Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

May 22, 2013

High hopes — and mixed opinions — for Bluefield’s intermodal vision

There is something about big projects. Such projects are not developed overnight. Sometimes they take years — or even decades — to be developed, as is the case of our future four-lane corridors. That means those of us in the newspaper business will often find ourselves writing about such a project for a long period of time, often years upon years. And not every project goes on to become a reality.

This is how it normally goes. There is a big kick-off type article, announcing that something really great is coming to our area. You normally have a large groundbreaking ceremony with lots of politicians in attendance — and the ceremony is normally scheduled right before an important election. The story itself will often highlight all the good things the project will create — new jobs, new tax revenue, new hope for the future, etc. But at that early stage of development we often don’t know what potential stumbling blocks are out there that could keep the big project from becoming a reality. It’s a tricky road to travel.

And we’ve seen our share of big projects come and go over the years. Some have materialized — for example the Bluestone Regional Technology Park as well as the Hatfield-McCoy Trail — while others such as the proposed Leatherwood shopping center have disappeared all together. And we are still waiting on others such as the proposed equestrian/multi-purpose center for Mercer County. Don’t get me wrong. Big projects are important. And we certainly need a few more big thinkers in our area capable of coming up with big, bold ideas. But at the moment everything comes down to money. And there just isn’t enough federal and state grant and loan funding to go around. And federal earmarks — the process used in the past to fund roads, bridges and water and sewer projects in our region — have been banned in Washington.

Just look at what has happened in recent months. We still have a bridge to nowhere near the Mercer Mall, which is truly an unacceptable tragedy for Mercer County. And new construction along the remainder of the King Coal Highway corridor also remains largely stalled across southern West Virginia. The same can be said for the West Virginia corridor of the Coalfields Expressway, and the once promising Shawnee Parkway. Adding further insult to injury is the fact that our lawmakers in Washington can’t seem to work out a deal for a veterans outpatient clinic in Mercer County, even though Princeton Community Hospital is offering space for such a clinic and another group has apparently agreed to help cover some of the costs associated with a veterans clinic.

That brings me to the project formerly known as the Colonial Intermodal Center proposed for downtown Bluefield. I say that because the project doesn’t have an official name — at least not at the moment. A city-sponsored contest to rename it is nearing a conclusion, but so far a winning entry hasn’t been chosen.

Bluefield City Manager Jim Ferguson has scheduled a May 24 groundbreaking ceremony for the interpretative signage phase of the project, which will be developed on the grounds of the former Matz Hotel and Colonial Theater site. The walking area is considered a prelude, or the first phase, of the intermodal project. The project will incorporate a walking area complete with signage detailing Bluefield’s unique railroad and cultural history, along with new bushes and trees and seating areas. It will run parallel to Princeton Avenue, and the historic Norfolk Southern rail yard.

Ferguson says the city has enough money to complete this initial phase of the project. He is also hoping to address what he considers an incorrect misconception in the community that the transit center will be “just a bus station.” Although transportation is a key component of the intermodal project, Ferguson is quick to point to several pods that will be developed at the site to accommodate businesses that will serve foot traffic, area residents and other visitors to the downtown and intermodal site. He says one business has already expressed an interest in a pod site.

The transit center itself will be developed around a railroad theme. But there is still apparently a lot of citizen confusion about the project. Of the 12 candidates vying for a seat on the Bluefield Board of Directors June 4, the majority of those interviewed by the Daily Telegraph last week expressed concerns or opposition to the project. Some say the area in question should be actively marketed to other prospective businesses.

The transit center — whatever its final name will be — is a great concept, and the artist renderings of the city’s vision for the final project is quite impressive. But can it become a reality without the millions still needed to develop it? And will its fate be determined by the outcome of the June 4 election? Only time will tell. For now, it is simply one of those big projects we are still writing about with the hope of it becoming a reality in the not-too-distant future.

Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s assistant managing editor. Contact him at cowens@bdtonline.com. Follow him @BDTOwens.

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