Front Royal finally climbs out of the Great Recession
FRONT ROYAL — From his second-story office on Main Street, Robert MacDougall has mere inches between his window and the scaffolding next door. After months of construction workers peering in at him and intermittent jackhammering, MacDougall hasn’t experienced a peaceful, small-town atmosphere.
But for MacDougall, founding principal of Transform Development, a commercial landlord and developer based in the Shenandoah Valley, that’s not a problem. “I love this. It gets me pumped,” he said. “Buildings that have been around for a while are coming back to life.”
Transform is just part of a wave of developers pouring into Front Royal, renovating old buildings and launching new shops. While a handful of old companies have gone under to accommodate the new enterprises, far more businesses are coming than going.
Felicia Hart, community development director, partially credited the town’s revitalization to a relaxation in bank loan policies, allowing new developers to buy property from older Main Street tenants whose children “didn’t want to deal with the headache” of managing the real estate.
“We had the crash, it took a while for things to level out a little bit,” Hart said. In the immediate aftermath of the recession, banks in the area tightened restrictions on loan applicants. “You have to show how much money you are making. You have to be able to pay the mortgage. They required more money up front. You couldn’t get zero interest. You couldn’t get it with no down payment.
Jennifer McDonald, executive director of the Economic Development Authority, traced the empty storefronts back to 2012, when businesses struggling to make ends meet in the wake of the financial crash of 2008 finally gave in.
“2012 was a pretty tough year,” McDonald said. “At that point they had (gone) through all their personal savings, they had done everything they could possibly do and they just couldn’t do it.”
Hart said the banks have been regaining their confidence in making loans over the last few years.
“So banks, once that pendulum swung back the other way, they realized, ‘Wait a minute, this is too tight now, so let’s loosen it up a little bit,'” Hart said.
The investment-friendly banking atmosphere coupled with a renewed focus on economic development among town officials created what Hart dubbed a “perfect storm” in Front Royal.
“Very few small towns get to have this opportunity. And I’m fortunate to be here as part of this now,” Hart said. “This is what many Virginia main street programs would love to see happen, and I just got lucky that it’s all coming together here right now.”
The scaffolding outside MacDougall’s window cocoons a collection of storefronts owned by Vibe Properties, LLC, a corporation launched by Kerry and Tim Barnhart, management consultant retirees.
The Barnharts moved to Front Royal four years ago because, as Kerry put it, the town was “a little slice of Southern” in contrast to the “manufactured” cities in northern Virginia and D.C. However, as nice as the area was, the couple weren’t pleased with the commerce on Main Street; stores opened at odd hours of the day, development was minimal, and several shops were what Kerry Barnhart called “hobby businesses.”
“Sometimes people in small towns will open businesses on a main street and keep them open a day a week because it’s a hobby,” Barnhart said. “One day a week doesn’t help the vibrancy of the town.”
Deciding to take action, the couple launched their commercial landlord company and bought up two buildings with six storefronts spaces on Main Street. The goal of the large initial acquisition was to fundamentally alter the vibe of the area from the get-go; hence the name, Vibe Properties.
Six businesses have already signed up for the storefront locations: Down Home Comfort Bakery, an Amish-style bakery; Vine and Leaf, a wine, tea and chocolate store; Mountain Trails, an extension of the urban outfitter store by the same name in Winchester; Try Thai, a Thai and sushi fusion restaurant; Art in the Valley, an art gallery and studio; and the Front Royal Brewing Company, a brewery with a full restaurant.
The six businesses already have a strong collaborative relationship. The art gallery has helped market the other businesses, the bakery will use spent grain left over from the brewery, and all of them have the passcode to a room specifically designed for Appalachian Trail hikers.
Tucked behind the brewery, the room comes equipped with a shower, washer and dryer units, a re-packing station, and caged lockers. Hikers can ask the Vibe Properties businesses for the passcode to enter the room free of charge, in hopes that they’ll replenish their stores while they’re there.
“A burger, a beer, and a bath,” said Garry Green, owner of Mountain Trails, rattling off the nearby amenities. “The store will be legendary pretty soon on the AT.”
Currently, Down Home Comfort Bakery and Vine and Leaf are the only two Vibe Properties open for business. Barnhart anticipates the rest to open by January 2018.
“We’re really getting there,” McDonald said. “You know, it takes a long time, but when you finally get there, it’s like, I never thought this would happen 20 years ago. I never thought this would happen.”