Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority Board of Directors Chairman Gray Blanton verified to Royal Examiner on Wednesday, December 19, that he did not intend for a series of email messages he sent out the previous day regarding some frustration he was experiencing with the situation at the EDA to be copied to media sources.
“I learned my lesson on Reply All,” Blanton admitted in a phone conversation.
Actually the Reply All exchanges began on Monday, December 17, with EDA and County Attorney Dan Whitten’s emailed notice of the originally-scheduled time and date of the EDA Special/Closed Meeting slated for Wednesday, December 19 at 11 a.m.
EDA board member Ron Llewellyn “replied all” at 7:31 p.m. “See you there”.
Blanton, installed as chairman in late August following Greg Drescher’s resignation from the chairmanship, replied nine minutes later attempting to verify that the meeting had been moved to Thursday – “NOW IT IS NOT WEDNESDAY WE AR MOVED TO THURSDAY, RIGHT,” Blanton replied all.
At 9:21 a.m. the following morning, Tuesday, December 18, attorney Whitten replied verifying the date and time change of the EDA Board Special meeting to 10 a.m. on Thursday morning, December 20. Whitten later confirmed that the meeting was rescheduled to facilitate the full board could attend.
At 6:38 p.m. that evening Blanton again replied all – “I will be there 10 a.m., miss tennis again, this is getting ugly and the board of supervisors need to step up, they have us there, no employees and we are suppose to do this job for nothing and get all the blame. The auditors are running this.”
Two minutes later Blanton added in another reply-to-all comment, “I’m angry about this, I am not use to being put in this position”.
An hour and 10 minutes later at 7:50 p.m. Whitten replied, again to all, “Gray, Please contact me to discuss your concerns.”
Contacted first on Wednesday, Whitten said he felt Blanton was frustrated with the amount of work being put on the EDA board due to the ongoing auditor’s examination of EDA financial records in the wake of the discovery of irregularities in the Town of Front Royal’s debt service payments to the EDA. Those irregularities discovered by Town Finance Director B. J. Wilson initially indicated overpayments totaling over $291,000 over an eight-year period. A final number on Town overpayments, as well as if a similar situation exists on the County side, have yet to be determined.
Contacted later Wednesday afternoon Blanton said it had been a harried couple of days due to a combination of factors, including the audit, an absence of staff to deal with day-to-day EDA business, as well as one of the changes made regarding EDA finances following a 3-3/4-hour closed session at the board’s regular monthly meeting of Friday, December 14. See Related Story
“It has been very frustrating – we’re going through the audit; we told Jennifer to take some time off and Missy is still out, though I think she will be back Thursday,” Blanton said of the EDA executive director and secretary.
Prior to her sudden departure from the morning December 14 EDA meeting after receiving a phone call about a family medical emergency, McDonald told the media that Secretary Missy Henry was absent getting medical tests regarding her own medical concerns.
With Henry out and McDonald given time off in the wake of her sudden departure from the first of two December 14 EDA closed meetings, Blanton said EDA board members, who are unpaid by state law, have had to divide up some time at the EDA office to keep daily business flowing.
And due to approval of a resolution removing the executive director from check writing authority following that lengthy December 14 morning closed session, Blanton said a number of checks discovered to cover bank payments coming due this week with McDonald’s signature on them along with his as chairman as the required second board member signature, had to have McDonald’s name removed and replaced with either Vice-Chairman Bruce Drummond or Treasurer Thomas Patteson.
This led to delays in the mailing of those bank payments – “That’s not me, I don’t like making bank payments late,” Blanton said of one of the factors leading to his accelerated frustration levels exhibited in the emails he thought were only going to fellow board members and EDA staff.
We asked if he thought the added special meeting closed session now scheduled for Thursday, December 20, to further discuss the executive director’s job performance and debt and accounting services might lead to additional action regarding adjustments to McDonald’s duties.
“I won’t know till it happens – whatever is decided I want it to be before a full board. And if anyone disagrees I want to know what the reasons are,” Blanton replied.
He also said he did not expect that new numbers would be available regarding the auditor’s exploration of EDA finances at the Thursday closed session.
