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Tis the season – to be decorated – Merry Chrismas

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Merry Christmas in downtown Front Royal … Photos/Roger Bianchini

Local Government

West Main Street Extension Funding

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Photo and video by Mark Williams, Royal Examiner.

Funding for the West Main Street funding is in question due to the recent EDA problems, the Town of Front Royal may be holding the bag. Town Engineer Robert Brown briefed the Council at the April 15th work session.

Here’s the background:

2016 – At the suggestion of the EDA, the town agreed to build the first phase of the Main Street extension as an access road to the IT Federal lot and applied for an Economic Development Access Grant through VDOT. The grant, in the amount of $650,000 was awarded on the basis of IT Federal’s proposed $40 million-dollar investment and their creation of 600 jobs. The estimated cost of construction for the first phase of Main Street was approximately $800,000. In exchange for the Town also constructing the sewer pump station to serve the northern end of the Royal Phoenix site, IT Federal agreed to pay the Town $150,000, essentially covering the remaining cost of the road construction.

2018 – Bids for the construction of Main Street came in higher than estimated, with the low bid coming in at nearly $1.1 million. Subtracting the expected funding from VDOT and contribution from IT Federal, the Town expected to pay approximately $300,000 toward the construction of the roadway.

2019 – Given the current uncertainty around IT Federal’s construction plans and their public statements which seem to indicate a drastic reduction in their proposed investment, it is equally uncertain whether the Town will qualify for any reimbursement from VDOT or receive compensation from IT Federal.

The Royal Examiner’s camera was there. Watch the discussion.

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EDA in Focus

Town, County officials tread lightly around the elephant in the room

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As Liaison Chair Bill Sealock listens, Council Clerk Jennifer Berry records and Councilwoman Letasha Thompson jots notes, Town Manager Joe Waltz, center right, takes his turn updating county officials across the table on the status of a variety of town projects. Royal Examiner Photos/Roger Bianchini

With a rising tide of critical public scrutiny of past failures of municipal oversight of the Town-County Economic Development Authority resulting in civil litigation involving an attempt to recover nearly $20 million in misdirected assets at a cost of over three-quarters-of-a-million dollars of taxpayer money; and concurrent criminal investigations stretching to the federal level, one might think a quarterly Town-County Liaison Committee meeting might be rife with discussion of that topic.

However both the town and county governments conduct other business – and as they say on Broadway, “the show must go on”.

So the first 20 minutes of a brief 30 minutes or less Front Royal-Warren County Liaison Committee meeting of Thursday, April 18, was devoted to summary briefings of that other business. Town Manager Joe Waltz and County Administrator Doug Stanley handled presentation of those summaries offered to committee members Bill Sealock and Letasha Thompson on the town side and Dan Murray and Tony Carter representing the County.

With the Town taking on the rotating hosting duties, Vice-Mayor Sealock chaired his second meeting during Mayor Hollis Tharpe’s self-imposed administrative leave pending resolution of a misdemeanor criminal charge involving a massage parlor visit. See Related Story:

As press releases fly, plot thickens in Tharpe sex solicitation case

Topics on the Town side included:

  1. the status of Phase One of the West Main Street Extended Project into the ITFederal portion of the Royal Phoenix Business Park from Kendrick Lane – 90% complete to the first building constructed on site;
  2. construction of a parallel central water utility line into the Route 522/340 North Commercial-Industrial Corridor – a May 6 submission for updated plan evaluation and cost estimates;
  3. the Town’s halting movement toward enforcement of a property maintenance code that will initially target only blighted and derelict structures – awaiting County feedback on a request to utilize the County’s Board of Building Code Appeals as a more cost efficient method of that implementation;
  4. resolution of infrastructure issues at a new wastewater treatment plant septage receiving station – accomplished and backflow issues resolved;
  5. and the status of Phases 2 and 3 of the Happy Creek Road Project – $1.3 million in carryover VDOT funds transferred for use on Phase 2; another $2.5 million committed by the EDA for the project, with a total cost estimate of $16.9 million for both phases and a projected 2026 start date.

On the County side topics included:

As Tony Carter, center left, listens and Dan Murray’s hand, bottom left, occupies, County Administrator Doug Stanley takes his turn updating town officials on county projects, some within the town limits.

