We have Black Friday, followed by Small Business Saturday and rounded off by Cyber Monday. If you don’t have your Christmas shopping done by then, well, you’re probably like me and haven’t started yet. (This seems an excellent time to point out that Rocky Mount and Franklin County are urging people to spend at least 20% of their Christmas shopping locally. That seems a good idea and not just in Rocky Mount and Franklin County).
For all you people who do like to get a head start on things, here’s a shopping list – a Christmas wish list for Southwest and Southside.
- A constitutional amendment to end school disparity in Virginia. This one dates back more than half a century. When Virginia’s “new” constitution was being debated in the late ’60s, a coalition of western Republicans – among them Caldwell Butler of Roanoke and Pete Giesen of Augusta County – joined with some liberal Democrats such as Henry Howell to push for a provision to guarantee equal schools across the state. Conservative Democrats, who then controlled the General Assembly, objected – ostensibly for fiscal reasons although some may have had racial motives. In any case, the provision wasn’t included and that’s why today we have such vast disparities between schools in the most affluent parts of Virginia and the least. In the early ’90s, a group of schools from Southwest and Southside sued, alleging the state’s system of school financing was unconstitutional. Former Attorney General Andrew Miller was the lawyer. The case made its way to the Virginia Supreme Court, which ruled against the schools, pointing to the lack of a constitutional requirement for equal schools. The past few years, state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, has taken up the cause. For a long time, it was bottled up in committee and politely killed. This year, the measure passed out of committee and sailed through the state Senate by a vote of 34-1, only to be killed by House Democrats, primarily those from Northern Virginia – a case of the haves voting down the have-nots. Ideally, Stanley brings this measure back again in 2022 and perhaps Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, who is electorally indebted to rural Virginia, will get behind it. To be fair, this may be less of a Democrats vs. Republican issue than it is a suburban vs. rural one. The only two House Democrats from west of the Blue Ridge both figured in this debate. Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery County, sponsored his own amendment, which was likewise killed. And Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, was the only Democrat in committee who backed Stanley’s amendment.
- State funding for school construction. This is the cousin of the above. Historically, school construction has been a local function. In 1949, a liberal Democrat – Francis Pickens Miller – nearly upended the conservative Byrd Machine by campaigning for state funding for school construction. More recently, it’s been a conservative Republican – Stanley again – who has championed a $4 billion state bond issue. And Republicans from Southwest Virginia, led by Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, have pushed other state funding mechanisms, to no avail in a Democratic legislature that often seemed to regard rural Virginia as an annoyance. Here’s another good way that Youngkin could repay his debt to rural Virginia.
- Higher vaccination rates (and lower infection rates). The two do go hand-in-hand. I point out yet again that most of the world hasn’t politicized vaccinations the way we have. Australia has a conservative government, and one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. We could stand to be a bit more Australian – and a lot less like Rwanda, which is where some counties in Southwest and Southside still rank on vaccinations. In Australia, 78% of the population has had at least one dose of the vaccine. No locality in Southwest or Southside comes close to that – Roanoke County is tops at 68%, followed by Salem at 64.1% and Botetourt County at 61.2% (proud to say I’ve helped bump that percentage up). Most are in the 50% range, although three still fall below that – Carroll (41.6%), Lee (41.7%) and Patrick (49.5%) counties. That puts Carroll and Lee on a par with Bolivia, Honduras, Jordan and Rwanda, which also are at 41%, and Patrick in the same category as Venezuela, which is also at 49%. There are some nations that rank higher than Australia – in the 80 or even 90% range. In Virginia, Albemarle County has the highest vaccination rate – 78.8% – so Albemarle is pretty Australian.
- New legislative lines that make sense. Now, granted what makes sense to one party won’t to another. See the debate over how to draw state Senate lines in the Roanoke and New River valleys. Republicans would like to see them drawn geographically, with Roanoke, Salem and most of Roanoke County in one district and Montgomery County intact in another district with neighboring counties. Of course, that would also make both districts quite Republican. Democrats say that submerges distinct Democratic communities in Roanoke, Blacksburg and Radford in a red sea; they think it’s quite logical to connect those three, even if that means using some back roads across Bent Mountain and through Alleghany Springs. The Virginia Supreme Court will have to sort that one out, along with all the other district lines. But we can probably trust that the Supreme Court won’t be doing crazy things like splitting Lynchburg between two congressional districts, as the original Republican maps proposed. Or carving up the Richmond suburbs and adding them to the 5th Congressional District, which might “bury” some Democratic voters in the 5th but also means the 5th wouldn’t really have been a Southside district anymore, it would have been a suburban Richmond district. Not everyone will like what the court comes up with but let’s hope that the maps the court produces make at least some sense.
