In 2008, Paul Yandura and his partner, Donald Hitchcock, were searching for a weekend escape from their hectic life in the District.
The couple was drawn to the peace and quiet of West Virginia and bought a cabin with mountain views in Hardy County, about 125 miles west of Washington. The three-bedroom cabin cost $310,000, and they loved their screened-in porches the size of D.C. studios.
As Yandura and Hitchcock got to know the area, their ambitions started to transfer from their city careers to their new home in Hardy County. They looked to nearby Wardensville, a sleepy town of about 250 residents, and the vacant storefronts on Main Street began to look like pure potential.
“We came up with a goal: to make Wardensville a place to shop, stay and live,” Yandura said.
Yandura and Hitchcock’s decision led to a wave of new businesses and transplanted residents. Eight years later, D.C. license plates are visible in cabin driveways throughout the county, and downtown Wardensville has the feel of a gentrifying neighborhood.
In 2013, Yandura and Hitchcock became real estate agents, moved to the area full-time and bought a store on Main Street. Their Lost River Trading Post is a coffee shop and antique store where they host occasional supper clubs with guest chefs from the city, gallery openings and history lectures. Craft beers line the shelves, and coffee pots featuring the newest in brewing technology are available for sale.
The two began selling both residential and commercial properties in the county, and growth is dramatic. Sixteen businesses have opened their doors on Main Street in the past two years, and overall real estate transactions in east Hardy County grew from 61 sales in 2012 to 115 sales in 2015. In 2015, Yandura and Hitchcock’s Wardensville branch office of Lost River Real Estate brought in $8.84 million in home sales, up from $3.20 million in 2014.
The median sale price in the county is $125,000, with an $800,000 modern glass castle at the upper limit. Most people can find a finished home in the $200,000s and $300,000s, said Yandura, while reaching into the $400,000s puts you in “luxury land.”
Life as a real estate agent has been a learning experience for Yandura, who lived in Detroit, Los Angeles, New York City and the District before his move. Property viewings are sometimes interrupted by charging bulls, he said, and a herd of horses may show up on another piece of land.
Yandura often has to educate his city clients about the geographical realities of mountain life. An attractive piece of land might not have a road connecting it to main arteries, for example, and a cabin might be connected by such crumbling roadways that traveling one mile takes 30 minutes. “I always say, ‘Let’s drive around first,’ ” Yandura said.
At first, said Yandura, D.C. residents sought out cabins for weekend getaways. But as they got to know the area, more transplants began considering moving in full time.
A friend from Yandura’s days working in the Clinton administration was drawn to settle in the area with her child after hearing his stories and researching the local school district. “Now, we’re seeing more families,” Yandura said.
A fortuitous federal initiative also laid the groundwork for teleworking.
In 2010, Hardy Telecommunications received a federal grant to lay fiber-optic cable for Internet service throughout the area. The initiative, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funded in a public-private partnership with the Commerce and Agriculture departments, brought blazing-fast Internet speeds to millions of rural residents around the country, and it opened the door for Hardy County to support teleworkers.
“The infrastructure can completely support my work,” said Julie Fitzgerald, a contractor with the Defense Department who bought a four-bedroom home on 2 1 /2 wooded acres near Wardensville in 2014. “The Internet is better than what I had in D.C. — it’s consistent, reliable and fast. I can Skype, I can go to meetings — it supports all those tools.”
Fitzgerald’s job requires face time, and she holds on to an Old Town Alexandria condominium where she stays during the week, arriving in Washington on Sunday evenings and returning to the quiet life by Thursday mornings. “As soon as I turn off of Interstate 81 onto Route 55, I start to feel the change. The house is such a haven for me. And silly things, like that I can get pizza delivered to my house, are appealing,” said Fitzgerald, who originally wanted to be in the more remote Lost River area.
What is happening in the area seems to fit the definition of gentrification; the new residents moving into Wardensville and Hardy County often have D.C. salaries that far exceed the area’s median household income, which the 2010 Census put at $31,347.
Wealthy gentrifiers moving into the relatively poor, rural area come with their own tastes, and the new businesses popping up often seem like they belong in Columbia Heights or Bloomingdale. Breweries, restaurants with city-level prices and art galleries are bringing the larger world into the small town.
As in Washington, with gentrification comes tension.
“I know some of the local people who see me bringing in money through real estate and the store think that I am a mastermind — in a bad way,” Yandura said. Yandura can see, he said, how their ambition for economic development is irritating to some residents, and how the flowing money leads to suspicion. “Some people think we must have somehow been given something free by the government.”
“Change is difficult from some people, and so is the fact that it’s the outsiders who are coming in and being the movers and shakers,” said Martha Bradfield, a longtime resident. Of the 16 new Main Street businesses, 13 are owned by newcomers (people who were not born in the town). Bradfield is a descendant of the founding Warden family, whose ancestors arrived in the 1700s. The town was settled in 1832 by her great-uncle.
“I realize that a lot of people who have lived here all their lives probably would like to see it remain a sleepy little town,” she said.
In 2001, Yandura and Hitchcock lived in a gentrifying Columbia Heights. To Hitchcock, their two moves have several parallels.
“When we moved to Columbia Heights, we lived on an alley and saw crime every day, and were constantly calling the police. Here, the analogy is that instead of crime, we see sidewalks that need to be swept and beautification projects that can happen,” Hitchcock said. “Some people have no problem throwing trash out the windows. And we have been participating in river cleanups, because the river has been neglected.”
And as in Columbia Heights, Hitchcock feels that the burden of friendliness is on the newcomers.
“In Columbia Heights, we would walk our dog and say hello to everyone we saw,” Hitchcock said. “The same thing happens here: At the post office or the grocery store, I am always the first one to say hello. Some say hello back, some don’t.”
Sexual orientation adds another layer of complications to the rapid changes. Yandura and Hitchcock are gay, Fitzgerald is a lesbian, and several of the new “movers and shakers” are gay as well. Yandura and Hitchcock have also held “professionally gay” positions: Yandura worked for the White House liaison to the LGBT community under President Bill Clinton, and Hitchcock was a national field director at the National Coalition for LGBT Health.
A rainbow pride flag now flies on Main Street, and the town is incorporating a more visible gay culture into its existing community.
“We were told at one point that one of the churches was going to boycott our business because we are gay,” Yandura said. “But one of the preachers came in and apologized and said they should never treat people like that. And the truth of the matter is that there have been gay people in this town for many years.”
Yandura has adjusted as well.
“Some of our biggest critics have become our friends,” he said. “They hunt and shoot guns, and now we go with them. I was just at the National Rifle Association gun range shooting a gun, for the first time ever.”
Bradfield urges skeptical neighbors to see the economic development as a necessity.
“It’s important that we think about the revenue, like the B&O [business and occupation] tax,” Bradfield said. “We only have 255 residents, and we need to keep the town going. That is serious.”
Bradfield says that Yandura and Hitchcock have proved themselves.
“They are trustworthy, honorable people,” she said, “and they are so interested in seeing the town and community progress — they are not out for their own interests.”
Yandura and Hitchcock’s newest plans are specific to the town’s needs. Recently, they bought 100 acres on the edge of town and have plans to create a farmers market and employ locals to plant, harvest and sell crops. They just hired 14 teenagers from the area, Yandura said.
According to a highway department study, on average 4,000 cars pass through Wardensville every day. That average probably is bumped up significantly by weekenders: Many D.C. residents drive on U.S. 48, which becomes Wardensville’s Main Street, on their way to ski weekends in Davis, W.Va., or hiking trips through Canaan Valley or Seneca Rocks. The weekend-trippers are an attractive buyers’ market that projects such as the farmers market hope to capitalize on.
However, plans for Corridor H, a highway project decades in the making intended to more smoothly connect remote areas and mountainous passes throughout the Appalachian Mountains, will complicate matters. The highway, which is 80 percent complete, will one day bypass downtown Wardensville.
The rerouting creates a sense of urgency.
“We want to build this town up to be attractive now,” Bradfield said. “Hopefully, when they travel down Corridor H, they will refer to Wardensville and stop off.”
In the meantime, as new residents continue to add new flavor to Wardensville, Yandura hopes to keep the reins on development.
“None of us want this to become D.C.,” Yandura said. “People come to West Virginia for the nature, and we don’t want overly done tourism like in some Virginia towns. We just want a little bit of something to do.”
For Bradfield, who lives in the town with her husband and enjoys walking around the newly active Main Street, the change “is thrilling.”
“We will continue to progress,” Bradfield said. “We don’t want to regress or stay the same. Life is pretty dull when that happens.”