City’s Progress Will Depend on Both Council and Residents

By Mark Brazaitis

A new Morgantown city council will take office in July, but it will have an age-old concern: our city and its people.

During the campaign to elect the new council, voters were presented with a choice in each of the seven wards. In all cases, voters chose candidates who advocated for bold initiatives to improve our city and its residents’ quality of life.

Some of what the winning candidates proposed:

·      Extending the boundaries of our city so that companies currently at our borders become official (and tax-paying) contributors to our city. With the additional revenue this would produce, we can fix our roads, save our parks and recreational spaces, and better ensure the long-term success and effectiveness of our police and fire services. Country residents who become part of the city would enjoy better roads, faster emergency response service, lower home insurance rates, and representation by the city council. The entire region would benefit from the economic stimulus created by an enhanced city budget.

·      Creating a green belt around our city by connecting our parks, recreational spaces, and rail trail. A green belt would not only enhance our physical health by providing ample recreational opportunities, it would be a boon to our economy (study after study shows the huge financial windfall to cities, via tourism and business growth, of visionary use of green space) and a smart way to ease our city’s massive traffic problems, as people would be able to get around town safely on bicycles and by foot.

·      Establishing a vibrant waterfront, which would include new businesses and enhanced outdoor activities such as kayaking, paddle-boarding, and canoeing. The more people who flock to our waterfront, the more prosperous and attractive our Wharf District and downtown will be. Roanoke, Virginia, revitalized its economy by emphasizing its outdoor amenities. With a green belt and a revived waterfront, we can outdo Roanoke.

·      Creating a more family-friendly downtown, including enhancing our library and offering more activities for children. A Morgantown arts or cultural district could further improve the quality of life for Morgantown families.

·      Solving our affordable-housing shortage with smart development in strategic places such as downtown and the Wharf District. Appropriate development within our urban landscape could, like a green belt, help to curtail our traffic problems. Building sidewalks (and fixing existing ones), as well as creating bike lanes on our streets, would also benefit our city and stem congestion.

·      Recognize our diverse population—of race, religion, national origin, sexuality, and gender orientation—as a strength to be celebrated and promoted. A city that welcomes everyone draws talent and tourism—and this can only help grow our economy.

For every 50 people in Morgantown whose quality of life would be enhanced by any of the above initiatives, there will be one or two people who, whether because of political philosophy, a fear of change, or a personal or financial interest in maintaining the status quo, will balk—perhaps loudly.

It is, therefore, imperative that our participation in our city’s destiny not end with the recent election. All of us, residents as well as elected officials, must continue to advocate for what we think is best for our city. For residents, this means attending city-council and neighborhood-association meetings, as well as meetings of the city’s boards and commissions (BOPARC, the Planning Commission, etc.). This means communicating your views in letters to the editor and in posts on social media. Simply put, this means being engaged.

The new city council will not agree on everything—nor should it. Whatever the disagreements, however, I am confident dialogue among councilors will be respectful, civil, and free of any hint of litigation. Voters clearly and rightfully voiced strong disapproval of the lawsuits that have inhibited our city’s progress. They voted for Morgantown to move on to better things.

Mark Brazaitis, a WVU professor of English, is the city-councilor-elect to Morgantown’s sixth ward.

Mandate Clear: Expand Morgantown’s Borders

By Mark Brazaitis

The results of Morgantown’s recent city-council elections provide a clear mandate: We should do much more for our residents. Morgantown voters recognized, in a decisive way, that we cannot thrive as a city if we are constantly crying broke.

My campaign offered a comprehensive and fair way to move us out of the red (or its perpetual threat) and into the black: expand our borders.

Our current borders don’t reflect our true size—and they thereby impede us from sustaining our community’s economic health.

In simple terms, border expansion is an issue of economic justice. Morgantown residents and businesses currently suffer a disproportionate tax burden because we are officially part of our city—a city that is, in reality, much larger than our map acknowledges.

To be a truly great small American city—to offer our residents safe roads and sidewalks, a thriving system of parks and recreational areas and activities, and, eventually, amenities such as free city wifi downtown and in our green spaces—we need a fair and sustainable revenue stream. Doubling our geographic size in order to bring into our community people and businesses currently at our edges would make this possible.

As they’ve flourished, businesses just outside of town, including those in the Suncrest Town Center and on the Mileground, as well as Mylan Pharmaceuticals, have relied not only on city services but on proximity to our highly educated workforce. Had these businesses located elsewhere in Appalachia, they would have been hard-pressed to find the talented employees Morgantown provides. Furthermore, these businesses attract and keep top employees in part because of Morgantown and what it offers them and their families. Skilled individuals have a choice of where to live and work.

But because businesses at our borders do not pay Morgantown’s Business and Occupation (B&O) taxes, they have contributed little to help us repair our roads, support our parks and recreational services, or offer other city services such as police and fire protection. As a result, we have the worst roads in the state—costing each motorist $1400 a year—and our park system is going broke. This is not sustainable.

