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Archive for September, 2007

Most maddening machines

On Monday i wrote my column about hating vacuum cleaners. They’re an appliance we desperately need, but their designs create more frustration than anything else. Now my son Owen has chimed in, saying that what a vacuum cleaner is to the home, the copier and fax is to the office. “No two work the same way. They all jam, or produce too many or too few or no copies at all.” Which machines, at home or work, would you like to dropkick out the window?

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It seems so damning at first glance. Five of Surry County’s 16 schools have “failed.” And one of them, Westfield Elementary, for the second straight year. The thing is, that’s not really the case. Some small segment of the student population didn’t achieve some arbitrary goal, so the entire school is judged a failure. The small sample might not even have been statistically valid, but it makes no difference. And unfortunately the standards get more unattainable in the years to come, until they reach a point where the slightest misstep by one student can label a school a failure. No Child Left Behind sounds good on paper, but there’s little evidence it’s really improving the delivery of education.

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So the Flat Rock/Bannertown water extension has only half the customers it needs, and they’re only using half the water they need to. That all adds up to a financial mess. The water district is on the hook for the cost of the new lines, $2.5 million to be paid off over 40 years. If things don’t improve really, really quickly the county commissioners, who ultimately hold the purse strings, will have to take some drastic steps, such as forcing people to hook on, raising rates drastically or assessing property owners in the district. None of those are particularly palatable. And yet the extension is necessary — as is an eventual countywide system. But optimistic projections that they can be done on the cheap only make it more difficult the next time around.

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Asking the right questions

The Chamber of Commerce is holding a forum for Mount Airy City Council candidates on Oct. 2. It wants folks to submit questions to be posed to the seven office-seekers. The key, as I see it, is specificity — in both the questions and the answers. Too often would-be politicos get away with answers like, “I’m for cutting taxes and improving services.” Sometimes there’s a follow-up. “How?” And again, the response often is, ‘Well, I’d cut out all that gubmint waste.”
Even worse are the candidates who refuse to answer specific questions because they “prefer to wait until I get in office before making those decisions.” Oh, please.
This candidates forum will only be effective in helping voters distinguish among the wannabes if the moderators ignore softball questions and are mindful to press for answers that are specific, not generalizations.
If they do that, the voters will be well served. But if candidates are allowed to simply mouth mindless platitudes, the forum will be a waste of everyone’s time.

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Downtowns: boom or bust?

If there’s one thing our county’s municipal governments seem to share, it’s an ever sharpening focus on downtown development. The projects are promising but still speculative, driven by the notion that a lively Main Street is the rising tide that lifts all boats.
It’s a statewide trend from rural towns to big cities. I type this from a coffee shop in downtown Raleigh, an ongoing experiment in trying to lure back the urban sprawl through heavy aesthetic investment. It shows potential, but right now it’s just a bunch of vacant lots and buildings under construction flanked by pretty landscaping.
Downtown development plans in Mount Airy, Pilot Mountain and Elkin seem a bit better defined. But what’s the potential? If dressed up real nice who will visit and open businesses along our Main Streets? Is it worth the sizable public investment — for the economy, for tourism, for hometown pride? Or is that just money being thrown down the drain? What are some examples of downtown development done right and could the same thing be done here?

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