River city: Scottsville's awash... in cash

It's Friday night in Scottsville. As a small crowd gathers at the Dew Drop Inn to cheer on a local band, one bar patron proudly announces her connection to the musicians.

"They rehearse in my basement," she tells me. "They're excellent."

"In your basement?" her husband calls out. "The house is yours, but– damn it– the basement is mine. They rehearse in my basement."

Most of the customers here appear to know each other, and everyone's smiling as they exchange hugs and handshakes. Scottsville is a community of about 550 people, and despite the rampant gossip and frequent backbiting, the mood this night is cordial and full of small town hospitality.

Scottsville sits along the banks of the James River, on the southern tip of Albemarle County. The best directions I can give are as follows: Head south about 20 miles down Route 20, but don't blink, or you're liable to miss it altogether. Just remember, if you cross the James River, you've gone too far.

My friend Joe and I stop by the Dew Drop early for a drink, hours before the show. Although she's only met me once before, Tanya, the bartender, instantly recalls my name.

"Chaz, what can I get you?"

"I'll take a vodka cranberry."

"Sure thing," she says, grabbing a bottle from the shelf. "Who's your friend?"

Joe introduces himself and asks for a shot of bourbon on the rocks. Within minutes of taking a seat at the bar, we're deep in conversation with locals. Inevitably, the talk turns to the future of Scottsville.

"Take a good look at it," one man remarks, "because in a year's time, Scottsville will be a very different place."

He may be right. This tiny town has procured more than $2 million for some of the most ambitious renovation projects in its nearly 400-year history.

Once plagued by disastrous floods, a blistering attack by Union troops in the Civil War, and a series of mysterious fires in the 1970s that nearly eradicated the town, the small community now appears poised on the brink of a renaissance.

 

Re-Inventing Downtown

 Just off Main Street is a new pavilion-covered walkway of brick and concrete jutting south, straight into the levee. The walkway is lined with a row of eight brick pylons, the last one nestled against the levee's embankment. This marks the beginning of just one of the town's pending improvements: Canal Basin Square.

"It's going to be a place where the town can gather for events, a place for school field trips, a place for tourists, and also a place for our locals to learn about our history," says John Bowers, project spokesperson, who says it's "about 98 percent complete."

Built on the site of the loading spot for canal boats, the park, designed by Nancy Takahashi, a Charlottesville landscape architect, celebrates Scottsville's many links to the James River. The park will include full-size models of historic boats, an outdoor stage for concerts and theatrical productions, and a working scale model of the James River & Kanawha Canal the man-made waterway that once carried commerce along the banks of Scottsville. Total cost: $650,000.


The Edward Scott, Scottsville's official batteau, has been retired to a place of honor in Canal Basin Square

 But this is only one of the projects currently under way. This spring, the town will continue surveying for a new streetscape which calls for tearing up the sidewalks to bury power and phone lines, repaving the walks, and adding electric streetlights with a nostalgic mid-19th-century design. Although Mayor Stephen Phipps admits that the project won't be fully up and running until spring 2004, the money (more than a million dollars) is in place.

And that's not all. This spring, contractors will break ground on a new municipal parking lot and begin constructing a walkway along the lip of the levee. Local history buff Shirley Dorrier donated a strip of land behind the local drugstore, which will serve as Bruce Park a small green space slated for construction in the spring.

Perhaps most remarkable is that such a tiny town could raise the money for such projects. In all, area politicians acquired $2,369,799 in federal transportation grants, collected $403,330 in private donations, and appropriated $165,400 from the town's operating budget. In all, this works out to about $5,600 for every man, woman, and child in the tiny town.

Furthermore, the mayor and town council continue to fundraise, hoping to gather another million dollars for local improvements– all of this in a state facing a $2 billion budget crunch.

However, this is a town known for creative solutions. How else could former mayor A. Raymon Thacker have raised upwards of $4 million for the levee? We'll get to that.

 

A Town Torn Between Past and Future

 With the band at the Dew Drop Inn still setting up, and the crowd just beginning to trickle in, Joe and I decide it's a good time to slip across the street and grab some dinner at Jimmy's on the James.

Before the current owner bought this Valley Street property in 2000, this restaurant was the River Rat, and long before that it was the office of the late Dr. L.R. Stinson, one of the largest landowners in the area, who, according to local historian Steven Meeks, made money performing illegal abortions in the '30s and '40s.

Aside from a few patrons perched at the bar, Jimmy's– with its eclectic upscale cuisine– is nearly empty. I order the salmon and a few more vodka tonics. Joe sticks with bourbon on the rocks. Over dinner and drinks, those few of us at the bar discuss the pros and cons of the downtown project.

