Connect with us

Environment

Orphan Wells: States Wrestle With Soaring Costs For Oil & Gas Industry Mess

Published

on

A crew plugs an abandoned well in Ohio. Photo: Brittany Patterson/Ohio Valley ReSource

William Suan is no stranger to the problems abandoned oil and gas wells can cause.

“It’s just an eyesore,” he said, standing inside a barn on his cattle ranch near Lost Creek, West Virginia. “I had to fence one off because it’s leaking now.”

There are five inactive wells on his land, most installed in the ’60s and ’70s, and the companies that owned the wells have long since gone out of business.

On a recent rainy Monday, Suan treks down a muddy hill on the backside of his property. Hidden in the wooded thicket is a three-foot-tall rusted tube jutting out of the ground.

A soft bubbling sound emanates from the well.

An “orphan” well on William Suan’s property leaks decades after being abandoned. Photo: Brittany Patterson/Ohio Valley ReSource

“See the gas bubbling out of it?” he said. “Sometimes there’s oil. There’s where they had one of those pads to soak up the oil last time I complained about it.”

In 2012, Suan won a case against the West Virginia of Environmental Protection to get one of the wells on his property plugged. Since then, he says he has been unsuccessful in getting environmental regulators to take additional action.

Having enough resources to plug old, inactive wells is a challenge not unique to West Virginia. Across the country, many state regulators have few resources to deal with an ever expanding list of abandoned wells.

Abandoned gas works on William Suan’s property in West Virginia. Photo: Brittany Patterson/Ohio Valley ReSource

“The states are pretty good at regulating wells that are being explored, are being fracked, are in production, but they kind of lose interest once that happens,” said Alan Krupnick, a senior fellow with the nonpartisan environmental think tank, Resources For the Future. “There’s not enough attention being paid to reducing the risk from these abandoned wells.”

Across the Ohio Valley, thousands of oil and gas wells sit idle. An analysis of state data by the Ohio Valley ReSource estimates more than 8,000 oil and gas wells are considered “orphan.” Definitions of orphan and abandoned wells vary by state, but in general, orphan wells lack an operator or company that can pay to plug them. That responsibility then falls to state regulators who are frequently struggling to keep up with demand and scrambling to find money to clean up the mess.

But there are steps states can take to help. Recent legislation passed in Ohio and West Virginia funnels more money toward plugging orphan wells. The new laws address the problem in two very different ways.

 

 

Graphic: Alexandra Konik/Ohio Valley ReSource

Inadequate Bonds

In Kentucky and West Virginia, agencies tasked with plugging those wells rely on forfeited bonds. That money is collected in a fund and used to plug the highest priority wells.

Well plugging can be an expensive undertaking. Across the Ohio Valley, regulators reported figures as low as a few thousand to upwards of $200,000 to plug a single well.

Abandoned wells, like this one in Kentucky, can pollute for years. Photo: Kentucky Division of Oil and Gas

“We may have an emergency repair on a big well and we may have had bonds forfeited on several small wells and those funds just don’t add up,” said Lanny Brannock, a spokesperson with the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet. “So, we’re constantly behind on funding for orphan wells.”

Since 2012, Kentucky has plugged 33 wells and has about $950,000 in an orphan well fund.

West Virginia’s funding situation is similar. Since 2012, the state has plugged seven wells. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection can use a portion of each $150 well work permit application fee as well as any forfeited bonds to plug orphan wells. Currently, the fund holds approximately $385,000.

Recent legislation passed in Ohio and West Virginia funnels more money toward orphan wells. The new laws address the problem in two very different ways.

Graphic: Alexandra Konik/Ohio Valley ReSource

West Virginia’s Fix

In West Virginia, the 2018 “co-tenancy” law, which governs oil and drilling on properties owned by multiple people, includes a provision with the potential to funnel millions of dollars into the state’s orphan well fund.

The law states that if at least 75 percent of landowners agree to lease a tract of land for oil and drilling, a company can drill. Any royalties earned by mineral owners who cannot be located will be set aside for 7 years. If unclaimed, those funds are transferred to the orphan well fund.

“We’ve been looking for years for a way to find the money or require the industry to pay better bonds in order get these wells plugged and keep more wells from being orphaned,” said Dave McMahon, a lawyer and co-founder of the West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization, which proposed the idea to lawmakers.

A portion of the money is currently slated to fund West Virginia’s struggling Public Employee Insurance Agency, or PEIA.

“Hopefully, we can use this source of money as one way to try and plug as many of these orphan wells as we can,” McMahon said, but added, “It’s hard to know if we’ll ever get the job done because there are so many of them and there are going to be so many more of them and it costs so much to plug them.”

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection declined to make someone available to talk about its orphan well program.

