Following a briefing on tools available for local tourism marketing through the Virginia Tourism Corporation (VTC) by Development Specialist Stephanie Lillard, there was some pointed discussion of exactly what role the Front Royal-Warren County Joint Tourism Committee has going forward in the aftermath of the Town’s sudden and unexpected moves related to its Tourism Department, and what authority the committee has to enact recommendations.
Of a request to present a path forward at the Front Royal Town Council meeting of Monday, March 16, Richard Runyon expressed skepticism.
“Why do we have to present Monday? We have a lot more to do – I’m not presenting on Monday,” the Shenandoah Valley Gold Club manager said.
“Okay, we’re not presenting Monday,” Vibe Properties and Front Royal Brewery co-owner Kerry Barnhart responded to Runyon’s declaration.
Shortly after that exchange Front Royal Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick, who had been observing the 3 p.m. committee meeting along with 23 others, including three County Supervisors,
Walter Mabe, Delores Oates, and Cheryl Cullers left, about an hour and 10 minutes into what would be a two-plus hour meeting breaking up shortly after 5 p.m.
So, unfortunately, the apparent architect of the sudden terminations of key Town staff related to tourism and community development, particularly Community Development Director Felicia Hart and Town Planning Director Jeremy Camp, was not present to hear some suggestions on a path forward, as well as criticism of the terminations and tourism budget freezing he and a town council majority enacted without any previous public discussion.
“One person tore this place apart,” Paul Gabbert began when citizen input was sought by the committee. Why can’t everybody get together, the (town) council, everybody sitting at this table, every business owner in this town … sit down with Mr. Tederick and say ‘Put the damn thing back together the way it was’ because it ran, it worked … Felicia Hart was a professional at her job, she knew what she was doing.”
“I don’t think any of us saw us being in this position in terms of tourism,” Barnhart told her committee of the current flux on the Town side, particularly as to Hart’s absence and the freezing of the Town’s Tourism budget as the next tourist season approaches with the warmer weather and spring on the horizon. Committee members, including Barnhart, have observed how Hart particularly was pivotal in the committee’s work prior to her January 29 termination, along with four other Town employees.
As the meeting agenda moved to the above-referenced public input, another citizen present pointed toward a short-term solution that would restore some of the previous order to the direction forward for the remaining three-and-a-half months of the fiscal year ending June 30.
“Have this group oversee an individual till July 1st, which is the (currently) budgeted year that the Town has already approved the money for – I know a person who is willing to come in and fill that position as an executive director working for this group till July 1 for the same price she was paid by the Town up until she was terminated on January 29th, and that is Felicia Hart,” local attorney and Virginia Beer Museum proprietor David Downes said.
Downes told the committee he had spoken to Hart, gotten her “blessing” to broach the idea, had office space for her, and perhaps most surprisingly, added he had spoken to Tederick about it, whom he said had not expressed outright opposition to the notion.
Downes later explained to this reporter that in classic Hunter S. Thompson fashion, he had encountered Tederick in the Warren County Government Center Men’s Room prior to the meeting’s convening, much as Thompson had secured a long-sought interview with Richard Nixon on the 1968 presidential campaign trail as recounted in Thompson’s book “Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail”.
Downes noted that it would take the approval of the Town and County to facilitate the plan, adding, “I have all the confidence in the world that this group could oversee her … it gives us some breathing room to figure out what we’re going to do. This is a serious issue that affects all of this community.”
“I love Felicia … she did a great job – that would be great if she could come back and help here. There is a void here, a void created by a manager,” Barnhart replied, adding however, “I don’t believe it is in our purview to bring an individual back, noting the complexity of the Memorandum of Agreement of whatever would have to happen.”
It was also noted that while the interim town manager had expressed confidence in the Joint Tourism Advisory Committee’s ability to suggest and oversee a path forward for Tourism promotion following his attendance at its February 27 meeting, the Board does not have control of either the Town or County’s purse strings.
