Southwest Virginia news July 2008
On the weekend of July 26 thousands of men, women and children will likely set another new world record at the Wise County fairgrounds with the ninth annual Remote Area Medical Clinic. (See www.ramusa.org) It will be the only time some of these folks ever see a doctor.
"The free clinic bears striking resemblance to the sort of medical charity work performed in Third World countries..." Yet a few miles away millions have been spent subsidizing a local call center, and a few miles away University of Virginia's College at Wise plans to spend $30 million on a new convocation and recreation center, which local officials tout as "a boost to its (the community) economy."
It will have seating for as many as 4,000 people, far less than the 6000 or more expected at the fairgrounds. The event was moved from the money-losing taxpayer subsidized Wise airport because some thought it was an embarrassment to business. (It has no control tower and no airline serves it, and borders a costly, taxpayer-funded industrial park.) This new facility will "fulfill UVa-Wise's need for a sports facility."
- Taxpayers Nailed for Millions in Government Waste
- Grundy, Virginia and the $200 million Bridge to Nowhere
- Poverty, Rural Area Medical (RAM), and Tourism Hype
- (Southwest Virginia) Tourism board suspends executive director and tourism hype.
Bristol won't be left out of the partying that weekend either as they also ignore the region's misery and economic dislocation. They are planning a two-day celebration of the renaming of Randall Street Expressway and part of Edgemont Avenue to honor Martin Luther King and to promote what the press calls "healing." But "healing" of what? There's still no jobs for people black or white and the problem is class warfare, not racism. (Blacks just happen to suffer from it too.)
This "event" includes something called Let the Trumpet Sound, a parade, and the showing of a documentary film. For more info contact Wilhelmina S. Banks, curator of the NYUMBA YA TAUSI-Peacock Museum. ((276) 669-4596) The party is scheduled for July 26-27. Wilhelmina has done some good things for the community.
But what is really along Martin Luther King BLVD? It runs through Bristol, Virginia's crime-ridden public housing the City pulled the police out of after a grant ran out last year. It runs by the recently refurbished $6 million train station that has no trains to service. It crosses State Street and passes by Edgemont Towers where a boyfriend of one women shot to death several of her relatives earlier in the year.
The concerns over security at that public housing project are still ignored even as a man jumped off his sixth floor balcony and splattered on the street. We did get the new Anderson Street Bridge, that cost almost $9 million built by mostly outside contractors and residents claimed by illegal aliens. This bridge saved residents form using another nearby bridge to get over some train tracts. But it does look nice.
The "celebration" also includes singing, dancing and storytelling at a bank parking lot. On Sunday while thousands will be lining up in Wise for needed dental/medical care, in Bristol "the public also is invited to a reception at John Wesley United Methodist Church, 311 Lee St., from 1-3 p.m.On Sunday afternoon, July 27, the YWCA of Bristol will show "At the River I Stand," a King documentary filmed during the last two months of his life. The program is scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. The public again is invited and a discussion of the film will follow its showing." BHC July 14, 2008.
The same weekend as the annual misery show is played out at the Wise Fairgrounds, the Virginia Highlands Festival (July 26 - August 10) will be playing out in Abingdon, Virginia, the wealthiest community in the region. Touted as a tourism and retirement mecca, Abingdon has received tens of millions of tax dollars to bail out and subsidize entertainment and recreation for wealthy people. At nearby Emory & Henry College outside Abingdon, we note the following from the Bristol Herald Courier June 22, 2003:
...two groups of children were left out of the boom times of the 1990s. The robust economy did little to help children in the inner cities and in rural communities like those of far Southwest Virginia...A local political science professor believes he knows the reason for the discrepancy. "It all comes back to jobs," said Steve Fisher, director of the Appalachian Center for Community Services at Emory & Henry College. "With the decline of the coal industry, a lot of the good-paying jobs have disappeared."
