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Previous façade work is eligible for downtown revitalization grant funding

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Hosted by the local chamber of commerce, town staff and two local business representatives try to get on the same page about eligibility for grant funding for downtown façade improvements. Photos/Roger Bianchini

A recent meeting of town officials and members of the local business community ironed out some miss-perceptions about parameters of a “Façade Improvement Program” that is part of a Downtown Front Royal Revitalization Project propelled forward by a state Community Development Block Grant (CDBG).

Front Royal was one of four communities that benefited from a second round of CDBG funding announced by then-Governor Terry McAuliffe on January 5.  Front Royal led that quartet of communities as 16th on a list of 15 originally-qualifying municipalities announced in September 2017.  Thanks to the discovery of an additional $2,149,346 in available CDBG funding, the town government received $700,000 toward revitalization efforts in its Historic Downtown Business District. See Related Story

Part of the revitalization program is for façade improvements.  According to a Town-distributed summary of the façade program, “Previous improvements since September 2015 are eligible as a match.”

However, a miscommunication initially attributed to a contracted consultant on the revitalization project led some in the local business community to believe façade work done prior to awarding of or finalization of the grant contract would not qualify for matching grant funding.

“So it is not retroactive to 2015?” Royal Oak Computers and Vine and Leaf owner Craig Laird asked town staff present at a September meeting at the Front Royal-Warren County Chamber of Commerce.

“That is not true – it was a misunderstanding,” Town Planning Director Jeremy Camp replied.

“I encourage the Town to make sure the options are understood and clear – it’s still a win-win situation,” Apple House proprietor George McIntyre told Camp and Town Manager Joe Waltz.

Ready for some downtown facelifts

Responding to a question from McIntyre, Waltz said no contractor was fired as a result of the “misunderstanding” surrounding eligibility for receiving matching grant funding for façade work done from 2015 at the outset of the CDBG application process.  The misunderstanding apparently came from a communication breakdown between business owners and staff of the Northern Shenandoah Regional Commission that was assisting the Town with its grant application process.  The regional commission’s role in the process simply came to an end, the town manager explained.

Then NSVRC Director Martha Shickle was at the point of that assistance, Waltz later explained to Royal Examiner.  The misunderstanding on eligibility came in the wake of Shickle’s departure for a similar regional commission position in Richmond.

So for applicants accepted into the Façade Improvement aspect of the revitalization project, submitting proof of their expenditures on qualifying façade work will be matched by CDBG funding.  The state reimbursement must then be spent on additional, related façade work, town staff explained.

Questioned later, Town Planning Director Camp said at total of $357,500 has been committed to the façade improvement aspect of the revitalization program.  Of that, $325,000 is for construction work with another $32,500 committed to architectural aspects.  Town staff said that there were currently 18 applicants qualified for the façade improvement program, with an additional three “in the wings”.

The Town will match the CDBG funding and work must be completed within two years of signing of a contract with the Virginia Department of Housing and Development which oversees the grant expenditures.  Camp said that contract was signed on September 27.

Town Community Development Director Felicia Hart later told Royal Examiner that architect Kathy Frazier of Frazier & Associates of Staunton had been recruited to work on the downtown revitalization project for the Town.

“We are fortunate to have her – she’s been through this process and knows what the state wants,” Hart said.

So, if your business lies in the downtown revitalization area centered on East Main Street, but extending to portions of Chester, Jackson, Peyton, Crescent and Church Streets and South Royal and South Commerce Avenues, contact Jeremy Camp (635-4236) at the town planning department for more information on parameters and deadlines for inclusion in round two of the application process – “the sooner the better” we were told.

The Downtown Revitalization Area – Courtesy Graphic/Town of Front Royal

The community development block grants require local matches totaling at or near a 50/50 split.  The projects cited in Front Royal’s original $1-million CDBG application to foster economic revitalization included five of six focused on the Downtown Historic Business District:

  • Façade improvements, $365,000 State/$350,000 Town;

The other five downtown projects cited physical improvements to publicly owned Town property, including:

  • Physical improvements, public restrooms and drinking fountains, to the Town Gazebo area, $125,000 State/$26,180 Town;
  • Multi-purpose Open Air Gathering Space, Gazebo area, $137,500 State/$114,500 Town;
  • Sidewalk and streetlight upgrades on East Main Street, $25,000 State/$13,500 Town;
  • Improvement to Jackson Street parking and side street and alley enhancements, $40,000 State/$16,500 Town.
  • A sixth project, the Royal Shenandoah Greenway tied to the Criser Road Trail Link, was proposed at no cost to the State, with all $400,000 funded by the Town.

As for potential cuts to the plan due to the $300,000 deficit in the requested grant revenue, Camp has previously pointed to a pavilion included as part of the Gazebo area public improvements as a “large-ticket” item cost-wise that might be a prime candidate to be deferred five or so years into the future.

