Small Town Virginia
Among Virginia’s greatest assets are her small towns and
rural, agricultural communities. Today, more than ever, these locales often
face challenges ranging from economic hardship to diminishing population
that, in some cases, threaten their future. Following are three stories
examining the challenges facing Virginia’s small communities. The first is
an essay about the challenges facing small towns by Dr. Charles Lee, a
retired college president and Mecklenburg County, Va., resident with rich
experience in working with small communities. Next is a profile of Monterey,
Va., a tiny hamlet in Highland County written by Highland Recorder reporter
and community journalist John Bruce. The final part of this small-town
trilogy is a story about Exmore on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, by veteran
Eastern Shore journalist Bill Sterling.
The Future of Small Towns
by Dr. Charles Lee, Retired President, Mississippi State
I was recently invited to share some thoughts about the
future of small towns at a Chamber of Commerce Banquet in a modest Southside
Virginia town. Like everyone, my views are shaped by my background. So let
me begin by sharing some experiences that have influenced my views.
First, my wife was working for
our local chamber in North Carolina when we were married 54 years ago, and
yes, it was a small town.
During the ensuing years, we have
shared 33 domiciles in six states, and about 20 percent of these homes were
in small towns.
As a senior agriculture and
natural resource administrator and later land-grant university president, I
had the opportunity to respond to perhaps 50 small towns across several
southern states whose leaders believed that the university might help them
plan a brighter future.
Just as each of our children is
different, so is each small town, and the universities for which I worked
never seemed to have enough time or money to adequately understand the
dominant forces that powered any particular situation. Today, many
universities have small-town specialists with great analytical skills.
I gained more insights while
serving as interim town manager two years ago in Clarksville, a small town
in Southside Virginia. The biggest challenge was the difficulty in reaching
consensus agreement about some sense of direction — a shared set of beliefs
about the town’s future, if you will. There is a popular saying that, “Any
wind is a good one for a ship that has no destination.” Unfortunately, the
dismal level of attendance at various town meetings suggested that too few
of our citizens had any destination in mind for the town. Apathy is the bane
These and other varied
experiences across 45-plus years and many locales have yielded some insights
that I believe can impact the future of many typical small towns.
The size of the
town is less important in determining its future than what
it “does with what it has.” Towns built on a set of shared
beliefs about their futures will continue to be attractive,
if they have good leadership that can stimulate broad
participation in public affairs.
thrive when their school systems are rated as outstanding by
potential residents and businesses, not just by local
threats to the future of small towns are resistance to
change and apathy, and it will take more than funerals to
subdue these scourges.
smaller the community, the more influence the naysayers
depressed towns, citizens and leaders often accept lower
expectations about what they can achieve. (You have to guard
against this becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.) Do not
undervalue your product.
leadership development is perhaps the single most important
factor influencing success. Leadership plus
passion can displace apathy and fear of change to make
things happen, and good leaders serve as role models for the
tend to avoid leadership roles in troubled towns. Rebuilding
is hard work and politically hazardous, beginning with
reaching consensus about what the townspeople want for their
future. (Uncontested political races often signal a loss of
confidence about the town’s future.)
small towns have so few leadership positions, every vacancy
on staff or Council represents a golden recruiting
opportunity for new ideas and positive change. Not only does
a non-starter mortgage the community’s future, but getting
poor performers out of key positions gets harder every year.
knows everyone else in the town, the peer pressure that
regulates social behavior still applies. Though we may be
ambivalent about everyone knowing our business, this is one
of the most comforting attributes of small towns for people
of my generation. Confidence about personal security trumps
a lot of other shortcomings in any town.
recruiting slogan is that “we have the lowest taxes” are not
competitive in anything else, including quality of life.
(They are unwittingly participating in a race to the
taxes, coupled with reduced state and federal aid, are
threatening the sustainability of aging
water and sewer infrastructures
in many towns. User fees are going to have to increase
substantially in the future for many communities to sustain
current public health standards.
