Column: What’s the matter with Rappahannock?

In an editorial published in his March 18 issue, the new publisher of the Rappahannock News, Walter Nicklin, asked readers what issues are most important to this county and which should be the focus of the weekly newspaper’s news coverage and editorial commentary.

This brings to mind a famous editorial penned more than a century ago by legendary Kansas editor William Allen White, headlined: “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” Nicklin’s headline was a more muted “What Do You Think?” but it asks the same kind of questions about what’s right, what’s wrong and what’s important to Rappahannock County.

It’s a useful inquiry and I hope the newspaper gets lots of responses from readers and shares them all with the community. I got thinking about it and decided to write my response on, as much for my readers as for the Rappahannock News.

Not to be negative, but first let me start with a dissent. I don’t agree with Walter Nicklin’s opening statement that the editorial page of a newspaper “tells its readers what to think.” No, it doesn’t — or at least, shouldn’t. It should tell the readers what the publisher of the newspaper thinks, not what they should think.

William Allen White proclaimed that the newspaper’s job is simply “to tell the truth and to raise hell.” The truth-telling part comes in reporting the news fairly, fearlessly and without favor. The hell-raising part comes in uncovering what’s wrong in the community –- what’s unfair, unjust, undone, or done poorly, especially when it relates to government –- and trying to stir citizens and leaders to right those wrongs.

It’s as good a short summary of what a newspaper should be as I have ever heard, and I commend it to the new publisher. But don’t tell us what to think — just report the news, comment on it in a way to provoke thought, and provide an open forum for every kind of opinion.

In his editorial, Nicklin suggested several issues or topics that he’s identified as important to Rappahannock County and asked readers’ views on them. Let’s look at the topics he identified:

Local economy: Nicklin asked if farming should remain a viable use of the land here. Well, it’s barely viable now as a way to earn a living. Some dedicated landowners seek to preserve a way of life of their grandfathers by maintaining their farms, and we should thank them for that. And some newcomers and others have worked hard to establish new ways of farming here — in vineyards, in growing organic crops, in raising specialty meats – and we should encourage that, too.

But farms will employ few people here, will not provide returns commensurate with the capital tied up in them, and will survive only if taxes are kept relatively low and government does not burden the process with onerous regulation or environmental laws.

Unfortunately, most politicians today show every inclination to tax, regulate and harass farmers out of business. Personally, I would rather see cows on our fields than subdivisions, retirement mansions or solar panels and energy windmills, even if the cows occasionally poop in the streams. I think they have been doing that for some centuries, and it’s hard to see how that wrecked the place.

Tourism: What’s it’s future here? By all indications I’ve seen, tourism has declined in Rappahannock County rather steadily over the past 20 years. Visitation to Shenanadoah National Park has dropped, the Sperryville area has lost a large part of its former tourist attractions, and in the latest recession one tourist business after another has closed, including several restaurants, some shops and stores. B&B’s are struggling.

Tourist expectations and wants have changed dramatically over the last two decades. Orchards and fruit stands aren’t magnets for many in this dazzle-me age. Rappahannock will attract people who want beautiful scenery, some quiet walks, a visit to a winery or art gallery, or a quiet night at a B&B. But it’s hard to see how that number will increase much in an age thirsty for the spectacular — everything that’s fast, loud, sexy, urban and Twitter-worthy. Try tweeting about a fruit stand and see what you get.

My advice for anyone thinking about establishing a tourist-related business here would be: Forget it, unless you like being alone most of the time. (I could tell you about five years of being alone in a bookshop most of the time, but I won’t.)

Environmental Issues: Nicklin asks if protecting and preserving our unspoiled natural landscape should be a high priority. Yes, of course it should. Rappahannock has done a good job of that with its zoning laws and its public wariness of economic development. But don’t fix what’s not broken. We don’t need economic development blueprints, subsidies for favored activities or penalties on unfavored ones. I used to wonder why the county Planning Commission didn’t do any planning; now I see the wisdom of that course.

Human assets: Are there enough opportunities here for young people? No, there are not. Nor is there a way to provide them without substantially changing Rappahannock County. My experience is that young people, after spending all their youth in one place, want to see more of the world. And they should. Creating more low-wage, limited-horizon jobs in Rappahannock to keep youngsters here would do them little good.

There’s an old saying: “There are two lasting gifts we can give our children: one is roots, the other wings.” Kids growing up here will have roots in Rappahannock that they will always value; they deserve wings too, so they can see some of the rest of the world, which will only deepen their appreciation of Rappahannock roots. Many, after comparing life elsewhere with what they experienced in Rappahannock, will return as productive, contributing adults – either permanently, or as part-timers.

Money: That is, public money. What’s to be done in the face of declining state money and a limited, static tax base? Nicklin asks. The reality is that not much can be done. The Commonwealth does not permit localities to tax income or much of anything else except real estate and local retail sales, which are very limited here.

So there is not going to be any new gusher of money to spend in coming years, and we will just have to live within our means. It’s a radical concept, I admit, and lately little practiced at any level of government -– especially the Federal government, which now simply prints funny-money to cover exploding debts. That won’t work for Virginia or for Rappahannock County (and it won’t work for long for the U.S.A., but that’s another subject for later.)

Therefore our schools will need very careful management, a sharp focus on the essentials (not including non-essentials such as football teams or lighted sports arenas), a slimmed down administration, and competent teachers. But we can’t be like Fairfax County, or even Fauquier. Right now, we are better off than either, which expanded staffs and spending so much in the fat years that they are whacking budgets much harder than we are in the lean years.

Affordable housing: Nicklin raises this issue, too, which got a lot of debate a couple of years ago. But guess what? We now have quite a bit of affordable housing on the market in Rappahannock — and going begging for offers.
The real estate bust has produced affordable housing here. Just look at some offerings on the local real-estate multi-list service. There’s a three-bedroom home in Sperryville assessed on the tax rolls at $210,000 — now for sale at $89,900. There’s a three-bedroom ranch near Little Washington for sale at $259,500 — and it’s been on the market for more than a year.

So I would say, in answer to the question “What’s the matter with Rappahannock,” that our problems pale in comparison with those of most counties around us. Rappahannock County’s problems are much more manageable than those of our region and the nation at large. That’s largely due to our county’s small population, small government and conservative attitude toward change. There’s a message here: We have it good here in Rappahannock — don’t mess it up by trying to be like someplace else.

This article was first published on the author’s blog at

About James P. Gannon 21 Articles
James P. Gannon is a retired journalist who lives near Flint Hill. In his newspaper career, he served as a reporter and bureau chief at The Wall Street Journal, as Editor of The Des Moines Register in Iowa, and as Washington Bureau Chief for the Detroit news and a columnist for the Gannett newspapers.