Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Charles Owens

April 4, 2012

What will it take to stem a troubling tide of job losses in the city of Bluefield

Can Bluefield’s new economic development director make a real difference in helping to stem a tide of troubling job losses in Nature’s Air-Conditioned City?

Let’s hope so. City officials, who announced last week the hiring of Terry E. Berry to the newly created post, are optimistic, and they should be. It can be argued that this is a position that has long been needed for Bluefield.

I’m certainly old enough to remember the tipping point if you will for downtown Bluefield. That was the opening of the Mercer Mall in 1979.  However, the beginning of the downward spiral for the city came in 1958 when Norfolk Southern changed from steam to diesel locatives. The railroad subsequently cut as many as a thousand jobs from the roundhouse overnight.

From then on it was a downward slide for Bluefield. The city tried to hold its own, but the challenge proved to be difficult. By 1979, several large businesses — including J.C. Penney — relocated from the downtown to the newly opened Mercer Mall located outside of the city.

My family — like many others across the region — would make the drive to Bluefield from McDowell County each weekend. Soon, our weekly visits to Bluefield no longer included stops in the downtown. We instead made the weekly drive to the new Mercer Mall.

But this wonderful new shopping experience came at the expense of a once robust downtown. Flash forward to the present day. Despite a number of successes, including several new restaurants and ongoing efforts to beautify the downtown, the past couple of months have been troubling.

Job losses— not only in the Bluefield area but also in neighboring Bluefield, Va. — have been mounting. Flowers Bakery. Bluefield Beverage. Kroger. The mail processing and distribution center on Cumberland Road. Hundreds of jobs already lost, or soon to be gone. How do we stop the bleeding? What will it take to create new jobs. New restaurants. New department stores. New grocery stores. New manufacturing jobs. New high-tech and high-paying jobs.

The Colonial Intermodal Center is a wonderful idea. But it will take more federal funding to develop this project.

The initial $600,000 secured in 2009 by U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., will only cover the engineering and early development costs. It’s not enough to build the actual intermodal center. The current cost estimate for the intermodal center is about $13 million. That’s a lot of money.

The city is looking to Rahall, and other lawmakers, to help secure these remaining funds. That task won’t be easy. Particularly given the current political environment in Washington. Bipartisanship — the cornerstone of a successful government — is nowhere to be found at the moment.

Instead, all we see is ugly political gridlock. And don’t look for things to change — at least not until after the November elections.

So that leaves the Colonial Intermodal Center in somewhat of a state of limbo. Unless of course the city can find some other way to come up with the millions necessary to construct the project. And that’s highly unlikely at the moment.

Can one man really make a difference. Yes he can. But he can’t do it alone. It will take regional cooperation. And it will take support from residents of the city, and the greater Bluefield area.

It will also take bold leadership. And of course it will take time. The economy is slowly improving. Industries and companies are once again looking to expand. Consumer confidence is growing.

People are shopping again. Families are buying new homes once again. For the first time in years, Americans have a renewed sense of hope for their future.

Yes, gas prices could ruin everything — particularly if the president and our Congress does nothing to bring skyrocketing fuel prices under control. But hope is important. Let’s hold onto it. For once, the future is looking a little brighter.

But the challenge is still great for Nature’s Air-Conditioned City. An economic development director won’t make an immediate difference overnight.

But the position, and the person charged with helping to attract new industry, stores, restaurants and jobs to the city, can certainly help in the long  term. The addition of the development director would appear to be a positive move by the city.

Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s Assistant Managing Editor. Contact him at cowens@bdtonline.com.

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