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Tourism Advisory Board finds itself in midst of an evolving landscape

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The Town-County Joint Tourism Advisory Board and representatives of both the county and town governments discuss the future of tourism marketing. From left around the table are Mountain Trails Gary Green, SVGC’s Richard Runyon, Apple House’s Katie Tewell, Walter Mabe obscured, Holiday Inn & Suites Mary Bayer, Backroom Brewery’s Billie Clifton, Vibe Properties/FR Brewery’s Kerry Barnhart, County Planning Director Taryn Logan, and the Chamber’s Niki Foster Cales. Royal Examiner Photos/Roger Bianchini, Royal Examiner Video/Mark Williams

On Wednesday afternoon, February 26, the Front Royal-Warren County Joint Tourism Advisory Board met to continue to ponder its role in a turbulent present and uncertain future following the Town’s termination of two department heads – Felicia Hart and Jeremy Camp – whom the committee relied on for information and guidance regarding much of their work.

In fact, Hart’s name came up repeatedly during the meeting discussion as in “Felicia did this,” “Felicia did that,” or “Felicia and Jeremy were so helpful”. After its last meeting of February 12, Tourism Advisory Board members confirmed that they had no advance warning of Hart’s termination or the recommendation from the town manager’s office that town tourism promotion is outsourced to the private sector.

But unlike that earlier meeting held in the second-floor Town Hall conference room, at Wednesday’s meeting in the Warren County Government Center Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick was present to hear and contribute to the discussion. Tederick has been council’s point man in its sudden change of direction on staffing, departmental and budgetary commitments to Town Tourism promotion and marketing in the existing fiscal year, as well as planning for Town Tourism’s promotional future.

It didn’t take long for the advisory board and County Board of Supervisors Chairman Walter Mabe, present with North River Supervisor Delores Oates as observers, to get to the question of exactly what the present and future holds for them and tourism promotion for the town and county. Picking up a theme broached in its first meeting post-Town Tourism shakeup two weeks earlier, Shenandoah Valley Golf Club Manager Richard Runyon began the conversation among the eight committee members, largely from the local business community at least partially dependent on tourist dollars.

SVGC’s Richard Runyon, center, flanked by Mountain Trails Gary Green and the Apple House’s Katie Tewell, suggests a joint, in-house tourism marketing effort centered out of the Town Visitors Center.

Runyon suggested the two municipalities pool their financial commitments to tourism and related business development, “and develop a staff in-house, maybe entertain volunteers to work – and I was envisioning the Visitor’s Center is the main hub. If I was going to open a business in Warren County, I don’t want to go to two or three different places I’ve got to jump around. I want to see what the county has to offer my employees, taxes, conditions of living, shopping and entertainment for my employees…

“This group, we all have busy lives. We don’t have to do this. We’re business owners, business managers, what have you. We were asked to do this. So to me, I think as a group we make a recommendation to the Town and to the County since this is a joint effort, and put it on them, and let them decide,” Runyon said of a final decision on the shape of tourism promotion and related business development in this community for the future.

“What’s the decision you’re trying to decide though?” County Board Chairman Mabe said of increased cooperation between the two municipalities in maximizing both’s tourism potential. “I can’t speak for Mr. Tederick but I believe the Town is kind of for it; the County is kind of for it, but we don’t know how this board wants to make it happen. Because we can’t go at it willie-nillie. We’ve got to put it together as a proposal that says ‘This is what we’re going to do, this is how we’re going to do it. This is who’s going to run it – and all of the things we need to make it work. And let the Town and the County go after it. If it comes to a mutual understanding between us two, it will come to be – am I wrong?” Mabe asked, leading to Tederick’s introduction to the conversation.

Above, Walter Mabe questions Runyon on detail of his overview of a path forward – ‘I can’t speak for Mr. Tederick,’ Mabe noted in expressing a belief both the County and Town have common cause in coordinated tourism promotion. ‘Makes a lot of sense,’ Tederick, below, offered, adding ‘The devil’s in the details.’

“I’m not in a position to say right or wrong being town manager. I will say what you’re proposing makes a lot of sense,” Tederick responded to what he heard of the development of a jointly conceived plan moving forward. “And I think from a policy perspective, I believe the town council would very much entertain the concept. The devil is in the details, but I’ve always felt that this body doesn’t really have a lot of authority. I don’t know that you got a lot of direction from the Town or County,” Tederick added in what might have been interpreted by some as a slap at, at least one of the terminated Town employees involved with the Tourism Advisory Board in the past.

