As Rappahannock ages and farmers struggle, where does business — particularly tourism — fit into the economic mix?
Part 1 (June 28): Rappahannock is facing an economic transition. But it has a long history of dealing with changes brought by forces beyond the county line.
Part 2 (July 12): Farming in Rappahannock is going through a transition. What challenges does the community face in holding on to its agricultural core?
Part 3 (July 26): What role might the county’s business community play in its future? And, can boosting tourism make a difference in generating revenue and creating jobs?
The Rappahannock Hustle (Aug. 2): The challenges facing people under 40 in Rappahannock and why, despite the hurdles, some are choosing to come here or are returning, mimicking a trend seen in small towns across the United States.
Part 4 (Aug. 9): What are other rural communities doing to adjust to the same demographic and economic changes? Could any of those strategies work here?
Rappahannock County is the kind of place that makes dreams seem possible.
Bill Gadino knows this. It was almost 30 years ago that he bought a rolling patch of 15 acres between Washington and Sperryville, secluded behind the county’s elementary school, yet not far from the tourist thruway of Route 211.
Within a year, he was planting grapes, and soon was selling them to the Gray Ghost Vineyards down the highway. In 2003, he and his wife, Aleta, took the leap and moved here. A year later, they started making their own wine. The year after that, Gadino Cellars opened for business.
The dream was coming into focus.
It wasn’t easy, but in time, as many as 150 people were showing up at the winery on a good weekend.
Lately, the future seems less clear. Weekend crowds have shrunk to more like 60 or 70 people, he said. The boom in Virginia wineries and cideries — there are more than 260 — has not been good for the ones in Rappahannock. Now, there’s much more competition between here and Washington, D.C., and local wineries are feeling the pinch.
“We’ve built a beautiful place here, but this is draining for us, expense-wise,” said Sudha Patel, owner of Narmada Winery in Amissville. “You worry how long can you keep it up.”
Bill Gadino shared a recent, troubling conversation with a mother and daughter who had stopped by. He mentioned to the mother that he hadn’t seen her for a while.
“And she said, ‘You’re just too far for me to come out to.’ I asked her where she was coming from,” he recalled. “And she said, ‘Oh, I live in Gainesville.’ That’s the mentality of people.”
When tourists do make the drive here, he added, they often expect to pay less for their wine than they would closer to D.C. And so, business has taken a hit, as has Bill and Aleta’s plan of one day turning the winery over to their daughter, Stephanie and son-in-law, Derek Pross, who worked there. The younger couple has moved to North Carolina.
“She told me, ‘It’s not going to grow, Dad. It’s going down, it’s not going up.’”
Old in, young out
The Gadino story is a familiar one. Someone falls in love with the rapturous beauty of the Rappahannock countryside and concludes that it’s hard to imagine a more fulfilling place to live and start a business.
But economic, demographic and technological realities have a way of complicating matters. Most new business owners — particularly those in any way reliant on tourists — know things can go dead during the winter when lodges and campgrounds in Shenandoah National Park are closed, but they often don’t realize how dead. And, there just aren’t enough people living here full-time to help ease the pain much. At 27.9 people per square mile, Rappahannock ranks 122nd among Virginia’s 132 cities and counties in population density.
They also learn how hard it can be to find and hold on to workers, especially with so many young locals moving away to what they see as better opportunities elsewhere. Then there’s the challenge of doing business in a community where reliable cellphone and broadband service can be a roll of the dice.
Craig Batchelor has been wrestling with these issues for two years, ever since he and his wife, Caitlin, and his brother Clay, bought the Sperryville complex now containing Thornton River Grille restaurant, the Corner Store, Rappahannock Pizza Kitchen (RPK) and the Francis Bar. With just under 50 people working for him, he’s now one of the top 10 employers in the county. Many of his employees live outside Rappahannock, which means a commute that costs them time and money, and can also lead to staffing headaches during bad weather.
