Gilmore Seeks to Aid Destitute Va. Town
By R.H. Melton
The Republican governor said today that he soon will visit the Northampton County town to spotlight the problems there, and his staff is looking into the idea of a public-private partnership to assist residents who live in squalor without basic amenities.
But Gilmore warned that there may be no quick fix. He questioned whether enough local capital is available to install running water and central heating in homes in Bayview and nearby hamlets, where there is little industry and unemployment rates are high.
"I think that's a deplorable situation over on Bayview," said Gilmore, whose staff began studying the town after it was featured in stories in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and The Washington Post. "I want to go and see it. I'm concerned about it. And then we can find a way perhaps to improve the situation.
"But we always have to remember that any type of infrastructure is going to require rents at some point, and we have to see whether the community is able to deal with that," Gilmore added.
Local officials and community activists welcomed Gilmore's attention. But they noted that even with state assistance, improving the housing stock will not be easy in Northampton, one of the state's poorest counties. About a third of its 13,000 residents live in poverty.
Thirty percent of the county's housing stock was built before 1940, and 12 percent of all homes lack indoor plumbing. Bayview, population 114, is part of a string of communities on the Eastern Shore that were settled by freed slaves and have fallen on hard times since the oyster and potato industries dried up decades ago.
"Our problem now is . . . to separate the myth of the Eastern Shore -- the Land of Pleasant Living, the sportsman's and fisherman's paradise -- from the reality," said Thomas E. Harris, the Northampton County administrator.
Gilmore said today that Virginia has a few pockets of crushing poverty, but he said they are rare.
"You see it, but it is the exception," the governor said. "In every part of Virginia -- whether you're traveling in Northern Virginia or the Northern Neck or Southside -- you do see people who are still living in substandard conditions in very rural areas."
Senior Gilmore aides said that although reports on Bayview have highlighted the problems there, the governor also wants to focus on inadequate water supplies elsewhere in the state, such as the mountainous southwest corner.
They also stressed today that no formal plan for Northampton has been set. But they said the outlines of one may be clearer by the time Gilmore visits there in June.
Harris conferred earlier this week with the director of the state's Department of Housing and Community Development, who deployed several staff members to study ways to improve the more than 50 homes in Bayview.
Families there rely on wells that frequently are contaminated by crudely constructed pit privies. Black leaders have called for swift action to improve conditions in Bayview.
Harris also said that a senior official in the state Department of Social Services is examining living conditions in Bayview, and that Northampton, federal and state officials met this morning to map out improvements at 600 substandard rental units in the county.
Several community leaders said today that Northampton and some other parts of Virginia's Eastern Shore have struggled for generations to deal with problems stemming from their isolation from the rest of Virginia and a minuscule job base.
"Northampton is hurting when it comes to money," said Rick Hubbard, an appliance store owner and a Republican who is chairman of the county's Industrial Development Authority. "You've either got it or you don't -- there's no real middle class here."
Hubbard and Harris said the county's economic development has been stunted by not having central water and sewer services, but they pointed with pride to a new "eco-industrial" park opening soon that will create up to 50 jobs.
Some local economic boosters also feel somewhat bitter toward the state because Virginia officials recently abandoned plans to build a prison in Northampton in the face of intense local opposition.
In dealing with the state on Bayview's problems, Hubbard said, "we've got to be really careful."
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