“I always believe as business owners, the first thing you start with is a strategic plan. What is it we want to see; who is our target market we’re trying to track; how are we going to reach them?” Tederick continued, adding, “And when I looked at the Town’s budget for tourism, you had $80-some-thousand dollars out of a $409,000 budget going towards print advertising efforts. That’s just not the right methodology, I think, in this modern era to be contacting people to come to Warren County and Front Royal.”

The interim town manager continued that he was disappointed from “a messaging perspective, a branding perspective – are we branding Warren County or are we branding Front Royal when it comes to tourism? Are we sending a message for the county and a different message for the town?” he asked a group comprised largely of business owners from both inside and outside the town limits who cater to tourist dollars from a wide variety of perspectives, including lodging, food and beverage, and recreational from hiking, camping, the river, and golf.

‘The big question is who’s going to handle the fiscal responsibilities of the money?” Tederick said of a broad, coordinated tourism and related business promotional effort, as North River Supervisor Delores Oates notes on her laptop.

“So conceptually, I think it makes a lot of sense to have this board serve as some kind of governing board of the assets. And the big question is who’s going to handle the fiscal responsibilities of the money?” Tederick said.

See the evolving and far-ranging conversation about those details that followed in this linked Royal Examiner video.

Included in that conversation were pros and cons of involvement of the Chamber of Commerce or outside online marketers and, how to best divide responsibilities for the myriad tasks and responsibilities that Vibe Properties/Front Royal Brewery owner Kerry Barnhart called impossible for one person to handle.

With Barnhart engaged in post-meeting discussion, we asked Mountain Trails owner Gary Green from the frequent mentioning of departed Town Tourism Advisory Board member and Town Community Development Director Felicia Hart’s name, if she had been that central figure who had been asked to do more than, as Barnhart put it, “anyone person could do successfully”.

“Yes, that was her,” Green offered.

Watch the Tourism meeting on this exclusive Royal Examiner video:


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Town-County Tourism Advisory Board moves forward in a vacuum of information on Town plans

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Citizens to town council: Are you listening or are your minds made up?

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With scheduled reports on County, Commonwealth’s Attorney and Town Police business on its Monday evening agenda, the Front Royal Town Council expected to begin its February 24 meeting listening. However, it was six citizens who delayed receipt of those scheduled reports with ongoing “Public Comment” questions and criticism of the council’s budget decision-making processes.
A remaining question for those citizens was, “Do you hear us?”

And beginning with opening speaker Gary Kushner, for several the answer appeared to be “We don’t think so”.

Gary Kushner took the leadoff spot in critiquing council choices early in its FY 2021 budget process – that critique was not positive. Photo and video by Mark Williams, Royal Examiner.

“The interim manager is already advertising for staff positions reflecting the implementation of his Planning and Tourism reorganization and has begun discussions with potential outsource businesses, which all but precludes council’s serious consideration of opinions that keeping the prior structure would produce better results. Those actions give the appearance that the council doesn’t sincerely value citizen input. Continuing such a practice will only encourage greater apathy by the public when they consider that any effort on their part is mostly useless because decisions have already been made,” Kushner told the town’s elected officials, minus the absent Jacob Meza.

Following Kushner to the microphone were Kenneth Dameron, Janice Hart, Linda Allen, Paul Gabbert, and Bruce Rappaport. Several of those speakers echoed the opening speaker’s concerns about a seemingly established ideological path being chosen by council that is immune to reconsideration or factual analysis that contradicts council’s and/or Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick’s preconceived ideas about reducing the organizational function of town government by downsizing – termed “right-sizing” by Tederick – combined with outsourcing or privatizing certain departmental functions. Is it just a means for the council to be able to say “we have reduced taxes – re-elect us” some wondered after analyzing the numbers.

Mounting debt
“I don’t want my taxes lowered – said no one, never,” Hart said to begin her comments to the town’s elected officials.

However, she continued with a plea to reconsider that half-cent tax real estate tax rate reduction in the face of mounting expenses, including the Town’s undisputed debt of $8.4 million in principal payments to the EDA for construction of the new Front Royal Police Headquarters.

“We have an $8-million note on a brand, new police department that, on which so far, no real solution on paying for it has been revealed,” Hart pointed out, observing, “The EDA has offered a decent loan percentage on the balance; and while the council gambled and lost on a lesser percentage amount, we must take the bull by the horns and face this issue … How does the council propose to pay for this police department by reducing taxes? Lowering the tax rate for even one year isn’t going to make this go away.”

Janice Hart asked if the council is not setting citizens up for future large tax increases by implementing a small decrease amounting to about $17 of annual savings per $350,000 of real estate value.

Hart also questioned the town council’s increasingly adversarial stance toward a revamped EDA that is trying to right its ship that capsized under both the County and Town’s economic involvement and watches over the past five years.

