Tourism-related tax revenue is rising throughout Rappahannock County, and the mayor of Washington says it’s also rising dramatically in town, which is also undergoing a significant building boom.
“By my calculations,” said Washington Mayor John Fox Sullivan, “more than $3 million has been spent in the last year on construction in the town. These figures are just taken from county building office permit applications, which are admittedly conservative.”
Apart from the stories we tell each other, the most reliable indicator of the health of the county’s fastest-growing industry is meals-and-lodging tax collection. The county’s collections rose 12.6 percent in fiscal year 2013 (which ended June 30) to $202,438. Last year’s fiscal-year take, according to County Administrator John McCarthy, was $179,747.
And the town of Washington took in about $266,000 in fiscal year 2013, also up about 12 percent over 2012’s $236,700. The town has always collected more tourism-related tax dollars than the rest of the county — since the county’s biggest tourist draw, and largest year-round private-sector employer, The Inn at Little Washington, is within its borders.
Sullivan points out that the 2013 meals and lodging revenue in town is within $1,000 of matching its all-time high in 2008, before the economy tanked.
“What’s important to note,” said Sullivan, “is this year’s numbers are up 12 percent, but if you compare quarter by quarter to the previous year, it’s even more encouraging. The first quarter of this year — meaning last July through September — the numbers were up 8.7 percent; the second quarter, 9.3 percent; the third quarter, up 13 percent. And the fourth quarter, which ended this June 30, it was up 18 percent.
“And then for the month of July,” Sullivan said, meaning last month, “the numbers we heard at our last council meeting, meals and lodging is up 25 percent over the previous year,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan also cited the increase in applications to the town’s Architectural Review Board (ARB), which reports its total cases at the end of each fiscal year. “There were something like 45 applications over the last year,” Sullivan said, “versus between five and 10 the previous year.”
Those applications covered, in part:
• The Inn’s renovation of the long-empty Clopton House into six new luxury suites, and Jim Abdo’s renovation of the former Heritage House B&B into a six-room hotel, the White Moose Inn, both of which are expected to open later this year or early next;
• Ken Thompson’s retail- and office-centered renovation of the Kramer Building, which saw the opening last year of a new cafe, Tula’s off Main, downstairs, and the opening (and near 100-percent leasing) of his Rapp Office telecommuting center upstairs;
• John and Diane MacPherson’s ongoing renovation of their Foster-Harris House on Main Street, including the addition of a new kitchen and renovated dining room that led the MacPhersons to request the town allow B&Bs to serve dinner to non-guests, a notion the council approved earlier this month by creating a new permit process;
• Jackie Meuse’s ongoing renovation of the building at 261 Main Street (the Hair Gallery and Capitol Metro Physical Therapy), including the opening of her Little Washington Wellness & Spa downstairs (and possible expansion upstairs), and
• Homes (or village commercial buildings) renovated or under renovation by Allan Comp, the Swifts and the Leggett family.
“By next year,” Sullivan said, “the number of rooms available in the town, B&B or hotel rooms, is essentially going from 35 to 48 — a 40 percent increase.”
Sullivan said none of the recent growth of the town would have been possible without the sewer system the town installed, and opened in early 2010. “Plus I think the town has come to be seen as a more interesting and energetic place,” he said. “I’m biased, obviously, I live here and I’m not totally objective.”
Diane MacPherson said Foster-Harris House, like B&Bs around the county, has seen a bump in guests over the last year, in large part because The Inn at Little Washington “has gotten a lot of fantastic press this past year, and that definitely brings more business to all of us.”
“Also, because we’re close to D.C., where there are primarily people in government jobs, so we were fortunate in that we weren’t hit as hard by the poor economy,” MacPherson said. She also agreed with a theory put forth by McCarthy, which is (as he put it): “I came out here before and liked it, so I’m coming out again. Basically, nothing succeeds like success.
“Also,” McCarthy said, “there’s a certain buzz that gets out there, everything from the Castleton Festival to more places opening in Sperryville, so you get here and find you can’t do everything at once. From talking to people, like Sherri Fickel at Hopkins Ordinary and others, that’s accounting for much of the repeat business that we are getting.”