County, schools, towns talk economy in Page

Page News and Courier

LURAY, Jan. 29 ― More than 60 community leaders gathered Friday at the Mimslyn Inn to talk shop about the county's economic standing and to begin carving out a plan for its future.

Organized by Chairman of the Page County Board of Supervisors Johnny Woodward, the meeting picked up discussions that began in December 2014, when the county held a two-day strategic planning retreat and reached the goal of initiating a regular forum with the county's three towns.

Just more than a year later, Friday's forum included representatives from the towns of Luray, Stanley and Shenandoah, the county, the Page County School Board, the Page County Economic Development Authority and local planning commissions, as well as Luray Downtown Initiative, the Shenandoah Valley Workforce Development Board and the Shenandoah Valley Small Business Development Center.

“I am overwhelmed by the positive response that we've gotten,” Woodward told Friday's crowd. “We all have the same goal.”

That goal, said Director of Education for Virginia Tech's Land Use Education Program Mike Chandler, who led Friday's forum, centers around several chief elements, beginning with developing a “community-wide dialogue” that acknowledges each of the three town's and the county's “strengths that they can utilize to be successful in their own right.”

By establishing where the municipalities currently stand, said Chandler, they can then work collectively to plan for the future.

“We all know that the future is something we can't control ― but we can anticipate it,” Chandler said.

Growing local businesses begins “one at a time,” said Page County Economic and Tourism Director Stephanie Lillard, noting several programs already in place aimed at doing exactly that.

Through the county's HUBZone, Enterprise Zone and Technology Zone designations, Lillard continued, Page County can capitalize on incentives that cater to and entice movement on Main Street and beyond.

Overseen by the Small Business Administration, the county's HUBZone designation is aimed at helping small businesses in urban and rural communities gain access to federal procurement opportunities. While that program requires that a business be located in a historically underutilized area, the county's Enterprise Zone designation, which was received in December 2014, includes a broader scope. Through that designation, localities offer incentives to businesses and industries that make investments in a town or in the county. A month in to the new year, said Lillard, about a dozen new applicants are hoping to reap the benefits of the county's Enterprise Zone designation.

An Artisan Trail network ― recently named the Page Valley Artisans' Trail ― set to launch this spring or summer also helps shine the spotlight on the county. With about 35 participants now, said Lillard, the local collaboration hopes to increase its number to 50 in the next year.

With about a dozen businesses newly opened, expanding or in the works on Luray's Main Street, said Town Planner Ligon Webb, the past year has brought increased activity and renewed momentum.

While the town continues dealing with vacant storefronts, inactive landlords and an anticipated business slump when a delayed construction project for the Main Street Bridge commences next year, tourism continues to lead the way for Luray.

“Tourism does have inherent weaknesses,” however, Webb continued. “Namely, January, February and March” when the lull of winter draws less visitors to the Valley.

Manufacturing continues to be a second key focus for the town. While about 7 percent of Virginia jobs are in manufacturing, according to the most recent statistics, Webb said, one in four Page County jobs comes from that industry ― “about the same as tourism.”

The once “boom town” of Shenandoah has struggled since the mid 1950s, said Mayor Clinton Lucas, when the railroad converted from steam power to electric, eliminating a need for the town's industry.

Despite the changing times, however, the mayor continued, Shenandoah has assets to offer small business owners.

In addition to promoting vacant buildings, offering training for business leaders and residents at the Shenandoah Computer Center ― winner of the 2015 Virginia Municipal Achievement Award ― and recently giving its website a major overhaul, perhaps the town's unique marketability comes from maintaining the Shenandoah Wireless Broadband Authority.

With more than 300 structures on the town's historic district listing, multiple parks and a front seat to the Shenandoah River, “we think we are receptive to new business,” Lucas said.

“We are one of the few towns left in the State of Virginia that don't add anything to our drinking water,” said Stanley Town Manager Terry Pettit. “We are looking now to be proactive ― to protect our water.”

With several wins in the National Rural Water Association's annual Great American Water Taste Test ― including three first-place awards, two second-place recognitions and a fifth-place national finish ― Stanley's drinking water is a valuable asset.

The Town of Shenandoah's water has also garnered recognition in the state competition, including a first-place win.

Stanley Town Councilman Mike Uram also spoke at Friday's gathering, emphasizing a need for the town to focus three chief disadvantages in the municipality ― poverty, unemployment and education.

With two state-of-the-art high schools, a community school structure, the state's fourth-highest on-time graduation rate and the highest percentage of students receiving the Governor's Scholar Certificate in Lord Fairfax Community College's service region, said Superintendent for Page County Public Schools, the local division is a prime partner in economic growth.

In the coming years, Whitley-Smith continued, for every 10 people in the U.S. only one will need a master's degree to obtain his or her job, while two will be required to have a bachelor's. Seven will need technical training.

With the Page County Technical Center expanding both its programs as well as its facility, the growing Career and Technical Education opportunities in the county are “not just for our students, but for our community,” said Whitley-Smith.

The school system is not only an asset for attracting business, the superintendent added, but for workforce development.

Breaking off into small groups, those in attendance at Friday's forum were tasked with plotting the economic future of Page. Each group was assigned a different aspect to ponder in developing the county as an economic engine, including tourism, agriculture, manufacturing and education.

Ideas emerging from the small groups of about a dozen each ranged from developing Page as a culinary destination, expanding the area's wineries and distilleries, utilizing the railroad and the Page County Technical Center, providing youth entrepreneurship and adult education opportunities and exploring the possibility of bottling natural water.

“The foundation is here,” Woodward told community leaders. “Now is the time for us to move forward with it … now we just have to work together.”

Noting that momentum amongst the crowd seemed renewed, Woodward suggested meeting again in a group forum.

“When was the last time we had this kind of government talking and laughing together?” said Woodward.

Noting that the four-hour meeting seemed to render “a lot of platitudes,” member at-large of the Page County EDA Jay Dedman said he'd “love for people to bring concrete ideas” at future meetings.

Upon Woodward's suggestion that a similar meeting be scheduled next month, Page County Supervisor Keith Guzy (Dist. 1) suggested the groups form a working committee.

“If all 50 of us meet, we're going to do billboards and posters for the next six months,” Guzy said, referring to brainstorming posters made during small-group discussions. “It's not like feet on the streets.”

“We'll never make a decision with 50 people here,” added Luray Councilman Jerry Dofflemyer.

As Woodward tasked each of the three towns, as well as the school board, with assigning two representatives to serve on a new committee, Luray Councilman Jerry Schiro questioned if a committee was warranted.

“Isn't that what the EDA does?” said Schiro.

A decision was reached amongst the groups to form a committee that would be led by the EDA, with committee members to be determined later this month, once each of the town councils and the school board has had an opportunity to meet.

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