“Cooperation with the EDA, which is trying to help is a must – but it doesn’t appear they are getting any cooperation,” Hart said of the town council’s choice to litigate rather than negotiate. “I appreciate that the council is trying to be good stewards of our tax dollars in working out a deal on this new (police) facility – it was desperately needed. A lower percentage rate is always a good thing – but it is not a reality – and we need to make a deal with the EDA,” Hart said.

She echoed comments of other citizens in recent weeks, observing, “The only people who win in a lawsuit are the lawyers – present company excepted,” Hart said with a nod to Town Attorney
Doug Napier out of whose hands the Town’s civil litigation against the EDA has been taken and into the private sector legal hands of the Alexandria-based Damiani & Damiani firm.

Fiscal shortsightedness?
Council’s previous decision to lock in the half-cent real estate tax deduction early in the Fiscal Year 2021 budget process without even knowing how much revenue will be needed to balance the final budget proposal got particular scrutiny from Hart and Gabbert – and Gabbert continued Kushner’s theme of a council beyond the influence of the citizens they are elected to serve.

“The tax rate of 13 (cents), since you already advertised it you can’t go back to 13-and-a-half – you’re stuck with the 13 because you’ve already advertised it,” Gabbert said of the half-cent reduction to the real estate tax rate authorized to be advertised as part of the FY 2021 budget. “You undercut yourself before you even know what the budget is going to be. I don’t get it. You’ve got suggestions from everybody but you don’t listen too well – you don’t listen. You stare at all of us when we come up here but you do not listen.

“We are trying to help you all – but all you can do is listen to the town manager … This town has gone bonkers,” Gabbert surmised of its governing function.

Maybe it’s not his fault – below, Bruce Rappaport at podium wonders if it is the town council that has set Interim Town Manager Tederick, above, to the task of reducing taxes in the face of increased debt and revenue needs.

However, Rappaport wondered if it wasn’t a council majority that had put Tederick in what he called “a tough position” of cutting revenue in the face of mounting expenses.

Previous council comments, particularly from the absent Meza, have indicated a distinct preference for downsizing the town government to reduce its revenue needs, as opposed to raising or even keeping Town taxes already 3 cents below the state town median, level to accommodate current departmental service needs.

Tax cut: hollow gesture?
Gabbert then continued a point made earlier by Hart and touched on by Dameron as well, noting that the impact of the council’s planned half-cent reduction of the real estate tax rate from 13.5 cents to 13 cents was savings of $17.50 per year on a home property valued at $350,000.

Of the $16.78 number she had come up within studying the half-cent tax reduction on a specific piece of property apparently valued slightly under the $350,000-mark, Hart observed, “Hardly a deal-breaker for the average homeowner”.

Hart asked the council how its commitment to this year’s half-cent real estate tax decrease might impact future budgets.

“And finally, should the tax rate be reduced this year, would citizens be subject to a BIG increase to be brought before the community next year? How can accomplishments be made by a tax reduction? Not this year, but certainly an increase is in the future for town residents. What scares me is how much?” Hart concluded.

Dameron asked the council why it was preoccupied with the redundant water line into the County’s north commercial corridor.
“You guys seem to think that 522 North is your domain, and it’s not. This is the Town of Front Royal, not the County of Warren or 522 or Dominion Energy,” he told town officials despite the presence of town utilities beyond the town limits.

Retired CPA Kenneth Dameron had a novel idea to end the Town’s interest rate dispute with the EDA on the FRPD construction project – utilize the Town cash ‘slush fund’ reserve to pay the $8.4 million in principal off without taking out a 30-year bond issue.

Of redundant water line costs Dominion Power has promised to share due to its high, water usage needs for its power plant cooling system, Dameron suggested an alternative course for the town government, “Just say ‘no’.

“If Mr. Stanley and the County want to build it, let them build it; let Dominion build it. We don’t have to build it,” Dameron concluded before moving on to the EDA topic Hart would revisit in her comments.

“We’re having all this trouble with the EDA, they’re having their money problems, you don’t want to pay them for the police department, this, that and the other. You owe them the $8.3 or .4 million, there’s no quarrel about that. Why don’t you just pay them in cash? You got the money, you closed last year with $28 million dollars in cash. Just pay them the $8 million bucks, eliminate the debt service for the next 30 years and save all that (interest) money,” Dameron, a retired public accountant, suggested of a way to resolve the Town’s interest rate dispute with the EDA on the police station construction project.

Now, why hasn’t somebody thought of that before?

As council applauds, Jason Neal and family pose with Mayor Tewalt, right, and Interim Town Manager Tederick following the solid waste department driver’s ‘Star of the Month’ recognition. Tederick read two letters lauding Neal’s interactions with citizens young and old illustrating outstanding service to the community ‘above and beyond’ the town manager observed. Photos by Roger Bianchini, Royal Examiner.