A town must have
room to grow at its boundaries. Most business prospects
expect water and sewer availability, which are typically not
available beyond town boundaries. Counties benefit when
their inclusive towns prosper, and suffer when a town
higher-education presence stimulates growth and improves the
quality of life of any community.
their income with them, spend much of it locally, and do not
require the level of tax and other incentives expected by
business and industry. (Contributing their expertise to the
community is a priceless bonus.)
These are observations about
small towns in general. Each community obviously has to plan its future
based on its particular circumstances. Self-determination is going to be
more important than ever in the future, given the likely declines in state
and federal aid to these municipalities.
Virtually every town with which I
have worked would give its soul to have a university presence. Think about
what a modest mix of program offerings could do for place-bound students in
your community, and aggressively pursue your vision with college and
university leaders and with your legislative delegation. It is an arduous
way to get a satellite campus but my experiences confirm that it often
I would also encourage you to
think about recruiting firms whose workplace skill requirements match those
of local residents. How about seeking a call center, for example, now that
they are migrating back to the USA, along with manufacturing enterprises?
suspect that small towns will have a lot more in common in the future than
they might think, as resistance to tax increases threatens the level of
public services to which citizens have become accustomed. Expensive
equipment, such as garbage trucks, could easily be scheduled to meet the
needs of adjacent towns. Sharing expensive lab facilities for water testing
should also be relatively easy.
Virtually every town is facing
rising costs for maintaining independent public safety services. I have
lived in areas where a unified system provided public safety and emergency
services, to everyone’s benefit. Why not test some of these concepts in your
The history among small towns in
many areas is more one of competition than of cooperation. Community pride
is great when it can be afforded but I suspect that the future will not be
so kind, unless attitudes about desired public services and sustainable
levels of taxation change significantly. Public debt and debt service are
increasing for many local municipalities, even as population is declining in
many of these towns.
The county and the town in which
I served as interim manager recently reached agreement to share net revenue
from the development of county-owned industrial property near the town
boundaries. The town now has more explicit incentive for recruiting new jobs
to these sites.
The successful execution of new
ideas requires both financial resources and expertise, both of which are
often in short supply in small towns. Planning, revitalization, and other
infrastructure projects do best when towns get the experts involved.
Most people like to go with the
winners. Undercapitalization has doomed many businesses. Avoiding the
temptation to take the least expensive route in planning and executing
community initiatives will ensure more success in whatever endeavor you
choose. Experts do make a difference, and they often know where to find the
best prices and sources of funds.
Finally, there is no substitute
for optimism. Someone has said that “we become who we think we are.”
Believing in your town and what it stands for can make all the difference,
and if you are successful, your children and grandchildren just might be
able to fulfill their life aspirations, without having to live so far away
Monterey: A Place Apart
by John Bruce, Contributing Writer
Mayor Rich Holman welcomes you to Monterey, Va.,
population 147, elevation 2,894 feet and Virginia’s smallest municipality in
the state’s least densely populated county, Highland.
Holman, 67, is a native of the
rural Kentucky community of Frogue and a Navy veteran who retired as a
linguist from the National Security Agency after a series of duties that
included service as a translator in Ethiopia. He and his wife, Linda, moved
to Highland in 1993 from the Shenandoah Valley after living in the
Washington, D.C. suburbs.
As is the case with many places,
Highland is populated by “come heres,” people who decided to move there, and
“from heres,” those who have lived there all or most of their lives. Many
“come heres” stumbled on Highland, and the Holmans were no exceptions.
“We came here looking for Bartow,
W. Va., because we always noticed that the temperature was lower,” Holman
recalls. They decided to stop in the county seat of Monterey more than two
decades ago and they’ve been there since. The cooler air and scenic beauty
of the Allegheny Highlands were a welcomed departure from the tailgating
traffic and sweltering summers east of the Alleghenies, he says.
