a letter from the editor:

The very silent majority

Richard Nixon may have been the first politician who claimed to represent the "silent majority."

It's an easy claim to make. By its very definition, the "silent" crowd never steps forward to argue the point or say what it really wants.

The now-old ploy has filtered down into the hinterlands. And so, the county supervisors, not one of whom was elected by a majority of the registered voters, have taken to representing folks who apparently never say a word in public.

To listen to assorted board members, this great quiet majority consists of widows who own small farms, the working folks, people on "fixed incomes" (though who fixes them or what they are fixed at is never clear), and virtually everyone who was born and raised here.

And to listen to the board, the vocal minority consists of retired people, Yankees and other transplants, tree-huggers and people singularly unconcerned about jobs.

What does the silent majority want?

Apparently it wants huge signs at the interstate exits. It wants to see every hill topped with a McMansion. It wants every little field broken into two-acre lots no larger and no smaller. It doesn't want any planning at all. It wants to give land to Fortune 500 companies, but doesn't want to do much of anything at all to help local businesses. And most of all, it wants a Cracker Barrel, since the supervisors can hardly spend two hours together without Harvey Hotinger mentioning the restaurant chain.

This "us and them" way of looking at the world may be good for something. But it is not good politics.

When you hear a politician of any ilk talking about representing the silent majority, it is safe to assume that who he is really representing is himself and his friends.

The county really is at a crossroads. It has two interstate highways. It has some of the prettiest countryside in the world. It has three colleges and cultural attractions. And for years it and Lexington have been written up in newspapers and magazines as one of the best places in the country to live.

Developers are figuring that out. Some of the biggest land companies in the country are advertising, looking for farms to buy and bust up into vacation home lots. Land prices on the corridors coming into town are at a record high. Speculators are buying properties in the county. Commercial developers are sniffing around.

Most of the board of supervisors seem to think that the silent majority is perfectly happy about all that, and the board doesn't want to do anything that might give pause to an out-of-towner who wants to pluck some bucks out of this place and send it to corporate headquarters far away. And if the development might mean a job or two for a few folks who live here, so much the better.

The notion has left the supervisors open to extortion. The most obvious example is what is happening with the new Peterbilt truck store in Raphine.

The store is up and running, but the owner recently sent a letter to economic developer Dave Kleppinger saying that unless the supervisors let him put up a huge sign, he's going to take his marbles and go home.

The supervisors asked for it. When the company first said it was interested in opening up shop here, the supervisors said they'd do whatever the company wanted. That was a very nice offer. But what it did was put them in a horribly awkward position. Is the company bluffing? Who knows. But there are not very many possible outcomes. The supervisors can say no, and take its chances. Or the supervisors can cave in, as they are inclined to do, and trigger a sign war that will leave the county looking a bit worse and leave some local businesses in the lurch.

And if the board caves, it will be sending a terrible message: we're willing to deal with extortionists in exchange for jobs and taxes. For decades the county has been willing to give tax breaks and land to major industries. It's expected and generally accepted. But this Peterbilt thing is something new. Never before has a retail business come in here demanding that laws be changed. And if the board goes along, it will be opening up a huge can of worms.

The supervisors don't seem to understand that Rockbridge County is not a desperate third world country, and shouldn't treat itself as one. It has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state, and has had that for a couple of years. Many businesses and industries here are nearly desperate for workers.  

Yes, Buena Vista will soon lose one of the best employers in the area. And yes, all three area governments are either saddled, or about to be saddled with huge debts and no painless way of paying them. But panic and acting desperate is not a good response. Neither is magical thinking assuming that there is an easy fix that will fall out of the sky. (If only Cracker Barrel would come, our problems would be solved!)

A better response would be to do what so many folks have been urging the county to do for years: to figure out what we as a community want to be, make plans, and say to the outside world, 'This is a wonderful place, and if you want to come and play by our rules, we'd love to have you. If you don't want to play by our rules, try Hackensack."

The alternative is to allow everyone who wants to make a quick dollar run roughshod over what may soon be just another overdeveloped and overtaxed Anywhere.

It is not too late for the county to keep itself as a truly special place. But it will take some hard work and clear-headed thinking to do so. And a good start would be for the board to listen to the folks who care enough to be willing to take the time and trouble to register their opinions with something other than silence.