On election night, one local public official, skeptical about annexation, told me that the city must receive the permission of businesses to be included in its boundaries. But it is the people in our surrounding communities, including business owners, who must and, in an ideal scenario, will give the go-ahead to annexation.

There are great reasons they would want to be part of Morgantown:

·      Lower insurance rates on their homes and businesses;

·      Excellent and reliable fire and police protection—and faster response times;

·      Curbside recycling services;

·      Sensible zoning protections, which would include prohibitions against entities better suited to different locations—a concrete plant, for example, or a strip club—moving in next door;

·      Reasonable code enforcement—your neighbors can’t use their lawns as de-facto junkyards or leave abandoned vehicles to rot on your street;

·      A shorter repair cycle for roads and other infrastructure;

·      A more powerful voice in community affairs via representation by a member of the Morgantown city council.

On the campaign trail, I heard from a number of people who resent WVU’s tax-free status. WVU, they complain, isn’t contributing to our community’s revenue stream either. I sympathize with this viewpoint and believe it’s imperative that, in order to be a good neighbor, WVU strongly consider doing what universities in similar college towns across America do: offer a substantial gift to the community. For WVU, this could take at least two forms: 1) the purchase of the Haymaker Forest, a vital wooded area that borders South Hills, Southpoint Circle, and South Park, that would ensure a quality-of-life-enhancing green loop around Morgantown; or 2) the partial or full funding of the construction of a state-of-the-art, two-sheet, year-round ice arena, which would be a significant and sustainable revenue-generator for BOPARC.

Morgantown’s city charter, a document written and approved at a time of deep distrust of the national government in the wake of Watergate and the Vietnam War, grants significant power to the city to forge its own destiny. Its opening words, in fact, make clear its stand on annexation, as it speaks of “the limits of the City of Morgantown as they now exist, or as they may hereafter be (emphasis mine).” Likewise, the city’s comprehensive plan, a blueprint for prosperity, anticipates annexation.

Every great thing we dream for our city begins with annexation. There will be pushback against it, but it’s high time we started expanding our borders in order to create the truly great city we deserve.

Morgantown’s Green Spaces Key to Our Health and Prosperity

By Mark Brazaitis

Green spaces are essential to the physical, spiritual, and economic health of our city.

When we sacrifice our green spaces to a reflexive desire to support development—however ill-conceived and damaging to our community the development—we are co-conspirators in crippling our collective health.

Our overburdened roads and bridges—and the massive traffic we confront daily—are an inevitable consequence of failing to adhere to our city’s and our county’s thoughtful, though apparently unenforceable, comprehensive plans. Both plans designate certain areas for development and others for reserve—or green—space.

Take, for example, developers’ renewed plans to eviscerate the Haymaker Forest, the .5-square-mile woods behind the Circle K on Dorsey Avenue that extends to the top of South Park. In losing the Haymaker Forest, which both the city’s and the county’s comprehensive plans designate as not-for-development, Morgantown and Monongalia County would forever lose:

·      A vital natural protection against extreme weather events, including flooding and heat waves, associated with climate change. If you don’t believe a relatively small forest can serve as a natural climate-regulator, please read Jill Jonnes’ magnificent book Urban Forests. By preserving their green spaces, cities can protect themselves against the challenges of a changing climate.

·      An opportunity to create a green belt around our city. Haymaker Forest, which features walking and bike trails, is a link to White Park, Marilla Park, and the rail trail. It is the missing piece in completing a wonderful, urban green circle.  Imagine what a powerful incentive—for young people, for families, for businesses—to move to, or to remain in, our city a Morgantown Green Belt would be.

·      A place of physical and spiritual refuge in our increasingly stressful, traffic-filled city. If we kill our recreational spaces, we kill our opportunities for exercise, which is our best defense against obesity and other health conditions that can be improved by outdoor activities. Moreover, we risk impoverishing ourselves spiritually. Nature features prominently as a spiritual refuge in all of our sacred texts. In the Old Testament, for example, God speaks to Moses through a burning bush—God is literally nature. Likewise, Jesus often finds spiritual comfort and renewal not in any human-made edifice but outdoors. In the Koran, planting a tree is considered a perpetual gift to the world. As a community that deeply values faith, we should also deeply value our green spaces.

·      A guarantor of economic sustainability. Dozens of reports and studies, by entities as diverse as Money Magazine and the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, have explained and extolled green spaces’ vital role in sustaining a community’s economic prosperity. The benefits are both macro (businesses and talented individuals are more likely to move to, and stay in, communities with significant green spaces) and micro (home values increase in proportion to their proximity to green spaces).

It may not be too late to stop the obliteration of the Haymaker Forest. I urgently propose that private citizens, local businesses, and WVU—or some combination thereof—join forces to buy the Haymaker Forest from the land owners and developers and donate it to BOPARC as a permanent green space and the necessary last link to a Morgantown Green Belt. My family and I are willing to make a substantial contribution to this effort, and I know many others who are likewise committed to doing so.

