POUND – Cindy Mullins knows what some people think about her town.

She knows that people in Wise County and beyond have watched Pound’s livestreamed town meetings, that they’ve seen the yelling and the name-calling, the council members walking out, the barely veiled animosity brewing between factions of residents and local officials.

“That’s the only side of our town that a lot of people see, and unfortunately that’s the only side they’ll ever know,” said Mullins, who grew up here and was hired last year as the town’s crime prevention officer.

She wishes that those people knew about the good things she sees: the initiative to collect supplies for foster kids, the police department’s community outreach, the way local businesses like the NAPA Auto Parts store support holiday events and car shows.

Map by Robert Lunsford.

Specifically, right now she wishes that members of the Virginia General Assembly would be less inclined to punish Pound for, as she put it, “the sins of the father” and more inclined to lend a hand.

“People are coming together like never before to rally around each other and this town,” she said. “We have a renewed sense of hope. … It’s a new day. We ask for the opportunity to prove ourselves.” 

With a bill that has cleared both houses of the state legislature, Pound could be on the verge of losing its charter after dealing with years of problems – a “comedy of errors,” as the bill’s patron put it – that have come to a head since 2020.

Council members and former town employees have sued each other. The mayor was the subject of a recall petition. The town disbanded its police department and lost its water system. A town bank account was frozen. A town employee was convicted of embezzlement. 

So many council members have resigned that the five-seat body hasn’t had a quorum since December.

House Bill 904 provides none of this background, just a short description:

A BILL to repeal Chapter 109, as amended, of the Acts of Assembly of 1984, which provided a charter for the Town of Pound in Wise County.

The bill is intended to be a “stick” to get the town to act, its patron, House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, told colleagues at a Feb. 4 House subcommittee meeting; it gives the residents of Pound until next year to “get their house in order,” as he put it, or lose their town.

House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County

But residents of Pound – or “The Pound,” as longtime residents call it – and some who live outside the town limits, and even in other parts of the state, have mounted a robust defense. They’re on the cusp of big changes, they contend, and they need help, not censure.

Late Thursday, the judges of the 30th Judicial Circuit appointed three new council members from a pool of submitted names – business owner Kensleigh Browning, former mayor George Dean and lifelong Pound resident Doris Mullins – restoring the quorum and clearing the way for the council to do business again.

“I think you’re going to see a whole different world with us” once the council is fully restored, Leabern Kennedy, one of two current council members, told legislators at a House committee meeting last month in Richmond. The other sitting council member, Glenn Cantrell, declined to be interviewed for this story.

The efforts extend beyond the town council, Pound supporters point out. Mullins and the interim police chief – the town’s only two paid employees at the moment – have spent months trying to restore order to a department that was decimated by the loss of all its officers and embarrassed by a trove of mishandled evidence. There are efforts underway to bring public art to Pound, and to build a kayak launch on the Pound River. Every Thursday night, Pickin’ in the Pound draws musicians and families to Town Hall for food and fellowship.

“A lot of times those things are hidden because they’re overshadowed by all the negativity,” Mullins said.

It might be hard to see Pound’s woes as anything more than the problems that a bickering small town has brought upon itself. But leave out the most dramatic aspects, and the story that’s playing out in Pound isn’t all that different from what has happened in other communities across Appalachia as coal has declined in the region.

Former town council member Marley Green, who has been involved for years with community organizing across the coalfields, said Pound’s problems have been more public than what he’s seen in other places. But at its core, he believes, is the same story: The coal industry collapses, the population drops, investments decline. Towns lose their tax bases and don’t have the money to take care of their utilities or hire and retain qualified staff.

And no one seemed to see it coming or plan for any of it.

“And then when things get hard, people start fighting over what’s left,” said Green, who resigned from the council last summer after serving for about a year. “And then you throw in some personal grudges and relationships. It’s obviously kind of a unique situation in a lot of ways, but I also think a lot of towns are facing a lot of the same headwinds that could easily tip them into dramatic situations.

“We need more help or things are going to keep getting worse in some of these places.”

***

Kennedy, a Pound lifer who joined the town council after a special election in November, traveled last month to Richmond with Terry Short, a friend and former council member, to tell Pound’s story to the legislators who would be voting on its fate.

Her assessment of her town’s problems was blunt. But so was her plea that Pound be given an opportunity to heal itself.

