By CHARLES OWENS
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
BLUEFIELD, Va. —
Three men are vying Nov. 6 for the mayoral job in Virginia’s Tallest Town.
Incumbent Mayor Don Harris is being challenged by current council member Roy Lee Riffe and C.E. “Chuck” Presley Jr. in the mayoral race. Two of the men were interviewed by the Daily Telegraph’s editorial board last week on a variety of issues, including job creation, wind turbines, the future of the Leatherwood property and other topics. Presley didn’t attend the editorial board session.
While three men are vying for the title of mayor, there is no competition Nov. 6 in the town council race where incumbents Donald Scott Linkous and Anglis Trigg Jr. are running unopposed for re-election.
Harris, a veteran member of town council, has served multiple terms as mayor of Bluefield, Va. He is the owner and operator of Graham Jewelry in the downtown.
Riffe, a resident of Tazewell County for the past 43 years, was appointed last month to a two-year term on the Bluefield, Va., Town Council to fill a vacancy on the board. At the time of his appointment, he was already on the ballot as a mayoral candidate. Riffe has served as route sales representative for Frito-Lay for 20 years.
Presley didn’t provide information concerning his candidacy to the Daily Telegraph, and no information concerning his campaign was found online.
The candidates were asked about a number of issues, including economic development and job creation, empty storefronts in the town, wind turbines on East River Mountains, the Leatherwood property and other issues.
Harris said the town continues to aggressively search for new businesses.
“From my perspective, I don’t think the vision for Bluefield, Va., has ever been better,” Harris said. “With the advent of the opening of the Hockman Pike Road, it will open up another 125 acres. One of the problems we’ve had in Bluefield, Va., and it continues to be a problem, is we are out of space. But with the opening of the Hockman Pike Road, it will open up another 125 acres for industrial and residential development. I think that is very, very important. I know in the past we’ve tried unsuccessfully to get a hotel in Bluefield, Va. We’ve had two different firms in that we’ve shown (sites to) and that we’ve escorted in.”
With the Leatherwood property still unavailable, Harris said the 125 acres of property at Hockman Pike is now a prime location for a hotel, and other developments.
“That affords us an opportunity to generate industrial as well as residential development,” Harris said. “I feel like with the opening of this property, it will allow us even more of a challenge to go out and recruit business as we have in the past. Sam’s Club has just made an addition of several million dollars to expand their facility. McDonalds will soon be closing down and rebuilding a new structure.”
“I agree with Mayor Harris, as far as geographically, that we are at a stopping point as to where we can build business,” Riffe said. “If elected, I would like to see where we could go with that. With the new road that goes through there it does open up a lot of new opportunities for Bluefield, Va. I know there are a lot of vacant buildings around. I want to go out and see why we can’t bring anyone in. As far as the vision for Bluefield, Va., my biggest thing is I work with the youth and basketball leagues. We produce graduates every four years and every semester in our colleges and they leave. With the coal mining situation and everything else going on, it’s rough on our town and surrounding towns as well.”
Riffe said he would like to see Bluefield, Va., grow to a point in the future where it is comparable to Christiansburg, Va. He would like to see the town pursue a Kohl’s, a Target, a new steakhouse and a Sweet Frog yogurt store.
“When I got to Christiansburg, and I go to Beckley and I see all of these places, and I think we can have them,” Riffe said. “I look at Leatherwood, and I see what we are missing.”
Harris said new tenants could be possible in the near future for the old Big Lots and Kroger stores in the town.
“Number one is the Big Lots store,” Harris said. “We have a possible tenant for that. The stores that have been mentioned are really dreams. Several years ago we had our building inspector, and he was very, very pro business. I had him to contact the corporation that owns Olive Garden and Red Lobster. They are located in Orlando, Fla. The problem with attracting a Target or a Kohl’s is we don’t have the traffic that meets their requirements. But we keep trying. A good example is having been involved with student government day for a number of years at Graham High School. Invariably year after year, the students kept saying we want a Taco Bell. Several years ago, we made contact with the owner of the Taco Bell franchise for this region.”
