Tomblin’s heart in right place, but…

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s heart clearly is in the right place. But what about his head? That’s a question some West Virginia legislators, along with others in our state, have been asking for several months.

Tomblin leaves office in less than a month. Another Democrat — but a very different one — will replace him. Billionaire Jim Justice is a newcomer to politics but, something like President-elect Donald Trump, someone quite a few people made the mistake of underestimating.

Justice will have to work with a Republican Legislature. Saying he and they have their plates full is an understatement. They face an all-you-can-eat buffet of challenges.

Tomblin has made it difficult for them to deal with one big question: What to do about the Rock Creek Development Park.

Less than a year ago, during his 2016 State of the State speech, Tomblin proposed the project, which it appears he considers part of his legacy. It would be established on the site of an old mountaintop removal mining project near the line between Boone and Lincoln counties, the governor said. That gave the park its original name, the Hobet Mine site.

Southern West Virginia is going through something approaching a 21st century Depression, in large measure because of the collapse of the coal industry. The coalfields counties have unemployment rates ranging from 7.2 percent in Lincoln County to 12.2 percent in McDowell County. Tomblin’s native Logan County had 9.5 percent unemployment in November.

Helping his neighbors pull themselves up by their bootstraps obviously is on the governor’s mind. He envisions the biggest development project in West Virginia’s history on the 12,000-acre site.

So his heart is in the right place.

But is his head? Is Rock Creek the wisest use of the state’s scarce resources? If we build it, will job creators come?

Some people don’t think so. Last summer, the West Virginia Contractor’s Association criticized the plan, releasing a statement citing the then-estimated $99.8 million cost of building an access road to the site. Why are we spending that kind of money on a new highway, when we can’t afford to maintain the roads we have, the association asked.

Some legislators were critical, usually privately, of the governor’s proposal. It was hinted that once Tomblin leaves office, legislators might kill the Rock Creek project.

Earlier this month, Tomblin took a step to block that. The state Division of Highways revealed it has secured $58 million in “Garvee” bond funding to construct a 2.6-mile, four-lane highway between U.S. 119 in Boone County up to the Rock Creek site. “Garvee” stands for Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle, and it means the bonds are based on an expectation the federal government will pay off the bonds.

Here’s the kicker: “The money is in hand and it is specifically for this project. It can’t be used for another project,” DOH spokesman Brent Walker said on Dec. 22. In other words, Tomblin is sending lawmakers a message. Don’t try to kill my project. I have $58 million to get it — and only it — off the ground.

And by the way, the governor’s office added late this year, the development park already has a tenant. It is the West Virginia National Guard, which plans to establish various facilities at the site. Total employment: eight.

So, now what?

If anyone has asked Justice about the proposal, he hasn’t told them how he feels, to my knowledge. And few legislators are on record either opposing or supporting it.

Money secured by the Tomblin administration is not enough to build the new highway, much less undertake other infrastructure and site preparation work. But if the Garvee money already is flowing into state coffers, the state could have little choice other than to at least begin constructing the Rock Creek access road.

Tomblin is right about one thing. The southern coalfields need help, badly. Justice and legislators will have to decide whether Rock Creek is the way to go — and they will have to reach that conclusion quickly.

Mike Myer can be reached at mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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