“At this point what we’re asking for is the chance to fix our house,” she told the House committee. “Our house is a hot mess, I’m not going to lie there. But we’re asking for the chance.”

In the last two years, Pound has attracted media attention far beyond what its 2.6 square miles and 877 residents would seem to warrant. 

The newly elected mayor was locked out of town hall, and three council members signed a petition to force her from office. The police force was disbanded, the town attorney was fired and sued the town, two town managers quit.

A town employee was convicted of embezzlement. Guns and drugs were found unsecured in the police department. 

The town gave up its water and sewer system to the county after allowing untreated wastewater to flow into the Pound River.

Judges removed two council members because they had been improperly appointed. Others refused to come to meetings, or attended but then walked out, or resigned.

Some of the disputes have been centered directly around actions taken, or not taken: the decision to disband the police department, the appointment of council members to fill vacant seats, the mess over the wastewater system.

But undergirding it all seems to be something deeper – the “personal grudges and relationships” that Green cited. And it’s that drama, not the systemic problems that so many small towns are facing, that has garnered so much attention for the small town, and that has driven residents and outsiders alike to tune in to Facebook every time a town meeting is streamed.

Mayor Stacey Carson has been a lightning rod for much of the conflict.

Carson, who moved to Pound in 2006, first ran for mayor six years later on a platform of exposing what she saw as abuses of power. She got 93 votes, just over 32% of the total. She tried again in 2018 and this time pulled 42%. In 2020, the incumbent mayor did not run, and Carson and a write-in candidate each received 60 votes. Carson was declared the winner when her name was pulled from a hat.

Pound’s town charter lays out a largely ceremonial role for the mayor – someone who can cast tie-breaking votes but has no real authority. But two former mayors served simultaneously as town manager, giving them a bigger role in town governance and setting a precedent that Carson expected would continue.

Carson, who said she applied for the town manager’s job, did not get it.

Over the course of the next few months, tensions rose in town hall. In November, Carson was locked out of the building. In December, a petition calling for Carson’s removal was signed by 44 people, including three sitting council members, a previous mayor and the town employee who later would be convicted of embezzlement. 

The petition – which went to court but eventually was dismissed – accused Carson of 24 actions, ranging from “engaging in a continuous hostile demeanor” toward town staff, to making “repeated false accusations of criminal conduct” against staff during council meetings, to “unilaterally declaring that she intends to take action as the Mayor whether it’s approved by Council or not.”

The morning after the town’s February meeting – which drew a dozen or so people, even though it had been a purely informational gathering since there was no council quorum to take any action – Carson sat in her town hall office and said she finds it “very hurtful” that she was denied the opportunity to be town manager.

She’s puzzled, and wounded, by what she sees as disrespect for her efforts. It can be hard, she admits, to separate the personal from the political.

“Sad thing is, people don’t understand why I care because this isn’t my hometown,” she said, tearing up and reaching for a tissue. “But I don’t think anybody could tell me that my heart’s not here, just like anybody that was born and raised here.”

Since she became mayor, she said she has put her own time and money into fixing up town hall, and she’s proud of the transformation. She swipes through photos on her phone, showing “before” pictures of her now tidy office – stacks of papers, old furniture, an ashtray filled with cigarette butts in a desk drawer.

There wasn’t money to buy new furniture for the multipurpose room across the hall, she said, so she collected dozens of Pound photos and varnished them onto the tops of some old tables. She and her son cleaned out the kitchen – “We had rodents, bad,” she said – and added homey touches like a rack of aprons for the women who fix meals there. Even the bathrooms got a makeover.

For a town in such great turmoil, a focus on redecorating might seem frivolous. But to Carson, it’s a way to show her love for the town – and to show Pound taxpayers that their investment in the town is paying off.

“I always believe people visually need to see what you’re doing,” she said. “They need to see you out here, they need to see a difference being made, and they need to be able to realize that they can also help make a difference. Each and every person.”

She wants to reopen a town playground that she said has been closed for months. She’s planning a river cleanup as soon as the weather gets warmer. She wants to bring more businesses to town – restaurants, in particular; maybe a music store – but said the inability of the town council to agree on anything has hamstrung her efforts.

Drew Mullins, who served as town manager for about three months in 2021 and had known Carson prior to that, called her “Pound’s biggest cheerleader.” But he also said that she didn’t have the thick skin that politics can require.

