The Front Royal Town Council and staff got their first, face-to-face, first-hand, factual update on Town-County Economic Development Authority business in over a year on Monday, February 8. “I want to tell you how much we appreciate the opportunity to update town council and restart a dialogue on issues of mutual concern,” post-financial scandal revamped EDA Board of Directors Chairman Jeff Browne said in opening that dialogue.
“It’s been a year-and-a-half since an EDA Board member addressed Town Council – it’s too long. We need to be talking, we have a lot of issues we have to address. This is a great start,” Browne said, acknowledging “other meetings” that led up to his appearance before council the second Monday of February 2021. Contacted later about that impetus, Browne told Royal Examiner that he had “reached out” to new Town Manager Steven Hicks in January.
“We had a good exchange of ideas while I briefed him on some issues on the immediate horizon. He then invited me to speak to Town Council, updating them on what the EDA was doing and to answer the question of whether EDA could help the Town buy properties,” Browne explained.
What turned into an approximate 50-minute report highlighted by some constructive back and forth with council, also had a less constructive moment. About 35 minutes into his EDA report, Browne got into an exchange with Mayor Chris Holloway on the topic of the prospective sale of the Afton Inn for redevelopment. It is a sale of the derelict and long-deteriorating Afton Inn next door to Town Hall at the head of Front Royal’s Historic Downtown Business District that Browne said he hopes will come to fruition by the new extended deadline approaching over the next week.
Browne pointed out that prospective buyer 2 East Main LLC has promised to start redevelopment within a year of purchase and complete it within two years. The Town is currently disputing the EDA’s ownership and ability to sell the Afton Inn without the Town signing off on a sale. It appears that despite the content of a disputed 2014 MOA (Memorandum of Agreement) between the Town and EDA indicating that the EDA would first recover whatever proceeds an Afton sale generated towards its expenditures in maintenance and marketing the property since 2014, that the Town is seeking the first call on those proceeds. The current proposed sale price of about $330,000 would not cover all those claimed EDA expenses.
Mayor Holloway pressed Browne on whether, were the involved bank, First Bank & Trust, willing to reconsider taking what the EDA owes on its Afton property/construction loan, would the EDA be willing to split the proceeds with the Town. Browne replied that to whatever extent that was legally supported he was on board. However, with the EDA’s claim of about $500,000 invested in the property since the 2014 property swap that extracted the Afton from the angry-at-the-Town hands of Northern Virginia developer Frank Barros in exchange for old Town Hall, there will essentially be nothing left over for either the EDA or Town from the pending sale after the bank takes its share to cover the EDA property/construction loan.
“But you have to understand our position – we basically gave up two buildings, two buildings, for what you’re saying we’re going to get nothing,” Holloway replied, adding, “And over $500,000 of work you say has been put into the Afton Inn so far, with a two-million-dollar completion to do it up right. I think anybody that could go buy that building right now would wonder where that $500,000 went.”
The mayor continued to wonder at the EDA’s numbers and the forecast cost of $2 million dollars for 2 East Main Street LLC’s renovation project, which building professional Holloway forecast might replace windows.
When Mayor Holloway said, “I think the citizens of the Town deserve something out of this. We gave up the old Town Hall, we gave up the Afton Inn, and we’re getting basically nothing in return,” Browne attempted to respond twice to point to the 2 East Main LLC redevelopment plan replacing a festering eyesore with a new anchor building for Front Royal’s downtown business district. However, twice Holloway cut Browne off by continuing his line of thought, first that “There’s nothing to show for it yet” and then that “It’s been going on for over 10 years, if not longer” before Browne regained the floor.
“You are getting – I don’t know if you read the Royal Examiner article, but you’re getting a fabulous-looking” – Browne got out before Holloway again cut him off, commenting, “I don’t read the tabloids, I want facts.”
“Okay, well it’s factual what’s in there on that issue (of redevelopment plans). The developers, who are world-class developers, are the ones interested in doing it, and it will be a beautiful looking building,” Browne continued of the referenced December 29 Royal Examiner article on 2 East Main Street LLC renovation and expansion plan. – “From Town Eyesore to Downtown Anchor: Reimagining the Afton Inn”
Contacted later, Browne elaborated of the referenced article, “I was getting ready to point the Town Council to the Afton Inn article you wrote that outlined the vision of 2 East Main to rehab the Inn. I found it very factual and balanced.”