He sees firsthand how hard it is for young people to find a niche here. And that makes him worry about the county’s future.
“When I stay awake and worry about things at night, it’s that aging of the community,” he said. “It’s a slow, definite trend over the next 10 or 15 years.”
Batchelor said he’s met a lot of millennials who have grown up in Rappahannock. Some leave and come back. Most don’t.
“Those who have stayed have tried to eke it out,” he said, “but that often means having a lot of different jobs. That may be fine when you’re 20 or 21, but when you’re 27, it kinda gets old, especially if you want to start a family. If you want to get more stability, that can be hard here.”
So can finding a place to live that’s within the means of younger workers. That’s why Debbie Donehey, owner of Griffin Tavern in Flint Hill, offers employees a reduced rate at a few rental properties she and her husband, Jim, own in the county.
“People can’t work at the Tavern and afford to pay $1,000 a month rent,” she said.
Like Batchelor, Donehey, who describes Rappahannock as “my little part of heaven,” sees the community moving into a period of transition. As its residents get older, they will likely need more services, particularly when it comes to emergency care.
“It will be very difficult to do everything the county will need to do without more income of some sort,” she said.
Where that comes from is the question that hangs over the community’s future like a thundercloud. Currently, about 84 percent of the county’s local revenue comes through property taxes. Donehey appreciates how the idea of relying more on commerce to generate revenue can stir up waves of anxiety.
She’s had personal experience with rural transformation, having grown up near Doswell, Va., a tiny hamlet in Hanover County until King’s Dominion arrived in the 1970s. At first, it seemed a blessing — “As a kid, I thought ‘Oh, we’re getting a Burger King,’” she remembers — but the place was forever changed.
Yet, Donehey, a former chair of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association, believes efforts to attract more tourists to Rappahannock can help the county financially without ruining the idyllic feel of a place without stoplights.
“It’s very difficult to prove to people who are opposed to promoting tourism that it’s going to add value to your community,” she said. “But I really believe there is value there.
“I would hope there’s a big future for agritourism here if we can figure out what it is. We have some darn savvy people in this county. And, they care about it and want it to stay this way. But they also understand we have expenses.”
Not money well spent?
While tourism is generally acknowledged as a financial opportunity — including in the county’s comprehensive plan — there’s hardly consensus over how big an opportunity and how much money and effort should be expended in trying to boost it.
Tourism’s direct contribution to the county’s budget is still quite small. Revenue from the local tax on meals (4 percent) and lodging (2 percent) has risen from just under $100,000 in 2000 to more than $260,000 for the current fiscal year, but that remains just slightly more than 1.5 percent of total revenue from local sources. (Any meals or lodging tax revenue generated by the Inn at Little Washington and other restaurants and B&Bs in Washington goes to the town only).
Another source of tax revenue is the state sales tax, currently at 5.3 percent. One percent of that revenue — now about $515,000 a year — comes back to Rappahannock. Not only is that only 3.5 percent of total revenue from local sources, but it’s based on all sales, not just those to tourists.
Just under $50,000 has been allocated in the FY 2018 county budget to promote Rappahannock — about 0.2 percent of the total budget or about $7 per county resident. That includes a payment of $9,000 to Sandra Maskas, who, Friday through Sunday, welcomes and advises tourists who stop by the Rappahannock County Visitor Center on Route 211.
But Rappahannock is one of a handful of counties in Virginia without even a part-time tourism director. The last person to fill that role, Laura Overstreet, retired in 2012 and was never replaced.
Board of Supervisors vice chair Chris Parrish remains convinced that it’s not money well spent. He believes that paying someone to develop a tourism strategy and coordinate events and promotion would not be a fruitful investment. In fact, he’s not sure the county benefits that much from having a visitor center.
“If you took that away, I don’t think you’d see a marked difference in tourism,” he said. “Tourism will spread by itself by word of mouth. People come out here and they enjoy themselves and they go back home and talk about it.
