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Chris Graham: Time to move forward

Remember when Waynesboro was the economic engine of this part of the Valley?

Your first instinct might be to say that it still is. Look at the West End. Every chain retail store and restaurant known to American man has set up shop out there.

Which is great – really, it is. It’s just that the jobs that they provide aren’t the backbone of a local economy, one, and two, even with the influx of low-wage jobs, we still have the highest unemployment rate in the region, by far.

The October unemployment rate in Waynesboro stood at 7.0 percent, a full point above the state average, nine-tenths of a point over our neighbors in Staunton and just shy of a point and a half above Augusta County.

If nothing else, the influx of the chains has helped keep local tax revenues somewhat consistent. According to the Virginia State Department of Taxation, Waynesboro first cracked the $400 million barrier in taxable sales in calendar-year 2008, and has maintained a consistent level of economic activity in the $400 million-$410 million range since even through the recession and slow recovery.

But what does that mean to the average wage-earner who used to bring home a paycheck from a GE or DuPont and now makes ends meet on a part-time job stocking shelves supplemented by doing odd jobs when those kinds of jobs can be had?

Too many of us are struggling to get by to get all excited about local leaders flying to China and investing millions into scrub land that might in 20 years become an office park.

It’s time for this community to get over the fact that the glory days of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s are over and done with and start building toward the next glory days.

We were the envy of the Valley in our heyday with GE’s engineers and DuPont’s physicists literally building our community from the ground up. Their grandchildren need to take the reins of this community and lay the foundation for the economy that once again puts us at the forefront of the Valley economy in the 21st century.

It’s going to take some serious investment in our infrastructure to get there. We’ve got some older structures that if rehabbed could serve as the flashpoints for information-technology incubators, but we will have to be willing to partner with other public and private interests to make those projects happen. And there’s human infrastructure requiring more investment – namely, our local education system, which is woefully underfunded while serving an at-risk population wherein more than 60 percent of our elementary-school students qualify for free or reduced lunches under federal guidelines.

We can and need to invest money in our downtown and arts communities to provide cultural amenities attractive to the info-tech entrepreneurs who are driving the 21st century economy. And it wouldn’t hurt to foster the development of a native creative-class economy that one day might be able to take care of such tasks as developing websites to lure new business and industry to set up shop in our hometown.

(Forgive me that personal aside.)

I think it’s abundantly clear at this point that the race-to-the-bottom strategy of cutting public services, education and investments in our infrastructure is not the way to build a stable, sustainable, long-term economic base. We’re at what we can only hope is the tail end of a 20-plus-year decline in real wages for middle-class and working-class families here in Waynesboro.

The hope springs eternal. We have elections coming up in a few months and a chance to send the powers-that-be here in our city a message that we’re ready to move forward.

I have hope that a crop of candidates will emerge to carry that message forward and begin work in July toward the rebirth of our River City.

Waynesboro can be again the economic engine of Western Virginia. The future is now.

Augusta Health Augusta Free Press Kris McMackin CPA
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