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Archive for February, 2008

Closed for Good

Monday, February 25th, 2008

Have you been on Wilson Boulevard near Clarendon recently? Driving near Whole Foods, we passed buildings that spoke of job loss and lives changed. First was Orpheus Records’ sign that it was going out of business. Then, NTB, National Tire and Battery, where we’d bought tires for years, stood vacant and hauntingly abandoned.

The sign was down; the parking lot blocked; the office and work bays, empty.

My God. Has it come to Arlington, too?

Homes are still selling, though at lower prices after sitting longer on the market. But established businesses seemed to be ok. Obviously that wasn’t the case at Orpheus and NTB.

I called another NTB store in Fairfax.

“What happened to NTB in Arlington?”

“They’re closed.”

“For good?”

“Yes.”

“What about the workers? Did they get other jobs?”

He said they had. But, how many businesses do you know of that fold a store and keep all the workers in company jobs?

We saw it years ago when Woodies closed at Seven Corners. J.C. Penney’s closed in Ballston. Sears closed in Clarendon. What of the workers? Their jobs? Their pensions? Conversations with former longtime employees indicated that benefits were lost.

We don’t have an abundance of blue collar jobs in Arlington, but NTB was one that had some. Did they pay decent wages for mechanics and sales personnel? I don’t know the answer to that; but the workers did have jobs, a way to earn a living.

I once worked at a place that combined workforces. The afternoon paper, where I was a legislative correspondent, was to be closed and jobs were being consolidated with the morning paper. The only problem, I found, was that the owners felt they already had enough legislative reporters.

I had no idea it was coming. While the other staff gathered for news of the merger, I was taken aside and presented with a severance check. “Could I stay on while I’m looking?” No. One day I’m a reporter, the next I’m on the street. That was 1974 and there were only a few places in Springfield, Illinois that had reporting jobs, let alone vacant ones. Luckily for me, the TV station had an opening and they took a chance and hired me.

Today, we live in much more uncertain times: the value of homes is dropping, jobs are being lost; debt has mounted.

Last October AOL near Dulles gave pink slips to 750 of their shrinking number of employees.

And only three days ago the Associated Press wrote: “A severe slowdown in economic growth that has raised concerns about a possible recession has begun to affect the labor market. … ‘In this environment, simply cutting back on hiring will not be enough for companies to maintain earnings as demand slows. Jobs will have to be cut too,’ said Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics.”

Most local economies, because property tax revenues are plummeting as assessments drop, suddenly have less money for schools and roads and social services. If things really get bad, would it make sense to have a government program to rebuild ‘infrastructure,’ such as bridges that are collapsing, aged water/sewer systems that have crumbled in many areas, and other neglected public property? Only the federal government could step into that breech … should it come to that.

The sight of a shop closing sign and a boarded-up store on Wilson Boulevard may not mean much in the grand scheme of things. But that shop and that store had workers who earned money and had mortgages or rent to pay, food to buy. Where are they now and were they able to find work?

And if this really gets bad… here and around the nation … are we willing to make sure that everyone who wants a job has one? “Closed” can be a frightening word to a worker, especially if there’s no sight of another that says “open.”

Nick Penning is an Arlington (Va.) freelance writer. His column, “Penning Thoughts,” appears in alternating editions of The Arlington Connection.

“And the Dream Shall Never Die”

Monday, February 25th, 2008

You’ve no doubt heard it… a powerful speech inserted into a PBS promotion: “The hope still lives” — deep, inspired words — “And the dream shall never die.” It’s the recognizable voice of Ted Kennedy, whose oration to the 1980 Democratic Convention carries into this time and place, when dreams and hopes are again welling up in our hearts.

And who had that dream, a dream that bellowed through loudspeakers and carried the voice of a 34 year old southern preacher — 34! — to the ears of Arlingtonians gathered 44 years ago along our side of the legendary Potomac River?

Martin Luther King had once been denied the right to address an anti-war group at Arlington National Cemetery. But in 1963 nothing could hold back his voice: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.” “With this faith,” he concluded, “we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”

Recently we celebrated the birthday of Dr. King; a celebration considered a wild pipedream when it was proposed by Congressman John Conyers at the time of Dr. King’s death in 1968, just two months before your correspondent and Mary Ann Templeton walked the aisle of Little Flower Church in Springfield, Illinois.

By 1983, those of us working on Capitol Hill saw Stevie Wonder walking alongside fellow staff members, lobbyists and members of Congress under the Cannon Building. “Have you ever seen Stevie Wonder,” my boss said to me; “Well, there he is.” Amazing.

He had almost single-handedly, with his “Happy Birthday” song to Dr. King, brought about the legislation that arch-conservative Ronald Reagan grudgingly signed into law: the Martin Luther King National Holiday.

And to think that just around that time, walking to the Pentagon along Columbia Pike, I noticed a sign in the window of a local business. “This office will be closed in honor of Lee-Jackson Day.”

That’s Lee, as in Robert E.; and Jackson, as in Stonewall.