Prior to all this excitement as the meeting drew to a close, Virginia Tourism Corporation Development Specialist Lillard told the committee it was not the VTC’s role to recommend what path forward any community should take regarding its Tourism marketing but could offer information on what other communities do.
“Only three operate outside a government structure,” Lillard did note.
And she added that when a community establishes its path as to either governmental, chamber of commerce-driven or outsourced to the private sector control of its tourism marketing, the VTC was there to help through information dissemination and grant awards.
See the Joint Tourism Advisory Committee meeting discussion, Lillard’s presentation, Councilwoman Letasha Thompson’s request for additional information on how the March 16 request for a committee presentation to the town council came about – “Mr. Tederick asked” – and the public-committee exchanges as the meeting wore on in this exclusive Royal Examiner video:
Mayor, Meza spar over committee appointment powers – Mayor by legal TKO
A decision on a one-on-one verbal confrontation between Mayor Eugene Tewalt and Councilman Jacob Meza on who had the authority to make committee appointments, the mayor or a council majority, was rendered by a referee, we mean Town Attorney Doug Napier about 52 minutes into Thursday night’s Front Royal Town Council work session.
However, the sometimes contentious debate over who should serve from the council on a new County-requested committee to jointly discuss a path forward on Tourism promotion in the wake of separately heard, identical presentations by Joint Town-County Tourism Advisory Committee Vice-Chair Kerry Barnhart earlier in the week, began about a half-hour earlier, some 20 minutes into the May 21st work session. The half-hour delay on a decision was due to the necessity of the town attorney’s legal research on mayoral authority.
The dispute arose over Mayor Tewalt giving one of the Town’s two appointments to the new committee to Councilwoman Letasha Thompson.
Thompson has been the council’s most proactive member in getting direct input from involved Town Tourism staff and tourism advisory committee members in the wake of the late January decision to reduce the Town Tourism function and personnel. At last night’s work session Thompson was first to volunteer to serve for the Town on that County-requested four-member supervisor-council committee. Following Thompson to also volunteer their service were Gary Gillespie and Lori Athey Cockrell.
Jacob Meza followed by expressing interest but saying he would defer to the service of others. Meza then weighed in against Thompson’s appointment citing a supposed lack of neutrality in having expressed past concern at the council majority and interim town manager’s preemptive Tourism cutbacks without what she believed was adequate research into how the existing Tourism apparatus was functioning or a plan to replace what was being cut.
So, rather than the councilperson who has been most proactive in researching that function with both existing town staff and joint tourism committee members, Meza threw his support to Gillespie and Cockrell.
Thompson responded aggressively, disputing Meza’s contention that her proactive work with tourism operatives somehow disqualified her from an objective analysis of how best to proceed with the County in a coordinated and effective manner on tourism marketing.
“I think we’re all on the same page – we all think tourism is important; it’s how we’re going to get back on our feet. I think it’s rather odd that you take out the person who’s actually fought for the joint tourism meetings,” Thompson told Meza.
She noted that she had met with Barnhart “for hours” after her presentation on options moving forward “to get her perspective” and to get additional information on the research Barnhart and the Advisory Committee did to assemble the Advisory Committee PowerPoint presentation.
“Yes, I’m very passionate about us having strong tourism – and it is what it is,” Thompson told Meza and his colleagues.
But apparently taking the time to do background research involving those on the ground of Tourism marketing in this community, in support of one’s decision-making process is viewed as a negative by Thompson’s colleagues.
Vice-Mayor William Sealock joined in suggesting Thompson not serve as one of the two Town representatives, like Meza, citing Thompson’s immersing herself in the Tourism issue.
Meza then cited Mayor Tewalt’s insistence that he would appoint Thompson to the committee as a challenge to the will of the council majority. None of Meza’s apparent “gang of four” council allies indicated any disagreement with his stance either against Thompson’s appointment or council’s authority to decide who among them should be appointed.
However, the mayor was unmoved.
