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The trail not taken / November 14, 2013
There are some things that stick in your craw no matter what, and at the moment there’s something stuck in mine. Last month, the Halifax County Board of Supervisors opted not to apply for a VDOT grant to build a two-mile extension to the Tobacco Heritage Trail. The reason for the rejection? The Board pleaded poverty, saying the county couldn’t afford to put up the local matching amount to qualify for the grant. And it’s true, the county constantly struggles with poverty — a poverty of imagination.

First, a confession: I am an ardent fan and user of the Tobacco Heritage Trail. If you haven’t ventured down this quiet path for an Emersonian walk in the woods, by all means consider doing so. Autumn is an especially beautiful time to enjoy the trail’s splendors. It runs past low-lying wetlands and rocky protrusions, under blue skies and sun-dappled treetops, and if you’re lucky you might spot a fox or a hawk or a wild turkey or two. (Deer are practically a given.) The South Boston segment of the Tobacco Heritage Trail originates at the Cotton Mill park, below The Prizery and the South Boston train station, and it stretches 2.5 miles along the old railroad bed by the Dan River before coming to an end half a mile beyond Berry Hill Plantation. There, you’ll find a clearing by the bank of the Dan where you can sit and watch the river roll by. Pack a lunch and treat yourself to a picnic.

It’s a fine little asset for the community. It would be even better if it were longer, grander and more adventurous. The master plan for the Tobacco Heritage Trail calls for development of a 150-mile network of converted rail bed from Halifax to Brunswick, with segments jutting into Charlotte and Lunenburg counties. A project of this magnitude would be a powerful attraction for bicyclists and equestrians who may desire more than a five-mile round trip challenge; even walkers and runners would no doubt enjoy the opportunity to stretch their legs, if not for the full 150 mile length. The plan always has been to build the trail in segments, with pieces added one at a time until one day the whole thing comes together. For some folks, present company included, that day can’t come soon enough.

The supervisors had an opportunity to apply for $800,000 from VDOT to extend the existing trail two miles west. The local match would have come out to about $200,000. The Board of Supervisors, acting on the advice of County Administrator Jim Halasz, said no. The ostensible reason for the decision — an inability to find money in the budget — is a little hard to accept at face value. Certainly the board had no trouble coming up with a similar sum to buy new billing software for the tax assessment office to replace the old system that was rendered obsolete when its proprietor died. (Considering the fact Halifax County has $2.6 million in uncollected real estate and personal property taxes, maybe we need more than a computer system upgrade.) A grant match of $200,000 comprises a whopping 0.2 percent of the total county budget of $87.9 million. This is not exactly taking a wrecking ball to the county’s balance sheet.

Now let’s consider the downside of the Board’s action. Setting aside my own gauzy fondness for hiking-and-biking trails, there’s a hard-and-cold economic impact to consider: the fact that the project would have created jobs — for the backhoe operator hired to clear the path, the engineer asked to draw up with the design, the landscaper brought in to spread gravel and plant brush. Each is temporary employment, to be sure, but payroll is a precious commodity in this community regardless of its duration. Obviously, Halifax County is in no position to embark on a grand strategy of ramped-up infrastructure spending to juice the local economy, but by the same token, if we need jobs and VDOT is willing to hand you $800,000 to create some, we should just take the money. Someone else surely will if we won’t.

(And by the way, since the point is so gobsmackingly obvious anyway: Why did the county go through the trouble of building a new Visitor Center if the plan was to pass up opportunities to give people more reasons to visit?)

Unto itself, the supervisors’ fail-to-trail response to the VDOT grant isn’t the worst thing in the world. The department will be handing out grant money again next year, and maybe by then board members will feel less hard-pressed about meeting the funding requirements. But there’s an irksome aspect to this decision nevertheless. For as long as I can remember now, the going line has been that Halifax County must reinvent itself to survive. For some folks, this meant building an expensive technology park, for others, not doing anything that could possibly cause taxes to rise. Rarely do we hit the sweet spot of investing in our own community in ways that do the existing population tangible good, even if loftier aims of economic revival remain unrealized.

The Southern Virginia Higher Education Center is perhaps the prime example of how an initiative can fall short of its stated objectives — we now have robust job training in Halifax County, just not enough jobs — and yet still be an unquestioned asset. No, the SVHEC hasn’t proven to be a powerful magnet to lure a jobs-rich manufacturing operation to town. Yes, you can get a college degree there. Institutions such as the SVHEC, The Prizery and the Tobacco Heritage Trail raise Halifax County’s profile in ways that a cookie-cutter technology park can’t. Yet somehow we’ve convinced ourselves that investing in the community’s quality of life is less a valid strategy than the Virginia Tobacco Commission’s traditional approach of pouring money into various forms of corporate welfare. On the flip side of the coin, you’ve got county supervisor Barry Bank insisting that Halifax County should position itself as a retirement haven, with Third World-levels of taxation and services to match. Yet aren’t retirees routinely looking for places to go out for a nice hike?

So yes, I have a dream: a dream of riding my bike down from the mountaintop to the promised land, a field out in the countryside where the charms of Southside Virginia are best experienced, and having it all happen in my lifetime. I bet a lot of other people would appreciate the same experience — whether they make Halifax their home now or decide to move in from the outside world because, hey, Southside has some cool stuff going for it. Now imagine you told these same folks that the region’s fabulous trail system was constructed mostly with outside grant dollars. They’d be impressed, perhaps even a mite jealous. So which part of this picture is so difficult for the Board of Supervisors to see? The element of imagination? It’s times like these when the people in charge of leading this county would do themselves, and us, a favor by thinking things over and going out for nice, long walk.

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