“We still can’t get over the
breathtaking beauty,” Holman says of Highland and the high-valley town of
Monterey. There, he and Linda have run Cherry Hill Bed and Breakfast for 22
years and in that time have introduced many newcomers to Highland who have
Holman won the mayoral race in
the spring of 2014 to take his first role in elected office. He sees his job
as guiding the three-member-plus-mayor town council to bring the town and
county officials closer together and promote community participation.
“It bothered me to see empty
storefronts,” Holman says of the roughly one quarter of Main Street’s
two-dozen businesses that have shut down after the economy tanked in 2008.
Most recently closed was the Highland Inn, the town’s main lodging facility,
whose former owners attributed the bad news to the continuing economic
There’s talk around town that
things might be changing for the better. “There are some things happening
now,” Holman says. “There has been work on Main Street startups.”
One of the town’s best strategies
to continue the momentum is to get the word out to people outside the county
and inform them that there is opportunity in Monterey and Highland, the
mayor says. “As mayor, I can show them opportunities and put them in touch
with other people who can show them opportunities. I feel I know a lot of
people who have an influence in getting things done.”
of Highland’s greatest qualities is its security, Holman points out. The
prospect of raising a family where children can play outside safely is a
major advantage. Security in where someone lives can go a long ways to
overcome what some people say is isolation, he says.
“I’m really proud to say we are
secure. We have a really good sheriff’s office. We have peace and quiet. To
me, that’s one of the big things.
“People don’t steal cars in
Monterey,” he says, pointing to what locals say was the closest thing. That
was when a blind dog accidentally shifted an unoccupied vehicle into motion
and it rolled down a hill last summer. “A dog did, and a blind dog at that,”
Holman chuckles. “You will have to come to Monterey to get the rest of that
Council member Jack Kilgallen is
a Seattle native and career Navy veteran who bought land near Monterey in
1986 and followed his wife, Ann, and daughter, Jackie, to make Highland home
after moving from the Washington, D.C. area on his retirement from Elsevier
Now serving his first full term
on town council, Kilgallen, 67, says he was attracted to Highland for its
beauty and outdoor recreational opportunities and so that he and his wife
could raise their 12-year-old daughter in a safe and loving small-town
One challenge the town faces is
continuing the charter that authorizes the town to operate as a political
subdivision. “Some residents want to fold the town into the county,” he
He says that there has been some
opposition to continuing the town’s charter, but he does not think that
giving up the town’s incorporated status is a good idea.
“I like the idea of having an
incorporated town, Kilgallen says, adding that there is a value to having
town services such as trash pickup, water and
“Having a town government helps
us maintain the infrastructure and allows us control over those repairs we
feel appropriate,” he says.
Sheriff’s Deputy Ronald Wimer,
48, is a lifelong Highland resident and the town council’s longest-serving
member. Since first being elected in 2002, Wimer has seen how much longer
economic woes have taken to affect Highland, and how much longer the county
and town have taken to approach recovery.
“Several businesses have closed
up, and several homes have been foreclosed on,” Wimer says. He echoed Mayor
Holman’s optimism about news of some storefronts reopening. Other local
enhancements have included a multi-million-dollar renovation and doubling
the size of Highland Medical Center. Then there’s development of a town park
across the road. And there has been completion of a mile-long walking and
biking trail and a public swimming pool, he points out.
In his role as deputy, Wimer has
noticed that economic hardship corresponds to the incidence of domestic
violence calls. “It was more of a spiral upward when the economy was
crashing,” he says. “Now it has stabilized and the demand for services is
not as high.”
One of the things town council
can do to help spur the recovery is to invite community participation, Wimer
says. He notes that attendance at town council meetings increased over the
summer and fall of 2014. Another is to encourage tourism.
“Monterey is well known all
around the state,” Wimer says. “We’re well known for mountains and beautiful
vistas. The biggest draw is tourism. We take it for granted, but outsiders
love it,” he says. He should know. He worked part-time at the Highland Inn
several years before beginning as deputy more than two decades ago.
