Stokes County, it is with a bittersweet heart that I write my first, and last, column for the Stokes News.
After serving this county for the past two and half years, I will be leaving the paper on Friday as my wife and I prepare for a move to St. Louis where she will pursuing her career as a professor at Lindenwood University.
While I have only been here for a couple of years, I will never forget the beauty — both the physical beauty of the Saruatwon Mountains and the more spiritual beauty of those who inhabit them — that I have found in this wonderful county.
I have made too many friends to even begin to thank in print, or even in person, before I leave, but many of you know who you are and know that I will always be touched by your dedication to your community. Thank you for all of your help and guidance as I got to know this wonderful community. If I do not get a chance to say goodbye in person, please know that you will be missed.
When I first started with this paper, I told myself I would hold off a year before writing a column, giving myself and the community time to get to know each other. After a year I realized that there was way too much happening in rural Stokes County for me to waste space in the paper with my own musings and mumbling. But before I leave the area, I would like to share just a few thoughts on what I have learned about the county and where I see it going, so…..
— Stokes County is in a very tough economic situation. Property taxes, at their current rate, do not bring in enough to operate the county, even at the low level of services currently provided in some county departments. The county commissioners have avoided this truth for several years by relying on the county’s fund balance (i.e. savings account) to balance the budget. That well has run dry, so unless some major business moves to the county (no, I do NOT mean Walmart) then people should expect a very significant tax increase next year.
— The county schools also face continual budget issues, due to reduced funding from the state and from the county and a continuing decline in enrollment. But the reality here is that the county simply has too many schools for its current population. Many of the county schools are not even at half their capacity for students and each school, regardless of how many students are in it, costs a basic amount to run and maintain. The reality is that if this county wants to get away from unending worries over school funding, then it needs to close schools. The school system needs to conduct a full facilities analysis examining student populations and longevity of schools and do a county-wide redistricting which would eliminate several schools and make the system leaner and more manageable. Such a move would not be popular, but it is the only long-term solution to the school funding issues.
— Please stop fighting over social issues. It makes for great stories and sells papers, but it does this wonderful community no good. Having a certain flag flying over public property or a resolution supporting anti-LGBT legislation, will not help you skip line on your journey to the Pearly Gates. It just works to rip apart a community which needs to work together. If you really want to increase your Christian standing, spend the time you would fighting for those issues, or the money you would spend putting mottoes on buildings around the county, helping one of the three local food pantries. There are too many people in this county who are in need of help for us to waste our time fighting for symbolic piety.
— Love what you have. This is an amazingly beautiful county with lots to do a regular basis. Find out what is going on and take advantage of it. Go to the festivals, take a float down the Dan, enjoy an Arts Council performance or show openings, take a hike.
— Get involved. This county also has a lot of wonderful volunteer organizations. People who are doing as much as they can to make this an even greater place to live. So join the Rotary, or the Lions, or the Ruritans. Help out at one of the food pantries. Help Inspire Stokes improve access for handicapped people. Help Make a Difference in King build a new playground. Help the Friend of Sauratown Mountains make our park even better. Or get involved with your church and go out and help those less fortunate in the area. I know it sounds like work, but in the end you will not regret getting involved and being part of this county.
— Learn to work together. Almost everyone I have met who is doing something for the county, whether it is a county commissioner who refuses to raise taxes or a local businessman arguing for more investment in economic development, truly seems to be doing what they do because they believe it will make this a better place to live. Unfortunately, more often than not, these groups seem to have trouble connecting to work together. How great would our tourism industry be if the county could invest staff and funding AND use the guidance of local businesses who have learned the hard way about what works? How great would it be to see private investment be allowed to help spur growth in downtown Walnut Cove? Our elected leaders need to open up and accept and encourage the help of community, but to do so the community has to stop attacking the elected leaders before they fully understand an issue. Put your differences aside and start talking. The county can only benefit.
— Don’t forget the environment. Last fall both the county and Walnut Cove passed two-year moratoriums on fracking in Stokes County. Close to a year has passed without any public action to deal with the issue after those moratoriums have expired, and action to extend the moratoriums or push for an all out ban or restrictive zoning ordinances will most likely require time consuming and costly studies. At this point no money has been set aside for such studies. I have also been amazed at the lack of interest from elected officials over the coal ash issue which is having an immediate impact on county residents. Hopefully more elected leaders will become involved as Duke looks to provide water for residents around Belews Lake and starts to look at how to deal with the massive ash impoundment on that property. This is an issue with impacts land values (and thus tax revenue), road quality and water systems. Seems like someone besides a grassroots organization should be involved.
— Celebrate success. I will be learning to love St. Louis when this county finally sees the completion of a number of major projects later this year, so I would ask all of our readers to celebrate those successes in my absence. The Arts Council’s new arts center, The Arts Place, will be opening in December, as will the new Stokes County Animal Shelter. The new Forsyth Tech facility in the Meadows community will be opening in August. King will be getting new sidewalks and parking lots this summer, and a new playground next spring. Please go out and enjoy these wonderful advancements in the community.
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.