  1. the Crooked Run West developer request for Town central water service extension into the County’s North Corridor – County Planning Commission recommendation of denial of necessary zoning changes to facilitate a 1000-plus residential unit mixed development project that is contrary to both county and town comprehensive plan guidelines; recent receipt of a VDOT traffic study; and June as the earliest estimate of county board of supervisors discussion of whether or not to adhere to its planning commission recommendation of denial of the project;
  2. Development Review Committee projects – met on March 27 to discuss the Crooked Run West proposal, as well as construction of a new Christendom College chapel, Catlett Mountain Road home construction on existing lots; and in-town projects including an ice vendor business on South Royal Avenue; a daycare on South Commerce Avenue; a proposed Sheetz Gas Station on Shenandoah Avenue; and interior work on A. S. Rhodes Elementary School. The committee’s next meeting is slated for April 24;
  3. the status of the EnerGov building inspection software upgrades designed to make online self service a customer friendly experience. The status of that software system that initially went live on November 14, 2017, is continued issues to resolve what was discovered to “not provide the public a friendly experience” and discussion with an outside contractor to correct the situation in more timely manner than county staff could accomplish it;
  4. the County’s project inside the town limits, including Ressie Jeffries Elementary School renovations – completed; upgrades to the Health and Human Services building on 15th Street to accommodate occupancy by the County Registrar’s Office – moved in April 1; and the public school system’s Brighter Futures alternative school program – completed in November; punch list review with contractor under way;
  5. implementation of the joint town-county tow board – establishment of a tow list of qualified companies on February 6 that will be in effect through June 30, 2020. Citizen complaints were heard about exorbitant tow costs, a main issue surrounding creation of the town board, at an April 3 tow board meeting. However, such complaints have apparently not been officially submitted to the tow board in writing. So, Stanley’s summary indicated “tow representatives” are urging citizens to file official complaint forms which are available online. Contact the county administrator’s office for further detail on accessing those forms.

The elephant in the room

With the above agenda discussion completed by 6:20 p.m., Vice-Mayor Sealock asked if there was any other business to be brought forward. County Board Supervisor Carter noted that the county had agreed to take over as fiscal agent for the EDA, effective August 1.

County Board Chairman Murray noted that the County’s assumption of that role will provide “multiple layers of checks and balances” of EDA financial workings. On the EDA side their board has created redundancies in requiring the signatures of two board members on financial transactions, as well as increased board involvement in the development of those transactions.

From left, EDA Board Chairman Gray Blanton, EDA Board member Ron Llewellyn, term expired and since resigned, and then-Executive Director Jennifer McDonald at a November 2018 town council work session; the following month McDonald resigned amidst a mounting EDA financial crisis. Royal Examiner File Photo

As for the increased checks and balances provided by putting the EDA under the fiscal agent auspices of county government, a previous county staff presentation cited direct involvement of the County Finance Department and Treasurer’s Office in procurement policy, bookkeeping and recordkeeping of EDA business. The down side acknowledged is the additional demand on county staff to assume those additional responsibilities for another agency.

But in the current and still evolving legal and political environment it appears that additional demand will be a necessary consequence to assist in putting the EDA’s house back in order; not to mention a step in regaining the trust of what is becoming an increasingly suspicious, and according to Dan Murray, aggressively hostile public. As noted in a related Royal Examiner  video, at Tuesday’s county board meeting Murray described being physically pushed Sunday at a diner he regularly frequents by a customer angry about the EDA situation.

And so things progress this spring of 2019, as municipal and EDA officials wrestle with how they allowed what is alleged to have happened within the EDA in recent years happen; and how they will respond to what appears to be a growing social media-fed negative public reaction of a sometimes less than constructive nature.

County Board Chairman Dan Murray at April 17 capital improvements bond issue signing with EDA officials; EDA Board Vice-Chairman Bruce Drummond, standing, waits for the paperwork to slide his way.

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Local Government

Update on Comcast Franchise Agreement

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Town Council discussion on Comcast agreement at April 15th work session. Photo and video by Mark Williams, Royal Examiner.

Front Royal Town Staff has been working with Comcast on establishing a new franchise and pole attachment agreement for services in Town. The existing agreements expired on May 13, 2018. At the April 2, 2019, meeting the staff had with Josh Brokee, Comcast, he informed the Town that they will be closing the Front Royal customer service center in 60 days (June 1st). He stated that it was a business decision and they were closing a total of 5/6 locations. He has provided a summary sheet on how our citizens can still do business with Comcast in town through other vendors.