Monterey Town Council’s youngest
member, Cody Cohen grew up in a Highland County hollow about a mile from the
closest neighbor. The 1998 Highland High graduate worked during her high
school years in Monterey at Highs Restaurant as a server and across Main
Street at the Highland Inn as a housekeeper, waitress and babysitter for the
owners. After graduating, she attended Fairmont State and West Virginia
University to study art history. The family moved about the same time from
the farm in the hollow to Monterey.
Cohen returned to Highland and
worked as a substitute teacher for the school system and as assistant to the
county reassessor, followed by a year in which she gained more knowledge
about local government by floating through the courthouse offices of the
treasurer, registrar and circuit court clerk, working as assistant.
About eight years ago, Cohen was
hired as administrative assistant by First and Citizens Bank. Despite the
gradual downturn in the county’s population, the bank has been growing
steadily because, as Cohen says, “it’s a hometown bank. The customers know
us, and we know them.
in town, you become aware of the issues,” Cohen says. Empty store-fronts and
lack of community participation are on the list of issues facing this rural
hamlet. With a population of about 140, Monterey has huge potential to
become a town that attracts more businesses, Cohen says.
“We have so much to offer here,”
Cohen says. She likens the potential to West Virginia neighboring towns that
have capitalized on their rural identities to attract tourism. She points to
Thomas, W. Va., which has been in the process of revitalization. Monterey
has the wherewithal
to open up to the same opportunity.
Every Friday afternoon during the
summer and part of the fall, the bustling Highland Farmers Market on Spruce
Street attracts a growing following that is firmly entrenched in the
local-foods movement with locally grown meats and produce. And Neil’s Small
Engine Repair sells its own farm-raised eggs during the summer to customers,
even if they don’t have their lawn mowers or chainsaws serviced or replaced.
One of the newest businesses on Monterey’s Main Street is Dancon, a
combination of retail electronics store, toy store and local art and gift
“The businesses in town are to be
commended because they’re trying,” Cohen says. “They’re not closing their
doors after a slow season. It’s really good for them to keep their doors
Cohen says she would like to see
more Monterey businesses stay open past 5 p.m. “For many, the stores are
closed when we get off work,” she says.
There are two arterial highways
that intersect at Monterey, U.S. 250 and U.S. 220. Traffic is nonstop in the
winter with people on their way to the ski resorts at The Omni Homestead in
Hot Springs and to Snowshoe, W. Va. “We need to lure them to shop and eat
here, not just gas up. There’s a lot to see here.
“We need job opportunities,” she
says of the mounting number of people who moved away and want to return to
Monterey. She has heard an idea for a call center that would bring jobs.
“Think about the job opportunities that would generate,” she says.
Cohen knows there are naysayers.
“It upsets me when people say it’s a dying county,” she says. “Do you just
let it die?”
Monterey has many attributes that
are attractive to anyone. “It’s beautiful, it’s unique and it’s safe. You’re
not going to find a lot of other places like this.”
John Bruce is community news editor for The Recorder
newspaper. He lives in Monterey.
Exmore: A Town Divided
by Bill Sterling, Contributing
The town of Exmore is bisected by Route 13, the main
artery that runs north and south and cuts through the Eastern Shore of
Virginia like a cleaver. The eastern half of the 75-mile peninsula is called
the seaside, the western side is called the bayside. Exmore, about 2.5
square miles, is both bayside and seaside.
towns on the Eastern Shore are known as tourist attractions, featuring
waterside dining, fabulous fishing and wild ponies. Not Exmore.