WVU, which is vitally interested in maintaining strong, supportive, and cooperative town-gown relationships, might look to buy the Haymaker Forest as an opportunity to provide our city with an eternal gift, one that would burnish its reputation as a university that cares about Morgantown’s and Monongalia County’s long-term future.

As a community, we must act swiftly to save the Haymaker Forest. Our collective health and prosperity depend on it.

 

Trump Wins, Appalachia Loses (from the Dominion Post, January 1, 2017)

By Mark Brazaitis

In the recent presidential election, Donald Trump won our state in a blowout over Hillary Clinton, 68 percent to 26 percent.

Trump is now our president. We got what we wanted. We should celebrate, right?

To use one of Trump’s favorite words: Wrong.

Trump said he plans to revive our flagging coal industry. What he didn’t say: whether we like it or not, the world is moving quickly beyond coal and toward cleaner, more affordable forms of energy.

Miners might be the hardest-working people in the country. But to promise them continued employment in an industry whose product is in diminishing demand worldwide is to sell them snake oil—and to smack them with a future of unemployment and misery.

We don’t need pandering to our past. We need an Appalachian revival.   

An Appalachian revival should begin with a major federal investment in our infrastructure, something both Bernie Sanders (who had a plan for how to pay for it) and Trump (who did not) advocated in their presidential campaigns. We cannot attract businesses of the future if our bridges, roads, airports, and railroads are from the distant past. Nor can we do so without widespread access to high-speed Internet. Today, thousands of West Virginians rely on dial-up—if they have any access to the Internet at all.

Likewise, no Appalachian revival will be possible if we continue to destroy our forests and poison our waters. We must remain “wild and wonderful”—an essential component of our identity and an invaluable incentive for people and businesses to move here and for our young people to stay here.

An Appalachian revival must include a renewed investment in public education. If our school buildings are crumbling and our teachers are asked to do too much with too little—and aren’t paid sufficiently—we cannot educate students for careers in our new economy. We should aim to see WVU, Marshall, and Fairmont State—indeed, all of our public institutions of higher learning—double their student populations in the next quarter century.

The people who should have first crack at rebuilding our state are miners. As a returned Peace Corps Volunteer in the 1990s, I qualified for noncompetitive eligibility status, which would have allowed me to move to the front of the line in applying for government jobs. A similar policy should be in effect for miners. If a person produces a paystub from within the past decade from a mine or mining-related industry, he or she should be given priority for a job in rebuilding our state.

The men and women who have given their health, and in some cases their lives, to provide energy to our country over the last 100 years—and have thereby literally powered our national economy—deserve to see their sacrifices honored with long-lasting and healthy jobs for their children and grandchildren.

Couple an upgraded infrastructure with our magnificent mountains and rivers (and the healthy lifestyles they engender), and factor in our relatively low cost of living, and West Virginia can become an Appalachian version of Colorado. We should attract companies and businesses large and small in a wide range of fields, from technology to outdoor recreation to organic farming.

Furthermore, with our connection to, and understanding of, the natural world and our history of sustaining ourselves in rough circumstances, West Virginians can be innovators in what will, unfortunately but inevitably, become an in-demand industry centered on responding to extreme weather events. (Due to climate change, such events will continue to increase in number; the devastating flooding in the southern part of our state this summer is a sad foretaste of what our country will endure with greater frequency.) We should be innovators in everything from the design and production of temporary housing to the engineering and growing of flood-resistant trees and plants.

Finally, an Appalachian revival would not only see an influx of new businesses, but a continued expansion in fields we are succeeding in: health care, tourism, and higher education.

A revival of our region must include an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which is the only way to guarantee a strong and sustainable middle-class. Likewise, social security and Medicare must be preserved and strengthened. A revival cannot be successful if it excludes seniors. 

During the election, Donald Trump won our state by selfishly pandering to the justified pride we feel in our coal-mining past. But his plan was never viable. We will need public-minded and visionary leaders to inaugurate an Appalachian revival.

 

Selected Links:

For an interview with Mark on the Diane Rehm Showhttp://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2012-12-11/mark-brazaitis-incurables

For an interview with Mark on "The Sound of Applause" with Dee Perry (Cleveland Public Radio): http://wcpn.ideastream.org/programs/sound-of-applause/celeste-ng-tc-boyle-phil-klay-and-mark-brazaitis

For an interview with Mark with Carve Magazine: http://www.carvezine.com/from-the-editor/2015/3/9/qa-with-mark-brazaitis

For an interview with Mark with Prairie Schoonerhttp://prairieschooner.unl.edu/blog/how-book-happens-mark-brazaitis-kristi-carter

For an interview with Mark on "Prosody" (Pittsburgh Public Radio): http://prosodyradio.com/episodes/Prosody_%20ProsodyMark%20Brazaitis%201.mp3

To read his story "Blackheart" in Witnesshttp://witness.blackmountaininstitute.org/author/markbrazaitis/

To read his poem "Soccer Until Dusk" at Peace Corps' World Wise Schoolshttps://www.peacecorps.gov/educators/resources/soccer-until-dusk/