“I feel that Letasha has been involved with this, and Gary has too. So, tonight I’m going to make the appointment personally and give it to Letasha and Gary – so I hope that you all can do a good job and represent the Town very well,” Tewalt said, asserting his mayoral authority and drawing a “thank you” from Thompson.
That did not sit well with Meza, who challenged the mayor for not bending to the will of the council.
“This is a decision made by the council, not selected by the mayor, correct?” Meza replied.
“No, I disagree. I think I have the opportunity and the power to appoint two members and I’ve appointed the members,” the two-time mayor and long-time councilman responded.
“I think that you have the obligation to follow the direction of the council. And if the council is saying that we want to pick two members to represent the voice of council, you have an obligation to uphold that vote, do you not?” Meza pressed the mayor.
“No, I feel that I have the obligation right now,” Tewalt responded as Vice-Mayor Sealock injected that he did not support the mayor in this case. However, Sealock sent a mixed message, noting the mayor did have some committee-appointment authority, though he did not believe so in this case.
“This is not a board that you have appointed for action. In that case you do have that capability when you do appoint a board to look into the issue or whatever,” Sealock said, citing the joint County-Town nature of this particular committee that he told the mayor “takes you out of the picture” of mayoral committee appointment authority.
Thompson told her colleagues that if they shut her out of the committee appointment, she would continue to talk to those County and Town sources with whom she seemed to be the lone council member to establish an ongoing relationship with regarding tourism.
But Tewalt held his ground, telling her she remained appointed. The mayor added that he believed the council did not have the authority to overturn his committee appointment authority.
Again, Meza disputed that, asserting council authority over the mayor on committee appointments. The raising of the town attorney’s name and the necessity of a legal ruling at this point led to the discovery that Napier, was in fact, present with Tederick, apparently at Town Hall, despite not showing up on the virtual name list of work session attendees. Napier told council he was looking for the applicable statutes as they spoke.
Twenty minutes later a decision was ready to be rendered just as Councilman Holloway joined the meeting.
Napier then told the full council and mayor, “I’ve looked at everything we can look at, and this is Town Code 4.8 and I can’t find anything anywhere to contradict this: ‘4.8, the mayor is the presiding officer. The mayor as the presiding officer of the council, dot, dot, dot, shall appoint all committees.’
“So, the mayor appoints who he wants for the Tourism Committee,” Napier said.
“Thank you, Doug. Again, I appoint Letasha and Gary,” Mayor Tewalt reminded council.
Though defeated by Town Code, Meza wasn’t finished.
“I respect that appointment, Mr. Mayor. But I did want to make a note that you had a majority of council recommending different appointments (one actually) that you went against,” Meza stated for the meeting record.
“So noted,” the mayor responded
“Not surprising,” Councilman Holloway commented, throwing in with the Meza-Sealock led otherwise silent council majority despite having missed the lengthy debate on the Thompson appointment.
And then council moved on to other business, that business being the downtown street closures discussed in our companion story on the Thursday, May 21, work session.
See both discussions, and consideration of the redundant North Corridor water line project that opened Thursday’s work session; and the status of the Town Manager interview process being spearheaded by the contracted executive search firm of Baker Tilly that has narrowed 47 applicants down to 9, going on 5 candidates under council’s consideration, in the linked Royal Examiner recording:
Holiday weekend downtown walking mall closures okayed by council
While it wasn’t the most entertaining – as in WWF “Cage Match” entertainment – portion of Thursday’s Front Royal Town Council work session (see related story) the discussion and decision to move forward with the closing of portions of East Main and Chester Streets in Historic Downtown Front Royal to vehicular traffic this coming Memorial Day weekend has the most immediate impacts.
Those impacts will begin at 2 p.m. Saturday and conclude at 7 a.m. Tuesday morning. They include allowing the area’s multiple restaurants to have outdoor seating to facilitate broader, Governor’s Executive Order 61 Phase One openings, including allowing alcohol to be served with food in prescribed outdoor seating areas. Contacted later, Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick explained that individual restaurants must contact their ABC representative to receive authorization to serve alcohol in the designated outdoor areas over the holiday weekend.