A string of factory closings has affected the economy in counties along the Interstate 81 corridor, particularly Smyth County, Fisher said. And, many of the jobs that have replaced the ones in the coal mines and factories generally have been lower-paying and less likely to include benefits, he said. "Even two minimum-wage jobs together won't take a family above the poverty line," Fisher said.
Yes children like those along Martin Luther King BLVD and across the region. They don't exist and are just ignored most of the year. As tens of millions of tax dollars have been diverted to pork-barrel waste, nothing has changed in 2008. In a new report, The Measure of America, from Columbia University research, ranks every congressional district in the nation based on the health, educational levels and economic condition of its residents. The news was bad for this region and it's easy to understand why.
Tennessee's 1st Congressional District (a safe republican district) ranks 421st out of 436 districts. Virginia's 9th District (a safe Democratic district) does little better with a ranking of 400, mainly because of more government spending. (Virginia is a wealthier state than Tennessee.)
To quote the press (BHC July 20, 2008): "Some of the districts that fared worse included the Bronx in New York, the greater Houston area, and, not surprisingly, the coal counties in Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky. In general, under performing districts had a strike or two against them. Many are rural, all are poor, and in a number of cases, they are districts where the majority of residents are racial minorities." But that isn't true in West Virginia, Kentucky, or the VA 9th or TN 1st, which are 90% plus white. So what is the problem? "In general, residents in the low-ranked districts make less money, are less educated, are sicker and die earlier than their well-off peers. The particulars for this region include:"
- "A life expectancy of 74.9 years for Tennessee's 1st District and 75.1 years for Virginia's 9th District. The national average is around 78 years." Note the region's workers have worked a lot of toxic manufacturing jobs in years past, plus coal mining, plus many are heavy smokers and/or are obese.
- "Twenty-two percent of 1st District adults don't have a high school diploma. In the 9th district, more than 25 percent of adults lack a diploma." The press discounts out migration of younger people fleeing poverty, including tens of thousands of college graduates.
- "In both districts, just 17 percent of adults have a bachelor's degree. A mere six percent of 1st District residents have a graduate degree; in the 9th, its 6.9 percent." We have colleges, etc. but it won't help unless we increase wages or provide better jobs outside poverty wage tourism and retirement industries. Most college graduates here work in government, that pays far above the private sector.
- "In Tennessee's 1st District, slightly less than 77 percent of children under age 18 are enrolled in school. The 9th District does better, with 86.9 percent enrolled." But it makes no difference in income and Southwest Virginia is even lower than East Tennessee.
- "Median earnings are about the same in both districts - $21,639 in East Tennessee and $20,808 in Southwest Virginia. A family of four with an income of $21,200 or less meets federal poverty guidelines." These government figures are not realistic. See Family Income in Bristol.
Southwest Virginia is dying while "the rest of the Tri-Cities is busting at the seems with new transplants from Florida and New England, small towns near us, and across the state line, are on the verge of collapse." From 1990 to 2006, Johnson City grew by more than 17 percent and so did Kingsport. During the same time period, towns such as Grundy, Virginia lost more than 24 percent of it's population. (BHC July 16, 2008)
Town (and county) leaders want to "tap into the tourism industry, and provide visitors passing through to check out The Crooked Road-Virginia's Music Heritage Trail, Breaks Interstate Park, and a multi-state bike route, a destination to return to on several visits, or a place to maybe make home." East Tennessee already does that, and the poverty is as bad or worse there. Note that with this retirement community growth from "Florida and New England," poverty for long term residents has changed little, in many cases has gotten worse as the above figures show.
The situation is no different in Bristol, Virginia. To quote the Bristol Herald Courier (June 11, 2008), "A third of Bristol's residents need affordable housing, said Mayor Jim Rector, and "public affordable housing is the way to go.
In private housing programs, the only goal is profit, while public programs do what is best for residents." Why in the heck don't we ever get jobs that pay a living wage here so they won't need public housing Mr. Mayor? What's wrong with private affordable housing other than those that could afford it are not wanted in most parts of Bristol?
