Greene County’s visitor center will relocate after the Board of Supervisors approved financing to purchase a million-dollar home and property at its July 23 meeting.
The new location is a one-acre lot in front of Lowe’s on U.S. Route 29 south in Ruckersville, dubbed the Taylor House. The property includes a roughly 100-year-old two-story brick home with several outbuildings. The current visitor center has been located in a structure adjacent to Blue Ridge Cafe off U.S. 29 south for a decade. Prior to that, the visitor center was above the bank on Main Street in Stanardsville, then in the Virginia Shop across from Payton’s.
With a full room that overflowed into the hallway, 17 residents spoke in favor of the purchase at last Tuesday’s meeting, a majority of whom are members of the tourism council, economic development authority (EDA) or volunteers at the visitor’s center. Sixteen spoke against the new visitor center, including two former chairs of the EDA. An online petition also circulated against the purchase, which had approximately 200 signatures by last Tuesday’s meeting.
“This proposition has been around since before [Economic Development and Tourism Director] Alan [Yost], and it’s been turned down by every board since then. I’m going to ask you to turn it down again because it’s a bad business deal,” said Dan Goff, who was chair of the EDA in 2014. “We’re hearing a lot about the visibility of this house, which isn’t nearly as visible as the place that we’re at now. When you consider the fact that the traffic count in front of this place near Lowe’s is 17,000 and the traffic count where we are now is 29,000 – we’d have to be in the middle of the road to be as visible.”
Angela Yarbrough, a volunteer at the visitor center and a member of the art guild, said there was no argument that the Taylor House would be an excellent location.
“I don’t think that there’s any argument that it’s an excellent location and a great building,” she said. “Money is always an issue, but it’s not tax dollars so it’s something that I’m not worried about as a taxpayer. I have faith in the people that are the professionals who have looked at this carefully.”
The million-dollar endeavor is being funded by a USDA Rural Development loan for $1,040,000 at a 3.5% interest rate for 40 years. The additional $40,000 is from closing costs of appraisal and attorney fees. The annual payment to USDA will be $48,704, as well as a debt service reserve fund required by USDA of $4,870.40 yearly. The first payment will be due a year after closing.
Greene County will use transient occupancy tax (TOT) to pay back the loan. The county charges a 5% TOT tax on lodging stays, or 5 cents per every dollar. Two cents go 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 how to use the 3% of TOT funds, which must be spent on tourism or the marketing of tourism.
The project and purchase of the new visitor center was first 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. The owner of the property, John Silke, is on the council but recused himself from discussions. The EDA voted unanimously to approve the purchase at its June 4 meeting, and again unanimously approved the financing at its July 16 meeting.
Greene County Admin-istrator Mark Taylor emphasized the use of TOT funds for the purchase ahead of last Tuesday’s public hearing.
“I feel a need to address a particular point because as your county administrator, I have a responsibility for how Greene County government spends money and the fundamental proposition of this hearing concerns an expenditure of money,” he said. “It needs to be clarified, I feel, that we’re dealing with what are called designated funds – meaning we are dealing with money that can only be spent for tourism or travel, the marketing of tourism or for things that increase visitor stays and generate revenue in our community. That’s the law.”
Board Chairman Bill Martin, Stanardsville, asked Assistant County Attorney Kelley Kemp if the EDA and board had complied with state law and what would happen if the funds were not spent on tourism.
“The state code says that you are to consult with local tourism agencies and lodging representatives. You’ve fulfilled your obligation to consult,” Kemp said. “As the assistant county attorney, I would not advise you to [not spend the funds on tourism]. The code does not say you can spend it on anything. You can consult with them and decide there’s a better tourism use if one of you has a better idea, but it cannot be spent toward the general fund or schools or anything like that.”
Taylor noted previously that in 2013 there was $73,070 available to be spent on tourism through the TOT dollars after rent of the current visitor center. 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 local tourism. Yost said last Tuesday that they have “conservatively budgeted” for the purchase, and anticipate being able to pay off the 40-year loan early, possibly in 15-20 years.
Tina Deane, co-owner of Lydia Mountain Lodge and Cabins and a member of the tourism council, spoke in support of the purchase and use of TOT funds.
“If I believed that TOT dollars would go down, we wouldn’t have built a
$3 million lodge. We would not be opening a restaurant this fall, and we would not be opening our fourth wedding venue,” Deane said
Candidate for at-large supervisor James Murphy received outbursts from the crowd of “how?” after he spoke about his future grandchildren paying off the loan in 40 years.
“This is just madness beyond belief,” Murphy said. “The public has not seen, nor has been given alternative sites for a visitor center. These TOT funds will be tied up for 40 years, when they instead could be used for actual tourism-related activities and marketing, not just one government building. Not only will my grade-school son be paying for this, but likely my grandchildren will be paying for it, too, in 40 years.”
Martin, Ruckersville Supervisor Michelle Flynn, as well as At-Large supervisor Dale Herring voted in favor of the Taylor House.
“Some parts in our economy are having a hard time right now. We’ve lost a couple of restaurants, we lost the hardware store in Stanardsville, but Greene County tourism is one area that is not having a hard time. In fact, it’s succeeding. For me, this is the strongest argument for bolstering a success story,” Martin said. “I want to be clear about who will be paying for this project. It’s not Greene County taxpayers’ property taxes or real estate taxes that are paying for this, nor their children or grandchildren. It’s the visitors who come here and spend their money on tourist lodging. If tourism is succeeding, why should we not support it?”
Herring echoed some of Martin’s sentiments.
“The TOT dollars are meant to be self-serving for those in the tourism industry. The state has set it up so the TOT dollars will fund the tourism industry. Everyone whose livelihood depends on tourism in Greene County supports this project. This is their priority. We have an industry that’s already funding Greene County that’s in place, why not support that industry?” Herring asked.
Flynn said she received emails with misinformation on the project, noting it was “frustrating that people would form such a strong opinion about something without doing the research and learning more about it.” She later added that the new visitor center benefits all citizens if it helps to increase tourism in the county.
Midway Supervisor Marie Durrer and Monroe Supervisor David Cox opposed the financing for the Taylor House.
Durrer said that the new location will be hard to access with traffic. She also noted concerns about any downturns or recessions in the future, saying in 10 years a tourism center may not be valuable to the county.
“Do we need a brick and mortar visitor center? Has anyone looked at any other properties? Has anyone looked at county properties that the citizens of Greene County already own with buildings on them that are not occupied today?” Cox asked. “I do understand completely the TOT tax money. When we talk about these dollars, how much are coming from the use of the visitor center? After reading many emails and phone calls with citizens, I cannot support the visitor center at the proposed location.”