Category: Community and Business

Main Street Matters in Middletown, Virginia | Shenandoah Living Magazine
Community and Business

Main Street Matters in the Shenandoah Valley

by Carol J. Alexander

 

Less than 100 years ago, Quicksburg bustled at a quick pace. The railroad kept this town alive, bringing supplies and taking goods up and down the Valley. The village once included a blacksmith, tomato cannery, and general store. The town’s racetrack drew visitors from neighboring communities who probably enjoyed a few drinks in the saloon after the races were over. Now, the only thing left of Quicksburg is a post office, which the US Postal Service wants to close, and a Methodist church, congregation 20.

 

Main Street Matters in the Shenandoah Valley | Shenandoah Living Magazine

Photo by Mark Segreti

What happened to Quicksburg? I’m sure there are many answers to that question. Location off the Valley Pike, some say. Less frequent rail travel, say others. But I cannot help think that if Quicksburg had a Main Street, a thoroughfare along which the business district stretched, other than tracks, that it could have survived the demise of the railroad.

For some small towns, Main Street is all they have. For larger cities, Main Street is their calling card and a community all its own. But most folks would agree, the pulse of a town’s Main Street creates the heartbeat of the town.

The part of government

Valley citizens value their Main Streets so much they have formed downtown enhancement groups, Main Street committees, or business alliances for the merchants in the area.

Tracy Lyons, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce for Lexington, Buena Vista, and Rockbridge County said the county recently launched phase one of its 20/20 plan for revitalization. The first phase involves reaching out to alumni from local colleges and asking them to return to the area and invest in the community.

Craig Laird, owner of Royal Oak Computers and Shenandoah Confections and the president of the Front Royal Independent Business Alliance, said that the town of Front Royal just agreed to hire a community development director. “This position is an important piece to vitalization of the town overall,” he said.

Groups such as FRIBA and Main Street Lexington, Chambers of Commerce, and Rotary clubs provide networking opportunities for business owners and host events to draw folks to the Main Street area.

“Events are the key to get people out of their cars and start walking into businesses and seeing what the town has to offer,” said Charles Harbaugh IV, mayor of Middletown. He said that Middletown closes down the Main Street and re-routes traffic for special events.

Mike Good, owner of Timeless Wines in Middletown agrees. He regularly hosts wine and beer tastings at his shop to bring folks in.

“Events are effective in bringing people together,” said Robbie Jones of Hamrick and Sheridan Jewelers in Lexington. He said they not only attract shoppers to the district but provide networking opportunities for the business owners.

Live music, art shows, and heritage festivals are popular events hosted by towns up and down the Valley. The most popular, the Shenandoah County Department of Tourism’s Route 11 Yard Crawl is held each August along more than 40 miles of the Valley Pike. This event brings more folks to the Main Street sector than any other.

“Events give you the opportunity to talk to people and get to know your customers,” said Good.

More basic than events, though, a town needs to create a warm and inviting environment, said Jenna French, director of tourism and marketing for Shenandoah County. “From planters to lights to pocket parks,” she said, it’s all part of the plan to make visitors to downtown feel welcomed.  Rodney Shepherd, Mt. Jackson town council member, agrees. “You need to keep the infrastructure and background in good shape,” he said. Mt. Jackson has worked tirelessly to upgrade its sewer system, lay new sidewalks, install lamp posts and more. The most talked about improvement has been repainting the water tower along Interstate 81, to the tune of $250,000. “It’s boring,” he said referring to infrastructure, “but it’s important.”

French said that some businesses in Woodstock have taken advantage of a façade grant program to fund improvements. She also said that it helps a town to capitalize on its historical charm.

Lyons concurs. Several of the businesses in downtown Lexington have worked diligently to restore their buildings, “recapturing what they used to be in their heyday.” One such business is the Robert E. Lee Hotel, built in 1926 and totally restored in 2014. And to call attention to the historic district of Middletown, Harbaugh co-authored the book Images of America: Middletown.

 

The part of the business owner

The onus is not on the town, though. When asked what the key to success is for small businesses the answers varied, but Chamber officials all agreed—a new business needs a viable business plan.

“Before opening the doors,” said Lyons, “have a positive business plan that meets the needs of the community.” Do your market research and be engaged with your customers to know what their needs are.

“A successful opening is very important,” she added. “Be ready. Don’t have a soft launch. Make a big deal of your opening by hosting an event. Use the Chamber; they will help you.”

Business owners, though, look past that initial plan with their advice.

