Appalachia needs an attitude adjustment

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“Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” – Winston Churchill

Appalachia has a problem and if you haven’t already thought it or said it, change is needed for the area to prosper and get back on its feet. 

Winston Churchill once said that attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference. Here in Appalachia, you could say that we have an attitude and that little thing called attitude makes a big difference. You can also add that some people need an attitude adjustment in Appalachia. 

The thing is, I didn’t use those words “attitude adjustment” nor have I been listening to Hank Williams, Jr.’s Greatest Hits.  The words “attitude adjustment” were words used by business owners in Martinsville and Henry County, VA recently at a community forum focusing on getting their region to thrive again.

Sadly their region is facing the same obstacles and attitudes that we are in Appalachia.

I know because I lived in that region part-time about eleven years ago and not much has changed there except it seems it has gotten worse economically and socially much like Appalachia.

When I came across the article, I read with particular interest the remarks of one businessman who said that when some people are introduced to something new or an idea “that’s different or unfamiliar … there’s a knee-jerk reaction,” adding that the people’s reaction there is “That’s not for us.”

That tune rings all too true in my ears and head. It sounds a lot like far Southwest Virginia and the old way things have been done for years. Our problems here in Appalachia are not just unique to us, they are happening elsewhere under different conditions and situations but the results are the same.  A lack of vision, no desire to change and continued complacency.

I discovered during my time short time there that Southern Virginia is a lot like far Southwest Virginia, it is a “one industry driven” economy.  I even considered moving there for in hopes of a better opportunity for me and my family but other family issues brought me back home to Southwest Virginia.

But during my time there, I did a lot of soul searching. I would drive around and get acquainted with Martinsville and Henry County and many times it reminded me of home. Many of the people were friendly and courteous like back home but one day while driving back to my apartment in Collinsville, I decided to detour through Fieldale and I discovered the real Henry County was too much like home.

As I drove by the old Fieldale Mill textile plant, I saw a deserted building with a large smokestack reaching skyward.  On the smokestack was the word “FIELDALE” painted onto the brick.  There was no activity going on outside the plant.  It was much like driving by an old coal mine or tipple back home in Dickenson County. Instead of a bustling, busy manufacturing facility, the mill was now a warehouse for textile storage; receiving and storing shipments from Mexico and other countries, sent back to the United States for distribution.

Sometime later after I came back home, I heard that the old mill burned to the ground. And like that, another memory was gone.

Furniture was another big industry for Henry County at one time. Most people know that furniture used to come out of the Carolinas but at one time, Henry County boasted of the famous Bassett Furniture and Stanley Furniture companies.  The corporate offices are still there but now most of the labor is shipped overseas. Instead of quality craftsmanship in some of the nicest pieces of furniture made in Virginia, now you get particle board, pressed wood and hard to interpret instructions from China.

The city of Martinsville and the towns of Collinsville, Bassett, Stanleytown, and Ridgeway all benefitted from the textile mills and furniture plants. Now there’s nothing like that. In their place are a few call centers, local businesses and some small industry that has been sent from Richmond to start up in Henry County but that’s about it.

Southwest Virginia, in particular, Appalachia, is very much like Southern Virginia; trying to find its identity.

But in order for Appalachia, Southern Virginia or any other economically depressed or deprived region to survive, there needs to be an attitude adjustment and a rock solid plan put together if the economy is to ultimately thrive again in both regions and the plan is going to have to begin at home.

As writer Mickey Powell continued in his story, the people at the gathering said that Martinsville, Henry County, and Southern Virginia are going to have to take the to “initiative to improve their lives, focusing on positive aspects of regional life instead of constantly dwelling on past troubles and embracing new ideas.” 

I couldn’t agree more. So, get ready Appalachia. Open wide to take your medicine.

The cold hard fact is that people are going to have to do the same in Appalachia.  I’ve been saying that silently to myself for a long time until finally, something awoke that spirit inside of me to speak up instead of rolling over and being quiet.