“She wears her heart on her sleeve, and it’s wide open, no protection at all,” he said. “And that’s her biggest downfall.”

Mullins, who now is a town manager in Florida, said he left Pound after such a short tenure in part because he felt that he’d finished the job he’d come to do – to deal with the town’s wastewater issues – and in part because of the “absolute animosity” that pervaded the town.

But the turmoil goes well beyond Carson.

Chuck Slemp, who was elected commonwealth’s attorney of Wise County and Norton in 2015 and held that job until he was named the state’s chief deputy attorney general in January, said last month that Pound kept him busy with complaints. Stories in local media from the last several years back that up: His office was asked about where council members lived, about town finances, about allegations of assault, about whether meetings had been properly called.

“I spent more time dealing with the drama of Pound than I did on any single case in the six years,” Slemp said. “More than murder cases.”

He said his practice was to refer complaints to law enforcement to be investigated; with the exception of a case in which a town employee was convicted of embezzlement, he said, none of the complaints turned out to be anything more than rumors or innuendo.

The commonwealth’s attorney’s office also was drawn into a dispute over the town’s police department. 

After years of arguments about how much of the town’s budget should be spent on its police force – arguments that broke out both on the council and among residents – the council in April 2021 voted to furlough police employees. The next month – in a contentious 3-2 vote that saw Carson as tiebreaker – it disbanded the department altogether and dismissed the two remaining employees.

That created a problem: Who could access the locked evidence room, which was off-limits to anyone who wasn’t in law enforcement?

The council hired an interim police chief and agreed to bring in an outside evidence expert from Northern Virginia. They quickly found disarray: unsecured drugs and guns, unserved warrants, evidence that had never been logged.

In July, Slemp dropped charges against 31 people who had been investigated by the Pound Police Department.

“As a prosecutor, I always believed that it was my duty to seek justice within the bounds of the law, not merely to seek convictions,” Slemp said. “Thus, I made the difficult decision to dismiss the criminal charges in these cases. It was necessary because the town council’s action regarding the evidence room and police department jeopardized the preservation of evidence in those cases.”

In 1979, the actor Tommy Lee Jones, who was filming “Coal Miner’s Daughter” nearby, was arrested late one night in Pound after a car crash. He was charged with drunkenness, assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest.

Kristin Foley, who moved to Pound in 2017 and had asked to be considered for one of the council vacancies, said it can be hard for an outsider to understand why the seemingly simple concept of a functioning town government has proven to be such a hurdle in Pound.

There are a lot of residents whose families go back generations, whose blood “runs through these mountains,” she said: There’s a lot of history, and not all of it good.

“There’s a lot of heart, a lot of feelings involved,” she said. “And that makes it a much bigger hurdle.”

She wants to see Pound get a chance to prove itself.

“I hope that we have the opportunity to fight and just be a cute little small town, a la Stars Hollow,” she said, invoking the fictional Connecticut town from “Gilmore Girls.”

“It doesn’t have to be anything grand. We’re not trying to be Chesapeake, we’re not trying to be Roanoke. We’re not trying to do anything like that. Just let us be. But hopefully we can figure out how to do that appropriately.”

She learned late Thursday that she didn’t get the nod from the judges, but she said that’s not going to keep her from being involved.

“I’m not just going to stop participating and doing everything I can to help in this process,” she said. “I’ve made some friends and some allies, and I definitely want to continue fighting and doing everything I can to help the town.”

***

On a day in May 2021, the full power of the Virginia attorney general’s office was brought down on Pound.

The memory still rankles some residents who see the incident as just another instance of outsiders trying to control the town. Others, though, believe it shows just how much the town has been hurt by its declining tax base and the inexperience of some of its leaders.

For years, the town council had known that its wastewater system had problems; it was aging and was not permitted for the kind of volume it was handling. Untreated sewage was being released into the Pound River, and in 2016, the town signed a consent order with the Department of Environmental Quality and agreed to pay a civil fine of $7,770 and complete $3 million worth of repairs.

But in May 2021, Jerald Hess, an assistant attorney general, drove six hours from Richmond to deliver a grim message during a hastily called town council meeting.

Five years after the consent order was signed, nothing had changed, he said. 

In fact, just weeks earlier, the Virginia Department of Health had warned residents of an “ongoing sewage release” into the Pound River from the town’s treatment plant. The board of supervisors in neighboring Dickenson County was threatening legal action against the town over the leaks.