“When it comes to tourism,” he added, “you have to be a little careful of what you wish for. I’ve been to places that have been ruined by tourism. You know, the traffic, the attitude of the people.”
Connecting the dots
Others, though, argue that tourism doesn’t have to be a destructive force, that in a place like Rappahannock it’s more about piecing together a marketable mosaic of what it already has to offer — from wineries and B&Bs to events as varied as the Farm Tour and the “Yeaster” party at Pen Druid Brewery in Sperryville.
“What you hear from B&B owners a lot is their guests always ask, ‘What am I going to do out here?’” said artist Patti Brennan, owner of De’Danann Glassworks. “There’s actually a lot to do, but it has to be presented in an organized way. No owner of a B&B is going to know all the things going on out here.”
Brennan, who thinks relying on word-of-mouth promotion is “short-sighted,” has done her part to get local artists, wineries and restaurants more exposure by getting them connected to the Virginia Artisan Trail Network, a statewide organization that maps out regional experiences for tourists by linking together artisans and hospitality businesses.
She contends that the county needs a staff person to connect the dots and cultivate collaboration among businesses, with the goal of getting tourists to associate Rappahannock with experiences other than pretty views. And, she believes that tourism doesn’t have to have a big footprint.
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“Yes, our landscape is the Rappahannock brand,” said Brennan, who has lived in the county since 1981. “But we also do have a concentration of very talented people. None of what they’ve brought out here has done damage. Things really haven’t changed that much.”
Carl Henrickson, who with his wife, Donna, opened the Little Washington Winery off Route 211 in 2011, agrees that people need to be given a reason beyond beautiful scenery to drive out here. “At first, we sat here like everyone else in Rappahannock, waiting for people to show up. We put a sign up and we thought ‘We’re done with marketing.’”
But there were long stretches on weekend mornings and early afternoons when visitors were scarce. So, in 2012, they came up with the idea of a Wine Bootcamp — two-hour classes of 20 people wanting to learn wine basics. Carl Henrickson estimates that since then, based on their email database of Bootcamp graduates, close to 10,000 have attended. Also, he said, they spend about $20,000 a year to promote it.
He maintains that the time has come for the county to do a better job of projecting a more wide-ranging Rappahannock experience to the outside world. “What we’re missing is that branding that says we have a product, and this is that product.”
Not just for tourists
Not long ago, Theresa Wood, in her capacity as president of Businesses of Rappahannock (BOR), was at a conference in Richmond with tourism directors representing counties around Virginia. More than once, she said, when a person heard she was from Rappahannock, they would tell her, “Oh, I love Rappahannock. It’s so beautiful there on the water.”
The confusion with the river that flows into Chesapeake Bay is good for a laugh, but that lack of awareness is also probably reassuring to those in the community who believe the less outsiders know about Rappahannock, the better.
Wood gets that. She knows how many of the 188 businesses that are BOR members were started by people who chose to give it a go in Rappahannock because it isn’t like other places. But she also believes that boosting local business doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition.
“The vision we have is that the very thing Rappahannock has to offer — its natural beauty — we don’t want to change any of that,” said Wood, an owner of Kattle 1 Beef. “We’re not looking to put a hotel on 211.”
But there is value, she said, in exploring how other rural communities are adapting to uncertain futures, and what kind of businesses they see as having the most potential to sustain, rather than change them.
“My concern is that if we haven’t planned for making a bridge between agriculture and tourism, then we could be in trouble,” Wood said.
To that end, Wood has been encouraging BOR companies to tap into the considerable promotional muscle and grant opportunities of the Virginia Tourism Corporation, the driving force behind the state’s tourism industry, which generated an estimated $25 billion in revenue last year.
The BOR board has also held workshops to help members get up to speed in using Facebook and other marketing skills and doing smartphone photography to keep up with competitors in bigger markets with better broadband.
