Friday, August 13, 2010

Clarksburg, Bridgeport Merger? Maybe in 400 years.

Clarksburg is not moving.  The franchise that is Clarksburg is moving, however.

For nearly a century, the law firm of Steptoe and Johnson (S&J) anchored the downtown as the prime tenant in the Union National Bank (now known as Chase) building.  The firm’s 171 employees have moved to Bridgeport and are comfortably housed in a new building bearing the firm’s name.  As big as S&J is, it remained nearly invisible for all of its years in Clarksburg because most people don’t think of ten-story bank buildings as being job centers.

In October, what’s left of the Clarksburg franchise will move to Bridgeport.  United Hospital Center (UHC) has built a new hospital there.  UHC began as the combination of Union Protestant Hospital and St. Mary’s Hospital.  Like S&J, the hospital is ending a century-long presence in Clarksburg.  With the hospital’s move, doctors and medically-related businesses will move to Bridgeport, too.

But this new Bridgeport is not really Bridgeport.  Bridgeport was a sleepy little town; its franchise was the stockyard which closed a long time ago.  Bridgeport’s other franchise was Michael Benedum, the famous oil wildcatter.  Unfortunately for Bridgeport, Mr. Benedum banked his considerable fortune in Pittsburgh where it remains.

When I-79 breached the gap between old Clarksburg and old Bridgeport, a new city began to emerge.  Zoning battles have given part of the new city to old Clarksburg and part to old Bridgeport.  This new city—call it the I-79 strip—could have been the impetus to merge Clarksburg and Bridgeport into a single city of some importance.  But that did not happen.

The intransigence of Clarksburgers and Bridgeporters reminds me of the rivalry between the kingdoms of Lilliput and Blefuscu that Gulliver encountered on the first leg of his voyage.

For as long as anyone in Lilliput could remember, the proper way to eat one’s egg was to first crack open the large end.  Then one day, the emperor’s son cut his finger on his egg shell.  The emperor then decreed that Lilliputians shall forever after crack open their eggs from the small end.

This decree was not universally accepted, and from time to time, a minority of Lilliputians would rebel.  These rebels became known as the Big-endians, and to avoid persecution, many of them fled to the land of Blefuscu, Lilliput’s rival across the sea.  The Blefuscudians tolerated the mores of the Big-endians because their high priests had declared “that all true believers break their eggs at the convenient end.”

You are probably thinking that I am using a story from “Gulliver’s Travels” in an article about merging cities to segue to that famous cliché, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”  Well, you’re wrong. 

 Here’s the point of the satire.

The Lilliputians, as well as their rivals, the Blefuscudians, were little people, literally and figuratively.  Gulliver tells us that they were just six inches tall.  The egg shell “schism” tells us how insignificant their differences were.
At one time, I believed that the cities in Harrison County could consolidate.  In the early 1960s, the Catholics and the Protestants put aside their differences and pooled their resources to build the United Hospital Center.  Thus, I thought, if the Catholics and Protestants could bury five centuries of differences, then surely Clarksburg and Bridgeport could be forward thinking.

I still think my prediction of a city merger is correct—perhaps just 400 years too early.

Old Clarksburg has lost almost half of its population since 1960, and twenty per cent of the current population of 16,700 is over age 65.  Clarksburg needs to face this reality.  And come October, Clarksburg also needs to face the reality that the last of the Big-endians has left town.

Old Bridgeport is a city of 7,300 and its population won’t grow dramatically over the next decade.  There are new housing developments in the new city limits.  But many more houses are being built in the rural areas to the north and east.  Bridgeport will soon find itself as a lucrative tax collector with not enough citizens to (prudently) spend the tax money on.

If the two cities merged today—call it Clarksport or Bridgeburg—it would be a little city of 24,000 people.  But the two mayors still should hold a ceremonial egg-breaking, serve quiche pies and bacon to their citizens, and then merge the towns and be done with it.