Harris said they were told a Taco Bell wouldn’t be developed for the area. However, the town kept calling — and continued to call for six years.
“Now you see we have a Taco Bell over there,” Harris said. “That was persistence that paid off.”
Harris said an announcement is also expected to be made in the not-too-distant future regarding a second tenant for the old Kroger building. However, the Leatherwood property — once the envisioned site of a large shopping center — remains inactive, according to Harris.
“The town and I, and some of my fellow council members and staff have met with them several times,” Harris said of the Leatherwood development. “Nothing has happened. And I don’t think anything will happen. We’ve been after that property for development for over 20 years.”
Harris said the town has even offered to extend a water line down U.S. Route 460 to help with the development of the property.
Riffe said promoting the area as a region — as opposed to just the town’s population — could help with attracting new business.
“Where I work for Frito-Lay, you still have people from McDowell and Mercer counties coming to shop,” Riffe said. “As a vendor, I see this. With me as a vendor, I think when you go to these businesses, you have to show them we have an outside population coming in. It’s not just the population of Bluefield, Va.”
“I know from the perspective of being mayor for a couple of years, it requires a lot of time from my business, but I’m willing to sacrifice that,” Harris added. “It’s a time consuming thing, but it’s something I’m dedicated to.”
Both Harris and Riffe said they are opposed to the development of wind turbines within the town limits, as well as along East River Mountain in the county.
Harris said he was surprised by the size of the wind turbines at Mount Storm during a visit to the wind turbine farm in neighboring West Virginia several years ago.
“From that visit, I foresaw the interest of Dominion and BP,” Harris said. “So when we came back, I proposed that we developed what is known as a tall structure ordinance. We adopted that immediately. Anything above 60 feet — it didn’t specify windmills — but any structure over 60 feet tall would require a conditional use permit. A conditional use permit is nothing more than going before our planning commission and proposing what they want to build.”
“I’m not as knowledgeable as the mayor as far as bringing in the wind turbines,” Riffe said. “It’s a positive, (and) it’s a negative. You are going to take that up there and ruin a good thing. We are known as Virginia’s Tallest Town. I was just talking to some people the other day, and they said — ‘why can’t you utilize that Tallest Town (slogan).’ Why don’t we have bike trails up there? Why not have an overlook up there? Bringing up the wind turbines — you are probably just opening up a big can of worms.”
Both candidates also expressed support for the new dental school project planned at the Bluestone Regional Business and Technology Park, as well as the new Spearhead Trails project planned by the Southwest Virginia Regional Recreation Authority.
“We are already a partner with them (the Bluestone),” Harris said. “We have a representative from the town of Bluefield that serves on that board. We are also partners with the trail system in Pocahontas already.”
“I feel like the town will be able to help and support the county (with the dental school),” Riffe said. “Because with what is going on out there that is going to help bring business back to our area. I think Bluefield, Va., needs to be looking at these areas of opportunity.”
Both candidates said they would like to see improved communications and cooperation with the neighboring city of Bluefield.
“Nothing would please me more than to work with Bluefield, W.Va.,” Harris said. “To be very honest — we’ve tried. We’ve tried. I’ve often attended, or attend, 98 percent of our functions as mayor, particularly on ribbon cuttings for new businesses. The one comment that I always make is that the only thing separating Bluefield, Va., from Bluefield, W.Va., is an imaginary line.”
“You are going to have to get with both parties and work together,” Riffe said. “We are border to border. We aren’t going to fight each other. Like I told Kes Blackwell, who is running for mayor of Tazewell — you don’t want to leave Tazewell out. We are one big area. You don’t want to leave anyone out.”
Riffe said he would like to see additional spring and winter activities scheduled for the town — perhaps at the Graham Recreation Park.
Harris said annual events such as the Autumn Jamboree, Sunset at the Square, the downtown farmers market and Evening Shade continue to draw large crowds.
“The last few years we’ve really gone out to offer recreation and entertainment in Bluefield, Va.,” Harris said. “Jimmy and Pat Jones have graciously spearheaded the Evening Shade on Friday nights.”