The Greene County Board of Supervisors were briefed on the $1 million land purchase and new visitor center proposal at their regular meeting June 11, but before that five members of public spoke against the idea during public comments. The Economic Development Authority (EDA) voted unanimously at the June 4 public meeting in favor of the project.
“I’ve viewed the director’s presentation in detail, including finances,” said Paige Roberts of Stanardsville. “The mortgage is more than double the current rent and over a 40-year term that (amount) becomes somewhere in the ballpark of $2 million.”
Roberts said the project requires “significantly more public scrutiny.”
Doug Roberts added he doesn’t see a need for the proposed new visitor center.
“I don’t understand the urgency,” he said. “Jack Shops Kitchen just closed. Coppersmiths just shut its doors. And sadly we don’t even have a county fair this summer. What I would say to you is we need to get our priorities straight because a new visitor center isn’t a priority.”
Chuck Covington of Stanardsville asked how a new million-dollar visitor center will supercharge tourism and recommended the county perform a survey of all residents to see if it’s something people really want.
“Why are we investing in brick and mortar in the age of digital media?” Ruckersville resident Steve Kruskamp asked.
“I want to echo what everyone has said up here. I have been working with the county since I moved to Greene, volunteered alongside with those on the EDA … and I’m very unimpressed,” said Kimmy Kruskamp, of Ruckersville. “I don’t see businesses being brought to Greene. I don’t see Greene flourishing. And to not bring more businesses to Greene when we’re in a $6 million deficit is scary.”
County Administrator Mark Taylor presented the same information from the June 4 meeting with the EDA, but had supplemental information from questions presented that night.
Greene County charges a 5% transient occupancy tax (TOT) on lodging stays—or 5 cents per every dollar with 2 cents going into the county’s general fund and 3 cents toward tourism promotion.
“Under state law the county is required to consult with the tourism industry on the investment, disposition or the use of the 3%,” Taylor said. In Greene County, the Tourism Council has been created that consists of those in the tourism industry in Greene. The owner of the property for sale, John Silke, sits on the council, though recused himself from discussions, Taylor noted.
Taylor said in 2013 there was $73,070 available to be spent on tourism through the TOT dollars after rent of the current visitor center attached to the Blue Ridge Café in Ruckersville. In 2020, it’s projected that less the mortgage and building expenses there will still be $112,000 available to be spent on the promotion of tourism.
“I think it bears to be said, but wasn’t said at this point in Mr. [Alan] Yost’s presentation, the visitor center is but one part of a multipart plan that the tourism council has deliberated over and embraced as a group,” Taylor said.
Taylor noted that ecommerce accounted for 10.2 percent of the retail sales in first quarter of 2019.
“One thing I’ve heard is it’s a brick and mortar concept in a digital world,” he said. “I know it’s (not retail sales) but the tourism experience is still a living human experience. You can see it all on Google Earth but people still come to [Shenandoah National Park]. It’s not quite entirely an online world yet.”
The one-acre lot is in front of Lowe’s on U.S. Route 29 south includes a two-story brick home, which is being called the Taylor house, with several outbuildings. There is no relation to the property and Mark Taylor, he noted.
“The Taylor house offers 50% more public space than our current center,” he said. “Moving the visitor center from its strip location to the free-standing Taylor house, I believe in the mind of the Tourism Council, elevates our brand. [The house] says something substantial about Greene County, about who we are, about the style of life here and the opportunities and things to be found here.”
The EDA would take a bond out for the purchase, currently going through a USDA rural development loan program with 4.2% interest. According to Taylor, the county’s bond attorney said the purchase of that property would not affect the county’s ability to take out money for additional high-cost projects, such as the water impoundment and treatment plan and school facilities improvements.
Taylor noted Greene County’s visitor center received 2,060 visitors in 2018. He also said the city of Charlottesville, the Town of Gordonsville and the counties of Albemarle, Orange and Culpeper have free-standing visitor centers.
“Does that mean it’s the right thing to do? I don’t know. But it was the local tourism industry (who does) and the state code requires you to consult with them about the TOT money,” Taylor said. “The Board of Supervisors as the governing body of the community—you, you alone, have the authority to levy the TOT. As you exercise that authority, the state code says you have the responsibility to make sure the 3% over the 2% is spent on tourism. You can tell someone else to do it; then it’s the issue of accountability. The tourism industry is generating this particular tax.”
Board Chair Bill Martin, Stanardsville District, noted those on the Tourism Council are volunteers.
“These are folks, many of us know every single one of these people, they’re the ones responsible for the $5.6 million in lodging revenue we’re getting this year,” he said. “They are not only our experts in the industry; they all have skin in the game. They’re all hardworking people and unfortunately in this process there’s been some sullying of some names and a bit of defamation.”
Taylor said the supervisors do not need to hold a public hearing to buy the Taylor house once the financing structure is approved.
The EDA is expected to hold a public hearing only on the financing structure at its meeting on Tuesday, July 16. The Board of Supervisors will hold a public hearing on the grant of Leasehold Deed of Trust to the USDA for the property, which is expected to be held during its regular meeting on July 23.