“Exmore is a working-man’s town,”
says Town Manager Robert Duer. “We are not known as a travel destination,
but we are about halfway from many northern cities and the beaches in the
Carolinas. We may have a thousand people stay a night and be gone tomorrow.”
travelers stay in one of the three major hotel chains located in the Exmore
town limits. Best Western Inn opened in 1996. Holiday Inn Express Hotel and
Suites and Hampton Inn and Suites both opened their facilities in 2009. At
the time, locals who know the area questioned how the two hotels would
choose Exmore when there was little to see or do in the town and there was
already lodging available. But they must have done their homework. All three
inns are enjoying 95 percent occupancy or higher from May through October.
“With the transient business and
contractors who have work in the area, we stay full most of the year,” says
Sharon Davis, manager at the Hampton Inn and Suites.
Locating those hotels in Exmore
was no accident, however. Exmore is one of the few towns on Route 13 that
offers water and sewer facilities.
There was a time the “old” Route
13, today’s Business Route 13, cut through the center of town, bringing
traffic traveling north and south into the town’s business district. In the
1950s and 1960s Exmore had Dulany Foods, a major food-processing plant that
employed hundreds of people. There was also a shirt factory, a
seafood-processing plant, produce stations, a full-service drug store, three
department stores, two car dealerships, a bank and numerous other businesses
on Main Street. “When I was a boy it was all you could do to cross Main
Street without being run over,” says Duer, now 61, who has lived in the area
his entire life.
the highway bypassed the town in the late 1960s, downtown Exmore saw many of
its shops shutter their doors. A shopping plaza featuring major chain stores
opened on the highway just outside the town limits, but by 2000 that area
and land to the west that included Broadwater Academy was annexed to the
town. Exmore also has a public school and a Christian academy in the town
limits. Reflecting the religious fervor of the Eastern Shore, Exmore also
has 11 churches within its town limits, representing several denominations.
Town Has Seen Hard Times
That migration of business out of
town to the highway led to an economic decline and left Exmore struggling
Mayor Doug Greer recalls that as recently as three years
ago the situation was bleak for the town.
“We sat in this room one night
and wondered how we were going to pay the bills. There was no maintenance on
anything in town. Nothing was being repaired. We were down to $75,000 in the
general fund. We were at the point of being bankrupt,” says Greer, sitting
in the town manager’s office in the 4,000-square-foot town office, site of a
former bank closed long ago.
In the years the town was
struggling with finances there was also contention among the residents, and
town meetings were overflowing with up to 100 attendees, many complaining
about how the town was being managed.
Today, the town has approximately
$1 million in the general fund, new equipment, an improved infrastructure
and a positive vibe that has resulted in town meetings attended by the 20 or
so regulars who have little to say or complain about the town’s operation,
which has a $1.83 million budget.
All of this was done without
raising taxes. In fact, there has not been a tax increase on real estate or
personal property in Greer’s 12 years on the council. “I’m not sure when we
had our last tax increase. It was before I was on the council,” says Greer,
who had to check with the town clerk, Ellen Parks, to provide the rates of
12 cents per $100 of assessed value for real estate and 49 cents per $100
for personal property.
Greer credits the town council
with pulling together and making some tough decisions. “We made some cuts,
found some lost collections in our utilities, received some grants and
worked as a team from the top down,” says the mayor, who assumed his
position in early 2013.
Duer says tax revenues from the
new hotels, including occupancy taxes, have helped the town’s treasury as
well. Duer also acknowledges that a more aggressive police presence on Route
13, resulting in traffic-citation revenues of approximately $30,000 a month,
has helped the town’s financial situation.
“Many of our residents have to
cross the highway to do their shopping, and no one in town has complained
about having our police force monitoring the traffic,” says Duer. “In the
summer, as many as 18,000 vehicles a day pass through town. We see it as a
Greer adds, “It was a hard sell
at stepping up our police patrol on Route 13, but we have had two accidents
in the last week. When I look at the citations and see drivers going more
than 20 miles over the 45-mile-per-hour speed limit, I think they deserve
The town has six police officers
— headed by Angelo Martinez — who provide coverage 24 hours a day, seven
days a week.
