ST. PAUL — Eastern Virginia utility Dominion jump-started a fund-raising drive to rebuild the High Knob Observation Tower with a $15,000 donation Thursday.
The tower was destroyed by fire on Halloween. On Wednesday, federal authorities charged a Coeburn volunteer firefighter, 22-year-old Nick Owens, with torching the popular landmark.
Initial public outrage at the destruction of a much-beloved Wise County icon evolved into a grass-roots effort to rebuild the structure atop the 4,162-foot elevation ash heap. U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, D-9th District, organized the High Knob Tower Task Force to focus local fund-raising efforts, and on Thursday the utility that wants to build a 585 megawatt power plant at the Virginia City site in St. Paul provided a significant power boost toward that goal.
“Being a local landmark, we were all devastated when the tower was burned down, and our first thought was how to build it back, and how to build it back even better than ever,” said St. Paul Town Councilwoman Rita McReynolds, a member of the Tower Task Force via the Wise County Chamber of Commerce.
“What Dominion is doing here today will kick off our major fund-raising drive. We appreciate Dominion so very much. They have been a major player in the county, and they are displaying their wonderfully inspiring community spirit once again in a big way.”
Dominion spokesman James Beasley said he first visited High Knob in 2004 before he was employed by the utility and was in awe of what he discovered there.
“When the fire happened, people were passing around articles about it at our offices in Richmond, and they were all saying, ‘We’ve got to do something.’ Now we’re helping to do something,” Beasley said during Thursday’s ceremonial check presentation at the utility’s Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center construction site offices.
Jefferson National Forest Clinch District Ranger Ron Bush said never in his 29 years with the U.S. Forest Service had he witnessed a public both outraged and intent on doing something to reverse a senseless act of destruction of a popular national forest attraction.
“Just talking to people when I first came here, I just knew it’s a special place,” said Bush, nearly two years into his tenure as the district ranger. “When (the fire) happened, I somehow knew there would be a public outcry.”
When folks began talking about passing around the hat to raise money to rebuild the tower, Bush cringed at the thought of all that federal bureaucratic red tape about to ensnare him.
“It’s a great idea. It’s just hard for us as a federal agency to take donations,” he said.
Boucher’s creation of an independent grass-roots task force to gather all the outrage under one roof in order to handle the fund raising allowed Bush to sleep easier and enjoy the community’s channeling of dismay into a good thing.
“What has been and is going on now within the community will benefit more than the U.S. Forest Service,” he said. “This really is the people’s tower now.”
McReynolds said Dominion’s oversized ceremonial check, featuring a vista of the scenic Powell Valley that sprawls at the foot of High Knob, “is one of the best-looking checks I’ve ever seen, and I hope to see a lot more of them from more corporate and business donors in the future.”
The spare change dug out of children’s piggy banks and precious greenbacks plucked from Wise County wallets and pocketbooks are every bit as vital to the tower reconstruction effort as the bigger wads provided by far deeper pockets like Dominion, McReynolds added.
“What our people can give, no matter how little or much, is just as important as the big corporate donors,” she said. “I like to think that every man, woman and child in Wise County will be able to truthfully say they own a piece of the new tower, once it’s built.”
The task force is preparing its first big public fund-raising event, a silent auction, in Norton on March 8 at the Inn at Norton. Details will be forthcoming from the chamber of commerce, said McReynolds.
The task force is currently accepting public comment not just about recommendations for the tower design and reconstruction, but other amenities people might want to see at or near the site. Recommendations may be sent to the Wise County Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 226, Norton, Va. 24273.
Or e-mail recommendations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Comments will also be received by the task force Structure and Design Subcommittee addressed to Robby Robbins, 10278 Norton-Coeburn Road., Coeburn Va. 24230.
Donations to the tower reconstruction effort may be mailed to Mountain Heritage Inc., P.O. Box 1259, St. Paul Va. 24283; or to the Lonesome Pine Office on Youth, P.O. Box 568, Big Stone Gap, Va. 24219. Donors should include “High Knob Initiative” on the memo line of their checks. The task force is working to establish a means to accept online and electronic contributions soon.