That business included:

1 – presentation of Town “Star” employee of the month to Jason Neal for service above and beyond in the solid waste department;

Chief Magalis introduces his department’s new communications officer Brittni Dennis.

2 – the introduction of the police department’s new communications officer, Brittni Dennis;

It only hurts when I smile – FRPD’s newest Sargent, Brian Whited, flanked by wife Erin and Chief Magalis after his new badge was pinned with only slight difficulty by Erin.

3 – the promotion of FRPD Officer Brian Whited to sergeant, new badge pinned by his wife Erin;

4 – the County business report of County Administrator Doug Stanley;

5 – Commonwealth Attorney John Bell’s response to council inquiries on where the criminal line might be crossed in online posts of a threatening nature;

6 – votes of approval of sign guidelines for Valley Health’s new hospital;

7 – and the first vote of approval of a new Blighted Property Abate.

Watch the meeting on this Royal Examiner video:

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EDA in Focus

Town reversed initial commitment to cover Afton Inn ‘winterization’ costs

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During an update on the status of various properties at a Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority Asset Committee meeting, Friday morning, the status of the on-hold Afton Inn “winterization” project two months into the winter of 2019-20 was broached.

In the agenda summary the project, described as once “a high priority” of the town government, was now observed to apparently be dead in the cold winter elements.

Why?

According to Asset Committee Chairman Greg Harold, Town staff apparently did an about-face on responsibility for, or the necessity of, covering the winterization costs.

Harold told those present that since the Town approached the EDA about working together with Afton Inn redeveloper 2 East Main Street LLC in November to get the stabilization project underway to prevent further deterioration of the 151-year-old brick and wood building shell, he had a record of communications with Town Attorney Doug Napier indicating Town responsibility for, and intent of, paying for the winterization work.

Asset Committee Chairman Greg Harold, center, traces the status of EDA properties, including the Afton Inn and its now apparently-abandoned ‘winterization’ project. The bottom line as from left, Doug Parsons and Ed Daley listen – the Town decided not to fund those stabilization and safety measures. Photos by Roger Bianchini. Video by Mark Williams, Royal Examiner.

At various points in those communications a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) dating to the 2014 transfer of ownership from the Town to the EDA for marketing and redevelopment purposes was referenced; as was Napier’s written expression of a “moral obligation” of the Town to provide for the “safety and welfare” of its citizens as pieces began falling off the building; and former Town Planning Director Jeremy Camp’s written notice of the apparent availability of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding for the Main Street façade improvement work that could be utilized by the Town to pay for its own staff to work on the winterization project.

Consequently, Harold noted the EDA spent $3,500 on an engineering report to get a cost estimate on the project to the Town. However, several subsequent emails from the Town indicated logistical complications discovered by its staff leading to the likelihood of increased costs.

Harold observed that Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick had stepped in at a mid-December EDA board meeting to state that earlier communications indicating the Town would cover the winterization costs were a “mistake”.

Harold noted that his response to Town Attorney Napier asking for substantiation to support the interim town manager’s assertion was forwarded to the Town’s outside counsel, Damiani & Damiani, handling its civil claims against the EDA with no further communications.

However, EDA Board Treasurer Jorie Martin interjected by phone hook up that she had one initial communication from Damiani & Damiani stating that they “would get back to us” after which there were no further communications.

In that December 19 email to Napier forwarded to the Town’s outside counsel, Harold wrote, “I have read the MOA, and I am not able to find any subordination clause or other languages that strips Front Royal of this requirement (of funding),” adding, “Contrarily, there are 2 paragraphs which explicitly detail and reaffirm the town’s commitment.”

One of those paragraphs from the MOU dated June 23, 2014, is quoted stating, “The Town agrees that during ownership of the Afton Inn property by the EDA, the Town shall not require the EDA to perform any repairs, maintenance or demolition of any part of the Afton Inn building unless the Town agrees to bear the costs of such repairs, maintenance or demolition.”

The following paragraph describes the Afton Inn’s close proximity to Town Hall at the head of the East Main Street Historic Downtown Business District, observing, “The Town has clearly identifiable interests in the use to be made and in the appearance, of the Afton Inn property … As such, the Town has an appropriate, identifiable interest in keeping the Afton Inn property in both a viable safe physical condition and an aesthetically pleasing condition.”

I guess it depends on how you define ‘Safe’ and ‘Pleasing’ – gets harder the closer you get.

It was again noted that 2 East Main Street LLC continues to express hope of maintaining its interest in the Afton renovation project now stalled by the EDA’s financial dilemma tied to the financial scandal asserted in the County-EDA funded Cherry Bekaert forensic audit of EDA business in recent years.

And put up a parking lot?

However, it would appear in this season of the interim town manager and a new council majority committed to cost and tax reductions despite $29 million in capital improvement funding needs in the coming budget year, those steering the ship of Front Royal Town government have simply decided the Afton Inn’s appearance, condition and redevelopment are no longer fiscal priorities.