- More dark sky parks. Virginia picked up three more this year to bring us to a grand total of five. A dark sky park is a park that’s been officially certified by the International Dark-Sky Association as being dark enough to observe certain stars. This can either be simply a cool thing, or an astro-tourism thing, if you want to think of it that way. In any case, we have now dark sky parks at Staunton River State Park in Halifax County, James River State Park in Buckingham County, Natural Bridge State Park in Rockbridge County, Rappahannock County Park in Rappahannock County and Sky Meadows in Fauquier County. Among those seeking the status is Douthat State Park on the Alleghany-Bath county line. Here’s hoping for Douthat. Bonus: There are parts of Craig and Highland that qualify as dark enough, too, according to this map.
- A trail that runs from Galax to Greenfield. Three years ago, Montgomery County Supervisor Steve Fijalkowski proposed connecting the trail systems in the Roanoke and New River valleys. That idea soon grew – those trails could also be connected to the New River Trail State Park, which runs 57.7 miles from Pulaski to Galax. (Or Galax to Pulaski, all depends on your perspective.) Regardless, here was the potential to create a 100-or-so-mile trail system from Galax to Greenfield in Botetourt County (where some hope the Roanoke Valley Greenway system will eventually reach). The Virginia Department of Transportation has come up with some options for how to do this and is taking public comment through Dec. 1. This won’t happen right away – look at how long it’s taken to build the existing trail system (decades, if you’re counting). But it could happen. And we’re a lot more aware today of how important trails are to quality of life (and therefore to economic development), so maybe there’s a chance this gets funded more quickly than trails in the past. Here’s hoping it does.
- Some of the University of Virginia’s endowment. Not for ourselves, for Southwest Virginia. The University of Virginia did really, really, really well in the market last year. Its endowment soared 46% to $14.5 billion. Virginia Tech is in the process of building an “innovation campus” in Northern Virginia. Why shouldn’t UVa take even just a smidge of that money and use it to create an “innovation campus” for tech research at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise?
- Free community college tuition for Patrick County students. Three years ago, the Harvest Foundation in Martinsville started a pilot program to pay the tuition for any high school students in Martinsville and Henry County to continue their education at the local community college (now named Patrick & Henry Community College). That was so successful, the foundation this fall announced plans to extend it for 13 years. It’s now exploring how to expand that program into Patrick County. Let’s hope that happens. This is a bold, generational bet to raise the education levels of the workforce in a part of the state where they lag between statewide averages. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that other community colleges in our region have similar programs, from the Community College Access Program at Virginia Western to Dabney’s Promise at Dabney S. Lancaster – soon to be Mountain Gateway – to The Access to Community College Education at New River. And there may be similar programs at other community colleges, too. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list, just examples.)
- More funding for the Tobacco Commission’s Talent Attraction Program. The biggest challenge for many rural areas isn’t simply economic, it’s demographic, and those two things are related. Rural communities need more young adults; there are also many jobs that are hard to fill – just ask a rural school superintendent trying to hire a math teacher or a science teacher. The Tobacco Commission – whose territory covers most of Southwest and Southside – has launched a program where it pays off some of the student loans for college graduates who agree to live in its footprint and fill one of those in-demand jobs. This is a much more targeted version of the programs some states (such as West Virginia) have launched where they pay people to move in. The Tobacco Commission program is better because West Virginia might have thousands of people move in but still not be able to fill certain positions. (Amy Trent had a story about the program here.) When Tobacco Commission executive director Evan Feinman explained this program to the Senate Finance Committee recently at its retreat in Roanoke, some senators were practically giddy. State Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, called it “the most innovative idea I’ve heard in 20 years.” So far, the program has paid for 350 people, but what if it could pay for 5,000 or 10,000? That would make a real difference in rural Virginia. An addendum: Let’s also hope the General Assembly doesn’t buy the proposal to expand the Tobacco Commission into non-tobacco areas. Its endowment was funded by a settlement with tobacco companies; that money was promised to tobacco counties to build a new economy there. Don’t break faith with them and try to spread that money thin into non-tobacco areas. Set up a separate fund for them.
- Help for Hurley. The small community in Buchanan County, tucked into the corner where Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky all come together, was devastated by flooding and mudslides in August. More than 60 homes were destroyed or heavily damaged; total damage estimates of homes and infrastructure run to more than $16 million and are likely to keep rising. (And that doesn’t include an estimated $30 million for stream restoration.) Amazingly, the Federal Emergency Management Agency rejected requests for disaster aid. (Cardinal News reporter Megan Schnabel wrote about this here.) United Way of Southwest Virginia is raising money for the flood victims. You can donate here.