For many years, county officials have dreamed of a connector road between U.S. Route 58-A at the Ramsey section of Norton, along Bear Creek toward Wise, most particularly near the University of Virginia's College at Wise, thence to the Lonesome Pine Regional Business and Technology Park next to Lonesome Pine Airport.
Opposition to those plans in the past has primarily arisen from residents of a subdivision on the town of Wise end of Bear Creek, but the traffic congestion and winding route required to get to the college and the technology park/airport still exist, and the idea to resolve the situation never went away, either.
That proposal has been dusted off and trotted out by the Wise County Board of Supervisors as "Innovation Highway," a moniker that freshens up the proposal inasmuch as it attaches the significance of economic development potential such a connector road may harbor.
Envisioned is a nearly five-mile-long stretch of divided four-lane highway anchored on one end by a linkup with U.S. Route 58-A at the Ramsey interchange and at the other by the county's premiere industrial development acreage next to the airport, with the college in between.
Wise County Board of Supervisors Chairman Ronnie Shortt said the project is a good one for the county, the college and motorists. During a board workshop session Thursday, Shortt described a recent meeting in Richmond where local officials met with Virginia Secretary of Transportation Pierce Homer about the project.
Shortt credited state Sen. William Wampler Jr., R-Bristol, with crucial assistance to set up that meeting and praised Wampler's support of the project.
Shortt said Friday the "Innovation Highway" is the result of discussions among county officials, and the name just sort of fell off their tongues.
"We thought it was an appropriate name with the Tech Park, plus it will open areas up to the college and that entire part of the county - make it accessible," he said. "We thought it is a good name. The (county Geographical Informational Systems) department may have come up with it. I don't know, but it's appropriate."
Shortt, Wise County Administrator Glen "Skip" Skinner and other county officials are scheduled to meet with regional Virginia Department of Transportation staffers in Bristol on Wednesday to re-evaluate the possibilities.
"I think one of the main things we're going for next week, we're looking for information how we can move this project forward, how we can get this on the (state's six-year highway projects plan) for primary systems," Shortt said. "Everybody's concerned about VDOT's financial status. Money is tight with them. We're looking for information about ways we can move this project forward. But I think one of our main objectives is to get it on the six-year plan."
Skinner said the county is willing to stake $500,000 toward the project over a two-year budget period to help woo state and federal dollars to the project. Skinner thinks the name is appropriate as well.
"I think the county tries to look at innovative ways to grow its economy, and that's the whole idea with the data center and some fiber-optic projects," he said.
"More important than that, businesses grow over time because of innovative business practices. So trying to grow the economy and put a theme on that with the road serving high-tech jobs, hopefully we will be able to support that. As well as serving UVa-Wise, I can't think of a better way to serve all concerned. UVa-Wise likes to think of themselves as innovative as well."
Skinner said Wednesday's meeting in Bristol will include Commonwealth Transportation Board members as well as VDOT Bristol District Administrator James Givens.
"We want to continue the dialogue (started in Richmond) and get board members' support, and get this project on the state's six-year road program," he said.
Shortt said the project is a winner for all concerned.
"I support the project for three or four reasons," he said. "One, it definitely gives us an opportunity to open that part of Wise County up. It has water and sewer there already. Two, it helps relieve traffic flow and make (U.S. Route 23) and 58-A safer, and I think it will also relieve traffic congestion in downtown Wise. People will have an alternate route to maneuver themselves around to get somewhere quicker. With Northrop Grumman and CGI-AMS (two high-tech corporate giants planning major expansions in Lebanon) forging partnerships with the college, they could probably eliminate 15 to 20 minutes off the drive from their operations in Lebanon to the college. And the Innovation Highway offers both industrial and new residential economic prospects."
"I think our ability to market the Tech Park is at a disadvantage because of how you have to get there," Skinner said. "So this is an economic development project."