As the discussion moved to the collection of bad debts, EDA Board Vice Chairman Jeff Browne noted that since the involvement of the EDA’s contracted attorney, the first check from a debtor had been received – “We just have to pick it up … so, we’re already starting to see results,” Browne told the Asset Committee, leading Board Chairman Ed Daley to quip, “Was this a large check from a municipal corporation that owes us a very significant amount of money?”

Harold displays documentation on referenced EDA assets, as from left, Jeff Browne, Doug Parsons, Ed Daley, Cheryl Cullers and others invisible by phone link, listen.

“The answer would be no,” Browne replied, dashing the hope the Town had decided to make good on at least a portion of its undisputed $8.4 million debt to the EDA on the principal for the Town Police Department construction project, if not on Afton Inn winterization costs.

See this discussion just past the 38-minute mark of the linked Royal Examiner video, as well as other topics in the entire meeting video. Among topics discussed were bids received on removal of the solar panels on the EDA’s Kendrick Lane office complex; a pending closing date of February 28 on the Stokes Mart property sale; and re-acquisition of the Workforce Housing parcel, hopefully, at the same $10 price, it was inexplicably transferred to the Cornerstone LLC branch of the Aikens Group in late November 2018 for.

After initially being “gifted” to the EDA for $10, due to unmet, publicly undisclosed deadlines not being met, the EDA acquired the property at a cost of $445,000, with additional resources allegedly being committed to the project leading to the property being written off as a $600,000-plus loss.

In addition to Harold, Daley, Browne, and Martin, the latter by phone hookup, present at Friday’s Asset Committee meeting were EDA attorney Sharon Pandak, also by phone connection, EDA Executive Director Doug Parsons and South River Supervisor Cheryl Cullers.

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Town Planning Commission, Town Council Advance A.S. Rhodes Temporary Classroom Project

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In a unique shared session, the Town Planning Commission and the Front Royal Town Council combined forces to quickly approve the temporary siting of modular classrooms at A.S. Rhodes Elementary School on Strasburg Road, as part of the larger renovation project that will soon be underway. There were no public comments regarding the request.

Acting Superintendent Melody Sheppard answers questions from Planning Commission members. Photo and video by Mark Williams, Royal Examiner.

School officials and project managers answered questions from the Planning Commission and Council members regarding the temporary classrooms. Commissioner Dr. Cee Ann Davis asked if the Project Team had consulted with the County Health Department regarding the modular building. Acting Superintendent Melody Sheppard acknowledged they had not. Once the commission had completed its questioning, the Commission unanimously approved the request, leading to an unusual lateral pass of the request to the Town Council.

Councilman Lori Cockrell informed the Mayor that she would be abstaining from discussions or votes regarding the School request due to her 30-year career in the School Department. Councilman Chris Holloway voiced concern about student traffic between the modular classrooms and restrooms in the school itself. He questioned the WCPS representatives closely about the location of restrooms in relation to the proposed structure. When a council motion for approval was offered By Councilman Letasha Thompson, seconded by Councilman Bill Sealock, Councilman Holloway offered an amendment to the approval motion that would have required School Officials to add the requirement for restrooms within the modular structure itself. His amendment died for a lack of votes before the original motion went on to approval.

Following the approval of the A.S. Rhodes project by both the Planning Commission and the Town Council, Chairman Doug Jones, and Mayor Eugene Tewalt adjourned their respective bodies, and each met separately for work sessions.

The Town Planning Commission Work Session was largely devoted to a preliminary review and discussion of a potential new facility for the House of Hope, a service to homeless men in Front Royal. The commission received a presentation on the mission and objectives of the Program, feedback from the Commission members regarding necessary steps in working with the town to provide an improved facility for its services. Commissioner Daryl Merchant urged the House of Hope representatives to seek a location that was compatible with Town zoning ordinances. Planning Staff was asked to research property and zoning to support the commission in evaluating future requests.

Aaron Hike from Hike Construction addresses the commission regarding a project to build a set of townhouses on a lot currently occupied by a blighted house.

Aaron Hike from Hike Construction then addressed the commission regarding a project to build a set of townhouses on a lot currently occupied by a blighted house. The lot proved to be slightly smaller than would allow the construction, and the company hoped to either to reduce the side setback through a zoning variance or to propose a zoning ordinance amendment to reduce the minimum width of a townhouse from 20 to 18 feet. They had also initiated an action with the Board of Zoning Appeals for the variance in addition to their presenting a proposal to the Planning Commission to amend the zoning ordinance.

