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Where is the silent majority on the megasite?

The Top Story by Chris Graham

Supporters of the proposed Augusta County megasite that is said to have the interest of Toyota as a possible location for a new automobile-manufacturing plant think that there are more of them than there are those who have been grabbing the bulk of the local-media attention for opposing the development of the Weyers Cave-area site.

“I do feel like there’s a very significant segment of people out there that would support something, whatever it is – and that’s the people that are working, still trying to make ends meet, some of them working two and three jobs, people that recognize that we’re losing manufacturing jobs at a pretty rapid clip, and recognize that in terms of taxes and keeping our taxes low, which is what people in Augusta County want to happen, we’ve got to have a strong and diverse economy, and manufacturing certainly is at the head of that,” Augusta County Board of Supervisors chairman Wendell Coleman said.

“With the exception of these 140 or so people that seem like they’re always there at supervisors meetings and always vocal and involved in the Talk Back thing in The News Leader, my encounters with my John Q. Public average constituent off the street that I bump into all the time, I’m seeing a lot of support,” said Jim Bailey, who represents the Middle River District on the county board of supervisors.

You might have to use the Nixon-era term silent majority to describe this group of supporters – because they’re surely not making themselves heard to any kind of appreciable degree. A handful of megasite supporters rose at a recent supervisors meeting when Coleman asked the more than 200 in attendance to stand to register their feelings on the issue. A trickle of letters to the editor and comments posted on local news blogs has also registered marginal support for the development of the site.

“I don’t happen to agree with the idea that there is a large group of people out there who support the megasite,” Kay Frye, who represents the Middle River District, which includes Weyers Cave, on the board of supervisors, told The Augusta Free Press.

“If they’re out there, I’m not hearing from them,” said Nancy Sorrells, who represents the Riverheads District on the county board.

“That could be that people know where I stand on this issue. But I’ve heard from literally hundreds of people who are opposed to the megasite from all over the county,” Sorrells told the AFP.

“I believe that if there were a sizable number of people who supported this, they would have made their voices heard by now,” said Elizabeth Lewis, the chair of the Greenville-based Save Our County Committee, which has been involved in the effort to organize local opposition to the megasite.

“The fact is that there’s not a sizable number who hold that view. What I want to know is, who are these supervisors listening to?” Lewis told the AFP.

Coleman has a ready answer to that oft-asked question.

“They keep coming across that we’re not listening to the public – and I’ve said before, ‘Let me make sure I understand. You think that the people in this room and the comments you’re making represent the public?’ ” Coleman told the AFP.

“We have worked diligently to listen and to reinforce the fact that we are listening – and I have heard from some people who have expressed their concerns, sure. But I’ve heard from many more people who are on the other side of the issue,” Coleman said.

“People say, Well, if there is so much support, then why don’t they come to the meetings? I’m at the point where maybe we need to see as many people coming out in support as opposition – if indeed they’re out there, as I believe that they are,” Bailey told the AFP.

It might prove difficult for those so inclined to mobilize whatever number of megasite supporters there is out there, said Bob Roberts, a political-science professor at James Madison University who has been monitoring the developments on the megasite front.

“It’s interesting that you don’t have at least a core of boosters trying to promote it here at the outset,” Roberts told the AFP.

“Usually you have a chamber of commerce and local leaders coming out strongly in support of such a thing because they’re trying to push economic development. It’s kind of unusual that you don’t have a strong group of businesspeople, local-government people, county people, initially behind it,” Roberts said.

“It’s quite common to have people opposed to it – particularly in an area like this, where you don’t have high rates of unemployment. Most of these plants have been located in areas where they badly wanted them – and this is not an area where you have high rates of unemployment, et cetera, so it’s not a type of plant that would normally find this type of support in this type of region,” Roberts said.

Frye thinks that message is getting across loud and clear in the current discussions.

“My guess is that there are many more people opposed to this than there are people who support it. I think there is a solid majority out there,” Frye said.

Sorrells agrees.

“It’s interesting to me that we haven’t heard much outside of a few people speaking at supervisors meetings who support the megasite. It does tend to make you wonder how many people are out there who support it,” Sorrells said.

(Originally published 06-26-06)

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