Starting tomorrow, Sept. 3, visitors to Rappahannock County will have an official starting point.
A Rappahannock County Visitors Center, subject of much discussion and not a little dissension earlier this year, will open its doors for at least three days a week — Friday through Sunday — beginning this Labor Day weekend.
The center is located at Avondale, a converted farmhouse at 3 Library Road, which parallels U.S. 211 briefly just east of Washington. The stretch of U.S. highway it faces, according to recent VDOT traffic studies, is the busiest in the county (between Massies Corner, where U.S. 522 heads north, to the western edge of Washington).
Renovation crews have been working at Avondale since before Memorial Day (the original target for opening the center). The crews, composed primarily of trustees, or trusted inmates from the county jail, used materials paid for by funds already in the budget for improvements at Avondale. The county-owned farmhouse near the library was slated for renovation anyway, as the county eventually plans to use it for office space.
The county’s Tourism Advisory Group (TAG), appointed this winter to get the center off the ground and pursue other longer-term county tourism goals, in May hired a part-time manager. Sandra Maskas, of Amissville, a retired social worker and 30-year resident of the county, officially began working a 20-hour week at that point.
“After months of planning and hard work by many, we are pleased that the center will be open to kick off the busy fall tourism season,” said Sherri Fickel, TAG chairman and co-owner of Sperryville’s Hopkins Ordinary B&B. (The TAG group’s membership was drawn largely from tourism-related businesses in the county.) “The Visitors Center will become an essential tool of the county’s strategic plan to enhance the economic health of the county through tourism.”
Since April, TAG has raised the funds necessary to open and operate the Visitors Center for its first year, Fickel said, and the ongoing fund-raising effort is going well.
“We’re actually doing very well, she said. “We’ve gotten some major donors, including the town of Washington and the Rappahannock Hospitality and Visitors Association (RHVA); without those we would be in a very tough spot right now. Rappahannock National Bank came through with a large donation.
“And our membership drive is continuing. We have 40 businesses now as members,” Fickel said, speaking of the local businesses asked to pay $100 a year for the right to display brochures at the center (the figure, she said, includes nonprofit organizations, which pay $75 annually).
The new Visitors Center will be open from 9 to 5 p.m. Friday to Sunday and holiday Mondays. During October and November’s peak season, the center will be open Thursday through Monday. The center will be staffed by Maskas and trained volunteers from the community. (If you’re interested in volunteering, see the box.)
A prepared press release said TAG has also received generous contributions from the Inn at Little Washington, Gay Street Inn, Rappahannock Central, Hopkins Ordinary, Debbie and James Donehey (owners of Griffin Tavern) and Narmada Winery.
The information provided by members, according to the press release, will wind up “in front of thousands of people each year, visitors and local residents alike, who come to the center seeking information on everything that is Rappahannock County. This helps to defray the costs of operating the Visitors Center.
“Should businesses or organizations wish to become founding sponsors of the Rappahannock County Visitors Center,” it continued, “the TAG has developed a menu of sponsorship levels with associated benefits at each level. Should businesses or organizations want to explore founding sponsorship of the Center, they should contact Jay Brown on behalf of the TAG at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
An advisory group that preceded the Board of Supervisors’ creation of TAG was confronted this winter with competing proposals for locating a visitors center — at the Link, the community center operated by the Rappahannock Non-Profit Center; and at the local-food and artists co-op that’s become known as Rappahannock Central, due to open this fall a few blocks away on River Lane.
The supervisors decided it was probably not the time to open a full-time visitors center (staffed a minimum of five days a week, including a Saturday and Sunday, a minimum set by the state before it will create and place highway signage leading visitors to the center.
TAG was appointed to seek alternatives, the cheapest of which turned out to be Avondale, already slated for renovation by the county; TAG’s members agreed to raise the first year’s operating funds.
Visitors Centers operating fewer than the required five days can purchase signage from the state, but Fickel said that wasn’t in the budget for this first year. Instead, sandwich-board signs — white on a blue background, same as the large sign that faces U.S. 211 in front of the center, and (not coincidentally) the same color scheme as the state’s official tourism-related highway signage — were created and will be placed in both directions along U.S. 211, as a temporary measure. The signs will be taken down when the Visitors Center is not open, she said.
Rappahannock County Visitors Center
Location: U.S. 211, just west of the Rappahannock County Library
Hours: Open 9 to 5 Friday-Sunday and most Monday holidays. During the fall tourist season, hours will expand to include Thursdays. The center might also close for a short period during winter.
Mailing address: PO Box 519, Washington, VA 22747
Manager: Sandra Maskas, email@example.com. Those interested in serving as volunteers at the center should contact Maskas.