Much has been written about Little Washington this past week and I understand the concerns and the passion because all of us who live here care deeply about the special nature of our county seat. I want to offer my perspective — some history and some facts, and most of all emphasize there is a process for dealing with how buildings are used and how they look in the town.
The reality is that anyone can buy and sell property. Ignored in much commentary is that the town has a comprehensive plan, strong ordinances and an architectural review process to shape what is done with these properties. These controls have been developed over many years. Indeed, I have heard from many outside the town that we are too restrictive, especially with regard to architectural review (a view I do not share).
There has been much talk about whether the town is dying or not. Some history and facts (from our comprehensive plan and Rappahannock history books):
In 1835, the town “contained one academy, 55 dwelling houses, four mercantile stores, two taverns, one house of public worship . . . four blacksmiths, four carpenters, two saddlers, one hatter, one tanner, two wagon makers, three tailors, four shoemakers, one cabinet maker, one silversmith, three milliners, one plasterer and bricklayer, and two large flour mills.”
Some 100 years later, the town population “was nearly 500 and there were five churches, two auditoriums, three general mercantile stores, a national bank, a hotel, two wayside restaurants, 10 tourist homes, three garages, county court buildings, a Masonic hall, the Washington High School (with a daily attendance of over 200), a barber shop and many other business places and professional offices.”
Five years ago, the facts suggested that the town was demographically and economically weakening, though not in spirit. The town population had declined from 183 to 135 by 2010 — a 26 percent decline, and down 35 percent from 1990. Of the town’s roughly 100 buildings, 10 percent sat empty, many suffering from years of neglect. Small business closed or left town. Only the truly strong — the Country Cafe, R.H. Ballard, the Theatre at Washington, Chris Goodine’s jewelry shop and the B&Bs — survived.
The town, of course, has the Inn at Little Washington and its Patrick O’Connell, and I greatly admire and respect both. As owner of the Inn, Patrick has shaped this town and survived all forms of attacks over the years. As chairman of the Architectural Review Board for many years and now a town council member, he has contributed to the preservation of this town greatly. And yet most folks correctly understood that the town was (and still is) very dependent on the Inn financially.
The arrival of the wastewater system in 2010, after decades of debate, has enabled the town and its citizens to not only become more physically healthy but to expand — to have more housing, restaurants and retail. Indeed, the last two comprehensive plans specifically identified the wastewater system as an engine for growth in the town core.
The comprehensive plan, the town citizens and businesses, and the town council have all shared a goal of growth in the historic grid, both residential and commercial, and more generally in vitality and spirit. What has it brought us? New people have moved to town. The Kramer building on the corner of Gay and Jett streets, thanks to Ken Thompson, has become a thriving center in town with offices for people, a great new restaurant and a soon-to-arrive bar. The Inn, the Foster Harris House, Ballard’s and the Little Washington Wellness Spa have all expanded. Stonyman Gourmet Farmer has contributed greatly. Wine Loves Chocolate has opened. And lastly, of course, we have the RAAC Theatre and Wendy’s Theatre, a magnet for all.
So, what about the present and future? The town is growing and strengthening. The Jim Abdo “arrival” will play out beneficially (or not) depending on just what he proposes and what the town permits. So far what has occurred and has been permitted is the revitalization of a bed and breakfast now called The White Moose, designed to attract a younger, more “hip” crowd to the town and county.
Secondly, Brian Noyes’ Red Truck Bakery, thanks to Jim Abdo, will be moving to town into the old Rappahannock News building. Sounds pretty good to me. Not heard a complaint about that. So what else does he have in mind? I know he is thinking more food, some retail. I am sure he will expand on this tonight at the forum sponsored by the Rappahannock News at 5 p.m. in the Theatre on Gay Street, and the town will address each proposal as it is presented.
Lastly, as to my role as mayor. I understand — or should I say “get” — the criticism leveled at me based on The Washington Post story. And yet, from my point of view I have been doing my job. I have worked with Ken Thompson, the Ballards, the MacPhersons, Wendy Weinberg and others doing business in town.
And yes, I talk with Patrick and now Jim Abdo. Seemed to me good sense they should meet each other, and so they did in my home over coffee. Not a secret. It is my job to help work with the people who live and work in this town, or who might be interested in doing so.
Towns do not stay as they are; they do not maintain the status quo. They weaken or strengthen. I am trying to help with the latter: A stronger, more vibrant town which retains its unique character — combining history, eclectic architecture and a special sense of community. Washington has continually evolved over the decades and yet still maintained its specialness. So we are faced with just how much change.
Why would anyone want it to be just like some other place? Not I.
John Fox Sullivan