Monday, December 18, 2006

Martinsville & Henry County Could Learn A Lot From Danville & Pittsylvania County.

The City of Danville has a real problem. So does the City of Martinsville. Just 25 miles apart, yet their respective problems are polar opposites.

Danville needs to find a way to upgrade it's Danville Power & Light to meet the demands of new employers. Martinsville needs to find a way to keep it's lights on.

Having narrowly survived the NAFTA crunch and it's devastating effects on the textile industry, Danville has added over 5,000 new jobs in the past 3 years. Swedwood, Arista Tubes, Unarco and the Institute for Advanced Learning & Research have all added to the re-growth in Danville and Pittsylvania County.

Meanwhile Martinsville is struggling to find an option, any option, to reverting from an independent City to an incorporated Town.

Why, since the two cities are so close together, and only differ slightly in size, are they experiencing such extremely different growth problems?

Danville has not wallowed in it's misery, instead the city has been on track for several years now. The City and surrounding Pittsylvania County are working together toward a common goal. Together they share a clear and comprehensive plan to replace jobs. Efforts toward serious training programs and building a strong base for research are shared between the two local governments. The two local governments even split evenly the tax revenues from two industrial parks.

In contrast Martinsville and Henry County have been fighting each other during the time period that their neighbors to the east have been cooperating. Martinsville's City Council and Mayor Kimble Reynolds share the blame for this situation equally with Henry County's Board of Supervisors and Chairman H.G. Vaughn. Some say the root of this animosity is due to the "old days" when cities could annex parts of their surrounding counties. Even though Martinsville was not a good neighbor back then I doubt if any on either the Board of Supervisors or City Council are still guided by those ancient actions. No, I think it's simply power struggling politics, with the Board of Supervisors even passing a resolution last week calling for the city to skip reversion altogether and go directly to an unincorporated town. No one in their right mind would ever expect a group of politicians to agree to such an idea, even though it would certainly end many of the problems between the two.

Competition for new industry is strong throughout the southeast. Competition can and should make each locality work much harder to attract that new industry. Here in Henry County there seems to be no guiding force to develop a plan to do so. There once was such a guiding force here. A joint effort between the city and the county created the Patrick Henry Development Council. PHDC was so successful and innovative that it achieved national praise. Then, for reasons that were soon to become clear, then County Administrator Sid Clower decided that the County's $750,000 share of the Council's annual funding could be better spent on his high maintenance girlfriend. Clower then hired development expert Wayne Sterling, recently fired from a position in South Carolina, for a staggering $200,000 a year. Needless to say, Mr. Sterling was not a stellar success, attracting only 3 businesses, none of which lasted much past his own passing.

The local leaders are still sitting around, hoping for some magic beans to fall from the sky and plant a Toyota factory here. Another shell building ain't gonna get it done. I-73 will not happen while we are waiting. Upgrades to US58 will not be the area's saviour. The need for cooperation between Martinsville and Henry County has never been greater.

Right now, with the two entities constantly squabbling, the logical move would be for Martinsville to revert to an incorporated Town status. The Town of Martinsville would be able to keep most of the services it currently provides to it's residents and businesses, but would probably loose it's schools. In Henry County, the School Board has bought at least 3 studies in recent years to determine it's course of action in the face of declining enrollment and aging infrastructure. Each study recommended consolidation, each study was dismissed immediately. With reversion the county schools would be forced to accept the recommendation that it has paid for 3 times and ignored.

Of course reversion would mean a likely increase in taxes for county residents, and a sure increase for residents of Martinsville, and there is no real reason to believe that a Town of Martinsville and it's representative on the Board of Supervisors would get along with the current board members any better than the City Council and the Mayor have.

What absolutely must happen is for the two to actually work together. If Martinsville must revert, then it simply must. Henry County can pay Dickie Cranwell a small fortune to watch it happen, but happen it will. After reversion happens, and Mr. Cranwell has deposited his very healthy fee, the need for cooperation becomes much greater. At that moment the Town of Martinsville will regain that power of annexation that it wielded so clumsily in the past, it would be much better if both parties could learn to cooperate now, before that time comes.

If Martinsville wishes to avoid reversion as much as Henry County would like to stop it then it must quit picking at the edges and cut out the fat it has accumulated during the past boom years. Martinsville quickly discovered that the magic beans of a cable system could not solve it's problems. The hard choices now must be made. Martinsville has many more employees than a city it's size typically has. It provides many excellent services that I'm sure it's residents do not want to lose. But the time for facing reality is now. I know no one wants to lay off employees, but sometimes that is required. I'm sure there are administrative personnel that can be either demoted or laid off. It's tough out here in the real world, sometimes it can't be avoided in government either.

H.G. Vaughn, Kimble Reynolds, could you two please take a trip to Danville and Chatham and talk to the guys over there. They know how it's done, and they are doing it. You two could learn a lot from them. Our area depends on the two of you stepping up to the leadership position you both hold.

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