“Be open,” said Good. “Have set hours and be consistent with them.” Jones agrees that you have to be there. “Don’t think you can just hire someone to man the store,” he said. “Your business needs your personal touch.”

French said it’s important not to operate just another store or place to eat lunch. “It takes creativity and ingenuity,” she said, “but you need to create a destination.”

Destinations are what young adults and families are looking for. Something to do on the weekend or the perfect place for a birthday dinner are a few things the younger generation looks for. “We need to get them excited about coming down,” said Jones, “because they are our future.” And what better way than showing them that we speak their language by being active online.

Of course, everyone agrees a successful business must have an online presence and be active on social media. And, of course, almost everyone struggles to make it happen.

“Eighty percent of Internet users are on their phones,” said Janet Michael of Java Media in Front Royal. A couple traveling through the area will turn to their phone to find a good place to eat. A mom uses her phone to find the closest toy store. Someone else looks up a place of business on his phone to get its hours. At the very least, a small business needs to have a Facebook page and be active on it. “Social media,” she said, “is almost, if not more important, than traditional advertising.”

But many business owners don’t know what to say or post on their Facebook or Twitter feeds. For that reason, Michael teaches social media management classes to small business owners. She tells them just to start a conversation and engage their followers.

 

The part of the consumer

Nurturing Main Streets of the Valley requires not just effort on the part of governments, organizations, and business owners, but also the consumer.

“Money spent at a local business stays in the community,” said Ralph Wakeman, owner of Shenandoah Sew and Vac in Woodstock. He encourages everyone to shop locally, visit the shops on Main Street, and ask questions.

Wakeman contends that the local shopkeeper, with his reputation on the line, will provide superior customer service to the big box stores and online retailers. “Who are you going to complain to and who is going to take care of you?” he asks, referring to his national competitors.

Likewise, who is going to take care of the town, if not the folks that live in it? Shopping local is, decidedly, the best way to nurture Main Street.

Whether townsfolk develop the habit of shopping local, organizations host regular events, or shopkeepers stay active on social media, there is no doubt one thing, in particular, keeps a Main Street and its businesses alive.

“It’s old school, I know,” said Jones, “but the key is hard work.”

Making a Difference: The Volunteer Farm | Shenandoah Living Magazine
Community and BusinessFarm

Making a Difference: The Volunteer Farm

by Rebekah Postupak

 

Bob Blair, chairman of the World Foundation for Children at Woodstock’s Volunteer Farm, is no stranger to disaster. He worked as the Director of Public Affairs for the White House Office of Emergency Preparedness, which eventually transformed into FEMA, “from Nixon to Clinton,” he said. “Shenandoah County became my sanity clause.”

For thirty years the sprawling land Blair purchased off Back Road in Woodstock served as a Christmas Tree farm. But one morning in 2004, the retired Blair woke up with a revelation. Combining his professional expertise in crisis management with his love for farming and helping others, he would use the land to grow food for needy families in the Shenandoah Valley. Thus the Volunteer Farm was born; an effort that, 12 years later, continues to grow.

 

Making a Difference: The Volunteer Farm | Shenandoah Living Magazine

Photo courtesy the Volunteer Farm

In 2015 alone, Blair said the farm distributed over 55 tons of food to local food banks, including 2,000 pounds of potatoes just before Thanksgiving. From the initial 50,000 people helped per month, the Volunteer Farm now supplements the pantries of 150,000 per month.

The numbers are astounding.

“More people are hungry now,” Blair said. “We may not have a starvation problem in this country, but we have a nutrition problem. Poor nutrition leads to diabetes and other health problems—but Twinkies are cheaper than apples.”

With food pantries across Virginia struggling to survive due to lack of funding, Blair admitted that despite its tremendous success each year, the Volunteer Farm battles funding and expense challenges too.

“The amount we grow is based on the amount we collect,” he said. “Farming is expensive.”

The Volunteer Farm is not detached from the Shenandoah residents it serves; its lifeblood consists of donations and volunteer labor from caring people and organizations in the Valley and beyond.

And goodness knows there is always plenty to do. Even in February?

“Oh yes,” said Blair. “In February we need people to help with fundraising, to work in our office. If the weather’s dry, we’ll start prepping the field for planting, and trying to get potatoes, turnips, and beets in the ground as soon as possible.”

Adult supporters often cherish personal reasons for donating to or working at the farm. “The vast majority of our donors have been hungry at some time in their lives,” Blair said. “For example, maybe they were on food stamps for a while. They know what hunger is all about. It’s much harder to convince people to help who have never been hungry.”