But this “initiative” to improve lives and “embracing” new ideas sounds a lot like the same rhetoric that’s been bandied around for years. The problem is some of the leaders don’t believe in Appalachia anymore or its potential.

This discussion in Martinsville was a part of the Small Business Focus Group Roundtable held by GO Virginia at the New College Institute to gather input in developing a regional growth and diversification plan.

Now if you haven’t heard of GO Virginia, it is a statewide coalition of business leaders promoting regional cooperation in efforts to create jobs and encourage growth within the private sector, as well as to prepare workers for careers. GO Virginia is preparing separate plans to help spark economic improvements in each region. Martinsville, Henry County, and the Danville area are a part of Region Three while Southwest Virginia is a part of Region One.

Dickenson County Circuit Court Clerk and business owner Richard Edwards, a member of the Region One Go Virginia Initiative, has been making rounds in Dickenson County to meetings with the Board of Supervisors and the Industrial Development Authority telling the groups of the purpose of GO Virginia and that the Initiative is looking for ideas.  

The Martinsville/Henry County meeting, which featured about 15 business people came from Danville and Pittsylvania County as well as Martinsville and Henry County. Their discussion was open to the public. I haven’t heard if Region One has sponsored an event like the one in Martinsville.

Karl Stauber, President, and CEO of the Danville Regional Foundation told The Martinsville Bulletin that the group is “not trying to replace local government leadership in tackling economic issues,” but develop an “alternative plan” that will help the “region invest in ourselves.” Of those who attended the discussion, the following topics were addressed and discussed, such as:

Of those who attended the discussion, the following topics were discussed, such as:

  1. The community has people in the workforce that are unmotivated as well as some who lack interest in trying to improve their lives. Another example, some residents cannot pass tests for illegal drug use, there is a lack transportation to jobs and some do not have the reading skills necessary to fill out a simple job application. One business owner went one step further saying that there is an “epidemic in this area” of opioid (painkiller) abuse and until it is curbed, businesses will not want to locate in the community, adding that, “It doesn’t help to be No. 1 in the country.”

Sound familiar? Yes it does.  All too familiar. It’s almost like looking in the mirror and seeing Wise, Dickenson, Lee, Buchanan, Russell and Scott Counties with a few others thrown in.

2. One attendee to the meeting added that the local opioid abuse problem is probably as severe as problems in larger cities, and something must be done about it.  

We hear you there on that concern. Our question is, how do we tackle and solve the problem?

3. Another business owner said he owned a clinic that has a total annual payroll of more than $500,000, but still has trouble hiring local people for jobs, adding that some of his employees are from areas outside of Martinsville and Henry County. For short, finding quality trained people in the county is a hard proposition.

The group talked about the many of the same things that face Appalachia and that have been talked about for years with little or no progress being made. Bring up an idea one that is either different or unfamiliar and there’s that knee-jerk reaction and immediate response of, “No, that’s not for us.”

Which brings me to a comment I overheard during a county board of supervisors meeting in Clintwood one night about a month ago.  One of the board members told the board that a local commission suggested nominating younger members to serve on its board, encouraging new and fresh ideas and also promoting youth.  The chairman of the board of supervisors replied, “What’s wrong with having older members on the board? That’s like age discrimination.”

With responses like that, it’s no wonder our youth leave Appalachia. They are not given a voice or avenue to express themselves nor are they given an opportunity to help the area in which they were born or perhaps want to live. It is as though they are led to the border and cast out, like lepers and told never to return.

So, let’s put this argument on the table.

One of the Southern Virginia businessmen discussed many “people want the status quo” and among older individuals who are in power and control the system, that is a major hindrance to positive change.

One of my major beliefs is also quoted in the article; “Small cities and towns need to have a big city feel to attract and retain younger adults, but localities also must realize that not all industry, retail and restaurant chains will consider locating here just because it is Appalachia. Time must be spent on attracting quality business and industry that will commit to the community and give back rather than looking for how much of tax break or incentives a community or locale will give them in the prostitutional form of a one night stand in the economic development world.  

