Future Shock

The thought of what Spartanburg County will look like decades in the future disturbs my sleep. On my worst nights I see a vision of unregulated surreal sprawl as we cling to outmoded ideas of prosperity and growth.

In my vision massive cinder block distribution plants for America’s out-of-control consumption are laid out helter-skelter along the I-85 corridor because no company with higher paying jobs will relocate in a place that acts like Dogpatch.

In the worst of all possible visions we get the distribution plants by the droves. They come here because it’s easy and cheap. They’re serviced by hordes of big rigs spewing clouds of exhaust into the piedmont air as they hump their loads of cheap consumer goods up and down the interstate.

As this low-rent nightmare of “economic progress” radiates outward from the interstates the last hardwoods fall to the chip mills, and the bufferless creeks and rivers in the county are exposed right down to the water. They flash with the run-off. They run mud-red after every storm.

Further out in the county next to a nice brick neighborhood built in the 1960s when the mills were operating, some enterprising entrepreneur buys his 10 acres of bargain county land and puts up a mobile home park just because the lack of regulation says he can.

Corporate garbage comes back with a better deal and we take it, and a mountain of garbage or two rises somewhere in the county-mountains of progress, valleys of corporate opportunity.

My nightmares didn’t disappear this week when progressive county planner David Rutherford quit after six months and hightailed it to Tennessee.

There seemed to be a glimmer of hope during Rutherford’s brief tenure. He wasn’t here long enough to know for sure, but the well-educated planner seemed to see a bigger picture. He seemed to understand that Spartanburg County needs to wake up, that it is part of a large, fast-growing region with more planning challenges now than at any other time in its history. He offered up a good solution or two concerning land use reform, but all indications are that the council didn’t seem very excited about his progressive answers.

I’m convinced that some of our elected county officials understand fully how important it is to plan for land use, and they probably share my fears for the future of an unregulated county. I’m also aware that county councils in the past often voted to please the lowest common denominators in our county. They voted with what some have called the cave dwellers-“citizens against virtually everything.” That’s why we are in the shape we are now.

Past county councils have often voted with those who saw developable land only as an economic frontier with little regulation to stifle their quick profits. They voted with the corporate trash haulers if the pay-off looked big enough. They voted with the billboard erectors, the mobile home park owners, the scrappers, and the speculative clear-cutters.

I hope it will be different in the future. It’s up to us. We make it up as we go out of millions of choices. Unfortunately, so far Spartanburg County has a long history of bad luck and short-term profit decisions.

So what will our county look like in 50 years? Will the open spaces remaining be filled by the invisible hand of the market or by the visible planning of thoughtful human beings? Will Spartanburg have 100,000 more people, as Greenville County already does? If the population grows what sort of jobs will these new Spartanburg citizens have? Will we work for low-wage warehouses as seems to be the trend, or high-wage technical and professional companies like those heading to Charleston, Columbia, and, yes, Greenville. Will we still be distributing shoes or designing them?

I don’t know the answers. The future of this county is at stake every time our elected officials vote. I hope they hire someone again who can help them steer past the cave dwellers.

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