After reviewing the proposal and knowing the volume of customers that do business in the customer service center, Joe Waltz, Town Manager, informed Brokee that this was unacceptable to the citizens of Front Royal. Waltz also informed Brokee how important this customer service center is to Front Royal and how the Town had included specific language in the franchise agreement for the establishment of a center in Town.

Meza again bucked the consensus, saying, “I don’t want to lose Comcast – they’re restructuring; it’s a change in their business model.” While Waltz agreed with the business model observation, he again pointed to the heavy local use of the center, noting many town citizens use cash to pay bills that way. The town manager said a new RFP could be issued to put the cable franchise up to bid; but suggested that Comcast might have “too much inventory here” to just pack up and leave.

While Waltz said Comcast has taken the stance that the closing is non-negotiable, he believes maintaining the Front Royal service center should be a key point in the franchise agreement negotiation. “Tell them to take their lines and cable and move on,” Councilman Tewalt suggested if the non-negotiable stance was maintained.

Here’s what Comcast says:

Comcast Customer Service Options Available to Residents of Front Royal, VA

There are many convenient ways that customers may interact with us, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. These include:

Making A Payment:

Third Party Locations:

  • 7/11 Store at 851 John Marshall Hwy
  • Rite Aid Store at 800 John Marshall Hwy (via Western Union)
  • 7/11 Store at 606 North Royal Avenue
  • Martin’s 409 South Street
  • Comcast service center located in Winchester, VA (approximately 14 miles away)

Customers have many convenient ways to contact Comcast, including:

  • Speaking with a Comcast customer care representative toll-free at 1-800-XFINITY
  • Online at www.comcast.com, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
  • Via our dedicated Digital Care team that communicates with customers on blogs, social media and twitter.
  • In person at the Comcast service center located in Winchester, VA (approximately 14 miles away)

Customers have several options when it comes to receiving, installing or returning equipment, including:

  • Calling 1-800-XFINITY to order a self-install kit, making it convenient for customers to add, install and activate Comcast services on their own schedules.
  • UPS pre-paid mailers are available to be sent to the home for customers to easily return equipment at no-charge.
    Customers may take the pre-paid UPS Office Customer Pick-Up/Drop Off Center at 912 John Marshall Hwy
  • Comcast offers early morning, evening and weekend in-home appointments, as well as two-hour appointment windows for professional installation.
  • In person at the Comcast service center located in Winchester, VA (approximately 14 miles away)
  • Comcast has teamed up with UPS to offer convenient and free equipment returns (4,400 total locations across the US). Comcast customers can bring their equipment directly to The UPS Store, where it will be processed, packed and shipped back to Comcast, free of charge. All equipment can be returned as-is, without wrapping or a box and customers will receive a  confirmation of receipt and tracking information from UPS, eliminating any questions about the status of their return. Located at: 912 John Marshall Hwy.

All of these options are complimented by Comcast’s Customer Guarantee, the Company’s written promise that we will hold our products, service and employees to the highest standards. The Guarantee makes clear what customers should expect of Comcast, and backs it up with a 30-day money-back guarantee on our services, and credits or complimentary services if we are late for an appointment or don’t fix a problem right the first time. Comcast is committed to making it easier for customers to do business with us on their own terms.

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Local Government

April 15: A heavy and potentially costly town work session agenda

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Vice-Mayor William Sealock chairs his first meeting following Mayor Tharpe’s self-imposed administrative leave. Royal Examiner Photos/Roger Bianchini

On Monday evening the Front Royal Town Council gathered for the first time without Mayor Hollis Tharpe present in the wake of his self-imposed administrative leave pending resolution of a misdemeanor solicitation of sexual contact charge. See Related Story:

As press releases fly, plot thickens in Tharpe sex solicitation case

Vice-Mayor William Sealock did an admirable job in keeping a multi-faceted work session with a variety of crucial topics to be discussed moving toward council consensuses on courses of action.

