Robert Sipe tugged at his suspenders and allowed that the announcement that the Adolph Coors Co. plans to build a $70 million beer distribution center down the road from his old-fashioned country grocery store was "a helluva good idea."
For 27 years, Sipe and his wife Alma have operated Sheetz Grocery -- "we didn't want to change a name that everyone was used to," she explained -- at the intersection of Va. Rtes. 649 and 996 that forms the heart of McGaheysville.
That's the community closest to the 2,200 acres of the Shenandoah Valley that Coors, the nation's fifth largest brewery, purchased during the past decade, in anticipation of building its first brewery outside the home base in Golden, Colo.
When Coors' plan became public six years ago, so many people showed up -- many in the crowd of 1,200 were protesters -- that the zoning hearing on the issue had to be shifted outside to the lawn of the Rockingham County Courthouse here.
In the intervening years, both the brewery promoters and protesters have calmed down.
When the county board of supervisors met last night, a few hours after Coors unveiled its plan to break ground next spring on the distribution center, and a brewery as soon as demand warrants, there was little talk of Coors. The nearest thing to a mention of Coors was a note that folks from McGaheysville want to talk about water and sewer lines at an upcoming meeting.
"Time heals a lot," said Henry C. Clark, the lawyer who bought up a lot of the land for Coors. "Although others picked up on it, most of the opposition was germinated by temperance groups."
Clark said he met with some of them, but "their view was, 'Don't come here,' so nothing we said or did could change that."
One of the last holdouts among the landowners sold his 107-acre farm to Coors earlier this year, reportedly for $300,000 to $400,000, and moved to Texas.
Industry analysts said the long delay by Coors was prompted in part by the difficulty it has had in making the transition from a highly successful regional beer to a national one. Since Coors decided to go national it has been buffeted by foreign beers and the new light, or low-calorie, brands.
Rockingham Supervisor Timothy G. Hulings said he used to worry that other industrial prospects might be scared off by the threat of having to compete with Coors, a nonunion firm that has a reputation of paying relatively high wages. Even yesterday's announcement didn't cause Hulings to buy drinks all around.
"Having waited six years, we know we can survive without Coors," said Hulings, who operates a greenhouse. "I'm glad they're going to build in stages. It will be easier on government, and land values. I hope in 20 years we'll still enjoy the character of the county, the beauty of the land -- I hope they don't change us too much."
Clark said the main factors in Coors' decision to locate here were easy access to Eastern markets, a plentiful water supply, the quality of life and "the very nature of Virginia government." Clark said that included Virginia's conservatism and a right-to-work law that outlaws mandatory union membership.
Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb, who was among those attending the ceremony here, complimented Coors on its decision to wait until it could finance the construction without outside loans. That decision, Robb told Peter Coors, president of Coors' brewing division and a grandson of the firm's founder, "is entirely consistent with a good, fiscally conservative -- my wife sometimes says 'cheap' -- sound business policy."
Mark Kilduff, deputy director of Virginia's Department of Economic Development, said "we don't know how important" the right-to-work law was in influencing Coors' decision. "But we think it was an important feature," he said.
Construction of the packaging plant, which will take about a year, will create 400 jobs. The plant itself will employ 230, most of whom are expected to come from the local work force.
Statistics released today by the Virginia Employment Commission show July unemployment in Rockingham County was 5.8 percent -- matching the statewide average -- 4.1 percent in Harrisonburg, but 11 percent in adjoining Page County.
Derwood L. Runion, a building supply and poultry equipment operator who is chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said Coors will help provide "a good mix" for the area, along with agriculture, primarily turkey farming, and other light industry. "It will help the tax base, and give an incentive to keep our young people in the area.
"The teetotalers aren't going to be happy," Runion said, as he left the supervisors' meeting. "But you can already buy beer at every 7-Eleven, High's, and gas station. Come on, Tim," Runion said to Hulings, "Let's go have a cold Coors."