Time was up, Hess said, and he’d come on orders of the attorney general himself to give the council a choice: The town could either agree to hand over its water and sewer operations to the Wise County Public Service Authority, or it could face up to $30 million in civil penalties. Criminal charges were a possibility.

“To be perfectly frank, the residents of Pound deserve better,” Hess said during the meeting, which was posted on Facebook. “The citizens of Virginia expect better. Your downstream neighbors expect and deserve better.”

That afternoon, the council voted unanimously to consolidate its water and sewer operations with the PSA.

“I hated to do it,” Green said last month. “But it felt like we had no choice. It felt like we, the town, had missed the opportunity to avoid doing it a long time ago.

“To me, clean drinking water and the river as assets to this town and to the future of this town and our area is just so important – too important to play games with, or to try and play brinkmanship with the state.”

Some residents saw – still see – something more nefarious. They believe that the water system takeover was orchestrated by the county. That the PSA wanted the town’s system, and the million-plus dollars in coronavirus relief money that the town was set to receive. That the PSA used the consolidation as an excuse to raise rates. That the town manager gave away the utility when it could have been saved.

It’s true that rates went up for some customers; Tabby Back, who owns a clock repair and jewelry shop in downtown Pound, said he’s paying three times what he used to when the town ran the system.

But it’s also true that the town hadn’t regularly raised water or sewer rates over the years to pay for maintenance. 

The most recent town budget did include some rate increases, said former council member Clifton Cauthorne, who resigned in December. At one point in the recent past, the council raised rates for customers outside the town limits, he said.

But for the most part, the town had protected its residents from rate hikes over the years, he acknowledged.

“Politically, maybe, we just weren’t willing to skyrocket our rates,” he said. “We were raising our rates, but primarily on the backs of out of town customers because you always look out for the shareholders, and the shareholders are the citizens of the town.”

Fred Luntsford, who represents Pound’s district on the county board of supervisors and sits on the board of the PSA, said he’d been floating the idea of turning over the town’s water and sewer for five or six years. It just made sense, he said, considering that the town’s revenues had been dropping and the costs kept rising. 

“It has been said, you need to pay attention to this now, because the shoe’s going to drop sometime,” he said. “Well, it dropped. And who was there to save the residents who need good water and sewer service? The PSA.”

Mullins, who was confronted with the water crisis as soon as he was hired in spring 2021, said the town didn’t have much of a choice in what to do with the system, or the federal money attached to it.

The town received $800,000 in American Rescue Plan Act money, Mullins said, with more pledged. But even before Hess’ visit, the state had insisted that “every dime” be put toward wastewater system repairs and the town council had agreed, he said. So when Pound handed the system over to the PSA, the money had to go with it – as will the ARPA installment that’s supposed to come this spring, he said.

Short, who has continued to be involved in town affairs after leaving the council, said he’d seen over the years that there were problems with the water and sewer systems, and he had disagreed with the engineering firms hired by the town over how best to address them. He was reluctant to raise rates as long as he didn’t feel confident that the money would be spent correctly, he said.

He can’t argue with the loss of the utilities, he said. “I agree 100% that the operations and the way it was managed was completely wrong,” he said.

His issue, he said, is that the taxpayers who funded the system have lost their investment. And he still has questions about how some of the assets were transferred to the PSA – questions that can’t be answered until there’s a full audit, he said.

“I absolutely believe that in the end, the town of Pound’s water system is going to be a huge asset to the county PSA,” Green said. He thinks the PSA will be able to extend new lines to new customers and have new revenue streams – maybe even have access to new sources of funding.

He doesn’t see a conspiracy. Instead, he sees the mark of inexperience among town officials, including himself.

“I didn’t understand how bad the situation was, and how much leeway the state had already given the town,” he said. “And I don’t think to be honest anybody on council … really understood the situation because they weren’t trained in it. They weren’t professionals.

“I think there was just a level of ignorance about it. And denial. There was the sense that, well, it’ll work out. We’ll find a way.”

With maybe a few exceptions, like Short, “Nobody knew how bad the town was,” Cauthorne said.

***

The town of Pound, which has a long history in Wise County, is called “The Pound” by longtime residents. The name came either from a family or from an old pounding mill. Photo by Megan Schnabel

In 2011, the town of Pound received $158,056 in revenue from the coal severance tax, according to county records.

In 2021, it got $11,910. 

