Developing a master plan for Madison Heights, making the county’s appearance more attractive and expanding access to the James River are among goals county supervisors voiced during a board retreat Monday.
The board and county department heads met during a daylong planning meeting at Sweet Briar College to discuss their collective vision for the county of about 31,800 residents and 208 full-time county employees. Supervisors discussed finding ways to bring more economic activity across the river from Lynchburg and making Madison Heights more attractive for future residents and businesses.
Supervisor David Pugh said he would like to see the county tap more into Liberty University’s catalyst for growth in the Lynchburg area by focusing on hotels and apartments. “That’s a prime, prime spot,” Pugh said of southern Madison Heights near the city’s border. “The infrastructure is already there.”
Pugh said the county has many recreational opportunities and that was a key reason he moved back to Amherst, along with the county’s rural character. Officials reviewed financial figures that painted a grim picture of expenditures projected to outpace revenues from next year through 2027.
“I want it to stay rural,” County Administrator Dean Rodgers said of Amherst. “But our lifeblood is more revenue … we’ve got to draw people across the river. It’s not a matter of not growing. It cost us money to do nothing. So we’ve got to generate more revenue.”
Supervisors discussed ways to improve the county’s image and boost its profile among prospective businesses and families looking for places to live. Rodgers said at a joint supervisor-school board committee meeting last week the county’s needs alone are enough to call for a 13-cent real estate tax increase, though he didn’t say if that is what he will seek in the next fiscal year’s budget.
He said during the retreat he will request a tax increase and county staff will be ready to explain and defend what the money would be used for.
“I dread a tax increase … this is going to be painful,” Rodgers said.
The county last raised taxes, a 5-cent real estate hike, in 2016. The county’s real estate tax rate is 61 cents per $100 of assessed value, which Pugh noted is higher than other neighboring counties. He asked how the county can remain competitive with those counties when they have lower tax rates.
A penny of real estate tax in Amherst equals about $240,000, according to Rodgers.
Chairman Jimmy Ayers said he regularly gets complaints from residents of the county having no hotels and a lack of what he described as decent restaurants. He said the county can’t keep “hammering” residents with tax increases.
“What do we have to show them?” Ayers said of tax hikes. “Our community has seen nothing out of us for years.”
Supervisors also discussed the need for a senior living community in Amherst and the importance of redeveloping the Central Virginia Training Center, a 342-acre state-run Madison Heights facility for residents with developmental and intellectual disabilities slated for closure in June 2020.
“It is a game-changer,” Rodgers said of successfully redeveloping the site.
Ayers said the board’s most marketable area with business expansion is Madison Heights. Supervisors spoke of the importance of making sure it looks attractive and appealing to newcomers.
“It’s like a job interview,” said Supervisor Jennifer Moore, who represents parts of Madison Heights. “You want to put your best foot forward.”
Rodgers said a major goal of his is to seek ways to jumpstart development on the James River and use riverfront properties to help meet that goal. Department heads also discussed hopes for attractions in the county such as a regional sports complex, an outdoor movie theater and preparing the Amherst Visitor Center property on U.S. 60 in Amherst for hotel and restaurant potential.
Amherst County Economic Development Authority Director Victoria Hanson said she would like to see CVTC redeveloped into a corporate headquarters campus with housing, recreation and retail because it will attract quality jobs.
Nathan Young, the county’s building official, said he would like to see a career and technical education academy headquarters locate in the county near the high school.
“Our trades are dying,” Young said. “We are running out of people … these are good-paying jobs. We’re not nurturing that growth, that marketability, and we have an opportunity to do that.”
Tom Martin, who is running unopposed for the District 1 board seat in the Nov. 5 election, attended the retreat and said the county should focus on strategic planning for Madison Heights as part of strengthening the county’s tax base.
“There is no magic fairy dust here,” Martin said. “We’re running a marathon, not a race.”