Martinez became police chief two
years ago. Also joining the town’s 17 employees in the last three years was
Taylor Dukes, director of utilities and the zoning administrator. “Taylor
came to our town with a lot of knowledge on utilities and has taken on
tremendous responsibility. We always say if we can’t find someone to do a
job, we give it to Taylor. He has been a tremendous asset,” says Duer.
According to the town manager,
new computer software helped locate collections for the Public Works
Department, headed by Mike Johnson for the past two years. “We found we had
users who had not been billed for years,” says Duer.
Exmore’s Name Linked to Railroad
The first land grant in the
Exmore area was to John and Mary Cobb in 1661 and part of this 600 acres
comprises Exmore today. The town of Exmore was created in 1884 as the site
of the first stop in Northampton County for the newly established New
York-Pennsylvania-Norfolk Railroad. However, the town was not incorporated
until 1947. Today, there are approximately 1,450 people living in 475
households. Legend has it that Exmore got its name because it was the 10th
station south of the Delaware state line. The theory is that an early
railroad hand pulled into the station here, tooted his whistle, and
announced “X more to go.”
Filling a major hole downtown
after the boon era was New Ravenna Mosaics, a designer of handcrafted luxury
mosaics in glass and stone that are marketed internationally. The firm has
110 employees and stretches across a vast area of town that was previously
dilapidated and crumbling from neglect. New Ravenna owns 40,000 square feet
of office space and rents an additional 10,000.
Sara Baldwin, who founded the
business in her living room and heads the operation today, says Exmore has
been a good fit for her growing firm. Her latest venture is the renovation
of the Cameo Theatre, which opened in 1938 with a showing of “Stage Door,”
starring Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers. It closed in the late 1950s
and has been the site of numerous businesses since, eventually falling into
“We plan to bring back the Cameo
Theatre to its glory days and use it as our showroom and a branding site for
our company. We are really excited about this project,” said Baldwin
recently, after speaking to her design team that morning.
Exmore doesn’t have as many
restaurants as other major towns on the Eastern Shore, but it has an iconic
eatery in the Exmore Diner, first opened in 1954 and located in an old
railcar. With only six booths and a row of stools at the counter, the Exmore
Diner is usually crowded, but customers patiently wait their turn for a
booth, or eat at the counter, anticipating the fresh Eastern Shore seafood
and vegetables that are highlighted on a chalkboard each day with prices
from a past era.
Herman Walker, an attorney who
has practiced in town for 45 years and will be retiring when he turns 80 in
the coming year, recalls that past era. He admits to being a vocal critic in
the past, but likes the direction of Exmore’s management today.
“Exmore struggles with the issues
that many towns face today in a changing economy. The thing about Exmore,”
says Walker, “is that there are good people in this town doing their best
through some difficult circumstances.”
Another town businessman who saw
the glory years of Exmore and still operates a small pharmacy today is Lloyd
Kellam, the proprietor of Lloyd’s Pharmacy, which for 40 years was the hub
of the town. Buses with travelers stopped there and town gossip was traded
at the lunch counter, sometimes packed three deep waiting for a seat.
Kellam, now 80, who served as a
pharmacist for Kmart and Rite Aid on the highway for about 20 years,
reopened a much smaller pharmacy with no additional services two years ago,
using a portion of the building he still owns. Recalling the era when he
first opened, Kellam says, “I can remember when there were traffic jams in
town on Saturday nights, especially when they were showing a Roy Rogers film
at the Cameo.”
Although Duer has been the town
manager for only a year, he had served on the town council previously and
recalls the difficult times. “We feel good about the direction of the town,”
he says. “We do what we can with what we have. But we always say it doesn’t
cost much to have a clean town, and it costs nothing to be friendly.”
Bill Sterling has worked as a
journalist on Virginia’s Eastern Shore more than 35 years. He currently
writes for the Eastern Shore Post.