Among those topics crucial to the Town’s economic, utility and infrastructure future were:

1 – a controversial Crooked Run West request for the extension of Town central water-sewer service to an altered North Corridor mixed residential-commercial development planned outside the town limits;  a 5-1 consensus, Meza dissenting, against extension of Town water-sewer service to the planned Crooked Run West project, particularly considering the developer wants in-town service rates for as many as 1,025 residential units and the Town is committed to providing water-sewer service to over one thousand planned homes inside the town limits. While acknowledging that the county board of supervisors has yet to weigh in, it was noted that the county planning commission has just recommended denial of the necessary rezoning to facilitate the Crooked Run West project which would require alterations to both county and town comprehensive plans.

2 – funding variables that could see the Town lose as much as $800,000 in VDOT grant ($650,000) and ITFederal-committed money ($150,000) to Phase One of the West Main Street Extended project (OUCH!); with dramatic reductions – one 10,000 square-foot building to be marketed as rental space resulting in perhaps as few as 10 jobs – from what was announced by then Sixth-District U.S. Congressman Robert Goodlatte in 2015 as Truc “Curt” Tran and ITFederal’s $40-million investment creating 600 or more, high-paying tech jobs by which a VDOT Economic Development Access Grant of $650,000 was qualified for; and Tran’s decision not to relocate ITFederal to the town site perhaps negating his $150,000 commitment to the project, the Town’s anticipated costs of about $300,000 for Phase One of the western connector road could climb to the full price of over a million dollars;

3 – continued discussion of how long a bond issue, 20 or 30 years, and consequent annual debt service – estimated at $691,548 at 20 years and $563,822 for 30 years – to take on to pay off construction of the new Front Royal Police Department headquarters now planned for occupancy by May; while a consensus favored the shorter 20-year bond term that would save significant money in the long term, the immediate reality of almost $130,000 of additional annual debt service to achieve those savings was decisive in achieving a staff and council consensus for the 30-year bond issue;

4 – final details and conditions of the Special Use Permit for United Parcel Service’s expanded overflow parking lot at its town distribution center; the UPS overflow parking lot permit will be forwarded for approval with the nine conditions recommended by the planning commission, including limits on the hours when the lot can be used for truck loading and unloading and parking of the larger trucks in proximity to nearby residences among other restrictions the applicant agreed to;

UPS want to expand parking – needs special use permit

5 – Councilman Jacob Meza’s suggestion the Town hire outside legal counsel to represent it regarding council’s FOIA request for EDA forensic audit materials and any consequent litigation that might become necessary; by a 5-1 consensus, Meza again the odd man out, the Town will not take on the additional expense of outside counsel regarding the EDA audit FOIA and the Town’s financial position regarding the EDA, including the finance director’s discovery of nearly a decade of debt service overpayments of more than $291,000 to the EDA. Asked if he needed legal assistance at this point in the process, Town Attorney Doug Napier replied, “No.”

6 – and direction for administrative staff on how hard a line to draw against Comcast’s plan to close its Front Royal Customer Service Center on North Royal Avenue on June 1st while seeking a new franchise agreement for cable service and utility pole use in town. The existing agreement expired on May 13, 2018. Council concurred with Town Manager Joe Waltz that a hard line should be taken to prevent Comcast from closing what was described as a heavily-used customer service center. Waltz told council Comcast officials said the town closing is part of a business model change in which five or six such local customer service centers are planned for closing.

Meza again bucked the consensus, saying, “I don’t want to lose Comcast – they’re restructuring; it’s a change in their business model.” While Waltz agreed with the business model observation, he again pointed to the heavy local use of the center, noting many town citizens use cash to pay bills that way. The town manager said a new RFP could be issued to put the cable franchise up to bid; but suggested that Comcast might have “too much inventory here” to just pack up and leave.

While Waltz said Comcast has taken the stance that the closing is non-negotiable, he believes maintaining the Front Royal service center should be a key point in the franchise agreement  negotiation.“Tell them to take their lines and cable and move on,” Councilman Tewalt suggested if the non-negotiable stance was maintained.

Stay tuned to your favorite local cable access station for further updates; – and watch the Royal Examiner videos for each topic discussion from the April 15 town council work session.

Gene Tewalt, left, suggests colleague Jacob Meza, right, hold up on suggesting added infrastructure and personnel costs without an identified need or revenue stream to cover long-term expenses

Councilwoman Letasha Thompson and Meza spar over immediate and long-term cost priorities.