Coal companies pay the severance tax based on how much coal they extract; state code sets the rate at up to 1% of the gross receipts from the sale or use of the coal by the producer – so as coal production has declined across Virginia’s coalfields, so have those revenues.

“We were balancing our budget on coal severance tax revenue,” Cauthorne said. “That’s where the mistake came in financially. Because when that went away, we could not afford to live the way we had been living. And that’s when we started running up line-of-credit debt, and that’s when things started falling apart.”

Several other former council members and Dean, the former mayor, did not respond to phone or Facebook messages requesting comment for this story.

But Short concurred with Cauthorne’s assessment. Instead of socking away the severance tax money into a rainy-day fund or using it for capital improvements, the town put it toward operating expenses.

“You can’t do that,” he said. “And now that it’s dried up, well, they don’t have that extra $125,000 but their budget kept increasing.”

With its shrinking tax base, the town didn’t have the cash on hand to pay for millions of dollars in sewer system repairs, or even for the initial engineering studies, so the council took out a nearly $400,000 line of credit on which it paid $1,000 a month in interest, Short said.

The town expected it would land a grant to reimburse the expense. But last May, not long before Hess’ visit to Pound, embezzlement indictments came down against a town employee who later pleaded guilty. That investigation, combined with the fact that the town was several years behind on its audits, scuttled hopes of outside financial help.

And then payments on the debt were missed, and the bank account was frozen. 

Getting a grip on the town’s financial situation – which, given the lack of audits, is murky at best – will be one of the first tasks for the new council.

The town’s only two paid employees are Cindy Mullins and Chris Wilcox, the interim police chief; there is no clerk, no treasurer, no public works department, no attorney, no town manager. Kennedy and Carson said they’re keeping the critical bills paid. Carson has been relying on free labor from people doing community service to help with maintenance issues.

No one could be hired as long as the council lacked a quorum. Even now, there’s the question of how much staff the town can afford. In 2021, the town’s budget was $400,000, with a quarter of that going to insurance and another $5,000 to $7,000 a month to the power bill, Mullins said. 

Some years ago, Cauthorne said, when the council was interviewing candidates for the town manager’s job and had talked to a half-dozen people, another council member made a remark that has stuck with Cauthorne: Why are we interviewing these people when we can’t afford them?

Relying on a mayor who’s also part-time town manager, as Pound did for years, can save money in the short run. But Michelle Gowdy, executive director of the Virginia Municipal League, said it’s not a sustainable model longer-term because having the same person in both roles can cause a conflict.

Most towns that she has worked with have a fairly stable town council and town manager, she said. Unfortunately, she said, Pound hasn’t had either in quite a while.

“The longevity of their problems I think is probably more prevalent than most of the other small towns,” she said.

Green believes that the embezzlement – which also divided the town council, with some members wanting to keep it quiet and others seeking transparency – was another symptom of an underfunded municipality

“It’s something that happens in small towns,” he said. “It’s a thing that happens in places where there’s not good oversight. That comes with decreasing town budgets. It’s hard to maintain good staff and hard to maintain good oversight.”

With so few services now being provided by the town, the question of just what residents are getting in return for the town taxes they pay has been raised by several local and state officials.

“Everything that the Wise County Board of Supervisors is doing, and everything in my discussions with Del. Kilgore, tell me everybody is looking out for the citizens of the town of Pound,” said Michael Hatfield, Wise County’s administrator. “They’re paying taxes and they’re not getting any benefit from it.”

Carson said she understands the frustration of being taxed by both the county and the town; she pays both sets of taxes, too.

“I feel so strongly that taxpayers are saying, ‘What is our money going for?’” she said. “But at the same time if they see actual change, I don’t think that they would mind. I think they’d say, ‘Wow, we’re investing in our town. We are investing to bring it back to life.’

“My thing is for the taxpayers to look at it as they’re investing in this town, and they are the ones who can save it and make a difference. Each and every one of them.”

***

Eugene Mullins is just 40, but he remembers when Pound was bustling.

“When I grew up, you couldn’t find a parking spot up the street anywhere,” he said. “It was just business after business after business.” 

His father would tell him stories from his own youth, when things were even busier. At one point, Mullins said, there were seven bars in town, catering to folks from dry counties just across the Kentucky line.

Now, he lamented, there’s nowhere to sit down for a beer and a burger.

