By Alex Bridges
FRONT ROYAL - A proposal to swap the former Town Hall for the dormant Afton Inn drew support and opposition Monday night.
Nearly 20 people spoke to Town Council about the property exchange during a public hearing. More than half of the speakers said they favored the idea of a trade seen as a way of developing a derelict building. Foes of the swap said Front Royal would lose a historic building and even questioned whether the prospective owner would follow through on the deal.
But Town Council voted instead to postpone any vote on the deal to its Feb. 10 meeting.
Specifically, council held the hearing on a memorandum of agreement that gives the former Town Hall building to Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority, which would then sell the property to Afton Inn LLC. In turn, the EDA would take the Afton Inn at 2 E. Main St. and develop the building.
Mayor Timothy Darr read from a written statement before the hearing to explain the process. Darr also explained that approval of the proposal required a vote by a super-majority of council - five of six members.
After the hearing, Councilman Daryl Funk made a motion to continue the public hearing until council's next regular meeting. His motion failed to get a second. Funk told the audience and people watching the meeting on television that anyone could speak about the topic during the comment portion of the next meeting.
Councilman Eugene Tewalt opposed delaying the matter.
EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald spoke during the public comment period at the request of Darr. McDonald told council about the EDA's efforts to "make something happen" with the Afton Inn property that until Council recently brought forth did not come to fruition.
"My board feels like this could be a positive thing if it's handled correctly," McDonald said.
Pat Callahan, representing the American Association of Small Property Owners, called the proposal "outrageous."
Matthew Tederick spoke against the proposal and questioned why council planned to make the swap without a business or development plan, environmental reports on the building,
Former Town Councilman Thomas Conkey, who favored the trade, recalled the efforts he and other officials took to even get in contact with Afton Inn owner Frank Barros.
"This is one vote you're going to take where there's no real answer," Conkey said. "Be brave. Take the plunge. Make the swap and get the Afton Inn under control."
Front Royal attorney David Downes spoke against the deal. Downes, who owns property in downtown, told council he didn't know Town Hall was for sale and, in his comments, offered to trade houses he owns for the former municipal building.
Former Vice Mayor Daniel Pond III also opposed the deal.
"I strongly believe this is a terrible mistake," Pond said.
Rick Novak, owner of Royal Cinemas, called the Afton Inn a "cancer" downtown and the deal a long time coming.
"This is a no-brainer," Novak said. "There is no money being spent, and the community finally gets control of a building that has been dormant for 20 years."
Linda Allen spoke in favor of the proposal, noting the benefit to the town to put both buildings on the tax roles. The deal raises the possibility of finding a buyer for the Afton Inn, Allen said. The deal would avoid the need for the town to take the property by way of eminent domain - a complex legal process.
Sheron D. Smith, operator of Shenandoah Confections, spoke in favor of the swap and said she believed developing the Afton Inn would help that area of the downtown. Christian Failmezger said a business in the Afton could help increase tourism downtown. Town business owner Mike McCool questioned the historic value of the Afton Inn but spoke in favor of the exchange.
Prior to the public hearing Councilman Thomas H. Sayre asked McDonald if the EDA had considered using the former Town Hall as an incubator for new businesses. McDonald said that the EDA has seen limited success with incubators.
In response to a question from Councilman Bret W. Hrbek, McDonald explained that Warren County provides approximately 25 percent of the funding for the EDA's ventures. The remaining amount comes from revenue the EDA collects as an authority.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org