County showing signs of economic life

Hard data – and any short drive around the county with the windows down – seem to indicate that business in Rappahannock County, if not booming, is definitely hammering its way back up from the basement.

In the actual basement of the Kramer building in Washington, amid the muffled sounds of hammers and power saws at major inn renovations half a block away in both directions (and following an almost-complete renovation of the Kramer building itself by owner Ken Thompson), records kept at the county building office show a particularly promising recent trend in commercial projects.

A familiar sight: Workmen on scaffolding, in this case rehabilitating a chimney this week at the former Heritage House B&B on Main Street in Washington. Major construction and renovation projects proceed at three inns and one commercial/retail building in the county seat. Photo by Roger Piantadosi.
A familiar sight: Workmen on scaffolding, in this case rehabilitating a chimney this week at the former Heritage House B&B on Main Street in Washington. Major construction and renovation projects proceed at three inns and one commercial/retail building in the county seat. Photo by Roger Piantadosi.

Since the year started, 16 commercial building permits have been issued by the county building office – some for significantly large projects, including the Inn at Little Washington’s makeover of Clopton House into new suites, developer Jim Abdo’s inside-out redo of the former Heritage House B&B a block away, John and Diane MacPherson’s food-driven expansion of Foster Harris House, Jackie Meuse’s installation and opening of a state-of-the-art day spa downstairs in the Hair Gallery building and Clare and Nevill Turner’s construction of a commercial cooking facility at the former Aileen factory for their Virginia Chutney Company.

That three-month figure matches the total number of commercial permits issued in all of 2012.

“I’d say things are improving, yes,” said county building official Richie Burke, “but it’s still not what it was here 10 years ago.”

Though tourism and agriculture remain Rappahannock’s largest industries, property taxes pay most of the bills, and for years the increase in residential and commercial construction, though slow, was steady. Housing starts began tapering off after a yearly high of 80 some eight years ago, and then plummeted – as did much of everything – in 2008. Housing starts, Burke said, are slowing rising again – from 11 in 2011 to 23 in 2012.

What appears to be driving the current mini-boom in construction, especially in the commercial sector, is the rise in tourism-related revenue.

“The tourism business is booming,” said county administrator John McCarthy. “Retail sales revenue is up [the county gets back a 1-percent share of the state’s 5-percent sales tax for purchases made here], but not to such a degree that I would immediately recommend we start making huge additions to our budget.”

Revenue from the county’s food, beverage and lodging tax – the closest thing the county has to an indicator of tourism levels – had risen to a high of $170,493 for fiscal year 2012 (which ended last June 30), up from the previous fiscal year’s $145,366. With three of its four quarterly collections in for fiscal year 2013 (which ends this June), the county is on track to surpass last year’s revenue, having already collected $166,673.

In the town of Washington, which collects its own meals and lodging tax – and is the home of the Inn at Little Washington, the county’s biggest tourist draw and second-largest employer after the public school system – revenue has remained steady in the years preceding the town’s current building spree. Meals and lodging tax receipts were $239,217 in fiscal-year 2011, $236,178 in FY 2012 and, with its last quarter of revenues still due, $177,700 so far in FY 2013.

This year, the winter has not only passed without the past decade’s all-too-usual news of a restaurant – or two, or three – calling it quits, but the past couple of years have seen the addition of several new restaurants and inns, including Sperryville’s Inn at Mount Vernon Farm, Washington’s Tula’s Off Main opening last fall at sidewalk level in the Kramer Building and last year’s successful relaunch of the Flint Hill Public House and Country Inn.

“Flint Hill is interesting,” said McCarthy, speaking of the fact that all three restaurants – the Public House, the Griffin Tavern and 24 Crows – now operate within sight of each other in the relatively small crossroads village and are reporting doing well.

“It’s like shoe stores at the shopping mall – you don’t go to a mall that has only one shoe store, you’re more likely to go to the mall that has a bunch of shoe stores, for the variety. That’s what seems to be happening in Flint Hill.”

In Sperryville, the River District and the west end proceed with a modest, artisan- and antique-driven renaissance, despite a couple of still-empty restaurants in their midst. (It must be said that the county’s arguably second-busiest restaurant, the Thompson family’s Thornton River Grille, thrives at its crossroads.)

Meanwhile, retail shops at the Sperryville Schoolhouse are expanding, and schoolhouse owner Cliff Miller IV and partners are about to open a pub there. McCarthy said the village’s Hopkins Ordinary B&B and tourist-home operators have reported record bookings this spring for stays through the summer.

Tourist home permits – allowing homeowners to rent all or part of their homes to visitors – have also increased substantially over the last two years, McCarthy said. About half the permit applications are initiated by the applicants, he said, but noted that keener attention paid in recent years by the revenue commissioner’s office has also led more tourist-home operators to apply for the permits required. That’s after being prompted to do so by the county, McCarthy said, which has been paying closer attention over the past few years when local addresses show up on the most popular “vacation rentals by owner” websites.

Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 545 Articles
Former Rappahannock News editor Roger Piantadosi is a writer and works on web and video projects for Rappahannock Media and his own Synergist Media company. Before joining the News in 2009, he was a staff writer, editor and web developer at The Washington Post for almost 30 years.