Yes, we’ve come a long way from that 1963 day, when we baby boomers were about to begin another high school year and in Arlington echoed the voice of the most transformative figure of our generation. We watched it on television, never dreaming we would end up here, across the river from where it happened.

While it all seemed to crumble with our fallen president on November 22nd of that year, Dr. King kept dreaming, working and believing. He marched amidst racists and Nazis. He dared to challenge northern leaders in addition to southern demagogues. And he stood valiantly for an end to the pointless war of that era: Vietnam. Finally, he marched with those whom society would have placed at the bottom of our laborers: sanitation workers; for whom he gave his life.

“Longevity has its place,” he wearily told a hopeful, crowded and hot Memphis audience. “But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will..”

This was a man who walked among us; whose supporters never stopped believing and working on his behalf.

So we have this marvelous national holiday, just passed. And we have a chance in our daily lives to fulfill this young preacher’s dream, as Senator Kennedy said 28 years ago: “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

Let us keep it alive in all that we do; because so much can be done, if we would just believe in that dream, and then act on it.

Nick Penning (www.penningthoughts.com) is an Arlington freelance writer. His column, Penning Thoughts, appears in alternating editions of The Arlington (Va.) Connection.

A Radiant Threat

Monday, February 25th, 2008

Imagine… trading your safety, the region’s safety, and possibly the planet’s safety in exchange for an energy source that would yield just two years of power. Two years.

That energy source, in the form of a huge deposit in Southside Virginia, is uranium.

According to a piece from the big paper across the Potomac, a Virginian near retirement age owns a 200 acre spread that sits atop “what is thought to be the largest deposit of uranium in the United States.” This gentleman, having reached the age at which we take a slower pace, said he’s decided to retire to the family farm that sits on the uranium, describing his decision thusly: “I could have sold the land and moved to Florida. But I … want to stay and do something good for the community, something good for the state.”

Consider that reserves of abundant coal (for which ‘clean’ alternatives may be possible) could fuel the nation more than 200 years into the future. In fact, the PBS Nightly Business Report recently commented, “The U.S. is considered the Saudi Arabia of coal,” because “at the current rate of usage, there is about a 230-year supply.”

Wind power is barely scratching the surface of its potential along the drafty Appalachians, mighty Sierras, the Great Plains and the Rockies. Add ever growing and less expensive solar cells, and the alternative sources of power appear monumental in scope.
But none is connected to corporate energy interests, the ones that have had this nation in a lock since Jimmy Carter lost the presidency and George W. Bush put Halliburton in charge of our future.

So, there sits among us Virginians this hunk of uranium, known to be the source of mankind’s undoing. And big money is thirsting for it.

That’s the quandary or devil’s bargain Virginia faces, as our elected officials decide whether or not to grant a permit to mine uranium — openly or underground — at the farm in Southside Chatham, just east of the Blue Ridge.

Setting aside this retiree’s motives (the uranium’s reported worth is $10 billion), let’s look at the facts the Governor and General Assembly should consider.

“As a naturally occurring mineral, uranium is relatively stable in the ground,” the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), with headquarters in Charlottesville, has reported. “When separated from rock and exposed to air and water, however, radiation is released into the environment.”

Additionally, nearly all the uranium mined for bomb making and power production has occurred in the arid West. The SELC notes, “There is no U.S. precedent for a large-scale uranium mine in a wet climate such as the Virginia Piedmont.”

What has been the experience of states from which uranium has been extracted?

The mines produced groundwater and surface water contamination and brought increased cases of cancer among miners and the public. Long after the mines shut down, non-useable ‘tailings’ — waste that build into huge piles — were subject to having their dust blown for miles, spreading radioactive and toxic materials such as radium and arsenic.

The Deseret Morning News in Salt Lake City reported in 2001,
“America may have won the Cold War, but a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Utah is left with a toxic legacy that has killed and sickened untold thousands of uranium miners and mill workers, contaminated water supplies for generations to come, and infected an otherwise stunning red-rock landscape with millions of tons of radioactive mill tailings that will cost American taxpayers billions of dollars to remove and bury safely out of sight.”

In the face of an upcoming Assembly debate on whether this newly-found Virginia uranium should be mined, Delegate Clarke Hogan recently told Southside Concerned Citizens, “I never underestimate the ability of lobbyists” — Virginia Uranium having hired two lobbying firms — “to affect public policy.”

Hogan urged a vigorous opposition campaign, because those lobbyists are attempting to get approval for a ‘study’ to look into the safety of uranium mining in Virginia. If the lobbyists succeed in moving the study legislation out of an Assembly committee, Hogan concluded, “We won’t be able to stop it.”

Here we go again. Money, lots of it, is betting that you and I won’t notice. That all they’ll have to do is pour that money into the pockets or campaigns chests of legislators and the skids will be greased.

Keep on eye on this thing. Uranium mining is serious business, and a wrong decision, once made, could yield a Utah-like catastrophe.

Nick Penning is an Arlington freelance writer. His column, “Penning Thoughts,” appears in alternating editions of The Arlington (Va.) Connection.