Buckhannon, a State Judicial Capital? West Virginia Suggestions, Part 1
Ever the dreamer, RT has long been perplexed by certain negative trends in West Virginia, chief among them the state’s stagnant population: after decades of solid growth, the population reached an all-time high in 1950 (2 million), but has since drifted down to 1.8 million (77.1 people psm). Why is the state no longer able to increase its population?
A complicated question, to be sure, with more than a single answer. RT will confine himself to examining one of the factors that has led, from his point of view, to the drop in population.
We should start by noting how sparsely populated the state is, compared to its neighbors: Maryland has a population of 5.8 million (596 people psm); Virginia, a population of 8.1 million (206.7 people psm). This results in smaller cities: Charleston, West Virginia’s state capital, is also its largest city (pop. 51,731); this contrasts with Maryland (largest city, Baltimore, pop. 621,342) and Virginia (largest city, Virginia Beach, pop. 447,489).
What does this mean? From RT’s perspective, it means that West Virginia lacks a solid constituency for its interests, that is, a core population long committed to promoting the state’s well-being.
How to solve such an amorphous problem? RT says: look abroad (and in the past) to see what governments have done to encourage population growth in remote areas: they have built a new capital city. Whether we look at Washington, D.C., Brasilia (capital of Brazil) or Abuja (capital of Nigeria), we see that planned capitals grow into major cities.
Why might this be? 1) Planned cities have a coherence and beauty often lacking in cities that spring up spontaneously, that is, a street (or city) plan that gives pleasure to its residents; 2) capital cities of course are the seat of government, thus requiring a significant population to administer that government; 3) planned cities are often placed so as to resolve political tensions in a state, and produce a mixed, representative population from all parts of the state.
In response to the questions in reader’s minds, RT makes the following points.
1) Fifteen countries have multiple capitals. Some of these countries (e.g., South Africa, Nigeria, and Chile, have disparate populations (different cultures, religions, and environments) that all have to be accommodated in a single state. But this seems to RT to be a big part of West Virginia’s problem, with the state’s Ohio River counties looking west, while the Mountain Highlands and Eastern Panhandle counties inevitably feel closer to the Atlantic seaboard. And then there are the state’s southern counties, which include some of the poorest in Appalachia. The situation is not helped by the fact that national forests nearly split the state into eastern and western halves.
Buckhannon lies slightly west of the forest-park divide, along route 33, which if completed as planned, will finally provide West Virginia with a multilane east-west highway. It also happens to lie close to the intersection of route 33 with Interstate highway 79, which runs north-south from Charleston to Morgantown. The city is certainly much closer to the state’s eastern counties (currently, people from Martinsburg must drive 6 hours to reach Charleston) and is in fact more centrally located than the current capital, while not being too distant from it).
2) Why move the state judiciary, as opposed to the executive or the legislature? RT suspects that moving the judiciary would prove least disruptive to Charleston and emphasize the importance and independence of this branch of state government.
3) A national competition would be held to choose the architects who design the new state supreme court buildings and its surroundings. To contrast with the traditional architecture in Charlestown, RT recommends the choice of a modernist architectural firm, one capable of designing an efficient and striking building.
4) The new supreme court building and its surrounding residential neighborhoods could be paid for by a temporary tax on the extraction of the state’s coal and natural gas.
Success in part has to do with energy: a confident, positive attitude towards the present and future attracts people. Nothing could send a stronger signal of West Virginia’s confidence in itself than building a new judicial capital. And the city would help bind the state more tightly together even as it grows the population in the state’s central counties.
RT’s Related Posts: 1) West Virginia–How Poor? 2) Wheeling, West Virginia and the Dream of an American Fifth Coast.