A convention center.
A marketing team.
A proactive approach to recruiting employers.
Internships for youth.
These are part of Frank Johnson’s vision for facilitating growth in Richmond County and its county seat, the Town of Warsaw.
“If we’re going to be a rural place, then let’s be the rural heaven,” Johnson said before giving the following assessment of Richmond County.
“We have an aging population. We have not too many professionals in their mid-30’s to early 50’s, don’t have a really good force of those who can contribute to and drive the economy, so there’s a gap … between the aging population and then that key driving population, mid-30’s to early 50’s.”
Johnson also concluded from his assessment that there remains an ongoing need for stronger collaboration among local jurisdictions, especially between Warsaw and Richmond County.
“You look at the mindset that there’s a tendency to base a vision on fear as opposed to hope,” Johnson said. “There is a lot of investment into local law enforcements, the mindset of, ‘Well, we better do this to prevent crime,’ as opposed to doing things to enable businesses, and to really open up activity and opportunities to conduct businesses.”
He projected that Warsaw and Richmond County have “10 good years” before the community faces the risk of becoming “virtually extinct.”
“Our high school ranked 38th in Virginia. Well, you might see a school that ranked #10 start to actively recruit our students and offer them a diploma from their school through a distanced education,” Johnson said. “Then, you might see the state money per pupil expenditure go to that school district.”
Johnson added his perspective that the best aspect of Richmond County is its public education, which he noted is an infrastructure that could eventually become compromised.
“If we do not get the right kind of revenue streams to support our high-performing school system, then we’re going to erode that infrastructure,” Johnson said. “Other districts will be able to come in and recruit our kids away from that, so the time for action is now.”
So what should localities do?
In order to become a “rural heaven,” Johnson said that Richmond County and Warsaw would have to “double down” their investments.
“We’re going to have to approach the state and federal governments and other foundations for grant monies to help support our efforts going forward,” Johnson said.
And if the town and county want to remain independent in their approach and deny any type of outside monies for whatever control it might mean, Johnson said, then the public would have to hear a vision statement from the town and county.
“If we’re going to be in control of our destiny, where are we going?” Johnson said. “It is time for that kind of conversation.”
Taking advantage of a central fact
In referencing Warsaw’s central location on the Northern Neck, Johnson said there was an opportunity for the creation of a convention center in the community.
“That opportunity is available,” he said. “We might even be able to repurpose the Levi’s building now since it’s up for sale.”
Johnson said the convention center could host boat shows and expos featuring local logging companies.
Johnson added that the convention could foster regional collaboration with surrounding districts contributing monies to pay for the center that would be located in Warsaw. Those districts, Johnson indicated, would then get their revenue distribution for whatever comes into the center.
Johnson also spoke to hiring a marketing team for Richmond County.
He envisions the entity as a as a full-time, benefited position that would advertise the area to places outside the region and even the state “to really give us that visibility that we need beyond just people driving through here.”
Putting a stop to the waiting game
Johnson shared his perspective on a collective state of mind in the area that employers will find their way to the district.
“There is a tendency to wait for some great business to find us and approach us,” Johnson said. “That school of thinking is … not reliable anymore, so we might have to, for example, [have] our local governments come together and fly to Los Angeles or Texas … to market our area to various companies.”
Johnson said he envisions a strategic plan with 20 to 40 key leaders pledging their support via signatures and asking the employers to come to their area with the promise of “very friendly tax incentives.”
“It’s going to take that kind of specific action to occur,” Johnson said.
Another aspect of the vision would be to look at how the county could utilize the new additions to Richmond County Public Schools that are slated for completion next year for some type of revenue income.
“A marketing team could say, ‘Hey, we have a new gymnasium, we have an auditorium … things are new, we have a strong Little League,” Johnson said. “Now, if you come here for the weekend or … any length of time, or if you move here, we have amenities that you like.”
And a convention center may not even have to be built in Richmond County, Johnson said; instead, the county’s new school additions could be used for convention-type events such as expos.
Johnson also spoke to creating a full-board entrepreneurship incubator for the purpose of spurring economic development.
“We might … recruit internationally, locally or within the United States and say, ‘Look, if you come here, you can literally live in our designated incubator here for free, so to speak, for 3 to 5 years,” Johnson said. “But the tradeoff is you will headquarter your business here and you will utilize financing for one of our local institutions.”
For the young and the old
Johnson stressed a need to invest into the public transit system and to reach out even more to senior citizens in ways like encouraging them to volunteer in the schools more often and having retired professionals mentor the local youth.
Johnson said there could be a summer program to have the youth become “environmental ambassadors,” where they would wear uniforms, collect litter throughout the the town and county and provide general customer service.
And in addressing talks about the “brain drain”—a concept pointing out how several students graduate from Richmond County schools and then move elsewhere—Johnson suggested giving students internships while they are in school to acquire all of their knowledge now before they leave.
“You might even give them the opportunity to stay, or at least we’ve got some good, fresh ideas,” Johnson said before referencing Rappahannock High School’s financial literacy team who competed on the national level this year.
“We might have them come to serve as an internship for … Richmond County and Warsaw, and ask them to help with thinking of revenue streams,” Johnson said. “That’s a nice practical reward for them to do that, and we put their competence to use.”
Johnson also spoke of approaching the Rappahannock Community College and finding out what the college could use to elevate its institution to the next level.
“The community college might build a huge facility for their graduations … and maybe indoor athletics,” Johnson said. “Maybe the town and the county would contribute money to that effort to benefit from the revenue that’s coming.”
Firing up the conversation for revitalization
Johnson emphasized that the ideas he had presented were just a few factors to stimulate thinking about the ways in which the community could grow.
“More importantly, [if] all of the organizations and the right people come together and brainstorm, we can definitely come up with some ideas that could serve us well in the future,” Johnson said.
He pointed to Tappahannock’s economic strength with resources such as Wal-Mart and its hotels, Kilmarnock for its post-revitalization progress and Montross for its ongoing revitalization.
And Warsaw, Johnson pointed out, is located in the middle of these localities that he indicated are either thriving or making progress.
“I would encourage Warsaw to start to step to its own destiny while there is still peace,” Johnson said. “Otherwise, [with] the change of generations, there’s going to be a lot of frustration and a lot of friendships will be compromised. It’ll be unnecessary … public discord.”
Johnson stressed a need for “structured, formal, facilitated sessions among participating groups” to begin the process of fostering growth in the district.
Johnson added there are some ideas already in place, courtesy of the Northern Neck Planning District Commission and the Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s “Blueprint Virginia,” that could be utilized in the process.
“There are tremendous ways to begin and to navigate the process to come up with ideas that are suitable to us,” Johnson said.
If you have a vision for the town and county
Anyone who would like to share their vision of what they would like to see in Warsaw and Richmond County is encouraged to contact the Northern Neck News by calling 804-333-6397, emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting the office at 132 Court Circle, Warsaw.
— “Frank Johnson shares his vision for Warsaw, Richmond County” is slated to be featured in an upcoming print edition of the Northern Neck News.