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Charles Pannunzio: Time to leap into the past

One thing I remember distinctly from 12 years ago was the farmland less than a half mile from my apartment.

I looked at the calendar the other day and realized that it's a leap year, that there's a Feb. 29 this year. And it reminded me that I moved from Harrisonburg to Winchester 12 years ago, shutting my old place down and voting in a primary on Feb. 29 before I became a resident of the city at the Top of Virginia, as the chamber of commerce likes to say.

I was already familiar with Winchester from living in the valley for 12 years before coming to the Daily in 2000. The fact that there was an Acme supermarket here in the early 1990s, which my Pennsylvania relatives always called "The Ac-a-me," surprised me a bit since I associated them with the North. There was no Jubal Early Drive bridge either; the only access to South Loudoun Street was from Featherbed Lane.

One time I stopped in Winchester on my way back to Luray to find that the Wal-Mart was gone. Closed. I looked down Pleasant Valley Road a few blocks and saw a lot of dark space, and one brightly lit parking lot. There it was, a new SuperCenter that I knew nothing about.

So when I got to town in 2000, I still had a lot to learn. My longtime friend from Luray, John Natalie, offered to meet me at my new place the weekend after I signed the lease, when I brought some stuff up from Harrisonburg. I left "The Friendly City" and it was about 55 degrees so I had a light jacket with me. When I got to Winchester it was at least 10 degrees cooler and the wind was blowing. That was also the first time I found out about Papermill Road, and being able to come into town a back way that avoided the U.S. 17-50-522 mess and traffic by the mall. I probably drove through that mess 50 times while I was living in Luray.

Where Friday's, Red Lobster and Olive Garden now sit was farmland. I even remember seeing a couple of hot air balloons land over there in the first few years I lived in Winchester. Robinson Elementary School was operated by Frederick County despite the fact it was in an area Winchester had annexed a decade or two before.

There's a lot to be said for Winchester. Some people have said the Apple Blossom Festival isn't want it used to be, but it's still a lot of fun. The weather is just right, not too much snow but also not as hot and humid in the summer as Richmond or D.C. And we are close to the nation's capital without having its high prices or crime rate.

When people ask me what I like about the valley, those things are high on the list. My girlfriend, Christina, made a list of the things she has heard me say that I like about the Shenandoah Valley. It runs from proximity (three big airports less than two hours away, lots of minor league baseball within 150 miles) to the fall colors and Route 11 chips. She likes the easy access to Virginia Tech on Interstate 81.

At the same time, we all have to realize the city needs to make some progress. Just like Jubal Early Drive helped bridge a gap 20 years ago, the Tevis Street crossing of I-81 will help keep things moving. The new baseball stadium will give us something else to do many summer nights.

It's a great place, and with care it can stay that way.

• Charles Pannunzio is assistant managing editor of The Northern Virginia Daily.

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