Why did Bristol, Virginia vote to give a developer $2.5 million in corporate welfare that produced a single restaurant, but refused to allow another private developer to build affordable housing that demanded no subsidies? And this didn't stop Washington County Supervisors from spending $10 million in corporate welfare for a strip-mall development.
"Fishy Land Deal"
But that isn't all, Washington County, along with the Town of Abingdon, agreed to buy a ballpark, a ballpark that to quote the press, "was conceived as a 40-acre project at less than $25,000 an acre grew to 60 acres at $40,000 an acre..." The combined debt service of about $600,000 for over ten years plus an operational subsidy of tens of thousands (they don't really know) per year.
Further; "I would just hope that this board never gets into a situation like this again because we certainly have the cart before the horse. We should've sat down to discuss these details...It was just a mistake, and I think everyone was just anxious to have a sports complex, and we failed to see out far enough in the future to know we need to work details out." Whines Washington County Supervisor Dulcie Mumpower.
She oversaw the mass eviction of 50 poor residents from a trailer park to help make way for the same strip mall she voted to spend $10 million tax dollars on. To quote the press, "Supporters of this fishy land deal also built their argument last year around some bogus Little League rule. They suggested, wrongly, that Abingdon teams could not play at a complex outside the town's Little League boundary."
Mr. Price also "conceded that the land developers - Clifton-Stewart - steamrolled the board last year (2007) by telling members to act quickly because a third party was willing to pay more." Estimated cost so far, $6-$8 million and to quote the press, "As the county and town were preparing to leap eyes-wide-shut into this deal, we warned against it...We advised the leaders to slow down and count the costs. To no avail...The county and town rushed into a land purchase without time for debate or dissent, and the chickens are coming home to roost."
Mr. Price also said, "I think we need to settle the millions before we keep spending thousands. We kind of got hit with this a little bit blindsided - all of a sudden somebody's offering $2,000 more an acre, and if we don't get it now, we won't get it...It moved a little too fast ... and I never did see it in writing...We're a long ways from where I thought this was going when it got started."
Supervisor Odell Owens (my supervisor) is equally confused: "We need to resolve that before things get even more confusing. If we don't resolve the ownership to both entities' satisfaction, then it's not going to happen."
Note that in Washington County the public is barred from addressing the Board of Supervisors without advance permission from Mark Reeter and most business is conducted in back rooms. (So-called "closed session.") Ref. BHC May 23, 25, 2008 and July 12, 2008. Note that as of July Abingdon and Washington County are still bickering over who should control what in that "fishy land deal."
Update: as of 2014 Reeter has been fired and public comments are now legal again.
"the discussion becomes meaningless..."
"I think a lot of times that's what extends the meeting. We get into these long discussions before the motion is made, and many times the discussion becomes meaningless, and we tend to beat some of these issues into the ground...I think we're pretty much demonstrating right now why we need this."
So says Supervisor Odel Owens of our "confusing" Board of Supervisors. They want to shorten their public meetings that are mostly political show and still bans public input or comment. Since most of the real work is done elsewhere, why not? But now they admit what this website and writer have warned of for years.
On July 22nd they voted (with a hint of sarcasm) to label state funding cuts as "Local Aid to the Commonwealth." Quoting Supervisor Jack McCrady on the funding cuts, "We've been seriously injured and it's not going to be any better next year. The financial stability of some localities, I would say, is in peril because of what happened this last (Virginia) General Assembly session."
And according to Supervisor Price, "We've got grants and grants and more grants, and we've got spoiled, and we all knew the reality: one day, some of this money is going to run out and it's coming reality time."
Is that why they voted for an $8 million ball park last year, absurd pay raises, and $10 million for a strip mall? Long discussion? I think doing the public business in public would be a welcome change.
$10 million in corporate welfare could yield $25 million plus for developer
The controversial "Highlands" development in Bristol is up for sale, or at least 30 acres of it, about a year after it was completed in 2007. Originally mired in costly lawsuits over annexation between Bristol, Virginia and Washington County ($2 million), the scene (before relocated to its present relocation)of a mass eviction of poor people, and given $10 million in corporate welfare by Washington County, may net the developer $25.2 million.
