Rapp Central: Almost ready for prime time

From left, River District Arts director Georgia Landman, farmer and entrepreneur Jerome Niessen, who owns the former Sperryville Antiques building, and Grand Cafe Indigo manager Rob Landman.

The former Sperryville Antique Market at 3 River Lane is home to several new businesses — one about to open, another already operating and a third heading into home stretch.

The historic building, which was built as an apple packing house and served as the county’s first farmers coop, is now called Rappahannock Central. The building has undergone a massive, year-long renovation by its current owner, local farmer and entrepreneur Jerome Niessen.

The River District Arts (RDA) collective (riverdistrictarts.org) is the first of several new enterprises to open. Artists and others are invited to an open house from 2 to 6 Saturday, Oct. 2, which will feature tours, an exhibit by area artist Matt Kleberg, refreshments and music by the Brazilian duo Beleza Brasil.

Here guests will find a modern new art collective offering individual studios for member artists, the Confluent Gallery of Art for exhibitions, plus classroom and work spaces.

RDA director Georgia Landman, herself a professional photographer, said the new collective’s goal is to offer local artists of every kind studios where they can work in an inspiring environment, create, promote and sell their art and host classes, workshops and projects.

“We also will host public exhibits in the Confluent Gallery of Art — of paintings, pottery, sculpture and myriad other forms — by noted professionals from nearby as well as elsewhere, and similar events to engage and involve the community in our artistic endeavors,” she said.

Niessen said the art studios and gallery feature “a hip and cool decor set against the rustic post-and-beam background of the old apple packing house.” The Dutch native added that the collective is modeled after Alexandria’s highly successful Torpedo Factory and will provide on-site staff for art sales.

Studios will be rented to individual artists or small groups for one year at a time, on the basis of work submitted to a jury, according to Landman, who said, “We have many artists interested in joining. Some are interested because they are looking for space, others are looking for more exposure of their art, and many are looking forward to being inspired by other artists and the interaction among artists and with the general public.”

The collective will not be merely a gallery, she said, since artists are expected to work on their art in the studios for a minimum number of hours per week. Seven regular (12-by-15-foot) and two large (24-by-15-foot) art studios are offered with windows (facing north) and doors opening into a main hall for artists and visitors.

Downstairs in the building, the Rappahannock Natural Foods Coop is up and running online (at www.rnf.coop). Niessen said the Coop includes a group of local farmers joining to offer a one-stop shop for consumers — in Rappahannock, neighboring communities and across the D.C. area — where people can buy all their local and natural food products. Its membership includes a number of long-time local farmers like Williams Orchards, the McNears’ Meadow Green Farms and El Rancho Grande (Michael Cannon and Ashleigh Cannon Sharp).

Niessen reports that the Coop is actively storing, selling and delivering its products — including meats, vegetables, fruit, cheese and other commodities — door-to-door to clients in Washington and surrounding communities. Plans call for a farm market upstairs for walk-in purchases as renovation nears completion in the building’s main hall. Niessen said that when complete, it should resemble “a cross between a European farmers market and the Eastern Market in D.C.”

“With low agricultural commodity prices,” he said, “family farmers realize they need to sell directly to consumers, but most of them do not have the time, expertise or facilities to set up Web sites, develop a marketing campaign or store and deliver farm products.

“Working together makes this a lot easier and enables us to develop the ‘Rappahannock’ brand,” he added. Niessen sees the Coop as an important land conservation tool since it is meant to help local farm families continue farming instead of being forced to sell the land.

Niessen wants RNF to complement and not compete with existing local groceries, such as the Sperryville Corner store, and serve as a destination for visitors and tourists to sample and buy locally-raised farm goods.

His friend, Rob Landman, plans to open the building’s third attraction. The Grand Cafe Indigo and bakery will offer daily breakfast, lunch and dinner menus in a relaxed, welcoming setting designed to open out onto the front porch — weather permitting. Free Internet access is also part of the menu.

Landman said he planned the new cafe to resemble the ubiquitous, much-appreciated bakery cafes in Europe that attract local visitors throughout the day and evening. Landman and Niessen also plan to open a wine tasting room and wine shop, promoting wines from Virginia.

A recent walking tour of Rappahannock Central with Niessen and the Landmans demonstrated the progress that has been made. The lengthy and complex renovation of the barn-like old structure was necessary to improve safety and bring the building up to modern building code. It has brought with it the latest in high-tech equipment, new electric and plumbing systems; accessible stairs and walkways; large food storage and delivery facilities down below and such amenities as spacious, tiled restrooms for visitors.

An early tenant of Rappahannock Central is Melissa Harris’ Flavor magazine, which “is a nice complement to the attractions Rappahannock Central is offering,” Niessen said.

Last but not least, tucked away between the magazine offices and the Rappahannock Central office, is an amazing, modest-sized high-tech conference room. Soon to be offered for rent, it will accommodate meetings, teleconferencing and telecommuting — all likely to be popular with commuting local business types who would rather work at home instead of traveling to a city office.

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