Pound has lost more than 26% of its population since the 1950 census. Businesses have followed, and so has the town’s tax base. The opening of the U.S. 23 bypass around Pound in the 1960s meant even fewer travelers would make their way into town.

Mullins would like to see Pound create some kind of incentive program to lure businesses back: restaurants, beer joints, maybe a music venue in the old movie theater building.

He and his wife, Brittany Avery Mullins, are getting ready to start renovating an old town-owned building to house a kids’ clothing boutique that will also sell some of the wooden bowls and furniture that they make.

“I’d like to see all these buildings full of businesses,” he said on a drive through town. “I’d like to see things in this town for our kids to do.”

Keeping young people in Pound is critical to the town’s future, Carson said. 

“The youth are growing up right now saying, ‘What are we here for?’” she said. “There’s no coal right now. There’s nothing keeping them here. We have to come together as a community and say, ‘What do we want our town to be known for now?’ We’ve got to focus on something where we can create jobs.”

The town owns several buildings, Carson said, and she’d like to see them repurposed for new ventures. She said that the town’s economic development authority came up with a plan to offer low rent in exchange for rehab work, and that she talked to the owners of a Mexican restaurant and to someone who wanted to open a music and photography venue. But nothing came of those efforts – a fact she blames on the inability of local officials to work together.

The Golden Pine, a roadhouse that used to stand between town proper and the bypass, gained notoriety in the 1990s when its owner successfully challenged on constitutional grounds a local ordinance that banned dancing. The federal judge who ruled on the case did, indeed, reference “Footloose” in his opinion. (The town council rewrote the ordinance the next year to pass First Amendment muster. The bar closed in the early 2000s after losing its liquor license.)

Cindy Mullins said the disarray in town hall has been a primary concern for the business owners she’s been meeting. In November, Short delivered to the town council letters from a group of business owners who said they wouldn’t pay taxes until an audit had been completed and they could see how their tax dollars were being spent.

Susan Downs-Freeman owns the Fabric House in downtown Pound and briefly filled a town council vacancy last year before a judge determined that her appointment hadn’t been legal. She has been withholding her tax payments to the town. She’s tired of being taxed by both Pound and Wise County, she said, and she’s not sure what she’s getting for her money.

An audit of town finances might change her mind, she said. “Get legal, and I’ll be legal and I’ll pay my taxes again,” she said.

Greg Clisso, who ran a salad dressing company out of the old Saba Market grocery store building in downtown Pound for more than a dozen years, said he’d love to see more business come to the town but believes a significant change in attitude is needed first.

He launched Chef G.W. Clisso 30 miles up the road in the town of Appalachia in 1995 after the coal downturn shuttered his Norton restaurant, he said. He later moved the business to Pound, and it continued to grow as he inked deals with Food City, Ingles Markets and other retailers.

But about three years ago, he moved back to Appalachia.

He was seeing sales growth of 2% to 3% a month. He needed more room, and he wanted to take over the old Pound High School building to expand his operations and add cooking classes, maybe even a music venue.

But he got pushback from the town – he blames a “lack of vision” – so he left. 

Today, he said, his products are in 450 stores and restaurants in 10 states, and he has 10 employees. He still holds a long-term lease on the building in Pound.

“Pound really broke my heart,” he said. “I keep telling them, when they finally get it together, I’ll come back and do something there.”

Some see tourism as a piece of Pound’s economic recovery.

With the town’s proximity to the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, and to waterways, Pound should be making the most of its outdoor recreation opportunities, Green thinks.

The 44-mile Pine Mountain Trail, which passes about 3 miles from Pound, is a piece of the Great Eastern Trail project, an effort to create a hiking trail from Alabama to New York. Green sees potential for Pound to capitalize on the foot traffic, much as the Washington County town of Damascus has taken advantage of tourism from the nearby Appalachian Trail.

Some see an opportunity in the region’s waterways. In 2020, a 17-mile stretch of the Pound River starting at the town was named a Virginia Scenic River by the state, which noted its scenic beauty and varied flora and fauna, with a sizeable beaver population, as well as red fox, wild turkey, white-tailed deer, warblers, woodpeckers and green heron. The river also offers several rapids; Carson said the town plans to put in a kayak launch and encourage tubing as well.

Others see the possibility for cultural tourism, to capitalize on the crafters and musicians in the region.

