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The things we build
SoVaNow.com / June 12, 2013A moment for major anniversaries has arrived: next Wednesday, Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative will observe its 75th birthday when the membership gathers in Chase City for the co-op’s annual picnic and business meeting. In advance of this milestone event, we invite you to check out the News & Record’s special section on the history of MEC, elsewhere in today’s paper.
Meantime, folks connected to another of Southside Virginia’s big projects — Lake Gaston, in neighboring Mecklenburg and Brunswick counties — are preparing for a June 22 celebration (in North Carolina) to mark the dedication of the lake 50 years ago, in the summer of 1963. Gaston’s golden anniversary reminds me of what I was doing in the fall of 2012, an undertaking still fresh in the memory — researching the construction of Kerr Dam and Reservoir (née Buggs Island Lake) for a 60th anniversary special edition in this newspaper. A 60-year retrospective might seem a tad contrived, but the timing was fortuitous: some of the people we talked to for the special edition, who were part of the massive effort to build the Kerr project, may have been telling their stories publicly for the last time.
It is amazing to ponder the level of activity that so radically transformed Southside Virginia half a century ago, give or take a decade. Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative may be the granddaddy of our local life- altering institutions, but Buggs Island Lake and Lake Gaston arguably did more to change the region’s profile. Around the same time southern Virginia’s Lake Country was being birthed, South Boston was also in the midst of building a new community hospital. So was South Hill. Speaking of South Hill, its commercial and economic prospects were cemented by the interstate highway system, established around the same time. The standalone impacts of any one of these projects — in terms of the spin-off benefits, public and private — would be difficult to measure today. Put them all together, and it’s almost impossible to imagine how bereft Southside Virginia would be in their absence.
In light of these tremendous accomplishments, it equally taxes the imagination to figure out exactly how we, as a society, arrived at our present-day reality wherein the simple act of fixing potholes has come to require ungodly amounts of political tippy-toeing and — if only to ensure the requisite political support — rechanneling of the public treasury to special interests doing business in the guise of “public-private partnerships.” Virginia’s transportation mess, with the complex machinations it has produced, offers a good example. One of the weirder aspects of Bob McDonnell’s governorship has been his support for such major-duty headscratchers as the privatization of the Port of Virginia and the expansion of 460 between Petersburg and Suffolk, a project that has drawn the interest of multinational contracting firms even if folks in Petersburg and Suffolk seem to have little use for it. (Perhaps they aren’t interested in paying the high tolls that neighborliness requires). McDonnell deserves credit for shepherding a billion-dollar-plus transportation bill through the General Assembly, although on its own terms — as opposed to what was politically possible — the transit package is no great shakes. Still, McDonnell’s penchant for questionable privatization schemes could prove to be his greatest legacy, if his penchant for gift-taking and wedding expense outsourcing doesn’t do him in first.
Why can’t we build stuff the simple way nowadays? The answer’s easy, actually: there’s an element of taxing-and-spending involved, and one of our major political parties has declared such practices verboten (except when they’re not). But more fundamentally, the stagnation of America is the product of a broken political system. Doing business in politics requires some level of cooperation among disparate (and competing) interests, yet compromise practically has become a dirty word. People can argue forever and a day why this is — you can blame fat Al Gore, I’m pointing a finger right back at fat Newt Gingrich — but the corrosive impact is undeniable. With unemployment stuck at high levels, and growth not nearly strong enough to generate jobs to make up for what was lost with the Great Recession, now would seem like a great time to put people back to work fixing up essential parts of the national infrastructure — roads, power grids (shades of MEC!), or what-have-you. Not so long ago in this country, an interstate bridge collapsed into a waterway. Since when did America decide to make like Somalia?
Good luck expecting Congress to come to the rescue. The U.S. House of Representatives can’t even bring itself to pass the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill! Such feats of political legerdemain used to be automatic in D.C. Now the Tea Party nuts who control the House won’t allow the Farm Bill move forward, so in love are they with their powers of obstruction. (Funny how Rep. Robert Hurt, who is forever prattling about the leadership of the Republican caucus in the House, rarely if ever mentions the Farm Bill in his weekly column.) If Congress can’t muster the will to pass legislation that used to proceed as a matter of general consensus, you can only imagine how useless it will be when confronted by tougher challenges. There are only so many times Republicans can run around crying “Benghazi!” before people start to notice this stuff.
Alas, if only the problem were limited to useless politicians. Recent experience in Southside Virginia, of all places, points to a more basic affliction: a mindset that is more attuned to free-market nostrums than to the public interest. Consider the fact, not disputed by anyone with the teensiest grasp of history, of how Franklin Roosevelt had to run roughshod over private utility opposition before his administration could enact the Rural Electrification Act, the law that created Mecklenburg Electric and other rural electric cooperatives. Yet today, with Southside enduring what can fairly be described as an ongoing, low-level state of depression, there is no real strategy for using the levers of government to promote the region’s recovery. To the extent that the powers-that-be see any role for government whatsoever, it’s as a money trough out of which various special interests can feed themselves.
FDR had the New Deal. With state and federal governments practically unable to tie their own shoelaces, what’s Southside’s modern-day equivalent? The answer, sadly, is the Virginia Tobacco Commission. “Sad” doesn’t even begin to do justice to the comparison. It’s been a while since we brought up the subject of the Tobacco Commission, because why bother — it’s been a bipartisan failure, albeit with a heavy GOP tint, and highly resistant to appeals to change its woeful ways. What went wrong? Answering that question would require more paper than I can afford (to say nothing of bandwidth), but if I had to identify a single failing of the Commission, it would be this: the leadership, from the get-go, seemed to view the entire enterprise as a big bag of money to be used to lure people who already have plenty of money. To come to a place they otherwise would have no interest in coming to. What could possibly go wrong with an approach like that?
The Tobacco Commission has lavished resources on business subsidies of various kinds, that much is undeniable. Imagine what might be if the Commission had used its considerable bank account to support community assets that offer broad public benefits — construction of new school facilities being an example that comes immediately to mind. (To be fair, there have been recent hints of a changed mindset, with Commission grants for projects such as recreational trails and community health clinics, although the help’s been late in coming). The Commission’s general outlook on economic development, however, has represented a colossal failure of the imagination — a failure to realize that businesses are just as likely to benefit from broad community investments as a single mom who wants her kids to attend a nice school. From the beginning, the Commission was so focused on catering to the desires of “job-creators” that it wrote off a lot of ideas that could have benefited people. And, to the extent the point even needs clarifying, it should be noted that “free market conservatives” who lavish cash on well-heeled corporations aren’t actually conservative, and they’re not promoting free markets, either.
We just came out of a presidential campaign where the winner gave us a catchphrase — “You didn’t build that!” — that was in fact poorly expressed, and not the most politically astute statement ever uttered by a candidate for public office. Yet all it takes is a quick look around our neck of the woods to grasp the underlying point: Southside’s biggest private employers are hospitals that are largely federally funded; the aforementioned lakes — which are either owned by the government or would have been impossible without it — support scores of successful businesses; and Southside Virginia would have been very, very late to enter the age of electricity if not for federal intervention. By the same token, the public sector could be a powerful tool for moving Southside forward today — if only people would rid themselves of the notion that government has no useful role to play. Maybe a quick glance at the history books might be of help.