But facts that don’t merge with certain politician’s personal agendas or self-serving worldviews have been typically dismissed as “fake news” or “tabloid journalism” 70 miles to our east in recent years. Now it seems some of our local elected officials with “alternate fact” laced agendas have learned the “bait the media” game from their political mentors to the east.
EDA reminds rental tenants, Small Business Loan Program clients to now send payments to WCGC
Starting October 1, 2021, the Warren County Finance Department will take over and manage payments made to the EDA for rents and the Small Business Loan Program (RBEL and IRP). The EDA will no longer be accepting payments at their office or office address.
Please continue to make your check or money order to the EDA. You must hand-carry or send your payments to:
Warren County Government
ATTN: Finance Department
220 N. Commerce Ave.
Front Royal, VA 22630
Any payments sent to the EDA will be returned. As a result, you may incur fees for late payment. We appreciate your cooperation. Thank you for your attention to this matter.
EDA briefed on structural and legal options in closed session; gets open session updates on committee work during transition phases
The EDA Board of Directors met Friday, September 24, for their regular monthly meeting. The Board went into closed session for approximately 90 minutes to discuss transition, personnel, 2018- 2019 draft audits, loan restructuring, and disposition of property. The Board returned to open session at approximately 10:20 a.m. Jeff Browne, EDA Chair, opened the session with an overview of the transition. Browne asked each board member to report on their assigned transition project.
Search Committee-Transition: Dr. Tom Patteson, reported the committee met and reviewed applications. Three applications were submitted to the county administrator. The county and EDA will work together in selecting replacements for the Administrative Assistant and Executive Director.
Finance Committee-Transition: Jim Wolfe reported the “numbers” on the 2108 and 2019 audits are final. Jim Wolfe stated the management letter will be revised and recommended a special meeting for next week to finalize and accept the audits for 2018 and 2019. The Board agreed and the date of the meeting will be announced. Mr. Wolfe will also be meeting with the finance personnel at the county in the next several weeks.
Marketing Committee-Transition: Scott Jenkins, Chair reported the 38-page PowerPoint presentation is complete. The marketing material can be tailored to specific clients. The marketing is targeted on the Core Industries: Advance Manufacturing, Transportation and Logistics, Information Technologies, and Food Processing. Scott reviewed documents and key data. The marketing material is organized and stored on the EDA network. The September Marketing Committee report included other updates and visions including Small Business opportunities, focus on the Strategic Plan, and marketing opportunities with VEDP, Site Selector Guild, and Trade shows in 2022.
Administration Committee-Transition: Jorie Martin reported Gretchen Henderson prepared an Operation Manual for future reference. The manual is detailed in all the operations of the office including resources to use. The new administrative assistant as well as the EDA Board are well prepared to transition smoothly. Mrs. Martin reported The EDA now has the capability to update portions of the website in-house. This week a meeting section was added so the public can go to the site and see upcoming meetings.
Asset Committee: Greg Harold reported the transition and updates on the assets of the EDA were complete. Doug Parsons worked closely to make sure all projects are up to date.
Greg Harold presented the Project Management – Stage-Gate: The Stage-Gate is a comprehensive document standardizing the process for disposition of property. The document will be reviewed and discussed at length at the October board meeting.
Motions coming out of Closed Session: The Board approved the technical revisions to the EDA By-Laws adopted at the August meeting. The Board approved the Board Chair, and Secretary to sign documents for the restructuring of the EDA debt with First Bank and Trust. All documents will be reviewed by legal counsel.
Other items that the Board of Directors addressed included an expression of gratitude for all the work done by Executive Director, Doug Parsons. Jeff Browne expressed and the boards’ appreciation for all the hard work and effort to bring the EDA where it is today. Through Doug’s efforts, the EDA has sold property, expanded business, and brought new business to the town and county.
The next monthly EDA Board Meeting is scheduled for October 22, 2021.
