Warner speaks with Luray leaders about downtown revitalization

Page News and Courier

LURAY, July 17 ― U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D) gathered with downtown leaders and supporters on Sunday to tout the area's economic strides and talk about continuing challenges.

With about a dozen new businesses opening their doors in the historic district in the past year, or planning openings in the coming year, the former Virginia governor said it's those small investments that make a big impact.

In the past five years, according to the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, Main Street communities have made more than $161 million in private investments in the state, creating 2,637 jobs.

Since his last visit to Luray eight years ago, when he toured the downtown area, walked the Luray-Hawksbill Greenway and met with local students at Lord Fairfax Community College's Luray-Page County Center, Warner said he's noticed continued development underway in Luray.

“There is more activity in town, less shops that were boarded up,” Warner said, referencing his downtown drive to Sunday's brunch-time meeting at the Mimslyn Inn, which was hosted by LDI. “I want to commend the Luray [Downtown] Initiative for what they're doing. It takes this kind of public-private collaboration to get things done.”

Warner's Sunday stopover was part of a three-day tour of the Shenandoah Valley. His staff reached out to LDI about arranging a Q-and-A style session after “positive media” about the downtown group reached his office, said Luray Downtown Initiative Program Manager Jeff McMillan.

Last Wednesday, LDI was one of five downtown groups recognized with a Virginia Main Street Merit Award. During the Virginia Main Street Downtown Intersections workshop in Staunton, LDI was awarded Outstanding Fundraising Effort for its Tailgate Party and Chicken Chow Down events.

“Our board represents a cross-section of business leaders who volunteer their time and energy to better our downtown,” McMillan told a crowd of about 40 on Sunday, attributing the group's award in large part to the efforts of former LDI member and event organizer Starr Johnson.

In September, Johnson spearheaded LDI's“Pay It Forward” Tailgate Party at the Luray Singing Tower to help fund downtown revitalization efforts. The inaugural event also contributed $5,000 to the Tailgate's winning team, the nonprofit Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets.

A three-day Chicken Chow Down Weekend followed in May, and highlighted the Valley's poultry industry and Page County's designation as the state's third-largest poultry and egg producer.

Collectively, the events netted more than $30,000 for downtown projects.

During a Main Street Now conference in Milwaukee, Wis., in May, LDI was announced as a Main Street America program for gaining national accreditation for achievements made by the nonprofit organization the previous year.

LDI first gained state accreditation in 2004 when it was named a Virginia Main Street group by the State Department of Housing and Community Development.
The Luray group is currently planning its Sept. 10 Tailgate II event and working to establish a new network of merchants and business leaders through a “2016-17 Directory.”

“There are remarkable things happening in smaller communities across Virginia, where downtowns are being revitalized,” Warner said. “That's where most of the jobs are coming from.”

According to the Kauffman Foundation, continued the Senator, 60 percent of all net new jobs created in the U.S. in the past three decades were yielded through startups.

“Some of those startups are Google and Facebook,” continued Warner. “But some of those startups are a local restaurant, a local artisan, somebody that's just taking an old building on Main Street and reopening it. We need to do more to continue to revitalize that.”

In the past year, Downtown Luray has seen several new restaurants open, including Dubliners Celtic Pub in February and 55 East Main Brew House and Grill last year, in addition to the relocation of Gathering Grounds. Other eateries and culinary stops are in the works on Main Street, including the vintage-inspired burger and snack bar Baby Moons, the Chapman House Restaurant and Moonshadows Restaurant and Catering. A fall opening is additionally scheduled for the Hawksbill Brewing Co.

The Mimslyn Inn on Sunday announced the grand opening of its latest expansion project. Recently the inn completed work on the newly refurbished Manor House on South Court Street, as well as five new cottages and five historic cottages behind the property. The investment is projected to bring in nearly $300,000 to the inn in 2016, said general manager Jim Sims.

“The inn is anticipating a combined total of $10 million to be added back into the local economy this year,” Sims said.

A grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony is scheduled at the Manor House at 9 a.m. this Friday, July 22.

With limited road access and funding disparities facing many small towns throughout the state, said Warner, a statewide entrepreneur network that he is currently working on could be beneficial to areas like Luray and Page County.

“[Page County is] a beautiful, beautiful place,” Warner said. “But since you're in this Valley without a lot of road access … it's a little harder.”

The senator continued, noting the “shared workspace” an entrepreneur network would establish.

“One of the challenges is, if someone's got a great new idea in Page County and they want to start a business, too often traditional banking sources aren't available. You've got to look for major capital, and it's hard to find major capital in a place like Page County. So, we're trying to network together a series of angel investors.”

Warner noted the importance of healthcare in rural areas, commending Page Memorial Hospital for retaining its critical access designation.

“One of the things I'm proud that I worked on was making sure we kept the Page [Memorial] Hospital open,” said Warner. “Because if CMS ― which is the payer of Medicare and Medicaid ― had taken away its critical care services we could have seen a closure of a hospital the same way we we've seen another county's in Southwest Virginia.”

“We can continue to try to bring in industry, but I think it's going to be a challenge,” Warner said in reference to Page County. “We need to continue to promote tourism, continue to promote outdoors.”

Tourism continues to drive funds in Virginia and Page County. Visitors to Page in 2014 spent $63.6 million, up 2.7 percent from the previous year, according to the most recent numbers from the Virginia Tourism Corp. Additionally, the county's Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) fund continues to increase through a growing base of visitors.

When fiscal 2015 ended last June, TOT funds, made up by a 5-percent “lodging tax,” totaled $730,431 ― $110,431 more than the year’s $620,000 projection.

Cycling events, “trail concepts” like Page County's Artisan Trail Network and outdoor events and excursions, said Warner, are assets to places like Luray that are “off the beaten track.”

“The Shenandoah Valley's got a brand that's world class,” Warner said. “... We've not taken that brand and marketed as well as we could.”

With the vast majority of buildings on Virginia Main Streets being in historic districts, investors and merchants are faced with aging infrastructure, Jay North of Luray's Hawksbill Trading Co. told the Senator.

After opening in January in the old Page Coop on Virginia Avenue, said North, the trading company's all-volunteer board of directors has increased its vendors from 20 to 50. However, he said, many businesses in historic districts struggle to update buildings.

Infrastructure changes, as well as limited funding sources needed to make updates, said Warner, will continue to be a challenge on Main Street, as well as in attracting large manufacturing facilities.

Warner commended LDI for recently receiving a $15,000 Downtown Investment grant. In February, LDI was one of 10 groups awarded Virginia Main Street funding, and is using the facade grant to update Luray's Brown Building/Bridge Theater.

The county is currently working to update and fill old buildings in Luray and throughout the county through its 2014 designation as an Enterprise Zone. The state program encourages job creation and private investment through grant-based incentives to qualified investors and job creators.

Through the program, the county recently welcomed the firearm concealment manufacturer Tactical Walls in the former Genie Co. facility just north of Shenandoah — a $1 million investment, according to county officials.

Warner concluded the nearly hour-long Q-and-A by thanking LDI, the Mimslyn Inn and those in attendance.

“I know probably most of you, when you turn on the TV news, you want to throw a shoe at the TV. I feel the same way …” Warner said. “We hear what happens on the news about some of the awfulness, but there's so much good in this country … and in communities that don't get a lot of attention.”

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