Monday, August 21, 2006

A Failing Plan

The following article first appeared in the Roanoke Times August 11, 2006.

The Plan For Southwest Virginia Is Failing
Jerry Fuhrman

In a recent conference call with one of Virginia’s most powerful politicians, I asked how he thought the dismal situation in Southwest Virginia could be turned around. I wanted to know what could be done to counter the sweeping and devastating manufacturing job losses that have occurred, how he might deal with our coal counties that are losing population, and about our stagnant economy. His answer? “Tourism.”


Another politician who has no answers, no new ideas, so he falls back on the default position learned from and perfected by a long line of politicians past and present. Southwest Virginia has nothing going for it save some rocks and bushes so we need to promote what little we have in the forlorn hope that we can lure northerners down here and partake of our scenic splendor, and while doing so, try to get them to purchase a hot dog and a bottled water at the local gas station. That, friends, is the plan for our future success.

It certainly can be said that we have what can be considered a scenic – some might say rugged and inhospitable - landscape. And with it – because of it – we are burdened with a weak transportation infrastructure. To make matters worse, we have substandard schools. And a very low-tech environment with predominantly unskilled labor. And in the areas where we were traditionally strongest, we now have foreign competition. And in parts of the region, we are in the throes of depopulation, particularly when it comes to our best and brightest young people who routinely move out of the area in order to be able to make a future for themselves. Yes, we have our hurdles.

But, by God, we’ve got trees too. And boulders. Lots of pretty rock formations. And lizards and snakes and such. So our future, according to those we look to for guidance in such matters, depends on enticing tourists to the area to walk among nature’s wonders. Or some such.

This attitude isn’t unique to outsiders. Politicians down this way sing that same song, because they too have no clue as to how to solve our problems. So they all talk of developing our tourism trade, of greater promotion of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and of developing more opportunities relating to the Appalachian Trail. Of lots and lots of bike paths and hiking trails.

In case you haven’t noticed, we now have dozens of local, state, and federally funded trails crisscrossing Southwest Virginia. Some are little more than cow paths while others, like the Virginia Creeper Trail down in Damascus, have come at great expense. There are now even plans in the works to link many of them to one another. And there are still more trails in the development and construction stages.

To what end? Well, nobody’s sure. “Tourists/hikers/bikers” are the answers you get - whoever they are; however that’s measured; whatever good they bring.

And while we await positive results from all the efforts that are going into developing our tourism business, a troubling trend emerges. Gas prices, some experts fear, are going to curtail vacation plans for many would-be tourists, an issue that may be playing out already. The Forest Service announced recently that some facilities in the Jefferson National Forest (including one in Wythe County) are being closed because of poor attendance. And the National Parks Service released a study a few months ago that shows the number of visitors to the Blue Ridge Parkway, the jewel in our tourist attraction crown, is down for the third year in a row. Down by millions of visitors.

In the meantime, our manufacturing base, the engine that still drives the economy of Southwest Virginia whether you accept it or not, continues to implode at an alarming rate as news comes out almost weekly of another plant closing and more layoffs slamming communities throughout the region. Just ask the folks in Galax.

It’s time – no, it’s long past time – that we changed course. It’s past time that we told our political leaders that the plan they all signed on to is failing us at the very same time the companies they should be doing everything they can to support and defend are failing as well.
We either change course or we do what tens of thousands of our neighbors have done in recent years. We pack our bags and head north to find work. It’s long past time.