County moves toward restructured EDA staffing in hopes of restored municipal cooperation – 6 CUPs approved, 5 for short-term tourist rentals
At its meeting of Tuesday evening, September 21st, the Warren County Board of Supervisors made the first official move toward an altered structure of its, and the Town’s, Economic Development Authority futures. That move was unanimous 5-0 approval, on a motion by Delores Oates, seconded by Walt Mabe, of County Administrator Ed Daley’s presentation of a “Request to Create a Warren County Office of Economic Development”. As reported in our recent story, County work session takes unexpected turn on EDA front – ‘Reunited’ operational option broached, the supervisors elected to have Daley forwarded an idea originally slated for Closed Session discussion at a September 14 work session, in open session that day. That idea is to have an Economic Development Director’s staff position under the municipal government umbrella, rather than as a staff position hired by the board of an independent Economic Development Authority (EDA), albeit an EDA board appointed by the municipal government or governments that created it.
As we understand it from subsequent conversations with Daley following last week’s supervisors’ work session, that in-house EDA director’s position would work in the best interest of both the county’s municipal governments, networking what it appears at this point will continue to evolve into two unilateral Town and County EDAs. Now theoretically, both the existing WC EDA and FREDA – the Front Royal EDA that is in the interview stage of establishing a board of directors – could create their own independent Offices of Economic Development with their own executive directors. But the impetus after last Thursday’s resurrected Town-County Liaison Committee meeting appears to be to work together to select an executive director who will work to the mutual benefit of both municipalities while networking with two EDA Boards of Directors.
Confusing? Perhaps – but it would cut payment of the six-figure salary range position in half if both municipalities could agree on the concept and a person to fill that conceptual central administrative position. For with a statewide trend toward regional EDA cooperation in a highly competitive economic development environment, what future would this community’s economic development have with dueling EDAs competing, not only with other regional governments’ economic development structures but with each other’s, particularly when the WC EDA has control of significant portions of economic development properties inside the town limits?
The answer to that question has, perhaps, already been given in the pending October 1st departure of WC EDA Executive Director Doug Parsons, to a county directly to our east where as one local observed upon hearing the news, “Warrenton isn’t suing Fauquier County” (or perhaps more accurately, its EDA).
And a move toward “us and us” from “us versus them” in County-Town relations was a reoccurring theme for several supervisors involved in last week’s first Liaison Committee meeting since January. Both Board Chair Cheryl Cullers and Delores Oates commented on the positive feeling they carried out of that meeting that the deteriorated relationship featuring hostile litigation involving the Town and existing WC EDA, and canceled face-to-face meetings of elected officials on matters of mutual interest, might be turning a corner. Of course, as the third county board member at that Liaison Committee meeting, Walt Mabe, wondered during it: Why can’t we return to one, re-tooled EDA working to both the County’s and Town’s benefit, with one executive director not alleged to have had their hands in both municipalities’ economic development pockets?
And in a loosely related item, as part of the September 24th WC EDA monthly board meeting, departing Executive Director Doug Parsons’ last, the agenda includes the information that the long-awaited 2018 and 2019 EDA audits have been completed by the contracted auditing company and are awaiting EDA Board approval. Stay tuned for more developments on the auditing front. – Maybe the completed audits could even establish exactly how much of whose money went where and is owed to who by whom, negating the necessity for the continued dueling Town-WC EDA civil litigations. As previously reported, the sitting council ignored then-Mayor Gene Tewalt’s 2019 advice to accept the offer of the WC EDA to sit down with accountants rather than attorneys to follow the money to establish exactly who was owed what on the back end of the EDA’s now $62-million-dollar financial scandal.
But off that “movie script”, in other business the supervisors approved six Conditional Use Permit (CUP) requests Tuesday, five for Short-Term Tourist Rentals, and one for alterations to a Kennel Permit. See all these discussions, public comments, and votes in the County video; and see the meeting agenda cover page with the full list of CUP application public hearings linked here:
County work session takes unexpected turn on EDA front – ‘Reunited’ operational option broached
What had been an hour-plus work session update on Capital Improvement Projects (CIPs) by County Project Manager Jeff Hayes took an unexpected turn about an hour and a quarter into that work session at the conclusion of Hayes PowerPoint presentation. I say “unexpected” because the only open session agenda cover sheet item was Hayes’ CIP report. However, the board elected to take what was labeled “Closed Session” discussion of “Personnel re: Economic Development Authority” into open session discussion.
