Why people don’t speak up: they owe their soul to the company store

Some of our elected officials wonder few people ever speak up around here. It’s simple: they owe their soul to the company store. If you don’t go along, you don’t get business.

As Tennessee Ernie Ford sang in that old Merle Travis song:

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store

Yeah, we had black and white TV back when Ernie Ford sold 20 million copies of that song about how coal miners were constantly in debt and could only buy things at a store owned by the company they worked for. So far in debt they couldn’t even afford to die and go see Saint Peter at the pearly gates. And if they spoke up, they’d be out of a job.

The story hasn’t changed. This area has owed its soul to the company store for a long time and still does. The amusing (or scary) part is some of our elected officials act like they don’t even know that. Scary because who’s really running the company store?

The company store is obvious for construction work. If you speak up, you don’t get hired for that new subdivision or road work. Also architects and engineers, and of course building supply stores.

Academics, unless they have tenure, also have reason to fear. Much of their funding for research or buildings comes from local businesses or from bigger businesses with powerful local voices.

Who are the biggest employers in Lowndes County? According to Ed Lightsey, Georgia Trend, Valdosta | Lowndes County: Building On Strength, Moody Air Force Base, South Georgia Medical Center, the Valdosta and Lowndes County school systems, and Valdosta State University. That story doesn’t mention the Lowndes County and Valdosta City governments come in pretty close after that, with Wiregrass Tech employing almost as many. (Here’s another list by the City of Valdosta, and another by the Development Authority). And then a whole bunch of businesses and employees that depend on the above.

Obviously if you’re serving military you’re not going to be talking politics in public. Many of the other larger businesses (and the hospital) are run by interlocking boards of old boys and girls; boards that also interlock with the Chamber and Valwood. And interlock with the VSU Foundation, which still refuses to divest its few percent of fossil fuels even after students, faculty, staff, and administration all say divest. The old boys think they’re more powerful than all those little people, and the little people fear that’s still true.

Now don’t get me wrong. Everybody loves business and wants more jobs around here. Yay Chamber! Yay Development Authority if that glass container plant on Rocky Ford Road turns out to be everything you claim it will be!

But that actually enforces my point. If people speak up, they’re seen as not a team player here in TitleTown, and they fear they won’t get work.

When they see the Chairman scowling at me when he has in front of him a sheet of paper saying I wanted to invite them to some events, they wonder what will happen to them. When they see most of the Commission mad because I said they sold out to Sabal Trail, they wonder what will happen to them when they speak up. When they hear the Commissioners complain LAKE isn’t positive enough, when in fact nobody has complimented them more online and in person at their meetings than Gretchen and me, people don’t want to go be treated like that.

When a few other retired or tenured or people otherwise somewhat independent of the company store showed up last night, only to see their elected officials refuse to answer their questions and sneer at them later, most people don’t want to get the same treatment.

Local leaders around here pride themselves on the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) status approved by the feds in 2005, including Lowndes, Lanier, Echols, and Brooks counties, about which VDT editor Ron Wayne wrote at the times, “the three counties outside of Lowndes have at least 25 percent of their populations commute to Valdosta for work, ballooning the city’s daytime population. Valdosta is the primary city in the urbanized area.” Which means Lanier, Echols, and Brooks also owe their soul to the Lowndes-Valdosta company store.

I go to a lot of county commission meetings in Georgia and Florida. Nowhere but Lowndes County do I see people shouted down by a deputy sheriff for clapping. Nowhere else demands that only local residents or property owners can speak. Nowhere else are citizens only allowed to speak after all votes have been taken. Nowhere else do the Commissioners refuse to answer citizens in public. This is not how the County Commission of a real MSA acts.

A real MSA values diversity of opinion, its elected officials are polite to people who disagree with them, oh, and it has enough diversity of employment that people aren’t afraid to speak up.

As the VDT editorialized in 2005 MSA status brings new challenges,

Do we really want to be so similar to every other metro area, with endless subdivisions and numerous commercial centers containing the same stores, restaurants, etc.?

We should want to hold on to those elements that make us distinctive — the ancient oaks dripping with moss that line our streets, the Craftsman-style bungalow homes, the numerous lakes and pecan orchards, our quaint downtown.

It’s important to balance new growth and greenspace. Visit parts of the Atlanta metro area, and you’ll find what we don’t want: fields of asphalt creating stormwater runoff problems, air pollution from too many cars on roads that are never big enough and higher temperatures because of the depletion of trees.

MSA status will bring a bigger tax base, more jobs and better wages, but elected leaders must learn from others’ mistakes and be prudent when approving plans. They must carefully consider the impact on roads and other infrastructure.

The characteristics of the area we truly don’t want to lose are the graciousness and small-town informality often found here.

We should never become so hurried and harried that we forget to say “please,” “thank you” and “yes, sir.” We must maintain the casual ambiance that goes with living in a balmy, sunny climate.

Well, he spoke up and he’s not editor anymore. Valdosta is still third poorest MSA in the country, according to NBC News in 2012. If there’s any graciousness and small-town informality in County Commission meetings, it’s only in staged presentations. Ancient oaks are just in the way of road paving and subdivisions. As recently as last Thursday, our elected County Comissioners spelled out that to them stakeholders mean “the development community, the real estate community” and “the construction and homebuilder industries”, which is a pithy description of the company store. Agriculture, forestry, and parks were only mentioned as afterthoughts, with no mention whatever of a free press or of employees or ordinary working people.

Most people around here are lucky to get a low-paying retail job (look at the companies that fill out those top employer lists). They know what Ernie Ford meant when he sang:

I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal
And the straw boss said “Well, a-bless my soul”

I continue to say a metropolitan area needs better than trash government.

Last night while local leaders scowled, the people of New Hampshire said they were tired of straw bosses, voting in double digits for the two candidates most different from the company store. OK, the Republican maybe is the company store, but he talks like he’s not. But the other, who won by more than 20% in the largest landslide in modern New Hampshire Democratic primary history, has for forty years based his whole career on opposing the company store with integrity.

Integrity. Not following a multitude to do evil by going back on a resolution passed barely more than a year before, in the name of “a good business decision” for a business called Lowndes County. In the name of the company store. Nevermind the citizens whom they claimed to represent in that resolution.

It’s an election year, straw bosses, and some of you are up for election, too.