In an email, spokesperson Jake Glance said, “Our understanding is that certain provisions in the co-tenancy bill will eventually direct additional funds into this account.”

While the new legislative fix is helpful, experts say the orphan problem will only get worse because West Virginia and other states do not require drillers to pay adequate bonds.

Deep Problems

A 2016 study of inactive well regulations in 22 states by Resources for the Future, a nonprofit advocacy group, found the majority lack policies to deal with legacy wells drilled decades ago and the means to collect sufficient funds to plug wells currently being drilled.

“We want good policy to make sure that these wells when they’re eventually abandoned do not present environmental risk” Krupnick said. “One thing is they could raise the bonding amounts to the point where they’re covering the costs of these wells, of decommissioning the wells.”

He said another challenge is that many states allow wells to remain in “idle status” for years. These wells aren’t producing, but operators aren’t being required to plug them.

Unplugged wells can leak oil and other pollutants into water or the ground and inactive wells can emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Graphic: Alexandra Konik/Ohio Valley ReSource

A 2016 study of abandoned wells in Pennsylvania found the state’s 475,000 to 700,000 abandoned wells are leaking an estimated 50,000 metric tons of methane per year, or about 5 to 8 percent of the state’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

Experts say the problem will only get worse. The region’s fracking boom is adding many more wells that tap the gas deep in the Marcellus shale. The lifespan of a fracking well is shorter than a conventional well. According to McMahon, pressure from Marcellus drilling is also likely to force some conventional drillers out of business.

“Their bonds aren’t going to be enough and the number of orphan wells is going to go up and up as time goes on,” he said.

In 2011, West Virginia overhauled its bonding requirements for horizontal wells. The 2011 Horizontal Well Act requires drillers to pay $50,000 for single well bonds and $250,000 for blanket bonds.

Companies in good standing can get blanket bonds to cover all wells they own. McMahon argues that even that level of bonding may not be enough to prevent orphan wells.

“That blanket bond is enough to plug five wells and some of these drillers own hundreds of wells,” he said.

Ohio’s Approach

On a forested knoll in Carroll County, Ohio, backhoes and bobcats zip around. Nearby, a crew of three men is running 2-inch metal pipe hundreds of feet down into an old well that was built before World War II.

Gene Chini manages the orphan well program for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources division of oil and gas resources. The wells being plugged here have been on the agency’s radar for awhile.

“The records that we had said this well was the best in Carroll County,” he said

Ohio has taken a different approach to plugging orphan wells. In 1977, the state created an orphan well plugging program. From the beginning it has been funded with 14 percent of the oil and gas fund, which is supported by a modest severance tax on natural gas extraction.

Gene Chini says there may be thousands of abandoned wells in his state. Photo: Brittany Patterson/Ohio Valley ReSource

Later this month, a new law will raise the percentage of the fund that must be directed toward orphan wells to 30 percent.

Soon, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Oil and Gas Resourceshopes to be plugging many more wells.

“Four to five years ago the budget was less than a million dollars,” said Steve Irwin, spokesperson for the division. “This past fiscal year we spent $6 million and we will have over $20 million to spend this year to plug orphan wells.”

In addition to the percentage boost, severance taxes are up significantly because of the fracking boom in Ohio.

The division is facing some challenges ramping up the program. There are just 737 orphan wells on the agency’s list, but officials said an estimated 250,000 wells have been drilled in Ohio. They expect the true count of orphan wells to be much higher.

It can also be a time-intensive process to plug old wells. In the case of the five wells being plugged in Carroll County, Chini said none had gone according to plan.

“It’s not just pull in, pump some stuff down a hole and then leave, it just doesn’t work that way,” he said.

The standard way of plugging a well involves first clearing out all of the tubing and casing inside. Then cement or another strong substance is poured in to create a combination of deep and shallow plugs to ensure oil and gas cannot escape or travel into the groundwater.

The state is also struggling to find companies to plug wells. Chini said when conventional oil and gas business dropped off in the 1990s, many companies left Ohio.

Still, he recognizes with a boost in funding tied to severance taxes, Ohio is in a better place than some.

“It really is a win win for everybody,” he said. “The money’s coming back to them in the form of work. It’s the operators that pay the severance tax and so it’s the operators that are plugging the wells.”

On The Horizon

Back in West Virginia, Suan said he was glad to hear about the new provision that puts more money toward plugging orphan wells. But he fears without higher bond amounts, or enforcing the laws to make oil and gas operators plug wells in a timely manner, the problem may never go away.

The region’s fracking boom is adding many more wells that tap the gas deep in the Marcellus shale.

“I can’t imagine if they can’t even plug these little wells what they’re going to do with the Marcellus wells that needs plugging,” he said.

This story was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

Environment

Unpacking The Ways Climate Change is Affecting West Virginia

Published

on

Photo: Robert Madison, courtesy photo

Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, the U.N. body that provides objective, scientific reports on climate change issued a grave warning: Humans are running out of time if we are to prevent the worst impacts of global warming.

