Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Charles Owens

July 18, 2012

In this day of shrinking federal dollars, status quo is no longer acceptable

— — Sometimes it takes a little bit of a push for good things to happen. We all have a bad habit of falling into the status quo. The status quo is a safe, comfortable, and normally uneventful place to be.

But sometimes we have to leave our comfort zone, or the status-quo if you will. It can be argued that the status quo has become somewhat of a problem for our region, and those elected officials who should be daring to dream and striving to lift us above it. Let’s face it. There are a lot of problems right now in our region that need to be addressed.

In his weekly column last week, reporter Greg Jordan made a great argument as to why some type of air show should be scheduled in the future at the Mercer County Airport. He recalled in vivid detail a fantastic air show staged at the airport more than a decade ago by the Bluefield Lions Club, and challenged local officials to dare to dream once again by working to schedule a new air show.

 The local airport has fallen upon tough times in recent years. Commercial air service was lost back in 2007, along with the airport’s Essential Air Service federal subsidy. There have been a number of other serious problems at the airport that haven’t been addressed in a timely manner, including a broken snow plow that led to the closure of the airport multiple times during the brutal snowstorms of 2009 and 2010, as well as unacceptable conditions at the airport’s public bathroom facilities.

That’s unfortunate. If an airport is closed, air traffic can’t land. And that leads to not only lost revenue for the airport, but also a poor public image of the facility. Pilots who are forced to divert to other airports because our facility is closed due to a snowy runway are likely to avoid our airport in the future due to the bad experience. It’s a negative chain-reaction effect. And visitors to the airport, including businessmen, politicians and other VIPs, certainly would expect to have clean and modern restrooms. Why haven’t these problems been addressed before now?

But the status quo dilemma extends far beyond the airport. The city of Bluefield has certainly seen its share of problems in recent years. But I will give credit where credit is due. City officials in Bluefield are trying. Yes, they have been taking a beating in recent days in our “Letters to the Editor” section, but they are still doing things — albeit sometimes controversial things. Yes I know the city board killed — or at least splintered — the flea market. Now instead of one big (and preferred) flea market in the downtown, we have lots of little ones popping up all over the area.

But other than that miscue, city officials are trying. And they have been working to develop big projects — such as the Colonial Intermodal Center. Sometimes it takes one big project to create a spark that leads to additional growth. We saw this several years ago when members of the McDowell County Commission had the foresight and vision to develop the Indian Ridge Industrial Park with the hope of attracting a federal prison. They eventually succeeded in securing a federal prison, and the Welch area is now benefiting from the increase traffic and tax revenue the facility is creating.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Bluefield should try to attract a prison. That wouldn’t be a good fit for either Nature’s Air-Conditioned City or Virginia’s Tallest Town. But sometimes big ideas are necessary in order to rise above the status quo. City officials in Bluefield have also hired a new economic development director, who is charged with trying to jump start growth in the eastern end of the county. It’s a position that is needed because most of the growth we have seen in recent years has been in the Princeton area.

And that growth is great. Having the I-77 corridor touch the greater Princeton region has been a true blessing for our area. And now reports have emerged of additional businesses looking at the four-lane corridor just east of Princeton, including Target and Home Depot. That’s tremendous news. Let’s hope one or both of the two long-requested big box chains will move to the area. Although I now live outside of the Bluefield area, I would travel to Princeton without hesitation to shop at a new Target or Home Depot.

But we also need growth on the Bluefield end of the county as well. That’s why Greg Shrewsbury, the city’s new economic development director, will have his work cut out for him. And he will have to think big as well in order to make things happen. Especially if the Colonial Intermodal Center fails to materialize thanks to the inability of Congress to pass a new, long-term, federal surface transportation bill. The two-year highway bill extension approved by lawmakers earlier this month is helpful in terms of keeping general bridge and road maintenance going, but it doesn’t include funding for new transportation projects.

So without help from Washington, we have to start thinking big on the local level.  And let’s face it. We don’t have Sen. Robert C. Byrd to bring home the bacon anymore. Our locally elected officials are going to have to go out and actively work for their pork.

The status quo isn’t going to cut it anymore. We have to become aggressive. We have to actively fight for jobs. We have to actively promote and market our region to prospective new industries and businesses. And we can’t leave any grant application unturned in the search for the ever-shrinking pool of state and federal dollars.

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

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