One Washington County supervisor asked just what these jobs (an absurd claim of 2000) was supposed to pay. We never got an answer. This strip mall includes stores such as Bed Bath & Beyond, Best Buy, Books-A-Million, Pet Smart, Ross and T.J. Maxx. (The Target store isn't included in the sale.)
A nearly identical strip mall in Sullivan County, Tennessee (about 25 miles away) only spent $2.5 million in corporate welfare. I hope somebody buys a lot of cats at Pet Smart because the Washington County taxpayers really got "skinned" in this deal. More here.
Bristol, Virginia is broke, but is buying house near Sugar Hollow Park
The Bristol, Virginia City council voted on July 8 to spend $204,500 for a 2,800-square-foot home and 4.03 acres. This was due to a mold problem in their other office space. Nobody asked why the mold problem was allowed to get so bad.
The press reports said the discussion lasted 45 minutes and the vote was unanimous. They didn't borrow any money this time to add to the $110 million in debt they already have. The property is in Washington County, Va. and the City plans to sell 2.6 acres for $45,000 back to the Country to be used for a high school parking lot.
As noted, Bristol, Virginia and Washington County just a few years ago were in a bitter court dispute over annexation for a strip mall, costing taxpayers $2 million. At least they are talking again.
The Trainstation Again?
To quote one angry resident:
Lets see now. We have a train station with a passenger ticket window, and no passenger trains and no reasonable expectation of ever getting passenger trains again. Got that. We seem to have a train station with no real business plan of any sort.
And the taxpayers have been forced to pay how many millions of dollars? And for what? It looks like we the people who earn the money will continue to have our earnings taken from us by force or threat of force by our politicians to keep feeding the money sinkhole of a train station. STOP THE NON-ESSENTIAL SPENDING NOW! And no, the train station is not essential. Sell the train station to private business and either let it sink or swim on its' own with no more taxpayer subsidies!
July 2008: The Bristol, Virginia City council just released "the deed of trust for the former Union Depot to the Bristol Train station Foundation. The city held the deed because it was the governmental agency that helped the nonprofit foundation secure federal grant funding."
They helped secure millions of pork dollars for the project that as of 2008 still has no economic value. They touted the pork-barrel project as "transportation enhancement" and "economic development." When I asked one official what exactly made this economic development, nobody has answered me to this day.
The project has been the target of harsh criticism from residents sick of ever escalating taxes and utility rate hikes. The City utility also chipped in some freebies. This has cost taxpayers about $6 million and will produce nothing of economic value in my opinion, this failed before with the previous owner. More here...
More crime from public office
It's being reported by the Kingsport Times-News (7-22-08) that St. Paul Virginia (Wise County) has joined the long list of Southwest Virginia communities for voter fraud and other crimes. They join Gate City, Appalachia, Bristol, and Buchanan County where the entire board of supervisors was sent to federal prison. In the case of Bristol, a former sheriff committed suicide in his office they claim for embezzlement, others are claiming he was murdered. The case is considered closed. In another voter fraud case, candidates were handing out cigarettes and pork rinds to buy votes.
"Four people have been indicted on felony charges of voter fraud stemming from a town council election in the Southwest Virginia town of St. Paul. The indictments returned by a Wise County grand jury Monday accuse the four of falsely claiming residence at a St. Paul apartment in an effort to influence the election."
Pot head arrested for driving stolen golf cart on interstate
A 20 year-old Virginia Beach resident was just having a bad day. Early Monday the press reported the he "pinballed in and out of the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail." Released earlier in the day on pot possession, he was arrested for driving a stolen golf cart onto I-81 northbound lane. He is back in the regional jail in lieu of a $2,500 secured bond on Tuesday.
To quote the police, "You're not going to believe this...Your golf cart is on I-81 northbound. I about clobbered him...Good times, responded another cop on the 911 recording. "He was driving it because he wanted to be pulled over because he was lost..." Washington County Sheriff Fred Newman sort of snickered. The pothead "was trying to make his way home - to Virginia Beach!!!" This person should run for Board of Supervisors in Washington county. Guess he will be here for a while. Ref. BHC July 9, 2008.
