Bret W. Hrbek: Afton Inn swap is a good deal for the town

By Bret W. Hrbek

On Monday the Front Royal Town Council will decide if we should transfer the old Town Hall property to the Economic Development Authority for the purpose of swapping the building for the Afton Inn property at the corner of Royal Avenue and Main Street.

I believe this is a good deal for Front Royal — not exclusively or necessarily for the government of the Town of Front Royal, but the people and businesses of the town.

There are arguments that have been made against the move, many in good faith and by people I respect. This is healthy in a democracy. However, there have been some who have disseminated false information and I believe that we need to make sure the facts are available to the public. This is not a “you need to pass it to find out what’s in it” action as one opposed to it suggested recently. We will vote on a contract that is clear, understandable and enforceable.

Why are we doing this? First, we no longer need the Town Hall. It is not suitable for the town government’s needs, nor an appropriate place for a new police department. The town government does not need the space — nor want it — after moving our offices into the building on Main Street.

Secondly, this presents an opportunity to rejuvenate the town’s crossroads. The No. 1 question visitors ask me is why we allow the building to look like that. The first question posed to the EDA by prospective businesses is what’s the deal with the Afton Inn. The No. 1 thing you hear from the business community is why can’t we do something about the Afton Inn. The answer is because the town does not have the authority to act. We do not have the power to condemn or oversee buildings — that is a county role (another reason the town should consider its own building inspection department). If we were to invoke eminent domain powers, we would be required to use the property for a public purpose. And while a park or other open space would be an improvement, it doesn’t within the vision of the town’s economic future.

We have the opportunity to set down a marker at the most visible intersection in our community by removing or rehabilitating the property. By acting, we send a message that we are proud of our community and want to improve the quality of life and opportunity for all.

But at what expense? None.

The covenants on the old Town Hall will give us legal protections if the new owners don’t hold up their end of the bargain. The covenants require the new owner to:
• Keep the facade protected and keep its historical look
• Act within at least two years to improve the interior
• Seek permission from Town Council if a prospective tenant does not fall within a list of pre-approved categories.

What if the new owner doesn’t comply? The town can buy the property back at fair market value. The town, the owner and an independent third party will select an appraiser and the purchase value will be the average of the three.

But I don’t believe this will happen. Prudence and due diligence dictate that we put these protections in place. But our EDA has a track record of success in Warren County and has been working to secure a new owner for the Afton Inn property. I believe we will see movement quickly on the property. The EDA also has been working with representatives of Afton Inn LLC and they are excited to move quickly with their plans to revitalize the old Town Hall.

And let’s be clear, there is no cash transfer of any kind. The only taxpayer expenses will be maintenance of the Afton Inn until it’s sold. If we hold on to the old Town Hall, we will have a tremendous amount of expense to incur to maintain it and market it.

The town government has a responsibility to create an atmosphere of healthy economic activity within the town. Catalyst projects like the redevelopment of a vital corner of our community screams for action. The time is now. We will not get another.

One citizen asked the Town Council if this is the legacy that we want to leave. My answer is a definitive yes. If I retire from public service with this as my only success, I will be very proud of my time served.

Bret W. Hrbek is a member of the Front Royal Town Council.