“You’ve got some of the best craftsmen that ever was around here,” said David Williams, who moved to Pound 30 years ago. He owns the TV repair shop in downtown Pound but spends a lot of his time working with Back on old clocks and building furniture out of salvaged barn wood. “They’re starting to die off because it’s a lost art.”

Back concurred. “If the right people get a hold of Pound, it can be a great craft community,” he said. “But Pound just needs a little help somewhere along the line to get it going.”

Some help has come from Green’s employer, Appalshop, which was created in the late 1960s to preserve and promote Appalachian culture.

The nonprofit secured a federal grant to support projects including four public art installations and the Red Fox Storytelling Festival, which went on hiatus last year but will resume next month in downtown Pound, said Green, who recently moved from Pound to Northern Virginia to be closer to family.

The projects add up to $200,000, with $100,000 coming from the National Endowment for the Arts and the rest as cash and in-kind matches from Appalshop, the town and the Historical Society of the Pound, he said.

***

Leabern Kennedy was elected in November to fill a vacancy on the town council, but over the past couple of months much of her time has been spent lobbying legislators about the bill that would revoke Pound’s charter. “That’s where I grew up,” she said. “I’ve seen it be a thriving community where it was the place to be, and I think with the right leadership we can be that again.” Photo by Megan Schnabel.

Leabern Kennedy thought twice – maybe more than twice – about seeking the open seat on Pound’s town council in November.

She’d been a vocal critic of how the town was being run, but she had plenty of responsibilities already, including a full-time job at Verizon and elderly relatives to care for.

But she ran anyway – “I just felt like somebody’s got to do something,” she said – and she pulled 220 votes, and she became the town’s unofficial lobbyist in Richmond once the whole charter debate started.

She and Short, who served on council from 2014 to 2018, have been calling and emailing legislators. They testified remotely and in person during committee and subcommittee meetings.

She’s been frustrated by what she sees as a lack of assistance from Pound’s legislative delegation, to whom she’s reached out for help without success, she said.

But she said several General Assembly members from other parts of the state talked to her after they heard her speak in Richmond, and the Virginia Municipal League has been in close contact as well.

“We have offers of help from a little bit of everywhere,” Kennedy said. “And that’s a plus. Those things, they don’t happen. People usually take care of their own little square of the world and everybody else is kind of on their own. 

“I think there are some people out there who recognize we can have a thriving community with the right leadership. I’m appreciative to those folks for being there and offering their help.”

There’s less appreciation for the county board of supervisors, which voted to ask for the revocation of Pound’s charter, or for Kilgore, who introduced the bill.

There’s also a question about where the idea for the bill actually came from.

Not from Wise County, Luntsford and Hatfield said.

“The county wasn’t the start of this,” Luntsford said. “We didn’t start the request. It came down from the state legislature.”

Members of the General Assembly – neither Hatfield nor Luntsford would say who – approached Hatfield, who then brought the idea to the board.

Kilgore – who currently does not represent Pound in the General Assembly but will after redistricting is complete – said it wasn’t him. The region’s other legislators – Sens. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, and Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell, and Del. Will Wampler, R-Washington – didn’t reply to requests for interviews this week.

Kilgore did say, however, that he needs to see meaningful changes in Pound. He’s heard assurances from the town before, he said, but has yet to see substantive action taken. That’s why he went ahead with the bill, despite pleas to wait until new council members could be appointed.

“There’s just been so much infighting and frustration, I thought … let’s put something down so that we can at least move something forward,” he said.

He said he’s not embarrassed by Pound, but he has little patience for drama. “You don’t want to see this in the paper every day, every week, something going on,” he said.

Nor will he abide the continuation of long-standing feuds. “We’ve got to get over that,” he said. “We don’t need to go back in time. We just need to start a clean slate, move forward, and that’s what I hope the town of Pound will do.”

He said he will meet with the town to help however he can. “I’m just not being a cruel, mean person trying to take Pound’s charter away,” he said. “I want to work with them, I want to get it going.” 

Luntsford, who is also town manager of Appalachia, said the board of supervisors did support the idea of charter revocation, although reluctantly – at least on his part.

“We are sympathetic to our small towns here in Wise County, and we want to see everybody survive and prosper,” he said. He said he had talked to Pound’s leaders over the years to offer help, but the situation in the town continued to deteriorate.