Commissioner Merchant clarified that amending the zoning ordinance to accommodate a smaller lot size would conflict with the requirement for each townhouse to provide two parking spaces a minimum of 10 feet in width. The discussion then centered on the need for planning staff to research what an amendment to the zoning ordinance would entail. The commission agreed that language for an ordinance change would be the likely next step for the Commission to consider. Commissioner Davis reminded the attendees of unintended consequences of ordinance changes.

The commission members then discussed various strategies for helping continuing services during a period of reduced staffing at the Town Planning Department. The town is currently recruiting for a Director of Community Development and Planning.

Watch the joint meeting in this first Royal Examiner video and the Planning Commission work session in the second.


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Council majority moves to lock in half-cent real estate tax decrease

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Perhaps the most telling moment in the Front Royal Town Council’s multi-faceted Wednesday evening did not occur at a Special Joint Meeting with its Planning Commission called to facilitate permitting to allow the installation of modular classrooms to allow A.S. Rhodes renovation work to proceed on schedule, nor during a dizzying council work session discussion of financial variables that threaten to jeopardize a $700,000 matching State/Federal funded Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) committed to physical redevelopment of downtown business frontages and the Village Commons and Gazebo area.

With Lori Cockrell abstaining due to her career in public education, the full Front Royal Town Council (right) and Planning Commission (left) minus one absence agreed after some debate on safety issues, to permit classroom modules during A.S. Rhodes Elementary School renovations in the coming year.  Photos by Roger Bianchini. Video by Mark Williams, Royal Examiner.

While those two discussions dominated much of the council’s attention, it was a third discussion near the work session’s end related to the funding of the coming Fiscal Year 2021 budget that was an eye-opener on the council’s thought process for the coming budget cycle.

Despite ongoing uncertainty among some on council about the plan to privatize and outsource the Town’s Tourism marketing function in the wake of scathing public and impacted business owner criticism of that plan; and the seemingly unavoidable presence of $29 million in physical capital improvements in the coming budget year, a 5-1 council majority committed to advertising a Real Estate Tax Rate of 13 cents per $100 of assessed value in the coming year.

That rate will maintain Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick and the council majority’s desire to implement a half-cent Real Estate Tax rate cut in next year’s budget. Tederick has commented that implementation of a tax cut despite the coming capital improvement needs will be a sign of the Town’s economic strength despite the $15 million in lost assets it has thus far claimed in the Economic Development Authority (EDA) financial scandal.

Only Vice-Mayor Bill Sealock asked that council at least keep the option of maintaining the existing 13.5-cent Real Estate Tax Rate and Town governmental revenue stream where it is. Sealock explained he had serious concerns about the plan to outsource the Town Tourism function and suggested the $64,000-plus of revenue that half-cent of Real Estate Tax would provide could help fund Visitors Center operations in the next budget year.

To left, Mayor Tewalt and Vice-Mayor Sealock found themselves outnumbered 5-2 on keeping a flat real-estate tax revenue option at least available to the council.

As Mayor Gene Tewalt noted in also expressing a desire to keep the flat tax rate option open, once advertised a tax rate can be adjusted down, but not up. Following the work session, Town Finance Director B. J. Wilson told Royal Examiner that one option available should it become apparent that the Town will need to keep its current revenue stream to fund coming fiscal year capital improvements and operations, would be to re-advertise a tax rate higher than the 13-cent one currently poised to be put forward.

However, several council comments seemed to indicate that as an unlikely option.

Newly-appointed Councilwoman Lori Athey Cockrell said she was in favor of “keeping taxes as low as they can (be)” in voicing support for the half-cent real estate tax decrease being committed to this early in the budget process.

Then Jacob Meza pointed a path forward for council should it do an about-face on the Tourism Department – that path cuts to other town governmental functions to allow the half-cent Real Estate Tax reduction to stand.

At center between Letasha Thompson and Chris Holloway, Jacob Meza may have spoken for the council majority when he said, if not tourism then another town department should be earmarked for outsourcing or cuts to its budget to facilitate a half-cent decrease to a real estate tax rate already 3.5 cents below the median level for Virginia towns.

“If the council wants to change something, I’d rather instead of keeping tax rates high or increasing taxes, figure out what other areas of the budget need to go … I want the council to find the areas that we’re willing to do without or willing to change. So again, if Tourism is the hot-topic button right now if that’s the direction the council wants to go, fine. Let’s figure out what other reductions we can have in the budget … because I can support some of the changes that we’ve made whereas the justifications were reducing some of our tax bases, not find other reasons to spend the money and increase it again,” Meza said.

Following Meza’s call to reduce the town governmental function in some, even as-yet-undetermined way, rather than keep tax revenue at existing levels, Mayor Tewalt polled council on its preference on a rate to advertise. And as noted above, only Sealock expressed support of keeping the option of a flat Real Estate Tax open to the council as a means of funding the Visitors Center function.