"What concerns me," one local resident says, "is that with all of these improvements, property values might climb so high that the average person can't afford to conduct business." He motions to the ice-cream shop next door.

"Now, if that building costs you $400,000 to buy, how will you turn a profit? You can't make that back, not with ice cream, not with anything in this town. If we're not careful, this could actually shut out the small business owner."

The same resident (he asked that I not use his name) nonetheless favors the current projects, insisting that if the town doesn't keep in step with the times, it could fall into disrepair and die out as so many other rural settlements have done.

This wavering attitude between wariness of growth and the desire for thriving businesses is common. Everyone agrees that the town should preserve its image, but no one seems quite sure what that image is.

Is Scottsville a growing community of forward-thinking businesses and landowners? A colonial relic in need of a makeover? Or a small southern town filled with easy-going simple folk?

Even the legendary A. Raymon Thacker, the mayor who saved the town from the waters of the James, seems tepid when asked about the town's new renovations.

"I don't want them to overdo it," says Thacker, "because America was founded by small towns, and a lot of the things they're going to rip out down there are part of what it means to be a small town... I just don't want see it get too sophisticated, because then you will lose the antiquity of it. You'll lose the character."

 

Invasions

 Two 19th century developments turned Scottsville, population one thousand, into a boomtown. In 1827 a toll road linked Scottsville to Staunton, and in 1840 the James River & Kanawha Canal connected Scottsville to Richmond and beyond.

"The little village set in that dramatic horseshoe bend of the James had become a transshipping point of considerable importance," according to John Hammond Moore's noted history, Albemarle.

According to Moore's book, authorities in Scottsville tallied up $30,000 in fees the first year of the Canal's operation. Two years later, Scottsville was putting 25,000 tons of goods onto canal boats.

"Sadly," writes Moore, "this river town's moment of glory was brief." In 1858, a railroad tunnel through the Blue Ridge, designed by engineer Claudius Crozet, allowed freight and passengers to move easily between the Valley and Tidewater– and bypass Scottsville in the process. The dwindling canal business suffered further blow on March 6, 1865. On their way to join General Ulysses S. Grant's siege of Petersburg, Union soldiers swept through Scottsville, burning buildings and destroying canal locks.

Recent Scottsville skirmishes have been more eyebrow-raising than lock-breaking.

Last August, a philanthropic organization called the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation chose Scottsville as a possible site for its annual "Ride for Life" a motorcycle rally slated for June 2003. The organization has hosted the event for the last 18 years, and foundation representatives claim they've raised roughly $3.5 million in the last year alone.


Current Mayor Stephen Phipps

 Mayor Stephen Phipps endorsed the event, and at a July 15 town council meeting, he cast the tie-breaking vote in its favor. However, several residents vehemently protested the council's decision to host the affair. Charity or no charity, the dissenters feared that 300 motorcycles roaring through town might besmirch Scottsville's quaint rural image.

While foundation director Peter ter Horst described the rally as "a family oriented event you'd be proud to bring your grandmother to," town council member Robert Mellow worried that Scottsville might be branded a "biker town."

"No one can see how it's going to benefit Scottsville," Dena Radley, owner of a main street emporium, the Sesame Seed, complained to a Hook reporter. "They want to hold it at 10 o'clock on Sunday morning. That's when church starts," she noted indignantly.

In an attempt to defuse the church-hour argument, Mayor Phipps asked the Ride for Life organizers if they could hold the event later in the day, but a few weeks later, Phipps received a phone call. The charity was backing away from Scottsville. After all, ter Horst had explained in an earlier interview, "We're not going to come if they don't want us."

Radley was delighted with the news of Scottsville's expected withdrawal from the list of possible sites: "I'm really happy... They wanted to take over the town."

While polishing off another cocktail at Jimmy's bar, I briefly mention the Ride for Life controversy, and the bartender quickly chimes in, "These people were trying to raise money for charity." With a tone of disdain, she adds, "...money for kids with diseases. I can't believe these people would try and shut them out... and it's all just because they ride motorcycles."

 

The Temple of the Canal Basin Square

 After dinner (and a considerable number of drinks), Joe and I stumble down Main Street to take a look at the newly laid masonry of Canal Basin Square. The snow, now frozen into ice, cracks under our feet as we hike toward the brick pylons. Aside from the formless chatter emanating from the Dew Drop up the road, the town is dead silent.

"My God!" Joe calls out, looking up at the night sky, "The stars– look at them."

With the moon out of sight, the sky is awash with stars, Orion's belt gleaming down on us brilliantly. Scottsville, with its low levels of light pollution, is a good spot for stargazing.