What followed was County Administrator Ed Daley’s presentation on organizational opportunities presented by the pending October 1st loss of the second and final member of the two-person EDA staff. As previously reported, following Administrative Assistant Gretchen Henderson’s August 27 departure to the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission, Executive Director Doug Parsons announced his resignation, effective October 1, to take the EDA executive director’s job in Fauquier County.
And what Daley presented to the board in open session echoed what EDA Board Chairman Jeff Browne told Royal Examiner in the wake of the pending loss of the entire EDA staff – this can be an opportunity, rather than a derailing of the EDA’s recovery from the multi-million-dollar financial scandal uncovered in 2018-19 under previous executive and board leadership. And while Browne focused on replacement personnel selection as the opportunity, Daley used that as a jumping-off point to explore previous supervisors discussion dating to early 2020 about an organizational realignment of the EDA. The County has already taken on the role of Financial Agent of the EDA. Continuing the broached realignment would bring the EDA staff into the Warren County Government Center, functioning more like a County Department. That option was first considered by some supervisors in the wake of the Town of Front Royal’s decision to operationally withdraw from the half-century-plus old joint EDA, in favor of creating its own unilateral Front Royal EDA (FREDA).
That decision was driven by the Town Council’s decision, against the advice of then-Mayor Gene Tewalt, to civilly sue the old EDA for a larger portion of the allegedly embezzled and misdirected EDA assets related to County and Town business dealing handled by the EDA. Rather than costly and divisive litigation, Mayor Tewalt urged council to accept the new EDA leadership’s offer to have staffs simply sit down and follow the money to determine who was owed what. However, a council majority wasn’t listening to its then mayor. Consequently, the Town and EDA are currently engaged in dueling civil litigations.
And while Daley’s presentation began as a logistical exploration of processes of incorporating the EDA into the county governmental apparatus, it took a turn when one supervisor posed a legal question. “I’m going to call the elephant out in the room,” North River Supervisor Delores Oates said in pointing out that the existing EDA was jointly founded by the county and town governments over a half-century ago, and legally remains a Town-County EDA. So, can the County legally bring the EDA into its sole administrative oversight, she wondered.
“If I were sitting where you sit, I would invite the town council to participate in a staffed economic development department that works for the EDA but can also work for us in the County and the Town on economic development projects,” the county administrator replied. And as Daley pointed out, neither EDA currently has a staff, though at least one, the old EDA, has an exceptionally competent and proactive re-tooled board of directors.
“And I think that would be the best tactical advantage for the community, is if we would actually collaborate and not create independent organizations. Because otherwise we’re spending twice the money to do the same job,” Oates said in response to Daley’s suggestion.
The first face-to-face discussion of this latter option of reestablishing a jointly functioning Town-County EDA will apparently take place this Thursday, at the first Town-County Liaison Committee meeting since the Town Council decided to cut those quarterly meetings off in the wake of initiating the now dueling Town-EDA/County civil litigations. Daley noted that Liaison Committee opportunity was presented by the inclusion on Thursday’s Liaison agenda of a Town presentation on the status of development of its unilateral Town EDA.
Members of both council and the board of supervisors have recently suggested an altered, more collaborative Town-County path forward from the divisive and litigious one launched by council during the tenure of Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick. So, it will be interesting to see how Thursday’s Liaison Committee discussion develops with a new town manager involved; and how the full council will react to the idea of realigning into a jointly functioning EDA apparatus, possibly including collaboration in selecting the new FR-WC EDA staff were a speedy, positive reaction achieved.
The EDA discussion begins at the 1-hour-16-minute-30-second mark of the linked county video; Oates calls out the “elephant in the room” at the 1-hour-44-minute-45-second mark. The Capital Improvement Project PowerPoint and Q&A takes up the first hour-and-15-minutes of the video. And between the CIP and EDA portions of the work session, Board Chair Cullers gave an update on news of the birth of her newest grandchild Tuesday evening. – Welcome to the world on September 14, 2021, Ella Louise.