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Local Government

Board of Supervisors: Public presentations, reports from board members, administrator & attorney

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Chairman Dan Murray askes for patience and prayers. Photo and video by Mark Williams, Royal Examiner.

The April 16th meeting of the Warren County Board of Supervisors started with comments from the public and then moved to reports from the Board, County Administrator and County Attorney.

Supervisor Tom Sayre said, “Today is a good day for those that seek the truth. That’s all. Mr. Chair.” Supervisor Archie Fox said, “The scandal at the EDA is enormous and it’s going to take a long time for the investigations, lawsuits and criminal prosecutions to finish before we know the full magnitude of the wrongs done.” Fox also provided some suggestions for oversite of the EDA. He went on to say, “Honest government requires transparency and that can’t happen if everything is confidential and not yet available for scrutiny. There are sound reasons for some closed board deliberations but that should be an exception, not the rule.”

Chairman Dan Murry expressed concerns for our community and said, “Nothing would make me happier than see somebody in handcuffs going in the RSW Jail.” He also asked for patience and prayers. County Administrator Doug Stanley issued an apology. He said, “I do want to offer my apologies to the community, this board and staff for the excerpts of a 2014 email chain that was released last week. The email included what was intended to be a funny reference to a movie line but included some very insensitive, vulgar language. I went entirely too far for what I intended to be a joke. I reached out to the persons referring to in my comments and offered my serious apologies.” He went on with his report and mentioned several new businesses looking to located in our community.

Royal Examiner’s camera was there. Watch and see the complete remarks and reports:

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EDA in Focus

Busy week for EDA: Appointments, Town FOIA, director hunt, bond issue

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Monday’s special meeting quorum and two surviving staff members – Royal Examiner Photos/Roger Bianchini

On Monday morning, April 15, at the first of two special meetings of the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority Board of Directors called this week secretary and assistant secretary appointments were made. A three-member quorum – only five of the seven board seats are currently occupied – voted to appoint Ed Daley, in his absence, as secretary; and Vice-Chairman Bruce Drummond took on the duty of assistant secretary. Present were Chairman Gray Blanton, Drummond and Treasurer Tom Patteson, along with Interim Executive Director John Anzivino and Attorney Dan Whitten.

As literally everyone in Warren County not in a coma now knows, the FBI and State Police swooped in Tuesday to search the EDA headquarters and remove some items related to criminal investigations stemming from the EDA forensic audit and consequent civil litigation seeking the return of over $17 million in allegedly embezzled or misappropriated EDA assets.

A coordinated – well, as coordinated as possible – April 17 press perusal of the front portion of the EDA office during Wednesday’s closed session indicated that the computer hard drive and a cell phone previously seen in former Executive Director Jennifer McDonald’s still-locked down office were no longer on her desk. EDA officials would not confirm whether any of the office printers had been removed by law enforcement the previous day.

Above, EDA Attorney Dan Whitten and Board member Greg Drescher oversee a school staff tech person locking down outside access to the executive director’s computer upon announcement of her resignation on Dec. 20, 2018. Below, a somewhat emptier desk in the still locked-down office the day after FBI-VSP search of EDA headquarters.

Wednesday’s special meeting closed session was called to discuss candidates in the running to succeed Interim Executive Director John Anzivino on a permanent basis, or at least as permanent as such things may be. Returning to open session the board quorum of four – up by one from Monday with the addition of Mark Baker – resolved to continue the process of selecting its new executive director.

During a brief discussion with media following adjournment Anzivino declined to speculate on when an appointment might be announced. Previous EDA board discussion indicated a desire to have a permanent director in place in May. Anzivino indicated the field had been narrowed to three from which to choose.

While declining to give any detail on the previous day’s search by federal and state law enforcement, Anzivino reiterated that the EDA will continue to cooperate in the criminal investigation related to information uncovered by the forensic audit of EDA finances underway since mid-September 2018.

Anzivino also said that from personal observation work appears to be continuing on the building on the ITFederal site. ITFederal and its principal Truc “Curt” Tran are among the nine defendants named in the EDA civil litigation seeking recovery of allegedly misappropriated EDA assets. While stating he no longer plans to relocate ITFederal to the 30-acre parcel at the Royal Phoenix Business Park sold to him for one dollar, he has indicated a plan to rent space in the building under construction out.