"It's amazing just how many you can see from here," Joe marvels.

I can't help but wonder if the new streetlights will blot out the starlight. I suppose, if you really wanted to get a good view of the firmament, you could always drive a few miles outside of town. But then again, I've heard talk of new developments on the outskirts, a new Food Lion up the street, and a large residential development to the north. In a few years, after these "improvements" take hold, Scottsvillians might have to drive some distance if they want to see the stars.

Joe takes a long look at the pylons, "Odd how they run right into the hill like that, like they're leading you into it."

"That's the levee," I say, pointing to the steep slope in front of us.

Under the shadow of the starlit night, Canal Basin Square looks like some sort of pagan temple eight brick forms perching in the snow and casting dim shadows, seemingly drawing us closer to the levee. All of the town's proposed improvement projects seem to revolve around the levee, undoubtedly the centerpiece of Scottsville.

In fact, the levee is a sort of secular idol, a symbol of resurrection and rebirth. If there's one thing about which everyone seems to agree it's that without the levee, none of these projects would exist. Businesses would scatter. Local residents would move away. In the words of town council member James Hogan, "If we didn't have the levee, forget about it."

 

The Hundred Year Floods

 In the fall of 1969, Hurricane Camille, after killing at least 117 people in Nelson County, swelled the James River to 30 feet at Scottsville– 10 feet above flood stage– and the river quickly submerged most of downtown. As the waters subsided, they left behind roughly two feet of mud and a path of destruction stretching all along main street. The town was devastated.

Assisting in the clean up, the Army Corps of Engineers quickly labeled this event a "Hundred Year Flood," estimating that the town shouldn't see one like it for, well, another century.

But the next one came just three years later. In 1972, Hurricane Agnes swelled the James once again, this time to a record level of 34 feet.

As several residents packed up and moved away, and some local businesses abandoned the town's historic center, Scottsville's mayor at the time, A. Raymon Thacker, believed he was watching the beginning of the end.

"This upset me to no end," says Thacker, now 93. "If we had let the place disintegrate like that, it would end up a ghost town. We would lose the historic significance, the historic properties, and I thought it was just a damn shame."

Faced with the prospect of his hometown's demise, Mayor Thacker, a volunteer politician and part owner of the local mortuary, began a political quest that would take him more than 15 years to complete.

Years later, Thacker admits, "I had no more idea than the man in the moon what we could do, except we needed something to eliminate or at least reduce the destruction of these floods we were having."

With the help of a federal grant, Thacker hired a Roanoke consulting firm to perform a feasibility study. The firm suggested that the town build a levee along the river and place a small dam on Mink Creek (a waterway that meanders through Scottsville on its way to the James). "It was a wonderful idea," Thacker recalls, "but of course it ran in the millions of dollars to do, and we were a little small town with no money whatsoever."

The mayor went to Richmond and met with state senators, district officials, and the governor; he went to Washington and met with senators, congressmen, and countless department representatives. At every turn, he says, he met with firm resistance.

Unwilling to accept defeat, Thacker held a banquet, inviting top officials from several federal and state agencies. And surprisingly, during the dinner presentations, a representative from Housing and Urban Development (HUD) casually remarked that he didn't see any reason why HUD couldn't finance Scottsville's flood-prevention program. It was a first step toward solving the town's financial woes, but Thacker's problems were far from over. Another three years of grant applications were necessary to raise the $1.5 million needed for phase one of the flood-prevention program.

The town eventually completed phase one, damming Mink Creek and erecting the levee up to a 25-year flood level.

Then, in November 1985, tragedy struck again. Across the state, the "Election Day Flood" of that year was blamed for 22 deaths and nearly $800 million in damage. While no Scottsville resident was killed or seriously injured, the James topped the levee and sent another torrent of water through the streets. It was clear that if Scottsville were to survive, it would need a bigger levee.

HUD, with a revamped grant application process, was no longer so willing to contribute to the effort.

As shop owners and residents once again abandoned the downtown, Thacker continued to scramble, eventually turning to the Army Corps of Engineers for help. Although the Corps endorsed the project, they told Thacker he needed congressional approval for the project.

"When they told me I was going to have to get the money from Congress, I was down on the low end," says Thacker. "I'd been through this before, and it just didn't seem believable that Congress would give up the money." However, then-Representative J. Kenneth Robinson quietly attached the levee's budget to a fast-moving appropriations bill, and it slipped through the House with little debate.

After Senate approval, the Army Corps went to work, and at long last– in April of 1989– the "A. Raymon Thacker Levee" was finally complete.