Beginning with Cockrell’s call to keep tax rates as low as possible in support of the 13-cent rate advertisement, Gary Gillespie, Letasha Thompson, Meza, and Chris Holloway all concurred to advertise the 13-cent rate, cementing in the $64,629 of lost Town revenue in the coming budget year.

Town Finance Director B. J. Wilson, seated blue shirt, and other Town and County staff, citizens and downtown business owners listen to consultant Craig Wilson traverse the complex and expensive bidding ground of Community Development Block Grant programs and processes. Stay tuned as the interim town manager was instructed to keep council posted on developments as a mid-September deadline approaches and a ‘materials only’ option on façade and other improvements are considered to reduce an exorbitant bid price.

The following day we called Town Finance Director Wilson to see where the Town of Front Royal ranks statewide with its municipal real estate tax rate. While he did not have specific rankings, Wilson noted that the Median Real Estate Tax Rate for Virginia towns is 17 cents per $100 of assessed value. So, the Town’s existing 13.5-cent rate was 3.5 cents below the Virginia town median; the proposed cut will take that to 4 cents below the median level.

According to staff numbers included in the work session agenda packet, the revenue produced at the 13.5-cent real estate tax rate in FY 2020 was $1,744,970. The proposed FY 2021, 13-cent rate will provide $1,680,341, or as observed above, a $64,629 reduction.

Council decided to keep the Personal Property Tax rate flat at 64 cents per $100 of assessed value. That rate provided $597,872 of tax revenue to the Town last year.

See the full Town Council-Planning Commission Special Meeting and council work session in linked Royal Examiner videos:

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Local Government

EDA: Request for qualifications for the provision of an FY18 and FY19 audit

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on

The Front Royal Warren County Economic Development Authority (“EDA”) is soliciting proposals for Auditor Services (“Services”). Sealed proposals for this work will be accepted until Friday, March 6, 2020, at 12:00 p.m.

Please submit one (1) original and three (3) copies of your proposal in a sealed envelope marked “Auditor Services,” with the Proposer’s name and address marked on the outside of the sealed envelope, no later than 12:00 p.m. EST, Friday March 6, 2020.

Send to:

Front Royal Warren County Economic Development Authority
P.O. Box 445
Front Royal, VA 22630
ATTN: Gretchen Henderson, Administrative Assistant


Questions regarding this Request for Qualifications (“RFQ”) should be directed to:

Doug Parsons, Executive Director,
Front Royal Warren County Economic Development Authority
540-635-2182
dparsons@wceda.com

To access the full RFQ, including Scope of Work and Terms and Conditions, please click here. You can also visit the EDA website to learn more.

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9:00 am Veterans Benefit @ Able Forces Foundation
Veterans Benefit @ Able Forces Foundation
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Able Forces Foundation will once again be hosting a visit by Andre Miller, Resource Specialist, Virginia Veteran and Family Support, Department of Veteran Services, Commonwealth of Virginia, and Danielle Cullers, Homeless Veteran Advocate-Volunteers of America[...]
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Loom Knit an adorable kitten. In this beginner’s class for teens and adults, you will work on a 24 peg loom to knit a small stuffed toy. *Instruction will be right handed. No prior knitting[...]
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Kooky Chefs Cook It Up: Soups @ Samuels Public Library
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Nothing is more comforting than warm soup on a chilly day! Learn how to make some yummy soup, and do some taste-testing to choose your favorite. For ages 8 and up. Registration begins January 29.
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Statistics show us that one in four children will experience trauma by the age of four. This trauma could be abuse, hunger, homelessness, witnessing violence, medical trauma, or grief. We know that a child’s greatest[...]
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Bingo Fundraiser @ Elks Lodge
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Speed Dating with Books @ Samuels Public Library
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Do appearances, of people or books, influence you?  How much time does it take for you to decide that you are/are not interested? What criteria determines interest? Come spend time in a “speed dating” atmosphere,[...]
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Read Across America Day @ SPCA of Winchester, Frederick, and Clarke
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Monday, March 2nd, 2020, is National Read Across America Day. Students of all ages are invited to come to the SPCA of Winchester, Frederick, and Clarke’s pet adoption center, located at 111 Featherbed Lane, to[...]
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Gordmans Grand Opening Brand Bash @ Gordmans
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Gordmans is where big brands meet everyday low prices, with new fabulous finds every week. The apparel and home décor retailer invites area communities to its Grand Opening Brand Bash Celebration on March 3 at[...]
11:00 am Time for Baby @ Samuels Public Library
Time for Baby @ Samuels Public Library
Mar 3 @ 11:00 am – 12:00 pm
Time for Baby @ Samuels Public Library
What do books, scarves, puppets, music and babies have in common? They are all part of Time for Baby. Join us as we use all of our senses to explore the world around us. This[...]