Editorial – Luter’s generosity appreciated, but it has some strings

Published 7:28 pm Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Over a lifetime of benevolence to his hometown, Joseph Luter III has earned the right to be taken at his word in Smithfield.

Therefore, we choose to see his offer to contribute up to $6 million to create an eye-pleasing gateway to historic Smithfield just as Mayor Steve Bowman characterizes it: a gift to the community Luter loves dearly.

Whether and to what extent the Town Council should accept that gift with strings attached is an entirely different consideration that demands objective analysis, unclouded by the emotions that tend to cloud rational decision-making by some of our elected leaders. Their shallow way of thinking – or, more accurately, feeling – boils down to: If the Luter family is behind it, this must be a good thing, and how dare anyone ask a question or express a concern.

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Such sentiment ultimately prevailed in December when a shorthanded Town Council blessed the controversial and deeply flawed Grange at 10Main, a mixed-use development planned for the former Pierceville property at Main Street and Route 10, where Luter III, not coincidentally, wants the town to join him in funding elaborate streetscaping.

Make no mistake: The western entrance to Smithfield needs some sprucing up. On a long list of priorities for Smithfield, does it merit millions of taxpayer dollars in order to earn Luter’s match? We’re not certain, especially as we see the town’s road infrastructure becoming overwhelmed by residential growth, with more on the way thanks to the Town Council and Isle of Wight Board of Supervisors. 

An apt metaphor is the home whose foundation is crumbling while its owner spends $50,000 on a new patio and flower beds. Most of us are all for making the Route 10 and Main Street intersection look nice, but of much more concern is choked roadways.

Consider the impact, for example, if Luter and the Town Council took the same $12 million and put it toward partnering with VDOT on a way to get traffic in and out of the Grange on Route 10 and spared our quiet, picturesque downtown streets the stress of hundreds of more cars a day.

And while we join Bowman in believing Joe Luter III’s offer to be philanthropic, we understand completely the more cynical mindset from citizens whose trust has been betrayed by government officials’ and Joe Luter IV’s heavy-handedness and secrecy when it comes to the controversial plan to relocate Smithfield’s highly successful farmers market to the Grange.

That plan was fast-tracked by elected leadership with no citizen input, then aided by the intentional creation of a “working group” within a farmers market task force to avoid compliance with the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, a scheme whose cover was blown by our Stephen Faleski last year.

Pardon folks for being a wee bit skeptical when the town is asked to give a blood oath on the farmers market and spend millions of dollars on nearby streetscaping to earn a philanthropic gift they didn’t solicit.