About those CIP projects
Prior to that turn toward the EDA and Town-County relations regarding cost-effective cooperation versus costly, counterproductive competition in future economic development initiatives, there were some interesting turns on the CIP front. Those included discussion of downtown Front Royal parking issues and the County’s ability to impact those issue with owned property in the Historic Downtown Business District vicinity. Also, under board scrutiny was the cost and effectiveness of air purification devices under consideration for other County facilities after being installed at the Warren County Courthouse to allow more normal judicial proceedings to be reinitiated during the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic. Discussion of the potential effectiveness against, not only the COVID-19 Coronavirus but other virally spread illnesses was broached in considering the purchase of as many as 60 of the machines at a cost of $2100 per unit.
See Hayes’ CIP power point on renovations to the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office; the Parks & Rec Department Splash Pad Pavilion; Rivermont Volunteer Fire Company 2 renovations; Shenandoah Farms Company 6 renovations; the Morgan’s Ford Boat Landing project; and Juvenile and Domestic Court renovations and related parking issue, including the observation that you “don’t build a court facility over or under a parking deck – BOOM!” (due to domestic terrorist concerns).
On the downtown parking deck front, Ed Daley noted that the Winchester City Council was scoffed at for proposing a downtown parking deck 20 years ago, adding that now the city has four.
EDA develops transition plan through staffing losses
The Front Royal/Warren County EDA’s Executive Committee met on September 10, 2021, at 9:00 a.m. to discuss personnel matters arising from the upcoming vacancy of its executive director, and a transition plan for continuity of EDA operations.
The Executive Committee is developing a detailed plan to handle all aspects of the EDA’s operations including business retention and attraction, finance, legal, personnel, and day-to-day office operations. Both the Board and the Executive Director are confident that this plan will ensure a seamless transition and ensure the EDA remains a competitive entity for investment and expansion of businesses in Warren County.
(From a Sept. 10 Press Release by the WC EDA)
EDA dealt a staffing blow as executive director joins administrative assistant in moving on to new horizons
On Tuesday, September 7, both Warren County Economic Development Authority (EDA) Board of Directors Chairman Jeff Browne and Executive Director Doug Parsons confirmed Parsons’ resignation, effective October 1. So, the EDA will lose its two post-financial scandal staffers within three weeks. As previously reported, Administrative Assistant Gretchen Henderson resigned last week to take a higher-paying job in the field of accounting across the EDA office hallway at the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission (NSVRC).
Parson’s new job will require a little more travel than across the hallway – 18 extra miles each way from his West Virginia home, he told us – as he will assume the Economic Development Authority Executive Director’s position in Fauquier County.
We first spoke to Browne, who, while admitting the staffing losses were a blow coming in rapid succession as they have, preferred to look on the bright side. “Certainly it is tough short term. We were lucky to have them both for two years as they helped us through difficult times in recovering from what we inherited here,” Browne said of the re-tooled EDA Board’s navigating the aftermath of a $26-million to $62-million financial scandal alleged to have revolved around the EDA’s former executive director, Jennifer McDonald.
“But long-term, I look at this as an opportunity to find folks who will help navigate us into the future as we finish resolving our legal situations, and continue to refocus on this community’s economic development and retention. In the meantime, EDA Board members are stepping up to keep working with prospects and developing opportunities. I can only wish both Doug and Gretchen the best in their new endeavors,” Browne concluded.
We then reached Parsons by phone at the EDA office and asked about his experience of landing in the Warren County EDA job at a rather chaotic point in its half-century-plus history.
“It’s been a pleasure to serve as Executive Director of the Front Royal/Warren County Economic Development Authority over the last 28 months. The Board of Directors here has been the best I’ve ever worked with. Many of them have volunteered an incredible amount of their time to rebuild this organization. Chair Jeff Browne is essentially working 40 hours a week, and several others are putting in nearly that amount of time. I want to thank the Board of Directors, the Warren County Board of Supervisors, the County Department heads and staff, and everyone else that worked in collaboration with us to untangle the past and to help us with recruiting new business and assisting our current businesses.
“The taxpayers of Front Royal and Warren County now have an EDA they can be proud of that is working to bring more jobs and investment to the community. My successor will have many assets with which to work and great people to help accomplish the goals in the EDA’s strategic plan. I wish the people of Front Royal and Warren County the very best,” Parsons concluded.
And on that bright side that Browne chose to focus on – the multi-talented and very committed EDA Board of Directors Parsons lauded, remains in place as the County endeavors to fill the EDA staffing gap with people of comparable character and talent to those it has lost in this ninth month of 2021.