CULPEPER STAR-EXPONENT, CLINT SCHEMMER
As Congress crafts a comprehensive bill to improve American infrastructure, the Culpeper area’s U.S. lawmakers visited Culpeper to confer with local leaders on what additional federal support is needed as the community regains strength during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Friday, Sen. Tim Kaine and Rep. Abigail Spanberger met at the Culpeper Economic Development Center with the county and town’s top officials, then went on a walking tour of downtown Culpeper to meet with several local business owners.
Paige Read, the town’s economic development and tourism director, sparked the discussion among the two Democratic lawmakers, Culpeper Mayor Mike Olinger, Culpeper County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gary Deal, Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jeff Seay, County Administrator John Egertson, Acting Town Manager Jim Hoy, County Economic Development Director Phil Sheridan and Culpeper County Grants Administrator Laura Loveday.
Kaine, 63, said the past 12 months since the COVID-19 crisis hit the United States “has definitely been the most challenging year of my life.”
The state’s junior U.S. senator noted that he and his wife both developed COVID, their three oldest children were laid off because of it, and they’ve seen nine friends die of the disease.
But as he has traveled around Virginia in recent weeks, Kaine said he drew cheer from hearing how individuals, communities and businesses have rallied together during the pandemic. “I’ve heard a lot of positive stories amid the challenges,” he said.
The two lawmakers asked what challenges face Culpeper, and how they can try to help.
Deal emphasized that the county would appreciate federal help financing for a community pool and improvements to its Sports Complex, including a field house and recreation center. The county needs better facilities for its senior citizens, including a pickleball court, he said.
The chairman asked if the federal government would help pay for improvements at the new Culpeper Technical Education Center; the county’s desired recreation center; or The Carver Center, a career training site in the region’s former high school for African American students.
“We really need help for our kids and seniors,” he said.
Culpeper supervisors just approved spending $2 million to light all of the complex’s athletic fields, Deal noted.
Kaine said he will go to bat for Culpeper on the recreation center, though he wasn’t sure how much flexibility the American Recovery Act or the Biden administration’s proposed infrastructure bill will allow for such spending.
Say thanked Spanberger for helping deliver a $4.1 million grant to improve Head Start facilities at Culpeper’s Galbreath-Marshall Building. That effort will support 80 jobs at Head Start.
Speaking as the father of three young daughters, Say noted that the pandemic caused the local movie theater, bowling alley and roller rink to close during the same spring and summer that the national emergency shuttered classrooms. That left children with fewer outlets for recreation and so meet and socialize with their peers, he said.
For the sake of Culpeper children’s mental health and development, Say said, “We’ve got to find a way to get back together.”
Building on that idea, Mayor Olinger told the legislators, “You guys have got to find ways to be creative.”
Read and Say stressed that many Culpeper businesses are encountering great difficulty finding enough workers., from big employers such as Cintas, Euro-Composites Corp. and Bingham & Taylor to smaller ones such as restaurants.
Helping businesses meet their workforce requirements as the community begins to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic is a major issue, they said.
“Major industries are suffering, and small businesses, too,” Read said. “That is the challenge we are seeing now.”
She credited millions in federal aid with empowering Culpeper, both the county and the town, to help residents and businesses get through the economic hardships imposed by public-health strictures during the novel-coronavirus emergency.
Read said she was “pretty proud” of how the town’s businesses have weathered the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, Culpeper saw 120 business businesses come into being and 107 businesses close, which was a little better than in 2019, Read said.
“That really speaks to the resilience of our small business owners,” she said.
Read’s description drew an audible “wow” from Spanberger.
On infrastructure, Egerton noted that Culpeper, which has many unpaved rural roads, has a huge backlog of needs for secondary-road money that Virginia has been unable to meet.
Kaine said roads would be part of the infrastructure bill now being formulated by lawmakers and the Biden administration.
Congress must set priorities on what kind of projects the bill would finance; determine whether federal or state authorities will decide what ventures to fund; and figure out how to finance the additional spending, the senator said.
Spanberger said a consensus is emerging among many U.S. legislators that improving broadband coverage in rural localities is a national priority—a need that an infrastructure bill could help meet.
After their hour-plus meeting, the two lawmakers, Deal, Olinger and Read headed downtown to talk with a few business owners about their COVID-year experiences and hopes. They walked through the town’s South East Street historic district, past a bed-and-breakfast inn, wisteria-draped yards and at least one Culpeper Minutemen flag.
First, they popped into Far Gohn Brewery at East and Locust streets. Owner Steve Gohn described how he shifted to selling canned beer and takeout meals in a new drive-through lane in the first months of the pandemic, and recently has seen business revive to a near-2019 level.
Bartenders Alica Mimnaugh and Taylor Corry poured a flight of the brewpub’s wares for its guests to sample, and Read and the elected officials toasted one another as Gohn watched.
Walking farther up East Street and rounding the corner, Kaine, Spanberger and Read reached Raven’s Nest coffee shop on East Davis Street, where they chatted for a while with owner Britanny Mabrey and got cups of java to go. Mabrey told how, with the town’s help, she installed a curbside ‘parklet’ dining area so patrons could eat outdoors during the pandemic.
Rounding East Davis Street onto Main, the group met Rob Kearney of Miranda Ventures LLC outside the Culpeper Center & Suites, a banquet and conference facility. Kearney said the center would host its first graduation party that night since the pandemic hit. Hiring staff is difficult now, he said.