Before developer Jim Abdo’s idea to remake the town of Washington, Va. made headlines just over a week ago, some residents of the town and surrounding Rappahannock County hadn’t heard much about his plans.
Perhaps when stopping through town they’d seen the White Moose Inn, which Abdo opened this spring, but heard little more.
Once the scope of Abdo’s vision for the town was clear however, the hornet’s nest was stirred, with townsfolk writing letters to the editor and commenting on a local e-mail listserv, Rappnet.org.
Much of the public response has not been warm. Walter Nicklin, publisher of the Rappahannock News, wrote that after the story was published “a county-wide conversation erupted — whether via email and Internet or in person, over coffee or something stronger. ‘Conversation’ is a euphemism; the more accurate description is ‘outrage.’ “
The newspaper, whose offices are on Main Street in Washington a stone’s throw from many of the buildings Abdo and his partners have purchased, plans to hold a forum starting at 5 p.m. on Thursday June 19 at the Theatre at Washington, Va.
The story has begun attracting increased attention from ‘Big Washington’ media as well, including Washingtonian Magazine and WJLA (Channel 7), which ran a two-minute segment last week:
One of the emerging voices against Abdo’s plans is Ben Jones, the former congressman from Georgia who played Cooter the mechanic on “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Jones may have played a role in the primary defeat of House majority leader Eric Cantor, and he seems determined to see Abdo fall similarly. In a letter to the Post, Jones takes aim at the “astonishing presumptions” he feels Abdo makes about the town not having a sufficient “pulse.”
This is our worst nightmare. Suddenly we are corridors, we have catalysts, we are being leveraged. Our town is not hollow. It is not vacant or empty. It has a pulse. It is quiet, thank the Lord, for that is why we love it. I think what Abdo saw was not a problem to be solved but money to be made. So he and his partners very quietly bought up half the town. We found out about it in The Post. Now that the deal is done, it appears we will have to live with the results.
A friend of mine, a native of Rappahannock, put it this way: “A lot of these ‘come-heres’ and weekend people stick to themselves and look down their nose at us. Some of them are all right, but a lot of them act like they are better than us.” That is kind of it in a nutshell. The yard with the “kitchen appliance” sitting outside, which The Post sniffed at, is the yard of a proud family whose members have given their lives to this place.
Jones also wrote to the Rappahannock News, taking aim at the Inn at Little Washington, Mayor John Fox Sullivan and the Post but especially Abdo:
You have insulted us, Mr. Abdo, cluelessly and arrogantly insulted us. Apparently these deals are done and there is not a hell of a lot we can do about it. But you are in the South, my friend. We have long memories.
Since the article, some of the county’s residents say that while they are looking forward to hearing more, they are wary of any change that could damage the area’s rural makeup.
“It’s the talk of the corner store and the farm co-op. Folks are very concerned. I think there are a lot of folks like me around here that see it as a harbinger of things to come,” said Karen Quanbeck, who grew up in Middleburg and now lives in Sperryville.
She said she would hate to see Little Washington go the way of her hometown. “I watched the same thing happen in Middleburg, basically, where it’s just become a tourist destination instead of a small town,” she said.
Bill Freitag and Patty Hardee, a farming couple in Flint Hill, about six miles from Washington, didn’t take kindly to the idea that the county, though its economy relies partly on tourism, was in need of a savior of some kind.
“Abdo’s idea of rescuing the county just flies in the face of what goes on around here. We’re a pretty self sufficient group of people,” said Freitag. “This town is not as down and out and hollow as Abdo made it out to be.”
They both said they planned to attend the meeting but Hardee said she worried that farmers like herself wouldn’t raise their voices sufficiently to be heard. Similarly, few residents attended the town meetings in which Abdo won approval for the White Moose Inn.
“I fear the people who won’t be there will be the ones whose interests are most at stake,” she said. “The people who are really trying to make it farming — that that’s their livelihood.”
Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz