Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Bath County, Virginia, pop. 4,400, shows cultural tensions in debates about growth and politics

Map from VirginiaPlaces.org
What happens when an arriviste power couple renew one's roots in the Virginia Alleghenies and help a rural county but don't play politics the way local pols want it played? They get sacked. And people get mad.

Bath County supervisors voted in September to eliminate the job of county tourism director, held by Maggie Anderson, wife of Wayne Anderson, who had brought the county its first new industry in 13 years but wouldn't share details with the supervisors until the deal was done. "A group of citizens has launched a legal effort to have the three supervisors removed from office," Laurence Hamamck reports for The Roanoke Times.

"In a rural county known for its mineral springs and mountain views, and where many of the 4,400-some residents take pride in having not a single traffic light but lots of traffic-stopping sights, the controversy has exposed underlying cultural tensions in a debate about growth," Hammack reports. "The board’s decision was seen as a swipe at tourism, a key industry that revolves around the Omni Homestead, a luxury resort and the county’s largest employer."

Five months earlier, supervisors "opted not to reappoint" Wayne Anderson chair of the county's Economic Development Authority "as he worked to close the deal" with Speyside Bourbon Cooperage, a manufacturer of whiskey barrel staves, Hammack writes. "The Andersons’ supporters believe the supervisors who voted to eliminate her position, and dismiss her husband five months earlier, were peeved because they were not told of some details about the Speyside project until it was announced." Anderson said he had promised the company he would not reveal its identity.

Bath County Supervisors Hall, Collins and Byrd
(Roanoke Times photo by Heather Rousseau)
Supervisors Claire Collins, Richard Byrd and Stuart Hall "have offered few reasons for their vote to cut the tourism position," Hammack reports. "All three declined to comment for this story. Their silence has fueled small-town speculation about personal vendettas and paybacks." But Byrd may have provided clues at the meeting where the tourism job was cut, saying the move was needed “to take the county back. . . . Local people who live here are considered to be nothing. If you don’t come here and own something for a million dollars or more, then you were considered nothing.”

Anderson grew up in the county, but earned his fortune in movie theaters in Maryland and California. His wife, "a native of New York who grew up in California, was also in the movie business, serving as the executive director of the National Association of Theater Owners," Hammack notes. They married at the Homestead in 2004, and she got the tourism job in 2010. In 2014, it was expanded to include economic development. Former supervisor Bruce McWilliams told Hammack that some may see the Andersons as “the rich outsiders who are trying to take over, whatever that looks like. . . . There’s always sort of this us-against-them thing that’s right under the surface. . . . I feel we’re at a turning point, politically and culturally, with the county. I think it’s time for Bath County to recognize the world is changing, and that we need to be a part of that change.”

Supervisor Byrd's comments "appeared to be a reference to simmering frustrations among some longtime county residents, who resent the influx of a newer, more affluent crowd that has pushed for more progressive change, including a greater emphasis on tourism and economic development," Hammack writes. "At the same meeting, the board voted to cut funding to the Bath County Chamber of Commerce and halt plans for a visitors center on a stretch of highway between Warm Springs, the county seat, and Hot Springs, where the Homestead’s tower dominates the landscape. The board later backtracked on those actions, which were also discussed during its closed session."

The Andersons with their home and Angus cattle
(Roanoke Times photo by Heather Rousseau)
Hall said the visitors center and an adjacent amphitheater were “not for the people of Bath County. It was for a handful, and if they want to drink wine or whatever they want to do, they can go to the Homestead or Garth Newel,” which Hammack describes as "a music center where concerts are often paired with gourmet meals.' Hall said, “The local people cannot afford to go there.”

Petitions to a circuit court for the supervisors' removal cite a closed session they held to discuss eliminating the tourism job. The county attorney also cited that when he resigned in November. Meanwhile, Hall has been indicted on an election-fraud charge that alleges he lives in Highland County, not Bath County.

"In normally placid Bath County, the sheriff’s office must now keep the peace at board of supervisors meetings," Hammack reports. "The board requested extra sheriff’s deputies after its Sept. 13 vote drew large, angry crowds. Words like 'ignorant', 'scumbags' and 'band of bozos' were lobbed during public meetings and in letters to the editor published by The Recorder, a local newspaper that has chronicled the controversy. The most vehement speakers were led away by police escorts."

The Recorder is based in Monterey, in Highland County, but is the newspaper of record for Bath County, which has no local paper. Its website is behind a paywall.

No comments: