Waynesboro: We need to get things moving
Column by Chris Graham
News Virginian editor Lee Wolverton and I agree on two things – well, maybe three. I’m adding one that I hope we’d assent to – that it was a pleasure to sit down a few months back and talk issues. Of the other two, I am certain – that we don’t agree on a lot in terms of our political and partisan views, and that in spite of that which might divide us, we need to come together to do something to get Waynesboro moving.
The problems that we face as a community are in front of us, and have been really for 30 years. Waynesboro was for the longest time the economic jewel of Western Virginia, fueled by industries like DuPont and General Electric into a prosperity that spanned generations, the Great Depression and World War II and the bulk of the Cold War and the uncertainties that each brought to the national macroeconomy. But then reality began to hit in the 1980s with the departure of General Electric, the downsizing at DuPont, the loss of manufacturing staples Crompton Shenandoah, Stanley Furniture and others like them, and the malaise that sank in as it all started unfolding around us.
I use the term malaise quite purposefully, because I think it sums up the disparate views that Waynesboroites have had in the years since we were what we used to be. On the one side, you have the All We Have To Do Is Get More Industry people, who insist that what Waynesboro needs to do is attract manufacturing concerns to locate here to take advantage of our labor pool and our infrastructure, and when they do, then the Happy Days Are Here Again. What flies in the face of their argument is that the population that made up our labor pool back in the good old days has largely aged out, and their kids and grandkids have largely moved out, out of Waynesboro and into economic opportunity elsewhere. The other side of the ledger comes at it from a different approach. I call them the Well, Hell, It’s Never Going To Be What It Was, So What’s The Point? crowd. This is made up of people like Dot Sayre, who, and I will never forget this, agreed to sign my ballot-access petition in the walkup to my run for city council earlier this year as long as I promised “not to change Waynesboro, because I like it the way that it is.”
I’ve known Dot for years, and I respect her thoughts on where Waynesboro is and where it needs to be, as I do the thoughts of so many who came out on Election Day back in May and voted with her to keep life in Waynesboro the way that it is. But we have to face facts here. Waynesboro is going to die a slow, painful death if we don’t stand up as a community to get things moving forward again.
And in saying this, I’m not trying to make a claim at being terribly original. City leaders of the 1920s didn’t sit back on their hands and say, Well, wouldn’t it be nice if somebody like DuPont showed up and set up a plant here on the South River? They didn’t wait for GE to come a-knockin’ at the door to bring high-tech jobs just up the river a piece in the 1950s. Looking back now, I think a lot of wish that the next generation of city leaders, beginning in the 1980s, had stepped up to the plate and looked similarly to the future of our community. That they didn’t is partly our fault, because if we had wanted them to act on our behalf to get Waynesboro moving in the face of the challenges that we were facing, they’d have done it, or we’d have replaced them in the voting booth and put people in their place who would take the course that we wanted them to.
A fourth thing that Mr. Wolverton and I could agree on – this isn’t about partisanship, ideology and whatever else has been substituting for leadership in Waynesboro the past few years. “The graying of Waynesboro’s population and some forces compelling it mirror the northern metamorphosis. The city lives in DuPont’s shadow as manufacturing recedes from its former role as economic driver and young adults leave town in a steady flow on the verge of turning to gusher. If the latter happens, as Virginia Employment Commission statistics project that it will, what becomes of Waynesboro as now we know it?” Wolverton asked in an editorial published today. He offers a gaze at New Castle, Pa., population 24,411, where “vacant stores overlook barren downtown streets, and crime has crept in where jobs and opportunity have departed.”
“Progress, a term feared by some, is needed,” Wolverton wrote. “It will not take place without the concerted effort of city leaders. This will require more than the preferred course of some to limit government’s role to keeping taxes and spending level. Those aims are laudable and necessary but insufficient given the city’s demographic movement.”
Wolverton mentioned in the piece that I had won the NV’s endorsement in the Ward B race for city council this spring primarily because of my stated aim to work to attract high-tech industry into Waynesboro. My thinking is still in that direction – that Waynesboro is uniquely situated basically at the corner of what could be a Virginia Research Triangle connecting the economic engine that is the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and the economic engine that is James Madison University in Harrisonburg. We have the infrastructure in terms of an industrial park with open space and the shells of former industrial hubs like the old GE plant that former city councilman Reo Hatfield has reclaimed with an eye toward the 21st century economy and the South River Complex on Arch Avenue contiguous to our downtown.
It doesn’t seem that hard to me to envision what our possibilities are if we were to make a concerted effort to attract the high-tech sector to Waynesboro. Not only do we provide jobs and opportunity to our existing workforce, we give hope to our children that they can set their roots down in their hometown and make the comfortable middle-class life for themselves that their parents and grandparents were able to make for themselves in the not-so-distant past, and maybe we inject ourselves with some new life not unlike the new life that DuPont brought here with their physicists back in the ’20s and ’30s and GE did with their engineers back in the ’50s and ’60s.
To get ourselves there, of course, we’re going to need to shed ourselves of our inhibitions toward change and be willing to accept that things are never going to be the way they were. But you know, I think we’ve all been well-aware of that for about as long as we’ve been struggling with the idea.