Mill closing affects OLF debate

Published 9:38 am Tuesday, January 12, 2010

FRANKLIN, Va.—Against the backdrop of the looming closure of the International Paper Co. mill at Franklin, some in the community — but not all — are rethinking opposition to a possible Navy outlying landing field in the region.

Some want to discuss options

Jerry Flowers lives in Virginia Beach but was born and raised in Drewryville and owns parts of two farms in Southampton County and Bill’s Grill in Courtland. He believes local and state elected officials should meet with Navy officials and U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb, both D-Va., to discuss compensation for hosting an OLF.

“The OLF may be the worst thing in the world for the area,” Flowers said Friday. “But it’s hard to weigh all of the pros and the cons until you find out what the Navy and the federal government are willing to guarantee the citizens of Southampton County and Franklin.”

Flowers said the possibilities include a revenue-sharing agreement between the City of Virginia Beach, which is the home of Naval Air Station Oceana, and the localities that serve as host to the OLF, which would support the master jet base.

Flowers acknowledged that a guarantee to provide a large number of jobs is unlikely.

“It won’t be the salvation for jobs,” Flowers said of the OLF. “But it may be a salvation for the community based on what the federal government and the Navy are willing to give.”

Without a meeting ahead of time, Flowers argues, the Navy could use eminent domain to take the land needed for an OLF “and just come in and dictate what the community is and is not going to get.”

“I would vote against an OLF if, when the meeting was over, we decided that it was just not enough for us to entertain it,” he said. “But until you have that meeting and find out what is available, you really don’t know what you’re saying ‘no’ to.”

Harold Blythe, a retired president of James River Bank and a resident of Walters, also supports dialog with military and political leaders.

“I don’t see a thing in the world wrong with trying to make the best deal for the area that we can,” Blythe said. “It makes sense to rethink the whole process, particularly in view of what’s going on (with the closure of the IP mill). I don’t think we can afford to not look at any opportunity that comes along. I know this one is controversial, but the economic situation dictates that we ought to look at it.”

Blythe added, “I’ve always felt that our government officials were a little bit quick to jump on the bandwagon not to support it, or at least not to look at it more openly. I think that over the long term there will be economic benefits derived from it.”

OLF foes still opposed

One of those government officials, Franklin City Councilman Benny Burgess, who represents Ward 2 in the city, said he is still opposed to the OLF.

“I don’t think (the mill closure) changes the debate over the OLF as it is currently presented,” Burgess said. “If that were to change significantly, then we would have to take another look at it. But right now we need to think about the people that this would affect the most, and those people are opposed to it. The OLF literally does not bring any jobs, and we don’t need just the noise.”

Burgess added that a revenue-sharing agreement with Virginia Beach wouldn’t affect his position.

“It’s not the revenue given to a locality that I’m primarily interested in but the revenue from jobs that are created here so that people can afford to spend money in stores and buy and keep houses here,” he said. “I’ll take the money if I have to, but I want businesses to thrive here. I don’t know how we’re going to be able to do that just by bringing in revenue, but maybe we could put it into a pool to support economic development and small businesses.

“But just on first blush, I would not be in favor of a revenue-sharing agreement.”

Bruce Phillips, who farms 300 acres near Sebrell and serves as environmental chairman for the group Virginians Against the Outlying Landing Field, said he didn’t believe resistance to an OLF was softening.

“Not at all,” Phillips said. “But I think the mill closure has rekindled the issue. We want to expand our economic base, but the Navy doesn’t want industries around the area of the OLF. They don’t want the lights from businesses. They don’t want any of the restrictions that they are under in Virginia Beach when they come out here. They want a rural area with no lights and no rules.”

VAOLF Chairman Tony Clark said the idea of meeting with the Navy and members of Congress would not solve the problem.

“We have met with both of them separately, not collectively,” Clark said. “The Navy has told us that there is nothing to offer, and the federal government has said that the money is hardly even there to build the landing field.”

Clark added that the Navy “does not have the power or the authority to make any sort of financial commitment to our community whatsoever,” and he questioned how a revenue-sharing agreement would be crafted.

“I’m all for finding out what’s available. But we have said no because nothing has been offered. That leads me to believe that if there was something that could be offered, it would have been offered already.”

Asked if the closure of the IP mill is having a detrimental effect on the VAOLF’s cause, Clark said, “I don’t think it’s made our job more difficult, (but) we have to make sure that people understand what this thing is and what it is not. We have to be more consistent with communicating the facts.”

He added, “Given the uncertainty in the local economy, people are certainly looking at every opportunity that is available. I think we’re all in agreement on that. The folks that oppose the OLF do not oppose economic development. But are we willing to trade 30,000 acres of private, taxable land to bring in 62 jobs? And by giving up those acres, how many agricultural-based jobs are we losing?”

OLF effect on economic development

Local economic development officials agreed that an OLF would probably not help their efforts — but for different reasons.

“The OLF does not lend much economic development potential for the areas of Southampton County and Franklin,” John Smolak, president and CEO of Franklin Southampton Economic Development Inc., said.

Asked if an OLF would possibly dissuade businesses from coming to the area, Smolak said, “I can’t speak toward what firms might think about that. It may be a neutral influence, but I don’t think it lends a lot of positive influence for companies to locate here.”

Lisa Perry, director of Isle of Wight County’s Department of Economic Development, said Friday that the OLF likely would not discourage companies from coming to the county, but another factor — noise — makes the facility unattractive.

“Our main concern will be the noise,” Perry said. “We understand the flight path is projected to go over Isle of Wight County if the OLF is located in Surry County.”

Noise would be a detriment to Isle of Wight’s tourism industry, which, according to Perry, increased 91 percent in 2009 from the previous year.

“Tourism is a huge part of our economic development efforts,” she said. “It is a tremendous revenue generator for this community. If there were to be noise in the middle of the night, that would impact our tourism business, and we would definitely have to take issue with that.”

Navy: OLF will bring 62 civilian jobs

According to Ted Brown, media relations officer for the Navy’s Fleet Public Affairs Office, the OLF would provide 62 full-time permanent jobs for civilians that would pay $4.2 million a year in wages and benefits. That’s an average of $67,742 per employee.

“These jobs are not necessarily highly technical either,” Brown said. “These are jobs that many people would likely be able to qualify for.”

Among the jobs: one airfield administrator; five air traffic controllers; 10 positions in aviation fuel support; five positions in ground electronics; 18 fire and emergency personnel; six law enforcement officers; one physical security officer; nine positions in security operations; one Navy occupational safety and health position, and one position in information technology.

“We would like to enter into some sort of an agreement with area community colleges in setting up a training program where local residents could be qualified to fill as many of these jobs as possible,” Brown said.

In addition to the 62 full-time permanent jobs for civilians, Brown said the OLF would employ an undetermined number of workers through contract employment. Those workers would perform maintenance and landscaping duties.

The Navy has identified five sites, three in Virginia and two in North Carolina, for the proposed OLF. The three Virginia sites are Cabin Point, Dory and Mason. The Cabin Point site is near the confluence of Surry, Prince George and Sussex counties, while the Dory and Mason sites straddle both Sussex and Southampton counties.

In North Carolina, the Sandbanks site is mostly in Gates County, but part of Hertford County would also be affected. The Hale’s Lake site comprises parts of Camden and Currituck counties.

(Charlie Passut is a Staff Writer for the Tidewater News in Franklin, Va., a sister publication of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald.)