I told you so...
If all of this sounds like bad news and I'm just a spoil-sport, then I wish I was wrong. According to the Blue Ribbon Review Panel (April 17, 2008) of the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, they have spent $432 million on more than 900 so-called "revitalization projects" since 2000. This website and writer has warned of this waste for years and sadly, I've been proven right. What do we get according to them? To quote,
An area of great concern with regards to the ability to revitalize the economy is education for young people and adults...(for)...Congressional District 9 (a proxy for Southwest) have much higher percentages of population over age 25 with no high school degree, and much lower percentages of people with bachelor's degrees or higher than either the rest of the state or the nation...
an analysis of Virginia Department of Education annual school enrollment data by grade shows that a number of localities in the region have much larger numbers of students in the ninth grade than in the twelfth grade three years later...The largest drop in numbers of students is occurring between the ninth and tenth grade...it is likely that most of these students are dropping out of high school and will not graduate.
I attribute this to out-migration that leaves behind a larger percentage of poorer and less motivated people. To continue:
As in the rest of Virginia, economic growth in Southside and Southwest Virginia is occurring in the services industries, including professional, technical, administrative support, healthcare, educational, repair, personal services, and "Other" employment categories including utilities, transportation, communication, information, finance, insurance, and real estate. However in the Southside/Southwest regions, the percentage of overall wages in these "information age" industries is still substantially below the rest of the State.
Not only the level of these jobs, but the wage scales are so low that those with degrees continue to flee the region. To further quote the report:
Given the existing state of the Southside and Southwest economies, it is fair to ask whether the expenditure of over $400 million by the TICR since the year 2000 on "regional transformation" projects has had the desired transformative effect on the regions...Despite this spending, population in the region continues to decline, wage rates still lag behind the rest of the state, there is persistent high unemployment and poor educational attainment is still endemic.
To quote James A. Bacon at Bacon's Rebellion:
Not only has the Commission failed to "transform" the Southside/Southwest Virginia economy, it has squandered many of its resources. By keeping the old economy on life support, it has failed to steer sufficient resources into the new economy. For all intents, the economies of Southside and Southwest Virginia look very much like they did 10 years ago...
Where did over $400 million go for? I list a lot of it above such as tourism development in Abingdon and the Barter Theatre.
Letter to the Editor
Letter to the Bristol Herald Courier:
Re: Do The Right Thing With Tobacco Funds. I've said both here and on my website for years just what this report has stated. It has proven me right about the fraud and waste surrounding the Tobacco grants.
With deep respect, the Herald Courier can't seem to connect the dots. Remember the Measure of America on July 20th that ranked SW VA at 400 and E. TN at 421, the bottom 10% in the nation? Bacon's Rebellion is correct in regards to more education. We already have a vast education system in Tri-Cities with lots of college graduates, and they leave in droves for the exact reason he states. So why would doing something that lower-ranked E. TN already does expect to change anything?
Please spare me the Lebanon hype (see Northrop Grumman and AMS-CGI: More jobs or more hype?) and look at reality. Those are government contractor jobs and get tens of millions in corporate welfare, and aren't paying anywhere near what we were told. In addition, there's no public oversight.
Where's the zillions of jobs Bristol was supposed to get from fiber optic that has cost BVU $60 million in debt plus an additional $10 million in Tobacco grants? Their failure is the inability to get the state to shift more taxpayer jobs out to Bristol. Everybody in SW VA can't work for the government! It's already 30% of the workforce in many areas as it is.
The changes they suggest still ignores the endemic political corruption and social apartheid that poisons this region. Will somebody explain how the Barter Theatre, tourism development, etc. qualify as anything less than pork-barrel waste? Look again to lower ranked E. TN with its poverty-wage tourism industry.
The report makes it clear that the $432 million has produced virtually nothing. We better deal with reality!
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