“This is not a festival,” Tederick observed, noting that roaming downtown with alcoholic beverages in hand as during the Wine & Crafts or Blues & Brews Festivals will not be allowed.
However sitting outside, properly socially distanced of course as Tederick indicated the Town would encourage per the Governor’s Executive Order 61, under forecast 70 to 80 degree, partly sunny, partly cloudy weather with good food and something to wash it down within the wake of two months of mandated business closures and stay at home for fun orders, might just work for most.
Tederick also confirmed that Royal Cinemas’ owner Rick Novak will utilize the outdoor summer Town movie night broadcast equipment to play movies and sell concessions outside his Park Theater this weekend, as well.
As for the closure of portions of East Main and Chester Streets, Tederick said the Town parking lots in the Gazebo-Village Commons and Crescent Street areas would be open for parking. East Main Street will be blocked from North Royal to Blue Ridge Avenue, and Chester Street will be closed from East Main to just beyond the Chester Street entrance to the Gazebo-Village Commons parking lot.
While discussion of the future of joint County-Town Tourism marketing was also part of Thursday night’s agenda, as reported below, there was no reference to specific efforts to draw Northern Virginia/D.C. Metro area citizens still living under “Phase Zero” non-opening restrictions to the Town’s expanded Historic Downtown Memorial Day weekend activities.
Our colleague and local Memorial Day ceremony organizer Malcolm Barr told us those activities will include a paired-back Memorial Day laying of the wreath ceremony Monday at noon, at the Warren County Courthouse lawn. Rather than the normal Dogs of War-referenced ceremony at the Gazebo featuring school bands, citizens and their dogs parading in memory of a nation’s fallen and their loved ones who have sacrificed so much, Barr estimated a brief, perhaps 10-minute ceremony led by Barr’s Husky rescue dog Diva, and wreath placers Mayor Eugene Tewalt and County Board Chair Walter Mabe.
The Memorial Day ceremony in honor of our fallen and their families will be viewable in an exclusive Royal Examiner video; as will the entirety of Thursday’s occasionally volatile Town work session linked to both this and our related story on that volatility surrounding appointments to a County-requested four-person committee on the future of tourism marketing here.
Warren County Government Center soft reopening
On Tuesday, May 26th, the Warren County Government Center will conduct a “soft reopening” for the Treasurer’s and Commissioner of the Revenue’s Offices. All other offices in the Government Center will remain closed to the public with services still available via telephone, email, or by appointment.
Citizens are encouraged to continue utilizing alternative payment methods for the first half of 2020 taxes, including:
- Regular mail
- Outdoor dropbox
- Online eCheck payments with NO convenience fee
- Online credit/debit card payments with 1.99% convenience fee
For those citizens who must visit in person, they will be directed via signate to come in the building through the secondary entrance door marked “Building Inspections” at the center of the building. An automatic hand sanitizer station will be at the entrance for public use. The flow of foot traffic will be in one direction with social distancing decals placed at proper intervals on the floor down the length of the hallway. Once citizens have completed their business in the Treasurer/ Commissioner suite, they will be directed to exit through the door on the north side of the building towards the drive-thru. Cones will be placed on the sidewalk alongside the drive-thru to ensure the safety of the pedestrians exiting the building.
This is a rapidly changing situation, and the most current information is available on the following websites: www.cdc.gov/coronavirus or www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus. Please consult www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus for the latest number of COVID-19 cases in Virginia. Additionally, you can find local information on the Warren County COVID-19 website, the County of Warren, VA Facebook page, or the Town of Front Royal COVID-19 website.