But those things take up time, something owners rarely can spare when they’re running very small businesses like those so common in Rappahannock — by far, the largest number of companies here have four employees or fewer.
Wood has made a point of trying to raise the profile of local companies. For the first time, BOR is working closely with The Inn at Little Washington to incorporate more county businesses into the big “InnStock” 40th anniversary celebration in September.
Also, this year the BOR has staged four ribbon-cutting ceremonies, to mark the openings of Happy Camper and Stonewall Abbey Wellness in Sperryville, LeFay Cottage at Little Washington and Hazel River Arts and Antiques. It’s a symbolic gesture, but one meant to spotlight the role they play in the community.
“Many of the businesses here don’t just serve tourists,” she said. “They help sustain a way of life.”
That way of life, of course, is why a lot of businesses are started in Rappahannock. Often, it’s more a personal decision than a strategic one, based on the allure of a place rather than conventional market assets, such as easy access to a major highway, a skilled local workforce, a robust supply of potential customers.
So, many struggle, and if they do grow, it’s slowly, which means few opportunities for young workers. Other factors, including the county’s technological shortcomings, also help stifle career options.
Take the booming field of software programming. It’s not really in play here. “Training in coding is huge right now. We could do that here,” said RappU founder Doug Schiffman. “But I just don’t know that the demand is there in the community.
“There are things we could do if we had full-blown cellphone and internet access here that we can’t do now,” he added. “If we had a cellphone network here, Rappahannock would be the perfect place for Uber and Lyft. You have all these people who are underemployed who have vehicles. You have all these older people who need rides everywhere and are able to pay for it. But we have no way of connecting them.”
Currently, the greatest employment potential appears to be in providing services to the demographic group growing most quickly — affluent retirees. That ranges from landscaping their gardens and mowing their fields to providing care when their health starts to slide.
In line with that trend, RappU has focused its vocational training programs on health care, including a popular course to earn certification as a nurse aide. Schiffman said students are being recruited for jobs before they even graduate.
But no company that hires nurse aides is located in Rappahannock, which means course graduates either work for a company in another county, or they work off the books here.
That frustrates Schiffman. “My goal is not to train people and have them work in the underground economy,” he said. “But they can often make more money getting paid cash than if they work for a company.
“We want them to be able to get real jobs, get real salaries, with paid benefits, and that allow them to put money toward a retirement account,” he said. “The disappointment continues to be that the employers are not in Rappahannock. There’s nothing I can do about that.”
Breaking down walls
It’s appropriate that Craig Batchelor’s stake in Rappahannock sits at Sperryville’s main intersection. It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that his four businesses operate at a critical symbolic crossroads of the Rappahannock economy. The newer enterprises — RPK and the Francis Bar — are geared more to tourists and an upscale crowd, while the Corner Store has a long legacy in the community, and still sells basics, such as eggs, milk and paper towels, although at higher than grocery store prices.
Batchelor’s fortunes also are tangled with the county’s growing age imbalance. Yes, older, more affluent people are a big part of his customer base, but there’s that problem of having a healthy enough supply of younger workers to keep them satisfied.
Batchelor, an older millennial, wonders if there will ever be a new wave of people his age who settle here.
“I would love to have more young people here, for a lot of reasons,” he said. “We need a great team of young people who are passionate and interested in locally sourced food, people who share the values of Rappahannock and want to invest their lives here. We need that.”
He also hopes that over time, new businesses will not be viewed as a harbinger of upheaval.
“I would like us to be able to strike a balance between our various demographics, while being honest about it,” Batchelor said. “One of the things I don’t love about our community is the been-here’s/come-here’s thing. I would love to have a business enterprise that is respectful to everybody.
“I would want folks who have been here a long time to know that we’re not only catering to tourists. I really don’t want to be another ‘either-or’ business. I’d like to break down some of those walls. Maybe that’s totally pie in the sky. But you have to try.”