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home : opinion : opinion
October 18, 2017

1/8/2017 9:00:00 AM
Mayor Heitman: A visionary man who left something big behind

Staff Writer

It's not what you take when you leave this world behind you, it is what you leave behind you when you go.

Those are the words from a Randy Travis song entitled "Three Wooden Crosses." The song centers on a farmer, preacher and teacher who were killed in a bus accident. I think of this song when I reflect on the death of former Zaleski Mayor Doug Heitman. He served for 11 years as mayor and lived until age 77.

Over the course of his terms, Mayor Heitman proved to be a creative and innovative leader who was not always popular, but certainly persistent. What he left behind was the Zaleski Public Sewer System. This idea was certainly not always popular, but it was a project the council pursued and completed while obtaining 78-percent grant funding.

Usually, building a sewer system for 139 or so residents is risky because the base number is usually higher. However, there is a potential to build a tourism-type economy due to the overflow of the one million guests Lake Hope State Park receives annually. For this reason, Heitman and the Zaleski Village Council went it alone, financed the system and built it through a relatively smooth construction process.

Heitman saw the sewer lines as the seed to attract businesses, such as: A convenience store, small motel, restaurant (s), antique shops, laundromat, entertainment center and other tourism-related businesses.

The village is not alone in its marketing effort as the Vinton County Convention and Visitors Bureau promotes the area on its website. Heitman also knew national chains and franchisers want --and sometimes even -- demand, a public sewer hookup. He often said without the system, Zaleski had no chance to grow.

A person may say national chains in Zaleski is not possible. Times are changing, though, as Family Dollar is building a store soon in Wilkesville and Dollar General is looking at a site in Hamden.

There are companies in Appalachia, or the south, running combo stores, similar to Cross Creek, that may invest in the village. Companies are not so much geographic anymore. They are instead looking for communities where there is a need and competition risk is light.

In Zaleski, there is definitely a need for the following: An auto gas operator with food options; a laundromat, maybe with showers like a truck stop has, because of the biking and hiking events; a small restaurant and an entertainment center or golf course. The county is also marketing the nearby Moonville Tunnel and 3,000 people attended the October Halloween event there. It was a boon for vendors and the Lake Hope Lodge.

On a daily basis, there are also people who have been transferred to the nearby former 3-C Camp site, as it is being redeveloped to house state offices, and there are employees at the Zaleski State Forest Office. Those employees also need a local place to eat and buy items.

Will those numbers attract business? Well not yet, maybe, but the communications and research methods are always improving. Sometimes, a business will take a chance on a small town and really prosper there. Heitman never said the sewer system was a sure-fire guarantee, but he did say it would give Zaleski a chance to grow.

I suppose time will tell if Heitman was right.

I understand that forced government-imposed bills are not popular with residents. It was a choice Heitman and the Zaleski Council made in the hope businesses would come, create jobs for local citizens and sales taxes for the county. As for myself, not being a betting man, I do not know if the system will pay off, but I certainly hope so.

I can share with you my interviews with Mayor Heitman about potential investment in Zaleski were highly read. When checking our Internet statistics a few years ago, one of my interviews with him had over 4,000 reads, which, I believe, was the fourth highest read story of the year. Our staff was surprised and so was I. Apparently, some businesses out there may have their scope on Zaleski. In this Internet age, I have no idea who or where they are located.

Also, The Telegram sends our regrets to the Heitman family. We salute a man who stuck to his convictions and left a major contribution to community behind as he left this earth. It was a life well-lived and we thank him for his service.

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