A road to where? – Phase One of the West Main St. connector was authorized with a three-building ITFederal complex generating 600 high-paying tech jobs promised by Congressman Bob Goodlatte on 30 acres gifted by the EDA for one dollar to get the re-development ball rolling at the former Superfund site. Recent FIOA information indicates Goodlatte asked for the $10-million EDA loan to Tran and ITFederal.

Positive PR

During the open portion of Monday’s special meeting Board Chairman Gray Blanton broached the idea of getting an accounting of current business the EDA is engaged in as a positive counterpoint to the heavily-publicized scandal revolving around the alleged embezzlement of EDA assets discovered by a lengthy, six months and counting and $760,000 and climbing forensic audit of EDA finances.

Anzivino said he would prepare a press release summarizing property maintenance, project development, and tenant recruitment, including the U.S. Census Bureau for a training center.

Town FOIA request

Also on Monday Vice-Chairman Drummond asked if the town government was going to get its formally requested copy of the forensic audit that has thus far resulted in the filing of civil litigation seeking recovery of that minimum $17.6 million in EDA assets said to have been moved for personal benefit during Jennifer McDonald’s directorship and oversight of EDA finances.

Chairman Blanton responded that he saw no reason the Town shouldn’t get a copy.

However, EDA Attorney Dan Whitten cited a semantical issue with the Town request, which had initially been stated as for the “final report” which Whitten pointed out does not yet exist. The forensic audit continues to develop, so no “final” version is available.

As previously reported, it has been noted that thus far only the EDA Board of Directors has seen the written updates of the forensic audit and Anzivino confirmed that once those drafts of the Mueller Report, I mean the Cherry Bekaert Report have been reviewed by the EDA board they have been shredded.

Following Wednesday special meeting Anzivino said he thought his Tuesday meeting with Town Attorney Doug Napier and Town Finance Director B. J. Wilson went well, and that the semantical issues would be worked through to try and accommodate the Town’s request to be kept abreast of the information thus far available from the forensic audit.

And a bond issue

Following adjournment of the approximately 15-minute Monday meeting, the board broke before reassembling at 11 a.m. for a joint signing of the approximately $11 million bond issue on three capital improvement projects. Those projects are renovations at Ressie Jeffries Elementary School and on county and school space at the Health and Human Services complex in the old middle school building on 15th Street; and construction of the new Rivermont Fire Station.

County Board Chairman Dan Murray joined Blanton and Drummond in signing the documents, with county and school administration staff present, as well as Sands-Anderson bond counsel Dan Siegel.

From left above, Dan Murray for the County and Gray Blanton and Bruce Drummond for the EDA sign off on bond issue for three capital improvement projects as Tom Patteson and Greg Drescher chat in background. Below from left, Drescher, bond counsel Dan Siegel and Doug Stanley chat as Bruce Drummond seated, peruses the paperwork.

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Upcoming Events

Apr
20
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10:00 am Humanity Day @ Main Street Gazebo
Humanity Day @ Main Street Gazebo
Apr 20 @ 10:00 am – 5:00 pm
Humanity Day @ Main Street Gazebo
This Saturday, April 20th, will be the 1st Annual Humanity Day sponsored by SONA Bank and the Habitat for Humanity. The event will take place at the Gazebo on Main Street in Front Royal from[...]
1:00 pm Dawn McCarty – Book Signing @ Royal Oak Bookshop
Dawn McCarty – Book Signing @ Royal Oak Bookshop
Apr 20 @ 1:00 pm – 4:00 pm
Dawn McCarty - Book Signing @ Royal Oak Bookshop
Thanks to the efforts of VGSR volunteers, Mickie was surrendered to the rescue and started a new adventure. Mickie was very special and it was not because of his feet. He was a fabulous companion[...]
1:00 pm Jeff Ryan – Book Signing @ Royal Oak Bookshop
Jeff Ryan – Book Signing @ Royal Oak Bookshop
Apr 20 @ 1:00 pm – 5:00 pm
Jeff Ryan - Book Signing @ Royal Oak Bookshop
Author, speaker, photographer and avid hiker Jeff Ryan was born and raised in Maine. His love of the outdoors was evident early in life. He was skiing at the age of three and spending at least[...]