County appoints Jonathon C. Munch as Finance Director
Warren County today announced the appointment of Jonathon C. Munch, CPA, CPFO, VCA as the new Finance Director for Warren County. Mr. Munch graduated from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, with a Bachelor of Science in Accounting. He has been a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) since 2002, a Certified Public Finance Officer (CPFO) since 2015, and a Virginia Contracting Associate (VCA) since early 2018. Mr. Munch is an active member of the Virginia Government Finance Officers Association (VGFOA), having served as President and as an Executive Board Member. In that capacity, he chaired several committees and sub-committees. Mr. Munch has also served as a conference speaker and instructor for both the VGFOA and the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada (GFOA). Mr. Munch will begin his employment with the County effective June 15, 2020. He fills the vacancy created this past October by the resignation of Andre Fletcher, former Finance Director.
Mr. Munch joins Warren County from Fauquier County, Virginia, where he has been employed for the past seven (7) years as the Director of Finance for the Fauquier County Government and Public Schools. In Fauquier County, he is responsible for planning, implementing, and directing financial operations of the consolidated Finance Department, which includes financial reporting; planning and implementation of fiscal policy; oversight of debt portfolio and issuance of debt; and direction of preparation of budget and internal audit and pre-audit functions. Prior to his tenure in Fauquier County, Mr. Munch was employed by Prince William County, Virginia, where he served in progressively responsible Accountant positions for almost eight (8) years.
Walt Mabe, Warren County Board of Supervisors Chair, stated, “We are very pleased to find such an individual as Jon, who possesses the knowledge, experience, and education to make an immediate effective impact in Warren County. Given his past experience in the business and local government worlds, he has shown that he is quite the capable individual. We are pleased that he is joining us from a larger locality, bringing a fresh perspective to our unique challenges.”
Doug Stanley, County Administrator, stated, “Warren County is very fortunate to have someone of Jon’s knowledge, background, and expertise joining its staff. The Finance Director position, and the responsibilities that come with it, are an extremely important and integral component of the leadership team, and I believe Jon will be a great fit for Warren County. I want to again express my sincere gratitude to both Carolyn Stimmel and Andre Fletcher, former Finance Directors, for their support in helping to fill in and ensure that important functions were performed and reviewed each month and that the budget and audit functions for the past year were completed on time. I also sincerely appreciate the hard work of our dedicated Finance staff, including Christine Howell, Payroll Technician, Ivy Thompson, Accounting Technician, Jeannie Decker, CSA Coordinator, and Connie Oden, former Administrative Assistant, whose service has been invaluable in the daily operations of the department.”
Mr. Munch said, “I am very excited to have this opportunity to be a part of the team at Warren County. I am grateful to the County Administrator and the Board of Supervisors for the confidence that they have shown in me by entrusting me with this great opportunity, and I look forward to contributing to the success of Warren County in its mission of providing the best service to its citizens in an efficient and effective way.”
The Finance Department is located in the Warren County Government Center at 220 North Commerce Avenue, telephone (540) 636-1604. Office hours are 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Ramsey boundary adjustment, school surplus, COVID-19 & tourism occupy county supervisors – and citizen asks to save the municipal golf course
On Tuesday evening, at its second regular, virtual meeting of May, the Warren County Board of Supervisors passed a Resolution denying local developer Chris Ramsey’s request for a 20-acre boundary adjustment into the town limits of Front Royal.
The May 19 vote appears to end a four-year effort, resurrected with new parameters last year, to facilitate residential development along Guard Hill Road with access to lower in-town water and sewer utility rates and lower developer utility connection or “tap” fees. The Town had endorsed the request in forwarding it to the County for consideration.
The Resolution cited the request as inconsistent with the County Comprehensive Plan call for continued Agricultural uses in the area; as unnecessary to accommodate recent in-town growth rates into the foreseeable future; and a likely creator of traffic issues on winding and hilly Guard Hill Road and its intersection with the Route 522/340 major north side entrance way into Front Royal.
