Waynesboro at a crossroads

We all knew that we were on the verge of an economic downturn. I was selling one approach to dealing with what was to come – redoubling efforts in the economic-development sphere with an eye toward working to attract new industry in recognition of the apparent fact that the plant on the South River overlooking downtown wasn’t going to be here forever. The other side took a different approach, seeking and receiving the endorsement of the labor union representing workers at the Invista plant based largely on the idea that the troika’s stated opposition to a fee structure for providing a stable source of money for long-needed improvements to our city stormwater system would save the plant and keep the city economy going the way it has the past 80 years, and on top of that, hey, when times get tough, who’s going to make sure that your taxes don’t get out of line?

Here we are six months later, and while we’re not writing Invista’s obituary just yet, we’re a lot closer to doing so on the heels of the news regarding layoffs of perhaps as many as 500 employees at the Invista plant in the past two weeks than even the most pessimistic among us would have thought at this stage.

And what about our plan for dealing with this? Well, for starters, we don’t have one, not officially. Because the people in charge down at City Hall didn’t foresee this wrinkle to the downturn. So whatever we have is being devised on the fly.

And what do we have so far on the fly? “There is hope that the plant comes back to full service, but that depends on the future economy,” Vice Mayor Frank Lucente told The News Virginian regarding the Invista news.

I should give Lucente credit, incidentally, for at least giving us that much. Mayor Tim Williams, who is working so hard on city business that he thinks we ought to double his salary, didn’t see fit to offer comment on the worst economic news to hit Waynesboro since the mass layoff at Genicom in 1997.

So the mayor doesn’t know what to say, and the vice mayor is hinging the city’s future on Invista rebounding as the economy rebounds. Which of course it will, eventually, but I would say conservatively that it is unwise of us to sit idly by waiting for that to happen, one, and also, two, to assume that Invista will continue to want to do business here when the macroeconomy does get back on track.

Call it a hunch, but the rash of layoffs across Invista’s North American properties at a time when it is continuing to make investments in its Asian operations might just be a sign of a restructuring within the company that was either going to happen anyway eventually or is simply being hastened due to the struggles within the U.S. economy.

Whatever the case may be there, it seems clear to me that we need to get off our collective duffs and do something, finally, after 25 years of indecision about our economic present and future in the face of the downsizing of our once-mighty local manufacturing base. And no, I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, or even automatic, because it’s not going to be either of the above.

First things first, we need to do whatever we’re going to do to our economic-development department, which if you ask me isn’t in need of the restructuring that Lucente et al have been pushing for in terms of putting the department under the auspices of the Economic Development Authority. Not that I don’t think the EDA isn’t up to the task, but the stated reasons from Lucente for going in this direction center around the arrangement providing some savings to the city’s bottom line. I think we’re past the idea that this is actually so in reality, so it’s time to move on, long since past the time to move on, honestly. We’ve held up hiring a new economic-development director for four months and counting waiting for the ship to come in. We’re beyond the point of this being ridiculous.

Next up, devise an economic-development strategy. And no, hoping that more big-box stores and Olive Garden are thinking about coming to town isn’t an economic-development strategy. I said this during my city-council campaign, and I still think this is our future – attracting small- and medium-sized industry that is thinking about the Valley and Central Virginia relative to research and development work being done in Harrisonburg in conjunction with James Madison University and SRI International and Charlottesville in conjunction with the University of Virginia. We sit at the midpoint physically and transportation-infrastructure-wise to those two centers of R&D. The only thing holding us back from being the third leg in a Virginia Research Triangle akin to the Research Triangle down in Raleigh-Greensboro-Winston-Salem in North Carolina is the lack of foresight on our part. The Valley and Central Virginia are on their way to becoming the next hub of economic activity in the green-collar revolution of the 21st century. We cannot – emphasis on cannot – let this pass us by.

Finally, implementation. This is the part that worries me. Because as I said above, we all knew back in the spring that we were on the verge of an economic downturn. Those who turned out at the polls went with the reassuring message of more of the same, but their more of the same was predicated on the idea that Invista was still going to be a big player in the city economy. We have to assume, again, I think, being conservative in looking at this, that this will not be the case, meaning, well, we need to do something. More of the same is not doing something, and thinking that people whose modus operandi waking up every morning is more of the same are suddenly going to be able to adapt and not just to adapt but to be able to adapt and lead is foolish thinking at best.

We’re not going to be able to no comment or hope the plant comes back to full service or low tax our way out of this mess. Which is precisely what City Hall is going to try even as we know it’s not going to work.

I said above that this worries me. That was understating it. It actually scares the living hell out of me.

 

– Column by Chris Graham


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