Last Thursday’s (June 19) “Rapp Live” community forum brought more than 200 people to the Theatre at Washington. Over more than two hours, more than 30 people rose to speak, including panelists Jennings W. Hobson III, 41-year resident of the town and pastor of Trinity Episcopal Church; the town’s mayor, John Sullivan; developer and longtime Rappahannock weekender Jim Abdo, whose plans for and comments about the town of Washington in a recent Washington Post business profile ignited the controversy that led us to hold the public discussion; Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors chairman and lifelong county resident Roger Welch; County Administrator John McCarthy; and moderator Roger Piantadosi, editor of the Rappahannock News.
An audio recording of the two-hour-plus session is online at RappNews.com (go to bit.ly/rapplive1), along with a transcript of the proceedings. That document exceeds 20,000 words; what follows is thus only a selection of the comments, with an emphasis on those of the audience members rather than panelists’.
Sharon Kilpatrick: . . . Residences [in Washington] are being converted to businesses. So now we have a town of real estate offices, B&Bs, lawyers, with some good food, theatre — but far too few residents. The Rapp News building being converted to a bakery — I’m all for that. But notice where the Rapp News has gone — that was a residence, now it isn’t. You’ve had a chance to reverse that with a proposal [to build low- and moderate-income housing at the Old Washington School] from People Inc., which was rejected — a clear message that only rich folk are welcome, not those less well off. That is a disastrous message. Your job, Mr. Mayor, and those members of the town council who are here, is to find a way to increase the availability of residential property. If we’re turning residences into businesses, then we need more residences. And not just for the super rich.
Gary Aichele: With my wife, we own and operate the Gay Street Inn right down the street. We’ve been here a little over a year. I don’t know why really, maybe because I have a political science background, and there’s not a lot to do evenings in the town of Washington, Va., but I’m a fairly regular at the council meetings. Along with Nancy [Buntin] here, who faithfully attends virtually every meeting in this town. You don’t have to be a resident, one of the 138 special people who live here. You can come from anywhere . . . I have no idea where I stand tonight, on half the things that I’ve heard. I’m glad I’ve heard them. That’s why I came, that’s why I’m staying, because I think information is helpful. My wife and I made a major commitment. This is where we plan to live our lives. We cashed out retirement and bought an inn . . . As somebody said at the last meeting, “We have a lot of skin in this game.” . . .
We don’t just drive through this town, we walk through this town, on a regular basis. I don’t know whether Mr. Abdo’s plans will enhance our town, destroy our town, make it better or make it worse — we may not know that for a decade. It has a lot to do with issues much bigger than what goes on here, or what goes on in town council. No one could’ve predicted 2008; most didn’t. I too wish that successful businesses and dear friends find places to stay in town, and don’t get forced out. So there’s a lot on the table, and there’s a lot of reason for people being here and being upset, but I’ll tell you this: If you are as concerned as you seem to be, please join Nancy and me. There’s plenty of room in the town hall . . . There is a process and I’m here to tell you, honest to God, they do follow the process. I don’t care who buys the mayor dinner, frankly, so long as every request comes to an open process, with public notice, where I and anyone else who’s interested, has a right and maybe a duty to show up. And talk about those things, then and there. That’s how we do business in the town, and I for one am completely happy with it.
Molly Peterson: . . . My hope is that, as the county grows, as it will — it kinda needs to, to some degree . . . I hope we can all agree on that — that the intentions stay pure. And that it does allow people of our age group to come in, ’cause I gotta tell ya, there aren’t a whole lot in our age group around here. (laughter) . . . My hope is that everyone can please stand together with the hope and honest pure intention, that we can all continue to live here, and stay here, and grow our families here, and have our businesses here. Because it isn’t — no, it isn’t always easy. But we do pay our taxes, and we open our doors, because we like being here . . . . I hope that it continues to grow in a positive way. I also hope at the same time, maybe someday we’ll be able to afford to buy land here. Because at this point in time, we’re still priced out of the market. But I hope that we aren’t pushed out, eventually, as we were in Colorado.
Fran Krebser: . . . I’ve been listening to all this, and reading all this on Rappnet and The Post and everything else that’s been published, and frankly I’m disappointed in some of the unhappy, nasty comments I’ve heard. And read. But in listening to the presentation that just came through Mr. Abdo, I like the fact that we would have more business here in the town. We need more business in this community. I work at the public schools, and I helped try and find jobs for students through CTE classes. We have no place that we can send kids to learn about trades, because the businesses are so small. We also do need a place for people to live in the town, and that’s another problem altogether. But I really do think that the intent of Mr. Abdo is to get good some business here and to keep our community viable. I don’t know this man at all. But I know that my husband, who was part of this community for many, many years, was involved in the planning of keeping the small village concept and keeping that viable, to maintain our open space in this county.
Beth Gyorgy: . . . John [Sullivan] was talking about the decline of population in the town, and how the town needs more people. I don’t see where Mr. Abdo’s proposals are going to bring those people. He may be hiring them hand over fist, that’s what he said. But they can’t afford to live here. And the last attempt at affordable housing in this city was torpedoed. And I personally find that unconscionable. (applause)
Demaris Miller: . . . I’ve seen this movie before. I remember when Rae’s Place, a wonderful little delicatessen, was essentially put out of business forever by someone who had grand ideas that didn’t last. . . . This town is not an island, it is part of a greater ecosystem of the county. We have Merry Moo Market that could easily be put out of business by some of this. We have the Triple Oak Bakery that could easily be put out of business by some of this. We have other businesses that are going to be challenged by what is going on by someone with deep pockets in this town. That would be probably okay, because I do believe in free enterprise, but my fear is that, in the end, these people will find they can’t make the big bucks here in town and they will leave too, and we’ll be worse off than before. Please, Mr. Abdo, in the future, involve the community before you make these grand plans. I think you have some good ideas, I’d love to see some of the improvements . . . but I want to see more families in Washington and it’s not going to happen until this town wants to see families instead of rich people from town coming out to enjoy. One other point: I am very disturbed by something that is not your fault, at least not directly. I like Stonyman [Gourmet], I think it’s a great business (applause), it’s in a great location and they are being driven out of town.
John McCarthy: . . . The way we pay for everybody else, and the way we pay for not having enormous increases in the tax rates — and Mr. Welch and I have just sat through a series of budget hearings in which everybody was telling us, “Let anybody else in here who will pay money rather than raise my real estate rate!” We know that everybody doesn’t want that. But the thing that does come in, that doesn’t cost much in the way of services, that is a net tax producer, are tourism-based businesses. They hire a lot of locals, they use local contractors, they sustain themselves largely in the environment that we’ve created. And it’s like shoe stores in shopping malls: You don’t want one, you want eight. Eight restaurants do better than any one of them would if they were the only place in town. Now there are people that get squeezed out, there are losers in the game. I don’t know how to game that system. I’m sorry as hell about it. But one thing I do know is, tourism and agriculture are inextricably linked. We sell landscape to these people who come out from the city, whether you are running an apple stand in Sperryville 30 years ago, or you’re selling smoked mussels on the half shell in some frou-frou kitchen today — you’re still soaking the tourists. (laughter) We do that well. There’s nothing dishonorable about that. (laughter, applause)