Publisher's Note: This article originally appeared in the Beaufort Observer.
Who does the Washington-Beaufort County Chamber of Commerce represent?
Think you know the answer to this question? I thought they represented the business interests of the City of Washington and the surrounding community with an occasional foray into Beaufort County business interests. It puzzles me that neither the business interests nor the public has heard even a peep from the Chamber about the proposal to move the jail and Sheriff's Office out to the City of Washington to a site located more than five miles to the south in the southwestern corner of Beaufort County. The jail controversy has been going on for almost one and one half years. That's certainly enough time, one would think, for the Chamber to have researched the issue and informed it members of the implications for the business community.
Even the City of Washington, when cornered and forced to take a stand, did not give approval for the jail to be built in the industrial park on Leggett Road. The City owns 45 percent of the park and would have had to issue a special use permit for the jail to be built there. Beaufort County owns 55 percent of the park.
The City of Washington has learned from their mistake in assisting with the location the US 17 BYPASS on the west side of Washington. They learned bypass means "We are not going to stop in your town when we can drive around it". Bypass means "bypass". All the fast food restaurants and especially the motels suffered greatly when the US 17 BYPASS was completed. Where was the Chamber and City of Washington when that fateful decision was made?
The City of Washington sat on their hands when Beaufort County traded land to the State of North Carolina to be used for a rest stop on the same property the new jail is to be built. The state gave Beaufort County a sewer system that pumps sewage to the City of Washington for treatment. This same sewer system is the reason Beaufort County can build the jail across the road from the rest stop. The City of Washington facilitated that decision.
Guess what..., the rest stop means the City of Washington will lose even more business because all those signs the state will put up advertising the rest stop, and the GPS programming will divert traffic away from downtown Washington. The traveling public will head to New Bern and/or Williamston where they have to drive by those motels and restaurants any way. Why make a side trip to Washington to look for a motel or restaurant when all those facilities plus a snack to hold you over are conveniently located right on US 17.
And while DOT was doing all this they were also making plans to by-pass Beaufort County in what could be the most strategic decision of our lifetimes...converting US 64 to interstate status while we hear nothing (except from the Beaufort Observer ) about why not make US 264 the interstate corridor to U. S. 17 and thence to Norfolk? Where is our business community on that?
Where was the Chamber's leadership in debating whether sucking ten million dollars out of local businesses and consumers to fund flawed business plans that was simply a matter of picking winners and losers in a crony capitalism scheme of money laundering?
Moving the jail, the sheriff's offices, the 911 dispatch, public safety and the magistrates out of down town Washington is going to cost businesses in Washington a lot. The only thing remaining will be the Court system. Is that next? The jail committee, at its very first meeting talked about moving the court house to the same location as the new jail. I was there when it happened. When the jail and court house are moved, there will be about one thousand people each week who will not come to down town Washington. All those people will go to down town Chocowinity to do their casual shopping. The sale of gasoline will improve. One thousand people driving an extra ten miles each week is 10,000 miles and that is about 1,700 dollars in fuel costs. The food cost that will be transferred out of town is estimated to be another 2,500 dollars. Do you think all those lawyers and their employees are going to remain in Washington? There will be plenty of rental space available.
The Chamber has indicated it will consider taking a look into this issue. I commend them for considering what moving the jail and ultimately the court house will do to Washington. I urge the Chamber to contact some other counties that have done this. Please do not rely on the political system to provide you with accurate information and answers. Do your own study. Use your common sense. Do not rely on political figures to provide you with accurate answers. Cross check everything the politicians tell you. Even what I tell you. Remember politicians are in office only a short period of time compared to the life of a business.
Consult with the Stop the Jail Committee. They have done a lot of work on this issue. They have a lot of information.
Evaluate whether or not we need a new jail. Consider where to locate a new jail if you decide we need a new jail. Talk to the jail regulators in Raleigh. The Department of Justice has an office to help study and research such matters. Obtain the reports on the need for a new jail from the county. Were all of the alternatives considered, including better management of the criminal justice system and even a "no action" alternative? Finally, ask yourself if any business in Washington or Beaufort County would make a decision like has been done on the jail issue.
Study the impact the jail will have on the future of the industrial park. Sewer is an essential part of economic development. Does the Chamber know what the long-range water and sewer plans are? Does it even know whether there is a strategic utilities plan? When will we have to expand sewer treatment capacity? What does making a decision to locate the "public safety facility" and then learning that you don't have adequate water to service it say about our planning process? It just might be informative to the business community to know.
Be skeptical of anything any politician says about the jail. This is a hot political issue. There are hidden agendas. It takes work to discover where the driving forces are coming from. The Chamber should do its own home work and inform your members and the public of both sides of the issue as it impact the business climate in Beaufort County. Be skeptical of the "wondering around taking pictures" planning model (and then after you've already decided what you're going to do.) Surely we an do better than that.
And finally, how does the Chamber membership factor in a jail with all the other demands and needs of the city and county? Is a jail our greatest need at this time? Do Chamber members even know what the long-range capital plan is for the County? Would reducing taxes have a more positive impact that building more now? Are our school needs, particularly with the Community College more imperative? Would better schools do more to improve the business climate?
The Washington Beaufort County Chamber of Commerce is looked upon by your members, non members, and the public as the protector and advocate for all business and commerce interests and the consuming public, especially around the City of Washington. Decisions made by government that could adversely affect these business interests are a legitimate concern of the Chamber.
It is past time for the Chamber to do its homework and educate its members. But it is not too late. Doing anything less is not a viable option for this community.