However, of the more than 20,000 volunteers who have served at the farm over the years, representing 42 states and 27 countries, the vast majority are under 18. Many come from local schools and homeschool groups; a steady stream of helpers come from Harrisonburg’s James Madison University. Church groups, both local ones such as the United Methodist Church in Woodstock, and far away, such as Presbyterian churches in Georgia and Pennsylvania, may design mission trips around working at the farm.

“They come here to help us feed our own neighbors,” Blair said, amazement tinging his voice.

This past year the Volunteer Farm was successful in attracting several classes with special needs kids to join the effort.

Cindy Ritter is a paraprofessional assistant in a special education class at Woodstock’s Central High School. “We volunteer there every week,” she said, “and the difference in these kids since the beginning of the year is amazing. They’ve learned independence—they know where to go, to sign in, what to do. We work on social skills, on teamwork. You should see all the smiles.”

Blair smiles right back. He said serving at places like the Volunteer Farm when they are young will hopefully translate into “a lifetime habit of helping others.”

 

Harrisonburg Fire Department Museum | Shenandoah Living Magazine
Community and BusinessHistory

Harrisonburg Fire Department Museum–Sparking Interest in Public Safety

by Jean Young Kilby

 

Forty-five years in the making, the Harrisonburg Fire Department Museum sits perched on the third floor of the city’s Public Safety Building like a cat in a tree, the pet project of Harrisonburg Fire Chief Larry Shifflett.

Harrisonburg Fire Department Museum | Shenandoah Living Magazine

Photo by Matt Schmachtenberg

An impressive collection

Since he began volunteering at Hose Company #4 as a young teen, Chief Shifflett has collected hundreds of items from fire brigade buckets to fire extinguishers to a brassy fireman’s pole. “A lot of stuff was just laying around the firehouse. I picked a lot of it out of the trash can,” he said. “I never thought it would turn into this.”

His prize display is a mammoth hose reel with wheels big enough to move a covered wagon. “This was made in Harrisonburg in 1894 by John Morrison, who was at one time the mayor,” he said. “This was the earliest piece of fire equipment owned by the city. It took 8 to 10 men out in front pulling it to wherever the fire was. The bigger the wheels, the easier it was to pull it over gravel and stone. The problem was going downhill.”

Wandering through the circular museum gives one the surreal feeling of stepping back in time. A cough-drop red fire alarm box stands at the ready. At one time, Harrisonburg had seven of these alarm boxes posted around town for folks who didn’t have telephones. Cold War-era gas masks and Chemox masks are relegated to hanging on a wall, while mannequins showcase outdated yellow rubber fire suits. Vintage uniforms linger as testaments to the courage and pride of local firefighters down through the decades, beginning with the earliest professional firefighter, the Keeper of the Apparatus—the man responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of firefighting equipment.

 

A brief glimpse into the past

Not all fires are caused by faulty wiring or chimney sparks. According to the museum’s 1943 Record Book, at least one fire that year was sparked by a mislaid cigarette. Another fire broke out when someone struck a match close to rubber cement. One person’s curtain burst into flames from a nearby jack-o’-lantern; while one industrious woman started a fire while scrubbing her floor with gasoline.

Flipping through the pages of the 1943 Record Book can leave one with more questions than answers: How did a fire ignite at Wetsel Seed Company at 11:00 one night? Why did Harrisonburg’s Main Street School sustain a fire on March 28, while on the next day, Harrisonburg High School on Grace Street also reported a fire? Was an arsonist afoot? Several familiar names pop up in that book. On April 25, for example, Mrs. George Grattan sustained an estimated loss of $250 because of “unnecessary loss due to delay getting water on fire.” Why the delay? Fodder for speculation.

 

A museum for all

The fire department museum offers visitors a unique perspective on Harrisonburg’s history. History buffs will appreciate rambling among the exhibits, while children can enjoy a hands-on experience. They can don rubber suits and fire hats, pick up a real fire hose, and pretend to squirt water on a blazing fire. To top it off, they can shimmy up and slide down the fire pole.

Chief Shifflett will be retiring soon. He plans to continue collecting for the museum, but he hopes he won’t have to scour the trash cans for his next prize—the 1948 GMC pumper truck he’s had his eye on for a while.

Museum hours are 9:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. Entry is free and open to the public. If you’re lucky, you might catch Fire Chief Larry Shifflett, a modern-day “Keeper of the Apparatus, inspecting the equipment.