Strasburg leaders ‘retreat’ to focus on future

By Alex Bridges

Strasburg Town Council’s recent retreat went more like an advance.

Council met last week for its annual gathering and brainstorming session at Hotel Strasburg, where staff and a consultant led the group in a discussion about the town’s future.

Local governing bodies often hold “retreats,” sometimes outside the jurisdiction at the cost of the taxpayers, so elected or appointed officials can talk about issues facing their communities.

As Town Manager Judson Rex and Economic Development and Planning Manager Kimberly Murray recalled Wednesday, activities led during the retreat focused on what leaders hope to see happen in Strasburg in the future. Rex and Murray noted that the retreat also showed that staff and council appear to be on the same page.

Consultant and moderator Craig Gerhart, who recently served as interim city manager for Winchester, led some exercises to engage council and start off the retreat. Rex said that one exercise had council members think outside Strasburg and to imagine the ideal community. While the exercise aimed at the physical attributes of an ideal community, Rex noted that council talked more about the intangible aspects.

“The overall topic of the day was ‘moving Strasburg forward,’ and that’s what we’re here to do,” Murray said.

As Murray and Rex explained, the town plans to expand its public outreach efforts over the next six to 12 months beyond hearings, work sessions and forums. Murray said staff hopes to find ways to reach people who can’t attend the council meetings and workshops. This approach may involve interactive use of the website or one-on-one conversations with residents and business owners.

“We wanted to get a sense of what the council was thinking and we wanted to then put together a process timeline to engage the community on some of these topics to see what do they want,” Murray said.

Points raised at the retreat mirrored many of those brought up at numerous public meetings and forums held by the town over the summer that focused on economic development.

But in preparation for the retreat, Murray and Rex brought some eye-opening data to the table. For example, Murray said that figures show of the approximately 3,000 town residents who work, about 2,500 commute to jobs outside Strasburg.

“This is the kind of information we want to bring back to the community and say, ‘this is what we’re seeing, do you want to keep commuting and what kind of jobs do you want’ because we’ve got places to put those companies,” Murray said. “We want to hear from them. What would make you come downtown instead of going to Winchester activities?”

Murray and Rex also noted that some businesses, like Cristina’s Café on King Street, often attract visitors and patrons from outside of town. Clustering businesses such as restaurants may find greater success together in a district rather than operating alone, Murray explained. She surmised that more restaurants around Cristina’s, offering food and music, likely would draw even greater business.

At the retreat, council didn’t diverge greatly in their expectations for the future, Murray said. She added that council understood what the town could and couldn’t do in certain periods of time.

Much of the retreat discussions focused on economic development for both the downtown and other parts of Strasburg. Murray created a triangle that included the downtown, the Va. 55 and U.S. 11 corridors and the North Shenandoah Industrial and Business Park.

Topics or future needs that came up included “walkability” and trails, a grocery store, as well as filling out the North Shenandoah Industrial and Business Park, the area of the county slated for annexation into the town.

Council saw the need for the town to work on developing the industrial park and to attract users to that future area of Strasburg.

Council looked at the future in terms of one-, five- and 10-year windows.

“I think they wanted to see the [Downtown] Streetscape completed and then the downtown filled and a more vibrant and more activity and that kind of thing and then those connections to the other part of town,” Murray said. “They had some really good, realistic expectations of what could be accomplished over different time periods in those different commercial areas.”

“It all seemed sort of doable in the context of municipal government,” Murray added. “It was very positive, actually.”

The town government has options that could help Strasburg grow. The town can offer water, sewer, fiber optic cables to attract business development, Murray noted. Strasburg also can have regulations to enable property owners to maintain historic, architectural buildings and keeping them attractive to potential businesses and visitors.

Strasburg could set up a special tax to fund a revolving loan program that would ultimately help improve downtown, Murray said.

Murray said she expects council and staff to continue their discussions about creating regulations that would help the town meet the economic development goals, especially the master plan for the industrial park.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com