The vote to deny on a motion by North River District Supervisor Delores Oates, seconded by Cheryl Cullers, was 3-0 with two abstentions. Both Board Chairman Walter Mabe and Archie Fox abstained as they indicated they would at earlier work session discussion of the matter. Both Fox and Mabe have indicated potential conflicts of interest due to long personal and/or business relationships with Ramsey.
The Resolution declining the boundary adjustment noted the 2015 friendly boundary adjustment of Front Royal Limited Partnership’s 604 acres into town to facilitate coming residential development that adhered to state Urban Development Area guidelines of construction adjacent to existing residential and central utility access.
The potential of development of as many as 1200 homes there off Happy Creek Road on the town’s east side was observed to be able to accommodate in-town residential growth at the recent annual rate of 25 homes per year for “the next 25-50 years”.
Actually the County might have to amend that prediction to “the next 16 to 32 years” in the wake of FRLP principal David Vazzana’s amended development plan presented to the Town Planning Commission May 6. The new FRLP development proposal reduces the residential aspect to 400 to 800 units on 207 acres, with the remaining 397 acres proposed for alternate uses (see Royal Examiner’s early May story: “FRLP presents evolving development plan despite uncertain financial times”)
Finish A.S. Rhodes now, save money
Also on Tuesday, the board authorized the return of $1,076,200 in surplus Public School funds for the coming fiscal year. The Warren County School Board had requested a refund of the full $1,623,021 surplus from FY-2019. However, county staff’s initial recommendation due to negative revenue impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic crisis and use of $1.2 million of the County’s Fund Balance to meet the School’s current budget request, was the return of half those FY-19 reserves, or $811,511.
The approved amount adds $264,689 to that half surplus total to facilitate completion of the A.S. Rhodes Elementary School renovations currently underway. As staff noted in the agenda packet summary, “It does make sense to fund the full request for the A.S. Rhodes renovation project”. As previously discussed during work sessions, continuing renovations to completion now while contractors are on-site will reduce costs; and delaying completion into another Fiscal Year budget cycle will likely see higher costs in general tied to the remaining renovation work.
In the agenda summary County Administrator Doug Stanley explained that past boards have “encouraged WCPS (Warren County Public Schools) to conserve funds with the ability to have those returned for one-time capital purchases” and that “on a few occasions the schools have had to use them for operational uses”.
The vote to approve the return of the half-reserve amount with the additional funds to complete the A.S. Rhodes renovations, on a motion by Cullers, seconded by Fox, was unanimous.
The board also dealt with a number of Coronavirus pandemic-related matters Tuesday. They included the adoption of ordinances:
- “Deferring penalties and interest on certain Warren County taxes (real estate, personal property and machinery, and tools) until August 6, 2020”. This applies to taxes only that come due on June 5 this year. On August 6 a 10% penalty or $10, whichever is higher, will be imposed on those taxes that still have not been paid;
- Continuing the Emergency Ordinance declaration facilitating “continuity in the government of Warren County” during the pandemic crisis by authorizing electronic meetings without public attendance, but with the submission of public comments by electronic means for an additional 60 days as required by law. The initial ordinance was adopted on March 24. Responding to a question, County Deputy Emergency Services Manager Rick Farrall estimated a mid-June date when the governor’s Phase 2 reopening guidelines would kick in, perhaps facilitating a return to some semblance of publicly attended municipal meetings;
- Certified Board Chairman Mabe, County Administrator Stanley, and Chief Financial Officer Stimmel to execute receipt of federal Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF) totaling $3,504,154 through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act approved by Congress and signed into law by President Trump. It was noted that “Counties must ensure that an equitable share of the CFR funds it receives are shared with and granted to each town within its jurisdiction” and that all involved municipalities’ portions “must be spent in accordance with the same requirements” and that “the same documentation must be retained for audit purposes”. (I’d like to cover the meeting where town and county officials discuss exactly what “equitable share” means.)
