Column – Heed lessons of Grange’s demise
Published 6:14 pm Tuesday, September 12, 2023
Joe Luter IV’s withdrawal of his zoning application for an ambitious mixed-use development on the western edge of Smithfield’s historic district is a chance for a collective deep breath, reflection on what went wrong and an important community conversation about the future of the Pierceville farm.
Luter’s Grange at 10Main was doomed by a series of early missteps that proved too much to overcome in the court of public opinion, to which the Town Council is ultimately accountable.
Amid opponents’ euphoria over last week’s withdrawal, it’s important to note that the Luter family still owns the property. Whether they return with a revised proposal at some point or sell it to another developer, the currently blank slate affords the property owner, citizens and town officials a chance to collaborate on a plan that enhances the historic district, generates much-needed tax revenue for town coffers and causes a nice return on investment for the developer. Those goals aren’t always compatible, but a healthy balance is achievable if stakeholders commit to an open mind and transparency.
Contrary to the belief of many opponents, it says here that Luter IV was well-intentioned with his plan. It failed because of his fundamental misreading of modern Smithfield, a dynamic I explored in this space a few months back when the wheels began to come off the Grange. The younger Luter wrongly assumed he was dealing with the same community where his father held sway for decades as the leader of its anchor employer and as its most generous benefactor.
Luter IV likely got bad advice from a few “From Heres” of his father’s generation whose influence has waned. The “Come Heres” are smart, engaged and plentiful. They reject the brand of paternalistic leadership — unelected and elected — that assumes it knows what is best for the town and sees citizen input as a pesky distraction when there’s important work to be done.
If that mind-set had a final nail with the defeat of its chief practitioner, Carter Williams, in last fall’s election, Luter IV and his advisers failed to recognize it. Had Williams won reelection by getting more votes than proud “Come Here” Jeff Brooks, dirt would already be moving at the Grange. Instead, Brooks won, and the handwriting was on the wall, even as his fellow newcomer, Steve Bowman, surprised many of his supporters by aligning with Luter. Old-timers Mike Smith and Wayne Hall had long been attentive to concerns that Smithfield is on the verge of forever losing the small-town charm that makes it special. With Brooks’ arrival, the Grange never stood a chance. (Regardless of what side you’re on, this is a good reminder that elections matter.)
If I’m Luter or a successor developer, the first thing I’m doing is renting The Smithfield Center for a come-one, come-all town meeting and doing a lot of listening before I ever put pen to paper. Among other benefits, it puts on the spot Grange critics who say they’re not opposed to private development of the property. With nothing specific on the table, there’d be nothing to criticize. If Bowman is right that nothing will make them happy, they would quickly reveal themselves.
The other lesson of the Grange’s failure in its current iteration is to leave taxpayers out of the funding. Our great town, the focal point of Virginia’s seventh fastest-growing county, simply doesn’t have to subsidize residential development. Any developer needs to accept that reality before coming to the table. Luter IV didn’t. Secretive efforts to dig taxpayers’ claws into a private development with a shiny toy like a new farmers market was a brilliant strategy. Until it wasn’t. Taxpayers revolted when they learned what had been hashed out behind their backs.
Steve Stewart is publisher of The Smithfield Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.