A small flood in the spring of 1992 was the levee's first test, but it was Hurricane Fran– which shredded dozens of bridges as it inundated Virginia in September 1996– that provided proof of the levee's value.

"It took a long time," says Thacker, "but we did it. It's there, and it works."

 

Commercial Expansion

 The band Drop Zone takes the stage and tears through a number of familiar rock songs of the '90s, including a particularly good rendition of Radiohead's "Creep."

"'Mustang Sally,'" yells one patron between sets. "Play 'Mustang Sally.'"

"Sir, I already told you– I don't know the song," replies the singer, with a nervous timbre in his voice.

"But it's easy." The man starts singing: "Mustang Sally, my baby, you'd better slow your Mustang down... Come on! You know that song, right?"

The singer shakes his head. "Sorry, I just don't know it. If you want to make me a tape, maybe I can..."

The patron throws up his arms in frustration and emits an irritated grunt before finally turning his attention back to his bottle of cold beer.

The Dew Drop bills itself as a historic tavern, an old-fashioned local joint no doubt still enjoying some popularity as the place where Jason Walton played piano in the fifth season of the 1970s television series The Waltons.

Admittedly, the tavern has a long history with the town, but when you consider the overall age of Scottsville– a commercial trading post dating back to the 1600s– the Dew Drop is comparatively young.

Scottsville was the County seat of a much larger Albemarle from 1745 to 1762 and has gone through a number of transformations over the years from an access point for early ferry traffic, to a bustling river port, to a sleepy railroad pit stop.

An indication of its continuing transformation, the town recently pushed its borders further north to include a large swath of undeveloped land along Route 20. In 1996, after years of aggressive cajoling from Thacker and others, Albemarle County granted the "boundary adjustment," more than tripling Scottsville's geographic size, and doubling its population. Thacker admits that a euphemism helped the effort.

"We'd been asking to annex the land," he says, "but we weren't getting anywhere. Then I realized that the word 'annexation' was alienating people, so I came up with the word 'boundary adjustment.' Sure enough, after that, they gave us the land with no problem."

Virginia Land Company currently owns much of this new property to the north, and although the Company (whose "for sale" signs pepper the County's corridors), has yet to submit a formal proposal to the town council, many government leaders believe that a residential subdivision is in the works. Mayor Stephen Phipps says that a representative from Virginia Land spoke with the council some time last year.

However, most town residents, Phipps included, eye such developments with caution. "Before they build, they will have to do something about the road situation," he says.

The roads haven't seemed to deter the desirability of Scottsville as a place to live. In the most recent biennial reassessment, the Town of Scottsville registered the largest average percentage increase in property values 20.41 percent.

Nevertheless, a large subdivision could put a strain on the town's roads. I am particularly conscious of this fact as I drive home Friday night, maneuvering the many twists and turns of Route 20, the town's only thoroughfare. Even at 2am, cars charging along at 70mph make the road seem crowded.

"Drive slower," Joe says with a nauseating gasp. "I think I'm going to be sick."

"I told you not to drink bourbon," I reply. "That stuff is murder. Stick your head out the window. You need fresh air."

All of the town's pending improvements aim to entice new businesses and encourage local development as council member James Hogan points out, "The energy that comes from these various projects will be the driving force behind the success of businesses to make this town a destination."

For now, however, businesses are in trouble, says Sesame Seed owner Radley. Around Halloween, the Scottsville Outlet Center closed. Then, on December 21, the eatery where many interviews for this story were conducted, Jimmy's on the James, closed its doors.

According to Radley, these are the 38th and 39th businesses that have closed in the five and a half years her shop has been open.

Moreover, as this article was going to press, a small entourage of Scottsville residents arrived at The Hook's offices alleging that work on the various construction projects has ground to a halt– and that over-spending is the culprit.

"Where is the money?" asks Doris Secreto, who operates the Scottsville Emporium. Secreto fears that town spending– she claims $18,000 for a pair of doors for the subsidized theater and $7,000 to buy an allegedly unused town logo– indicate a municipality whose ambitions outstrip its pocketbook.

However, according to town manager Wyatt Shields, the new theater doors cost $13,000, and were purchased with private funds. As for the logo, it has been used, according to town councilor Craig Stratton. And the $7,000 paid not just for the logo but also for a printing of over 60,000 brochures, which are being distributed across the state. Moreover, Stratton notes, the money came directly from a lodging tax– not from local funds.

If disputes over spending merit further study, the essential dilemma continues: Can the town grow and still remain a quaint local community?

Thacker answers simply, "Regardless of what happens, I hope and pray that Scottsville will remain a congenial, loveable place for people to live."

 

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