Cover Story

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 University

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 of democracy.

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.

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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.

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Small towns thrive when their school systems are rated as outstanding by potential residents and businesses, not just by local interests.

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The biggest threats to the future of small towns are resistance to change and apathy, and it will take more than funerals to subdue these scourges.

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Likewise, the smaller the community, the more influence the naysayers have.

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In economically 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.

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Individual 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 next generation.

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Natural leaders 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.)

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Because 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.

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When everyone 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.

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Towns whose 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 bottom!)

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Resistance to 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.

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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 stumbles.

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A higher-education presence stimulates growth and improves the quality of life of any community.

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Retirees bring 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 works!

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?

I 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 county? 

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 from grandma.

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 settled there.

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 slump.

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.”

One 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 story!”

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 Science, Inc.

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 environment.

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 says.

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 sewer.

“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.

"Living 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 store.

“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 open.”

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 Writer

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.

Many 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.”

Those 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.

When 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 financially.

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 safety issue.”

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 tickets.”

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 disrepair.

“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.

 

 

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