Column – Luters learning that times have changed

Published 5:41 pm Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Joe Luter III’s impatience is understandable for one of his generation.

The legendary Smithfield Foods chairman ran his company and served his community in a very different era of decision-making in small towns. Getting something done was simpler, quicker, more efficient, if decidedly less democratic (emphasis on the small “d”).

So when his son, Joe Luter IV, cracked a bit at a recent Smithfield Planning Commission meeting and said his father was displeased with the pace of the Grange at 10Main, the ambitious mixed-use development contemplated for downtown’s western edge, I fully understood his frustration. 

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My father didn’t have a seat at the table in the small Southern town where I grew up, but he knew the people who did. Economic power was concentrated in a very tight circle that ran the town. Elected officials were largely ceremonial and inconsequential, and even when their participation was needed as a formality, they dutifully complied. Citizens were an afterthought.

When a decision needed to be made, a handful of power brokers sat in a room and made it. Those players in most small towns were predictable: the presidents of two or three locally owned banks, the planter who owned much of the county’s farmland, a Main Street retailer of particular prominence, the patriarch of the multi-generation law firm in town. In towns like Smithfield with an anchor employer, the equivalent of Joe Luter III sat at the head of the table. Rarely was there anything corrupt going on. It was just the way things got done.  

Times have changed in the past 50 years. Economic power is dispersed. Banks are no longer locally owned. Younger generations have sold family businesses rather than take the baton from their parents. Independent retail has given way to chains. Farms are increasingly corporate-owned. And in the case of Smithfield, the anchor employer is now owned by the Chinese.

At the same time, political leadership has asserted itself, and is less likely to roll over and do what it’s told. Citizens’ access to their government is greater than ever, buoyed by sunshine laws and mandatory methods of accommodating their input, such as public hearings on big spending and zoning decisions.

In towns like Smithfield, a fiercely independent press has brought accountability. When John Edwards returned to his hometown in the 1970s as a journalist and eventually bought its newspaper, he made aggressive reporting and constructive commentary a factor to be considered, if not always heeded, in local decision-making. I was blessed to be his successor, then employ one of the best journalists a community could hope to have keep an eye on local government. When you tell Stephen Faleski that something involving the taxpayers’ money is none of his — and, by extension, his readers’ — business, chances are good that he will get the information and report it. The man is tenacious.

It’s in a very different Smithfield that the Luters seek permission to build their transformative (in ways good and worrisome) project. Vestiges of the old days remain. Town Attorney Bill Riddick lost his cool when Planning Commissioner Dr. Thomas Pope asked some straightforward, appropriate questions during a work session on the Grange last week. Luter IV let me have it last week when we broke online the story on today’s front page about proposed taxpayer subsidization of his development.

Assuming he’s bluffing on the necessity of town and county reimbursement for his infrastructure, I still believe what I’ve written several times in editorials and columns: The Grange will be built — and will be, on balance, positive for Smithfield. But it won’t happen like it would have a half-century ago, without thorough scrutiny. Thank goodness.


Steve Stewart is publisher of The Smithfield Times. His email address is