Tourism options reprise
At an approximate one-hour work session that began at 6 p.m., county officials heard Joint County-Town Tourism Advisory Committee Vice-Chair Kerry Barnhart’s PowerPoint presentation on options for the future of Tourism marketing in the community. It was a duplicate presentation to the one made to the Town the previous evening. See that presentation and Royal Examiner’s story on that Town work session in the related story “Town points toward Memorial Day weekend expanded East Main St. opening”.
Following Barnhart’s presentation, Supervisor Oates suggested a joint meeting of County and Town officials to discuss how best to proceed forward with a joint Tourism marketing strategy.
“My concern is we’re going to continue to chase our tails with going around in circles without having all the stakeholders in a room and confirming what it is we would all agree to,” Oates told her colleagues, adding, “And we need to do it sooner than later because I agree with Kerry that the circumstances of COVID have put us in a very interesting position where we actually can benefit from the folks that want to get out of the city and come into our area in the near future.”
There appeared to be a board consensus to proceed in that suggested direction to facilitate quicker movement forward on coordinated tourism marketing while localities to our east, in particular, remain in pandemic “Phase Zero” continued business closings due to the severity of the COVID-19 Coronavirus outbreak in Northern Virginia and the D.C. Metro area.
See these discussions and other business conducted, and electronically submitted citizen comments including an impassioned plea for the survival of the County’s municipal public golf course from Front Royal Golf Club Committee member Chris Lang, in the video, courtesy of Dewayne Coats, Warren County.
Town points toward Memorial Day weekend expanded East Main St. opening
Following a far-ranging Monday evening, May 18, work session discussion on the future direction of Tourism promotion and how best to deal with coming revenue shortfalls from the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, the Front Royal Town Council zeroed in a short term solution to both – an expanded, outdoor, perhaps partially tent-enclosed opening of Front Royal’s Historic Downtown Business District for the coming Memorial Day weekend.
To facilitate that goal, as well as moving toward ending credit card utility bill payment fee forgiveness as of the July 1st start of Fiscal Year 2021, the council scheduled a Thursday work session to authorize final decisions on both matters. Thursday’s virtually broadcast work session will begin at 6:30 p.m. to facilitate the educational schedule of Councilwoman Lori Cockrell.
A council consensus was reached to move forward aggressively on these issues near the end of the 2-1/2 hour work session. The first half-hour of that work session was spent in closed session to discuss “consideration or interviews of prospective candidates for employment with the Town” – perhaps a hint at movement toward the hiring of a new town manager.
Directly out of closed session council heard from Joint County-Town Tourism Advisory Committee Vice-Chair Kerry Barnhart on options to rebuild the community’s Tourism promotion apparatus. As noted somewhat subtly in Vibe Properties principal Barnhart’s presentation, that apparatus on the Town side was somewhat derailed by the January removal of “the Director of Tourism leaving a void in structure and leadership”.
That director was Town Director of Community Development Felicia Hart, who played a leadership role in the Joint Tourism Advisory Committee and town tourism promotion and related business development. Hart was suddenly terminated, along with several other key Town department heads, as part of the unveiling of Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick’s FY-2021 Budget proposal, which did not wait until the July 1 start of the next fiscal year to begin implementing cuts to Town departmental budgets.
And while now appearing prescient on revenue shortfalls that would soon hit the current budget year from the COVID-19 pandemic on the horizon, the long-term impacts on town government organization and effectiveness are still hotly debated by citizens, and one might guess soon by the council and mayoral candidates in the making.
Tourism by the numbers
As for revenue and Tourism, Barnhart noted that the Town and County are both legally committed to investing a precise amount of their tax revenue in Tourism promotion. Those numbers are 70% of the Town’s Lodging Tax revenue (70% of $190,000 in a recent budget year) and 60% of the County’s Lodging Tax revenue (60% of $195,000), Barnhart told the council. While the approximate $250,000 of combined revenue is significant, it can evaporate quickly in the competitive regional and national Tourism industry marketing scene, Barnhart observed.
