May election preview: Balancing business with small-town life

Posted on Thursday, April 10, 2014 at 11:57 am

According to a three-term incumbent seeking another four years on Ashland Town Council next month, the issues facing the town today are the same ones present 12 years ago.

Incumbent Faye Prichard, 55, who has served as mayor for the last 10 years, ran for office in response to what was then the controversial construction of a Walmart within town limits. Though the big box store has since become a part of the community, Prichard said the push and pull between economic development and small town identity continues.

Prichard

Prichard

“We’re always in a battle to think about how we maintain the character of a town that people love so much and keep it this really wonderful small town and make that economically viable,” she said.

Prichard pointed to the recently opened Vitamin Shoppe distribution center as a good example of how the town can strike that balance. The business generates jobs and tax revenue for the town but doesn’t create nuisances like increased traffic or detract from other businesses.

The most seasoned politician among the three candidates seeking two seats on town council, Prichard has held office for 12 years, coming on in 2002. Looking back on her tenure, Prichard pointed to her experience on town council during the recession as her greatest achievement. When many localities were shedding staff, Ashland laid off only one employee but continued the same level of service while not raising taxes on citizens or losing businesses.

“I think I’ve managed a steady helm,” she said.

Prichard is also proud of the “combined efforts” that town council has pursued during her tenure. In response to state and federally imposed “total maximum daily load” guidelines, environmental regulations governing the amount of pollution allowed to enter a local waterway, the town has worked to address what’s required of them under the new law while also bettering the town. Prichard points to the municipal parking lot and downtown streetscape project as two good examples of how the town has been able to kill two birds with one stone.

“What we’ve always tried to do is combine this really good green thing with some kind of economic development, so at the end of the day we not only met a regulation that we were required to meet, but tried to do something positive with it,” she said.

Prichard also said she’s proud that the town has improved its relationship with Hanover County. When she was first elected 12 years ago, Prichard said that Ashland’s and Hanover’s elected officials were at odds. Today, though they may not agree on every issue, the two governments enjoy a good working relationship.

Ashland has also raised its regional profile through membership in a number of groups, which has led to better relationships with a number of Richmond-area localities.

Prichard also has her share of regrets. Looking back on her record, Prichard said that often the smallest decisions proved to be the most difficult.

“You would think that the votes that are the hardest would be big, huge projects…and they almost never are,” she said. “By the time you get to them, you’ve weighed things pretty carefully. It’s the local stuff that’s really hard.”

Prichard said the vote she most regrets was not approving connecting two segments of New Street when it first came to town council. At the time, New Street was not connected in the middle and there were two very diverse neighborhoods on either end of the street.

“I think I just caved,” she said.

Eventually, the town approved the measure. But Prichard said in voting against it the first time, town council looked biased.

“I think when we didn’t open it, it looked as though we were choosing one neighborhood over another, it looked as though we weren’t following our own plan, and ultimately it’s the thing I really, really regret – is not [connecting New Street] when it first came to us,” she said.

During Prichard’s time on council, the town of Ashland became one of few debt-free municipalities thanks to a “pay-as-you-go” policy toward funding capital projects, meaning that the town likes to have the funding on hand to complete a project without issuing debt. In the upcoming budget, town officials have proposed borrowing heavily from their savings account and also reappropriating funding from within its capital fund to help pay for projects. Prichard said that the pay-as-you-go philosophy remains sound as long as the town doesn’t become too bound by it.

“Is it wise to say, ‘As much as we possibly can we’d like to pay was we go?’ Sure, that’s a good philosophy. But what if some serious thing in the town failed tomorrow?” she said.

A large portion of the town’s revenue base is traditionally drawn from restaurants and hotels. Facing flat revenues this year, Prichard said it’s going to be  important to stay relevant going forward in the face of increasing lodging and dining options nearby.

The town is currently in between economic development coordinators, but Prichard said she hopes the new hire will work to encourage redevelopment of the town’s aging hotel stock and will look at ways to ensure the hospitality-based businesses between Route 1 and I-95 remain relevant and up-to-date.

She also recommended assembling a coalition of hotel owners as a way “to help people help each other,” though she was quick to note that it’s not her role to tell business owners how to operate.

“I don’t own those businesses and it is not my business to come in and tell somebody, ‘Here’s what you need to do with your business,’” she said.

Prichard would also like to see increased dining downtown. The Ashland Planning Commission is currently in the midst of a major overhaul of the B-1 commercial zoning ordinance, which will impact the future of the downtown commercial district. While Prichard wanted to let the commission do its work, she does have some ideas on what she’d like to see downtown.

Prichard prefers retail and restaurant uses over offices, for example, as businesses that attract more foot traffic to the district. She also supports mixed residential and commercial use downtown, as long as the living quarters aren’t on the street level.

As a way to increase overall economic development, Prichard said she’d like to see what she called the town’s business-friendly attitude continue. Several years ago, the town had the reputation of being hard to work with when it came to new businesses. She said the town has tried to make it easier for prospective businesses when it comes to things like town laws or zoning regulations.

“We meet new business at the door and say, ‘Here’s what you’re going to have to do, here’s what our rules are. Now, how can we help you?’” she said.

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