The Greene County Economic Development Authority (EDA) voted unanimously last week to recommend the Board of Supervisors approve the purchase a one-acre property for a new visitor’s center in Ruckersville. Under Virginia State Code the EDA has the authority to take out loans and secure bonds with approval from the supervisors. The project was recommended to the EDA by the Greene County Tourism Council, an appointed body who has a say in how tourism funds are spent, under state code.
Nearly 90 members of the public overfilled the board room at the county administration building on June 4. Residents had a chance to speak prior to the EDA’s public discussion and public vote on the matter.
The issue has been controversial in Greene County because the land is zoned B-3 business and fronts U.S. Route 29 in front of the Lowe’s and Walmart shopping center in Ruckersville. The property contains a home that is more than 100 years old and two restored outbuildings.
Alan Yost, director of economic development and member of the tourism council, told the EDA that the current visitor’s center—attached to the Blue Ridge Café—is too small and blends into the restaurant making it difficult for people to find it.
“We are looking at an additional 250 square feet of space,” Yost said. “We cannot highlight the local community in our current space. We want more display space. We lack space for special events. We’d like to have more open houses. We’d love to have book signings.”
The lease for the space ends this month, but the county has negotiated a month to month lease and if the purchase of the property is denied Yost said the county can get another five-year lease but it’s unclear after that.
Yost told the EDA the project will be fully funded from the transient occupancy tax (TOT) dollars that come to the county through lodging stays—including Airbnb, hotels, cabins and lodges. The county imposes a 5% fee to each stay with 3% to the tourism council and 2% to the county general fund. Additionally, 1% of all sales taxes go into the county general fund.
“The 3% shall be spent solely for tourism and travel, marketing of tourism or initiatives that, as determined after consultation with the local tourism industry organizations, including representatives of lodging properties, located in the county, attract travelers to the locality, increase occupancy at lodging properties and generate tourism revenues in the locality,” Virginia State Code 58.1-3819.
“The key there is the 3% has to go toward tourism and an organization has to be identified to consult with the county on how the money should be spent,” Yost said. “Greene County has determined the tourism council will be the entity … it’s made up of local (hospitality) owners or those directly engaged in the tourism industry themselves.”
In 2018 lodging stays in Greene County totaled about $5.5 million, he said, bringing in $165,000 for tourism and $110,000 to the county’s general fund, Yost said. In fiscal year 2007 the lodging totals were $500,000, which is a 1,000% increase in 11 years.
Yost said tourism is important financially, but also it’s important to protect the rural mountain agricultural heritage of the county.
“As growth happens in Ruckersville we can’t forget who we are. Most of us moved here because of the quality of life,” he said. “We are very blessed to have Shenandoah National Park in our backyard. People come here to Greene County to get away. This is how we brand it; people come here to escape. This building represents it so well—the iconic look of how we’re trying to brand our community.”
During the public hearing, 15 people spoke with 11 in favor of the project and four against.
“I think it’s a great project,” said Vic Shaff, who owns the Papa John’s in Ruckersville among others in surrounding communities. “It will keep some of the tax burden off residents.”
Robbie Morris, who owns Performance Signs in Ruckersville and has served on the EDA in the past said he’s proud so many residents came out to the meeting.
“It’s really uncomfortable to have a decision like this before you and not know what your neighbor thinks,” Morris said. “I think this is something that is important to Greene.” G
eorge Haney, a retired school teacher and farmer, said his family has been in the county since the 1700s.
“I am 100% in favor of this project,” Haney said. “Not one penny from county tax—personal property tax, real estate tax, sales tax it’s safe, it’s not going to be used for this project. I want to look every one of you in the eye and tell you one thing: I’ve known John Silke for 13 years and he’s a very honest person. I don’t think there’s one crooked bone in his body. He’s doing this for the county. There have been some very unsavory things said. They’re not true and they’re not fair.”
Yost noted that John Silke, who is on the tourism council, owns the proposed property.
Steve Kruskamp, the previous chair of the EDA, called the project “absolutely ridiculous.”
“It is a net negative. It is a prime piece of commercial real estate we could generate tax revenue from but instead we want to have county buildings there that we are not generating any tax revenue from,” he said. “In addition, those funds could be used for things like actual tourism. We have a July 4th event that is currently not doing well. There is very little funds there. Why doesn’t the tourism dollars go to help that out? You could see the impact the funds would have.”
Stanardsville resident Chuck Covington agreed.
“To say that TOT taxes aren’t Greene County tax dollars—they are. They could be used for the fireworks or the fair or whatever else to bring in more tax dollars and more revenue,” Covington said.
During EDA discussions nearly every member said originally they were skeptical of the project.
Don Pamenter said his three major concerns were the cost of the mortgage; repairs needed for the structure; and if buying the building would take funds that could support tourism marketing. He said the possible special USDA loan with a proposed interest rate of less than 4.5% eased the first concern. Yost said had a building inspector view the property, as well as structure engineer. He received quotes from a licensed roofer, chimney specialist, electrician and a licensed contractor.
Silke agreed to pay nearly $12,000 of the repairs for the chimney, roof, electrical, heating and air conditioning and power washing the outside. The estimated costs for repairs and improvements for the county is $48,600 with a portion of that making the bathroom and parking lot acceptable based on the Americans with Disabilities Act, painting and finishing the floors indoors and adding security cameras.
Whitt Ledford, who serves a dual role on both the EDA and tourism council, said he feels the home represents a physical image of our county.
“What is going to draw people to us? I think that building will. I don’t think it’s a bad use our tax revenue that’s dedicated this use. I think it’s going to work. I think us as the EDA and the tourism council will make sure that it works,” he said.
James Tsikerdanos said he battled with the pros and the cons of the project before reaching a favorable conclusion.
“It’s been tough. I think the loss of (commercial) tax revenue is significant. At the same time I think … for it to be used for commercial use … I’m not convinced that anything is going to move in there. I think it’s likely to get torn down,” he said. “But the visitor center needs to be active and encourage more people to visit here.”
Matt Dillon said he would not want to see that property become commercial space as a bookend to Greene County.