Barnhart’s detailed presentation on the variety of ways in which tourism destinations around the nation promote themselves: in-house; contracted out to either a local chamber of commerce or private sector marketer; alone or in conjunction with partnering municipalities; or some combination of those, drew the first question from Councilwoman Lori Cockrell.
“In the best of all possible worlds, which of those would you recommend?”
While reluctant to pass a lone final judgment, Barnhart noted that partnering with your involved neighbor, Warren County, in this case, was crucial to present a coordinated, mutually beneficial result. That result would present one voice promoting both the town and county successfully. However, she did suggest that with the name “Front Royal” plastered along westbound Interstate-66 from the D.C. Metro/Northern Virginia area in a bit of free VDOT-generated publicity, that the name “Front Royal” be the marketing name choice for that joint promotion.
She added that any outsourcing had to be accomplished through a highly transparent and competitive process to avoid any appearance of impropriety with taxpayer-funded public money – “Transparency is incredibly important,” she told town officials. She also suggested tight oversight of any outside marketer to avoid “a plastic appearance” in the marketing; as well as a short-term, one-year initial and breakable contract to assure the community was getting what it paid for from a contracted marketing company.
Why worry over the numbers?
“Tourism is one of the largest industries in Front Royal/Warren County, bringing in $151 million in revenue, $34 million in payroll, and 1700 jobs,” Barnhart said in citing statistics from the Virginia Tourism Authority, circa 2018.
“Well damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” as vintage World War II movie surface ship captains used to say facing threats from a submerged enemy.
Following a subsequent agenda item consensus decision that the forgiveness of credit card payment fees of 2.35% totaling an estimated $240,000 in revenue in the next Fiscal Year should not be extended beyond the June 30th end of FY-2020, the council looked at the potential of a short-term positive turnaround on sales tax and perhaps some tourism-generated revenue.
That turnaround could come this looming Memorial Day weekend with a Town-overseen outdoor-oriented opening of East Main Street’s Historic Downtown Business District and its many restaurants. That idea was broached last week by Councilman Jacob Meza, who suggested a temporary closing of a portion of East Main Street to vehicular traffic to facilitate outdoor restaurant seating along a walking mall-styled downtown.
Interim Town Manager Tederick told council there had been some negative push back to the idea of temporarily closing a portion of downtown East Main Street to accommodate the governor’s social distancing guidelines for restaurant reopenings.
Responding to a question from Chris Holloway, Tederick noted those concerns came from other types of business owners, concerned at the loss of front of house parking. However, Tederick noted that along with a two or three-block stretch of East Main Street the lost parking would be fairly minimal.
Tederick was directed to employ a quick survey of downtown businesses, and restaurants’ interest in utilizing outdoor seating for the coming weekend, as a basis for a council decision in the coming days.
Contacted Tuesday, Tederick told Royal Examiner of the game plan with Memorial Day weekend three days away.
“All hands on deck meeting at 11:00 a.m.,” Tederick said for involved town staff Tuesday morning, adding, “Based upon direction from Council last night, the goal is the close Main Street Friday at 3 p.m. and reopens Tuesday 7 a.m. – this decision is not final. I have had staff considering this for over a week and now we just need to execute. Many, many details to consider and people with whom to coordinate, as well as, ensuring safety, security, and minimal inconvenience for citizens and businesses.”
By the end of Thursday night’s work session, council’s intentions for an expanded downtown opening this weekend will be known, one way or the other.
“Ensuring safety, security, and minimal inconvenience” for all would appear to be the operative phrase as a decision approaches.
Listen to this discussion during the final 18 to 20 minutes of this nearly two-hour Royal Examiner recording of Monday’s work session. That recording begins with Barnhart’s Tourism Marketing PowerPoint presentation and subsequent Q&A over the virtual work session’s first hour and 10 minutes; followed by a discussion of FY 2020 revenue issues and the extent of the waiver on credit card payment fees through the end of this fiscal year.
Stay informed, stay safe, stay smart.