Few stories in Johnston County have spurred as much debate as CSX’s bid, now uncertain, to build a cargo-container hub on 450 acres between Selma and Micro.
“Debate” seems an apt word.
Yes, the proposal has opposition. It began with an affected property owner who owns a business on long-held family land. He launched a Facebook campaign that quickly gained sympathizers, more than enough to fill a courthouse meeting room as County Commissioners met behind closed doors to decide how to respond to the opposition.
But the proposed container hub has supporters too. They don’t speak as loudly as the opponents for fear of seeming unsympathetic to people who could be forced off their lands. Their argument is that the Selma area sorely needs the 300 permanent, high-paying jobs the container hub would create.
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Those supporters fault County Commissioners for agreeing too quickly with the hub’s opponents. The better response, they say, would have been for commissioners to express solidarity with landowners while encouraging dialogue with CSX. Instead, commissioners told CSX to look elsewhere, and the railroad company might decide to do just that.
In an election year at least, the county board’s response was likely going to be more political than reasoned. In particular, County Commissioner Tony Braswell is running for a seat in the N.C. House of Representatives, and his campaign could use a boost, having lost a key endorsement to his chief primary opponent.
But politics and leadership aren’t one and the same, though they could have been in this case. In urging dialogue, County Commissioners could have made clear their opposition to the use of eminent domain while also standing for the jobs the hub promised to bring to a community that sorely needs them.
Politics is a game of calculations, and it remains to be seen whether County Commissioners made the right calculation. If Johnston voters in March and November care more about jobs than the wishes of a few property owners, then commissioners will have calculated wrongly.
CSX shares some blame here too. The company might have its reasons for approaching landowners after making project announcements, but that didn’t play well in Johnston County. Instead, with the power of eminent domain, the railroad company came across as arrogant: Why bother with long negotiations when we can simply take the land we want?
But CSX also told Johnston County leaders and residents that the process was just beginning. “We are committed to working with, listening to and investing in Johnston County throughout this process, which is in its earliest stages,” the company said in a statement. “CSX will work extensively with the community every step of the way. We are confident that we can deliver this project and all of its benefits while accommodating concerns voiced by some members of the community.”
Maybe that would have produced compromises agreeable to all parties; maybe not. But we might never know, and if that becomes the case, we will all share in the blame.