Year in review: Prize money flowed to area businesses in 2017

Basil I. Gooden, Virginia secretary of agriculture and forestry, speaks to a reporter inside the tasting room of Filibuster Distillery at 80 Maurertown Mill Road. The distillery had its grand opening of its tasting room in 2017 featuring their products including bourbon, rye whiskey, blended whiskey, and gin. Rich Cooley/Daily

Shenandoah Valley businesses had their fair share of victories and failures in 2017. Several shops won thousands of dollars in marketing grants, downtown revitalization was a common concern for small towns, and area business leaders even thrust their voices into local politics.

Six Shenandoah County businesses split a total prize of $20,000 in November from the county’s RevUp Marketing Event. The event held six weekly marketing-focused workshops, and at the end, participants submitted marketing proposals for a slice of the grand prize.

“We thought (attending RevUp) definitely was in the best interest of our business,” said Elizabeth Nail, owner of Strasburg Hobbies, one of the event’s winners. “Walking away with the understanding your target audience — that was able to lead us to where we were going.”

With the prize money, Nail planned to run ads on Facebook, Google and radio, as well as updating banners on the storefront windows and lights on the shop’s signs.

In September, Shenandoah County Chamber of Commerce members were asked to identify the greatest obstacle facing area businesses, and the top reason was the political climate in Shenandoah Valley.

Bill Holtzman, founder of the multi-million-dollar oil business that bears his name, blasted specific members of the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors for hindering economic growth.

“We are not growing in Shenandoah County, and I think it’s the political atmosphere here,” Holtzman said. “Our county is not growing like all the counties around it, and it’s a shame, because the political atmosphere here is not encouraging to business.”

Other business leaders, including First Bank President and CEO Dennis Dysart, urged residents to “consider the impact of business, and employment and tax base when they do cast their votes this year.”

But it wasn’t all political.

Navy Federal Credit Union expanded its Winchester operations center, creating 1,400 new jobs, in January. Patrick Barker, executive director of the Frederick County Economic Development Authority, said it was the biggest business expansion in the history of the county.

“This is a historic level of commitment being made to the county of Frederick,” Barker said. “The number of jobs and capital investment is the most in Frederick County history. … (The expansion) really does have that potential to be that transformational synergy that the county can use to further put itself on the radar for additional business investments.”

That wasn’t the only big news for the area. In March, Amazon brought more than 1,000 jobs to Frederick County with e-commerce warehouse and distribution operation in the White Hall Commerce Center.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe called the new, 1-million-square-foot facility “a powerful illustration of our ongoing success in building a new Virginia economy.”

However, it wasn’t all rosy for area commerce. Small businesses, in general, reported lackluster Black Friday sales. For some, this represented just a slow business day. For others who went big in anticipation of a rush, it was a blow.

“My previous Black Fridays working, we were slammed all day long … Today, no good. It’s been slow,” said Barry Ligas, store manager of True Value on Royal Avenue in Front Royal, who overstocked in preparation for Black Friday. “We were hoping for a good Black Friday, and we’ve got cases and cases of stuff up there still, and it’s usually gone.”

It was a big year for the Shenandoah Spirits Trail, a network of more than 40 vineyards, breweries, cideries and distilleries in the Shenandoah Valley. The organization won a $22,000 marketing grant from the Virginia Wine Board in July and $36,000 from the Virginia Tourism Corporation Marketing Leverage Program grant in September.

“The response to this trail has been tremendous,” said Shenandoah County Director of Marketing and Tourism Jenna French. “Since the start of the trail last year, it has developed organically. Vineyards refer people to breweries who refer people to the cideries.”

The Spirits Trail also sponsored the beer, wine and spirits pavilion at the DC MetroCooking Show in December, in hopes of forging new connections to the Shenandoah Valley alcohol industry.

New additions to the Spirits Trail include Ridge Runner Farms and Brewing Company in Maurertown and Filibuster Distillery, also in Maurertown.

Toward the southern end of the county, Solar I LLC was approved in May to build a 15.65-megawatt solar farm at 3100 Turkey Road in Mount Jackson. In its negotiations to acquire the permit from the town, Solar I LLC’s application stated the solar farm would generate $900,000 in economic impact.

Front Royal and Edinburg both applied for federal money to revitalize their downtowns in the form of Community Development Block Grants, but fell short. Both towns are taking in feedback and preparing to reapply in 2018.

Despite the failed grant attempt, Front Royal has seen several upgrades to its Main Street at the hands of private developers.

Kerry Barnhart, owner of Vibe Properties, gutted and revitalized six storefronts along Main Street and secured six new businesses to move in. She had a strict rule for the shops: owners had to be completely committed, and not run their stores as “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.”

Between the revitaliation of Main Street and the completion of Leach Run Parkway, which connects John Marshall Highway and Happy Creek Road, Executive Director of the Warren County Economic Development Authority Jennifer McDonald is proud of the area’s progress.

“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.”