“Since they have that ultimatum, nobody here in Wise County is going to turn their backs on those people, especially me,” he said. “I’m going to do all I can to help them. …

“But those whom we are trying to help have to have skin in the game by being able to communicate, govern and compromise.”

***

A mural at the entrance to Pound on the Kentucky side features several of its favorite sons. From left: Glenn Roberts, a basketball player who, while at Emory & Henry College, popularized the use of the jump-shot and went on to a pro career.; Francis Gary Powers, the pilot whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over Soviet airspace in 1960; Napoleon Hill, a self-help author known for “Think and Grow Rich”; Chant Kelly, who was a developer of Pound in the 1920s. Photo by Megan Schnabel.

The bill gives the town until sometime in 2023 – July 1, according to the House version of the bill, Nov. 1 in the Senate version – to show improvement; the date will have to be worked out between the two General Assembly chambers before they adjourn March 12, but Kilgore said during the Feb. 21 Senate subcommittee meeting that he was fine with the extended deadline.

Kilgore has said he’ll come back to the General Assembly to repeal the bill once he sees progress. But just how that progress will be measured has been a matter of some discussion.

As introduced, the bill didn’t include any benchmarks, a fact that elicited consternation from townspeople and questions from some outside observers, including the chair of the Virginia Municipal League’s town section.

Sean Brock, the noted Southern chef, also grew up in Pound, but he isn’t (yet) featured on any promotional materials.

“Pound needs to know how they can keep their charter, what’s the grade that they need to achieve, and then how can they keep this from happening to them next year,” Steven Trivett, who’s also mayor of the town of Ashland in Hanover County, told legislators at a Feb. 21 Senate subcommittee meeting.

The final version of the bill still doesn’t include measurable goals. But Kilgore said that his office, in concert with VML, has developed a list of five benchmarks that has been shared with the town:

  • Hire a town attorney with local government experience.
  • Hold, attend and participate in council meetings, and act with professionalism and respect.
  • Approve and manage a state budget, including a capital improvement plan.
  • Attend training on matters such as the state Freedom of Information Act and budgeting.
  • Follow all state, federal and local laws, including moving town elections to November.

Gowdy said VML is ready to work with Pound as long as the new town council agrees to work within agreed-upon rules. She has been lining up volunteer lawyers and others to help, she said.

Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield County – who, with Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, cast the sole votes against Kilgore’s bill in either chamber – said she heard from 20 or so Pound residents and supporters, asking her to vote it down.

“The citizens feel like their voice has not been accounted for in the process,” said Hashmi, who serves on the Senate Local Government Committee and its Charters subcommittee and who voted against the bill at every stage. 

They were concerned that a town’s charter revocation was being debated at the General Assembly – and so was she. “I would like to see us adhere to the processes that are outlined in code, that this really is a local-level decision rather than a state-level action,” Hashmi said.

“I was just disheartened that they didn’t get more folks supporting them,” she said. “I think they made a good effort of outreach and tried to express their concerns.”

Both Hashmi and Trivett also said that this legislative effort raises a broader question about what it could mean for localities throughout Virginia.

“I know that this is specific to Pound, and the messes Pound is having,” Trivett said during the subcommittee meeting. “But at the same time this has repercussions that could affect town and county relationships across the state.”

Cauthorne voiced a similar concern. 

“There are a lot of towns that are struggling,” said Cauthorne, who resigned from the town council in December in order to force the appointment of new council members by the court. Pound has its problems, he said – but it also has a police department and a fire department and zoning authority.

“The question is, where do towns in Virginia need to be in order to remain towns?” he asked. “And I think ultimately the people in the town ought to vote on it and not the representatives in Richmond.” 

Short questions whether what’s happening is even allowed under state code and says he wouldn’t be surprised if legal action follows.

The bill might have already had the kind of effect that Kilgore and others said they were hoping for: Cauthorne thinks the outside attention has served to bring together the people of Pound in a whole new way. “I believe a majority of people don’t want Richmond telling the town of Pound what to do,” he said. “I think that’s one thing we all agree on. I think that has united us.”

He said he’s going to advocate for a town vote on the charter question. 

“If the people are willing to keep paying taxes for what they’re getting right now, then they ought to be allowed to,” he said. 

“But if the people don’t want to continue paying taxes for the services they’re getting right now, then we ought to close her down. But it ought to be up to the people in Pound.”

Megan Schnabel

Megan Schnabel is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach her at megan@cardinalnews.org.