The people speak — thoughtfully

They spoke, and we listened. From Amissville to Sperryville, from Chester Gap to Scrabble, the people of these foothills and hollows spoke to us all through the month of May. Their messages are clear, and we have a starting point for what folks are thinking.

Young and old, workers and employers, farmers and environmentalists accepted invitations to take part in five broad discussions assembled by Foothills Forum. We’re a nonpartisan nonprofit tackling the need for more fact-based, in-depth coverage of the issues we care about in Rappahannock County.

The focus groups, led impressively by professionals who happen to be your neighbors and friends, demonstrated the value of face-to-face consideration of our county’s future.

Our facilitators and note-taking scribes harvested an eye-opening array of honest ground-up observations on life in the jewel of Virginia.  Their task was to assemble the broadest base of present-day and pending issues to help our academic partners tackle the next step in the Foothills Forum survey — writing the questionnaire itself.

It’s too soon to draw conclusions. That won’t happen until the survey results come back from the pros and we begin the real process of asking all households what concerns them. But three themes are worth a share:

  • Isolation. This came up frequently, no surprise given our opportunity to live surrounded by mountains and graveled roads. Not a negative, either, given that’s why many choose this place. But it meant different things to different people. The seniors group expressed fear of outliving their independence and need for health care and services. The young yearned for more common gathering places. Workers had trouble finding and getting to their jobs.
  • Connection. This, too, had multiple meanings. In the technical sense a great many were frustrated with the absence — and consequences — of complete Internet coverage, wireless and cell services. They cast it as a public safety issue, a limitation for businesses and educators, a plain old pain. Parents with young children desired more age-appropriate arts and sports and hobbies.
  • Love of place. We all love Rappahannock and wish to keep it special, only better.

A great many other topics arose when folks were asked what matters to them and what concerns them in the years to come. Housing. Jobs. Opportunity. Services. Agricultural heritage and the large role our comprehensive plan plays. A desire for central places, both physical and virtual. We heard appreciation for our volunteers and nonprofits.

This was an important first step. We’ve shared summaries and raw notes with our partners at the University of Virginia’s renowned Center for Survey Research. We hope to have the questionnaire ready to mail to 3,000 households by September. That’ll be your opportunity to weigh in on what matters most to you. Research and enhanced news coverage in these pages and elsewhere of the most important issues will come next, followed by community forums where you can again join in to consider options and solutions. And the funding comes from you. Think of it as community-supported news and information.

We learned plenty before, during and after the sessions at the Rappahannock County Library and the 4-H Conference Room. We’re a new organization made up of old hands and longtime residents, and this first round proved that new things in Rappahannock tend to be viewed, perhaps justifiably, with skepticism. We have to work harder to involve been-heres and come-heres, but I feel there’s great value in making everyone aware of our intent. The quality and dedication of the people who committed their time was impressive.

Sifting through my notes, I’m struck by powerful comments and moments.

One native whose family name is etched in Piedmont granite around here said she came back after some time away to give her son “a shot at the life I had growing up.”

A community champion began her self-introduction as “… a 35-year resident of Rappahannock …” and dissolved into tears.

Another fellow set off a round of nodding heads when he bundled the cost — the high and redundant cost — of running a business at home and the office with monthly phone, Internet, cable and cell charges.

While the sessions stuck to issues, it was remarkable how many wanted to cite and seek solutions. It just proved people are willing to work together constructively.

It’s been an intriguing journey so far. Join us on this country road to the future at — and keep reading the Rappahannock News in print and online for updates.

Larry “Bud” Meyer is chairman of Foothills Forum, a nonpartisan nonprofit helping to uncover the stories we all need to hear.