By Stefanie Jackson
The chairman of the Northampton County Board of Supervisors, Spencer Murray, took an unconventional approach to his speech at the semi-annual Eggs & Issues breakfast and political forum sponsored by the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce at the Accomac Elks Lodge Dec. 5.
Murray briefly mentioned recent accomplishments in Northampton before confronting the audience with his personal conclusions on three topics of de-bate in the county, saying he needed to “correct some misinformation.”
He referred to members of Northampton’s school board, board of supervisors, and staff of both organizations, who formed a committee to decide if the aging Northampton High School should be renovated or reconstructed.
One structural engineering firm, Speight, Marshall, and Francis, reported nearly 12 years ago that the original 1954 building was in “poor” condition and the cost of repairs would ex-ceed 60 percent of the cost to rebuild.
Under Murray’s leadership, the board of supervisors recommended Northampton schools hire another engineer to get a second opinion on the high school’s structural condition.
In September, the committee advertised for an engineering firm to con-duct “structural investigations” and “studies to determine extent of repairs necessary,” among other tasks.
Murray said at the Dec. 5 forum that the committee “recently had a meeting … of five architectural and structural engineers, and they met and they went through their review. Four of the five indicated that Northampton High School is certainly old … and it needs repairs, but … there’s nothing critically structurally bad.”
Northampton schools Superintendent Eddie Lawrence later clarified Murray’s statement, indicating the school is in “no imminent danger” of collapse.
But Lawrence has not disputed the poor condition of the 1954 school building. An April letter from Speight, Marshall, and Francis stated the auditorium walls “are in danger of experiencing localized partial collapse.” Auditorium repairs are expected to begin during Christmas break when no students or staff are present.
The architectural and structural engineers Murray referred to were taken on a walkthrough of the high school at a mandatory pre-bid meeting Sept. 26.
Five engineering firms were inter-viewed on Nov. 27 and 28, but none has been hired and no formal structural investigation has begun.
The committee originally planned to select a firm by Dec. 11, but it has only narrowed down the pool to three choices and is considering another round of interviews. Phase 1 of the engineering project may be expanded. A final decision on which firm will conduct the structural investigation is expected in late January or early February.
Murray also said that recent re-ports about Eastern Shore Communications (ESC), a wireless internet service provider based in Cape Charles, were inaccurate.
A press release issued Nov. 14 by the offices of U.S. Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner stated, “Eastern Shore Communications LLC will receive $1,799,911 to construct a broadband fiber fixed-wireless high-speed network capable of servicing residents of Chincoteague, Wallops Island, Accomac, Exmore, Cape Charles,” and several areas across the Chesapeake Bay.
The nearly $1.8 million was award-ed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development office as a Community Connect grant.
Murray said none of the funds will benefit the Eastern Shore. Instead, the money will be spent in Camden County, N.C., “for implementing a hybrid fiber op-tic and fixed wireless broadband service,” according to an Eastern Shore Communications press release issued by company president Ronald van Geijn.
ESC has established an office in Elizabeth City, N.C., headed by Don Imhoff, the company’s vice president of business development.
The project announcement released by USDA stated ESC “will be expanding their system to this new community,” which appears to be Elizabeth City, N.C.
But the announcement was ad-dressed to U.S. senators and congress-men of both North Carolina and Virginia, and Warner’s press secretary, Nelly Decker, asserted that the grant was in-tended to benefit counties in both states.
USDA stated that grant funds must be used in the Proposed Funded Service Area (PFSA) indicated on the grant application.
Without reviewing the application, USDA concluded that “Eastern Shore Communications is obliged to use fund-ing in Virginia and North Carolina.”
But Van Geijn said he designated only Camden County, N.C., as the PF-SA on the USDA grant application.
The Eastern Shore Post submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to USDA Rural Development to confirm Van Geijn’s claim.
Murray also discussed the Eastern Shore’s shortline railroad, jointly owned by the public authority, the Ac-comack-Northampton Transportation District Commission (ANTDC), and private company Canonie Atlantic.
Murray is one of eight board members (four supervisors each from Accomack and Northampton) shared by the two entities.
A recent Eastern Shore Post article reported Murray had declined to disclose how much money was received for selling the Nandua, the barge formerly used by the railroad, despite the $1 mil-lion in state and local funds used to re-pair the barge prior to its sale.
“We’re not acting in secret,” but, “there are private elements that I won’t talk about,” Murray said on Dec. 5
He also discussed how the owner of the former Bay Coast Railroad in Cape Charles had 18 years left on its lease, but ANTDC and Canonie Atlantic were able to secure “a long-term lease arrangement” with Delmarva Central Railroad (DCR), a branch of Carload Express Inc. DCR will operate on nearly 15 miles of track between Hallwood and Pocomoke City, Md.
Another long-term lease was obtained with Buckingham Branch Rail-road in central Virginia, Murray said.
“It seems to me that there’s no story that’s so successful that someone cannot turn it into a negative and wrap it into a conspiracy theory,” Murray commented.
By Stefanie Jackson