton and Paul Stapleton are salesmen par excellence, so there’s no reason to think they won’t come through during their portions of the program. As for Nester, well, I haven’t met him, but the job of county administrator generally involves a lot of stuff about which the public has no clue, meaning we should learn something interesting.

So there you have it: five speakers, all very accomplished, talented, hard-working and dedicated in his own way. Unfortunately, you could say the same thing for the string section on the deck of the Titanic and look at where that got them. In fairness, many if not most of the problems facing Halifax County are hardly unique to our community, and we could have the best and the brightest people running things and still be unable to overcome broader realities pulling us down. All we really have control over are our own decisions, for better or worse. For this reason, some soul-searching on the question “What can we do better?” ought to accompany the predictable cheerleading to make this forum truly worth the time.

Here are a few randomly arranged questions that I’d like to see addressed — if not by the speakers at the forum, then by some other person at some other point in time:

(1) With the state budget in the toilet, what is Halifax County prepared to do to support its schools? One question I’ve posed to local officials in the past is what’ll happen once the county’s reversion funding runs out. As folks may recall, the state agreed a long time ago to boost funding for local education to ease the reversion of South Boston from a city to a town. (The extra money was needed to pay for students moving over from the city school system to the county school system.) That state subsidy runs out soon. When I asked a supervisor about this recently, he said he didn’t foresee a major problem because the county had good prospects for making up the lost revenue through economic growth. Is that your final answer?

(2) Why is it that the Board of Supervisors’ major policy accomplishment over the past year has been a tax cut for the county’s largest landowners? What is the objective here, how will we know if it is being achieved, and why does it outweigh other policy objectives that the county could have undertaken?

(3) Is it feasible for local government to post budgets on-line, and if not, why not?

(4) The IDA recently tallied up the amount of public investment at Riverstone Technology Park: $22.6 million (soon to be $25 million, provided a pending grant request to the Tobacco Commission goes through.) What is a reasonable return on investment on $25 million spent solely to attract new businesses to town? What’s a reasonable benchmark for the number of jobs that Riverstone should attract to be deemed a success? If in some alternative universe we had spent $25 million to expand various school programs, or put up seed money for a community health clinic (you could probably afford five of ‘em for the money), would the additional employment from these programs be more or less than what we’re likely to see from Riverstone, now and into the foreseeable future?

(5) Why are our local political leaders absent from a forum to assess the State of the Community? Where are Frank Ruff, Clarke Hogan, James Edmunds and even Tom Perriello? Where are members of the Virginia Tobacco Commission, who control the single largest source of funds dedicated exclusively to the economic development of the area?

(6) Will the county be offering any more $1 lease deals for industrial park property that has been acquired and developed at a cost of millions to the taxpayer? What is the current status of the NOVI Energy wood-burning plant project, for which we have generously tied up land at the rehabilitated Georgia-Pacific-fairgrounds industrial site? If we’re going to bribe companies to come to Halifax County-South Boston, can we not at least require them to make tangible commitments to the area?

(7) County governments, the Tobacco Commission and other players in the economic development realm have adopted a strategy of recruiting high-tech and mid-tech companies using investments such as the fiber optic backbone as a lure. Why has there been no commensurate investment in K-12 education? When officials talk about the importance of quality schools in fostering economic development, do they mean really mean what they say, or is it all just rhetoric?

(8) On the same subject, why would we cut out the high school Governor’s School program at the same time we’re trying to refashion the community to thrive in the information age? Is it possible to build a high-tech economy without offering technology company executives, Ph.D.s and their families a school system to match their demands?

(9) Resolved: In ranking our economic development priorities, the needs of the local population ought to be granted equal weight to the needs of the outsiders we hope to attract to the area. Discuss.

(9) Can Halifax County maintain the work ethic of the community when for too many people there’s no work to be had? If a work ethic is like any other human trait — a habit that must be repeated and prioritized to remain vibrant over time — what does it say for our future when large segments of the community still haven’t found decent jobs to replace the mill work that dried up earlier this decade?

(10) Economists use different standards to define an economic depression, but one common measure is a 25 percent jobless rate. Halifax County isn’t Martinsville, but under some definitions of unemployment (such as counting people who have exited the work force entirely) we’re probably pretty close to this quarter-idle standard. In light of this reality, should the community seek funding not only for job training programs, but for actual jobs programs as well?

Since a person could carry on this exercise for practically forever, I’ll chop off these State of the Community forum questions at ten and sign off by asking one more:

What else can we do to turn things around?

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