Opinion: ‘The voice of the people’

Photo by Dennis Brack
Dennis Brack

Special report

• The Foothills Forum survey

In a 2013 coffee chat hosted by this newspaper, Rappahannock County citizens spoke out urging broader, deeper coverage. The nonpartisan nonprofit Foothills Forum formed to meet that demand. Dozens of Rappahannock citizens, been here’s and come here’s, chipped in with time and money. We started with a survey mailed to every household and P.O. Box to establish a baseline sense of our quality of life, the services we rely on and the issues affecting our future.

There’s no agenda, no dark group behind the effort.

The News presents the survey’s findings here for the first time. A team of experienced journalists produced a detailed look, launching a three-part series.

The findings are comforting, notably for those who fear a plot to disrupt life around here. The findings’ headlines: We love this place. We value our privacy. We like our services. We’re more disposed to change than you might have heard.  

With nearly 1,400 households responding – a rate more than doubling expectations – all manner of interests now have real numbers to back their causes. Not speculation. Not assumption.

Regarding the No. 1 and No. 2 issues: 1,043 respondents, or 80.7 percent, say internet service in the county is “very important or somewhat important.” And 1,037 people, or 79.6 percent, say the same of cell phone coverage. Amid the public discussions on the future of our volunteer fire and rescue squads, it helps to know 80.5 percent, or 937 respondents, are satisfied with the rescue squad, right ahead of similar numbers for the fire squads.

The survey shows vulnerabilities. Now we know nearly 1 in 5 plan to leave in the next few years for job opportunities. A similar number plans to depart because they can’t afford to live here.

Page after page of responses to open-ended questions echo the importance of “keeping,” “preserving” or “maintaining” our quality of life. Warnings in those pages decry a “lack” of many wants and wishes.

Some may disagree but we think that’s the voice of the people.

The overall response of the households returning the survey, weighted against the U.S. Census, offer an accurate reflection of the county’s demographics: age, time lived here, where we live, income and education attainment.

Questions have arisen.

Why is the nonprofit providing for this coverage in the newspaper? Because nonprofits have sprung up to help readers get coverage they seek in communities all across America – including Charlottesville Tomorrow just down the road. Because the Rappahannock News remains the best source of reported, vetted and edited news. More important, the survey finds folks are roughly twice as likely to rely on the weekly for their news than all local internet sources.

Why go to the trouble?

The Foothills survey is a long-term investment in the future, the kind of research governments and businesses wish they could afford to commission. The numbers offer value to elected officials, businesses, educators, parents and service providers. If these results help any of the above make more informed decisions, then we’ve made a valid contribution. If they get people talking about and acting on Rappahannock’s present and future concerns, that’s valid, too.

Publishing the results is a beginning, not the end. The lead professional, Dr. Tom Guterbock of the University of Virginia, says a good survey leaves many questions unanswered. When 92.1 percent say they value privacy and want to be left alone, it begs for detail and depth.

Now what?  

Part Two takes a deeper look at the 25 issues and what they mean. Part Three will focus on the quality of life questions and sentiment toward countywide services. Foothills Forum has commissioned experienced, in-county professionals to report on the deeply complex reasons behind our gaps in internet and cell phone service. A college intern will spend the summer reporting on the survey’s findings.

Foothills plans open forums to share the community’s responses, hear more about their issues, and inquire about potential solutions. These gatherings mean to complement the steady leadership of our supervisors, planning commissioners and other officials. The community will determine whether change is needed, and its pace. But now we know seven in 10 are at least open to the idea.  

The reporting speaks for itself. So do the numbers. When nine in 10 people say they’re satisfied with life here, it makes a powerful point: There’s more here that unites us than divides us.

Larry “Bud” Meyer is chairman of Foothills Forum.