But like one member of the discussion group said, the state needs to follow through on their end of things.  I wholeheartedly agree.  The governor has done little or nothing over the last four years in office and some in the Virginia General Assembly want to hold on to that “mentality” that we need coal back, then the jobs will be back and things will get better.

The state needs to finally “man up”, step to the line and say, “Here we are. What do you need for us to do?”

For short, a show of commitment to developing industry and training programs in Southwest and Southern Virginia instead of dropping breadcrumbs on locations in the state, baiting them to do political tricks like hungry ducks beside the river or lake. Another is to stop playing politics with areas like Southwest Virginia that doesn’t vote your way or support your way of thinking. 

There are so many things I haven’t even mentioned that need improvement and focus, including improvement in education, vocational training, improved broadband connection not just in one location but in all of Southwestern Virginia and Appalachia, affordable healthcare. These are just a few of some of the issues facing us in Appalachia.

Back during the winter, I attended a similar type meeting in Wise where the town was soliciting input, comments and possible direction as for the future of the town. That forum drew forty-five people. It was also a time driven, interactive, heavy agenda meeting intended to showcase the town’s accomplishments and projects in the planning stage and yet focus on what needs to be done.

The bright spots in the last eight years in the town of Wise? Revitalization of The Inn at Wise, the Gateway Garden and The Big Glades Community Square along with infrastructure improvements were just a few of the accomplishments along with several planned infrastructure improvements. College growth at UVa-Wise was another.  

But when the floor was opened for comments, it was like a hearing a record skipping on a record player. County and local leaders began to tell of accomplishments but there was no originality or creativity. They simply rested on the laurels that put the town where it is and not looking to the future. If the public brought up ideas such as bicycle lanes, hiking trails, in addition to focusing on a town economic development authority, out came the need for shin guards with all of the knee jerk reactions from some of the older crowd present. In the end, a “dot democracy” voting procedure was held and many of the dots stayed on the old ways things have been done, not looking toward the future.  

Since then, there have been no other meetings, no new ideas put forth and no suggestions.  It’s as though the whole idea was a publicity stunt to make someone look like they are doing something. Reminds me of the old WPA, the Works Progress Administration or We Piddle Around? I’m not going to use the other WPA meanings my 88-year-old father told me (this is a family friendly blog).

Change in Appalachia is not going to happen overnight. It’s not going to happen with the wave of a magic wand and everything magically appears.  It’s going to to take an attitude adjustment in how we deal with ourselves and the dilemma we face and the mess we have made here in Appalachia.

The moderator of the forum said it best, “There’s no fairy dust” (magical solution) to improving economic development.” No, there isn’t, but then again, maybe some in Appalachia need that attitude adjustment to make their whole outlook brand new. Maybe we need something like what the Roanoke Times suggested in their Opinion section recently; a “Marshall Plan”.

Perhaps you’ve heard of it. Developed by Virginia native and Secretary of State George Marshall following World War II to effectively rebuild Europe from the bombed out shell it had become and transform Europe back to their position as a world power.

Well, why can’t Richmond and yes, even Washington, rebuild Appalachia and transform Appalachia into a high tech mountain corridor, use its natural resources or recycle its mined lands into farmlands or turn its mines into batteries for hydroelectric generators and electricity? Why can’t we end the opioid addiction problem that ravages our mountains while improving education, basic work skills, and vocational training?  Why can’t we teach people to fill out a job application or learn to read?  Basic life skills?

Why?

Have we forgotten how to do it ourselves? As always, the question remains, why?

Lots of questions, no definitive answers.

Just think, if the millions of dollars politicians raise to mount their campaigns to unseat incumbents or to break the political glass ceiling could have been used to help Appalachia in a positive way and rebuild our region like the Marshall Plan rebuilt Europe.

You wouldn’t be reading my rants on why Appalachia has been forgotten and mistreated and we might be singing a different song on the jukebox.

“And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”

Maybe.

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