Asked if he thought the Warren County Board of Supervisors might get those numbers the following day at another suddenly-added special meeting/closed session also called to discuss debt and accounting services, the EDA board chairman said, “I hope so – and that they give them to us.”
After the 5:20 p.m. adjournment of the second December 14 closed session discussion of the executive director’s position in front of the second partial EDA board of the day, Blanton told the media, “We did talk about her performance – yes. It was all the things the auditor brought up we didn’t have total explanations for. We’re getting those – we got half of them now and we’ll get the other half later. We’re going to find out what went wrong; get the Town their money as soon as we can come up with that figure.” See Related Story
EDA gets McDonald company property as part of settlement agreement
On Wednesday, October 20, Warren County Economic Development Authority Board of Directors Chairman Jeff Browne verified the EDA’s acquisition of the 41-acre “Happy Creek Road” parcel owned by former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald’s Moveon8 real estate LLC. Acquisition of the undeveloped property assessed at just over a million dollars according to county court records is part of the $9-million-dollar no-fault settlement agreement reached between the EDA, McDonald, and the Harrisonburg Bankruptcy Court handling McDonald’s 2020 bankruptcy filing. The EDA will now be able to market the property as a developable EDA asset. It is located near the intersection of Happy Creek Road and Leach Run Parkway.
Browne said that in addition to receiving full value on the Happy Creek parcel, the EDA was in line to receive a percentage of the sale price of other McDonald assets distributed through the bankruptcy court proceeding. Exactly how close those percentages might get the EDA to the $9-million-dollar settlement figure remains to be seen. It was not immediately clear as to whether the EDA will have an outright full value claim to any other McDonald-held properties or assets.
McDonald is the central figure in the EDA financial scandal that began unravelling in mid-to-late 2018. She resigned in December 2018 under mounting pressure from her board of directors. She has been accused in civil and criminal court of utilizing her EDA position to misdirect EDA assets to her and others personal benefit. Western District of Virginia federal authorities have taken over the criminal side of the EDA case after a state special prosecutor’s office in Harrisonburg dropped criminal charges against McDonald and as many as 23 co-defendants due to speedy trial concerns as it wrestled with the volume of evidentiary material – estimated at 800,000 to over a million pages at the time. With charges against some defendants originating with the county commonwealth attorney’s office that initially handled the criminal investigation during Brian Madden’s tenure heading the department, failure to meet speedy trial timelines could have led to defense motions for dismissal of criminal charges against the defendants.
On August 31, 2021, federal prosecutors made their initial move, handing down a 34-count indictment against McDonald. Of those 34 counts, 16 were for money laundering, 10 for bank fraud, 7 for wire fraud, and 1 count of aggravated identity theft regarding someone identified as “T.T.” – ITFederal principal Truc Tran perhaps?
EDA completes audits for 2018 and 2019; 2020 audit is next
The Board of Directors of the Front Royal and Warren County Economic Development Authority accepted its audited financial statements for fiscal years 2018 and 2019, today, October 5, 2021. The audit of the financial statements was conducted by the firm of Brown Edwards, CPAs of Harrisonburg, VA.
“We have received the final outside audits conducted for 2018 and 2019,” said EDA Board Chairman Jeff Browne. “This was a huge effort on the part of Brown Edwards, and they have done very good work in challenging circumstances. Getting these two financial audits completed is a major step forward in putting the EDA’s past difficulties behind us. Now we can better focus on economic development issues to benefit the community.”
“The auditors’ letter points to three areas for improvement of internal controls,” Browne said. “It was important to make each improvement recommended by the CPAs, and we have done just that. The Warren County staff now administer the check-writing duties, collection of rents, and have layers of approvals for expenses within EDA and the County administration that were not there three years ago.”
The audited financial statements show that, at the end of the fiscal year 2019, the EDA’s total net assets were $38,036,737, and its net liabilities were $44,575,435, resulting in a deficit net position of $6,538,698. The EDA will work with Warren County’s auditors starting with the fiscal year 2020, which audit can now be undertaken.
The EDA Board of Directors will have their next regular monthly board meeting via Zoom on Friday, October 29, 2021, at 9 a.m.
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.