While the report took a global view, here in the Mountain State, scientists can already document the impacts of climate change. Many parts of the world are bracing for more extremes including and higher temperatures and more severe droughts, while the prognosis in West Virginia is more of a mixed bag.

“West Virginia’s climate has become milder with warmer winters, cooler summers and generally more humid conditions year-round,” said Evan Kutta, the climate sciences program manager for West Virginia University’s Institute of Water Security and Science.

Data show that between 1906 and 2016 maximum temperatures decreased 5.3 percent, while minimum temperatures increased 7.7 percent. Over the last century, precipitation has increased 2.2 percent.

While some aspects of West Virginia’s economy may benefit from the milder winters as a result of a changing climate – including agriculture and some outdoor recreation industries – expected increases in rainfall could pose challenges to human-constructed infrastructure.

“The flooding that happened two summers ago in 2016 was truly severe and that could be something that we see more often,” Kutta said.

West Virginia is one of the most flash-flood prone states in the country, and maybe even the world. The stacked ridgelines of the Appalachian Mountains and deep hollows are really good at shaking moisture out of storms, and channelling it quickly downstream to larger rivers.

He added that more research and planning is needed to tap into the opportunities that could be wrought from climate change as well as challenges.

Agriculture and Forests

When it comes to West Virginia agriculture, climate change has mixed implications.

Unlike in places like California, where climate models predict warmer, drier conditions, in Appalachia, milder conditions could result in a longer growing season that could support a more diverse variety of crops, Kutta said.

However, with more moisture also comes more cloud cover.

“That reduces sunlight available for crop growth,” he said.

In fact, the impacts of a wetter West Virginia are already being observed across the state’s forests. Scientists see changes in the types of tree species putting down roots in West Virginia. Oaks are being replaced by maples, which prefer shadier and wetter conditions.

“Maples are more vulnerable to droughts, but the increasing number of maple trees in the state indicates that droughts are becoming less severe and water resources are becoming more abundant,” he said.

West Virginia’s Role

The IPCC report stresses that to prevent 2.7 degrees of warming, greenhouse gas pollution must drop significantly. Burning coal for electricity, which is the most carbon-intensive source of fuel, would have to decrease from almost 40 percent today to between one and seven percent by 2050.

That could greatly impact West Virginia, which is the second largest producer of coal in the United States and in 2017 sourced 93 percent of its own electricity from coal-fired power plants, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The state could also play a significant role in mitigating climate change, according to Kutta.

“The ongoing transition away from coal has been difficult, but West Virginia is rich in other natural resources that could represent a boon for the state’s economy,” he said. “The Marcellus and Utica Shale formations represent sources of natural gas, a cleaner fossil fuel that may ease the crucially needed transition to renewable energies.”

Furthermore, the rugged terrain of the Mountain State offers many opportunities for renewable energy.

The ridges of the Allegheny Mountains could be prime wind turbine real estate. Abundant water resources could support hydroelectric generation and Kutta said West Virginia is even rich in geothermal energy.

“It’s actually from all of the wells that have been drilled in the state,” he said. “They’ve found temperatures in excess of 150 degrees Celsius just a couple of kilometers below the surface, which would be suitable for commercial scale energy production if the funds are available.”

Overall, the new IPCC report paints a rather grim picture. The scientists who put it together looked at more than 6,000 published studies and found that over the next two decades the planet is on track to see global temperatures rise nearly 3 degrees above where they were prior to the industrial revolution.

The authors note the impacts of continued warming include food shortages, wildfires, severe droughts. Coral reefs will experience mass die-offs and millions of people living on the coasts will need to relocate.

The report estimates the cost of not preventing global temperatures from rising above 2.7 degrees will cost some $54 trillion in damages.

The authors also note that doesn’t have to be our future, but the world needs to act fast to prevent it from happening. Kutta agrees.

“It’s a problem that is bigger than each individual, so we need to be working together as a group to solve this truly enormous challenge,” he said.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Continue Reading

Environment

The Struggle to Stay

Published

on

Some call it the Rappahannock Hustle, and the many who do it need no further description.

It’s the way to make ends meet by stitching various small jobs, formal and informal, into a livelihood. It helps prop up the local economy. But it also hews tightly to two challenges facing Rappahannock County’s younger population: stable, well-paid work and affordable housing.

Addressing those challenges matters more as the overall population ages and as other rural counties compete to draw in people who bring new ideas and vibrancy.

After years of population loss, rural areas added around 33,000 residents nationwide between 2016 and 2017, the first time since 2010, according to an analysis of census estimates by the USDA’s Economic Research Service.

Quality of life is the No. 1 factor pulling people toward more rural, low-density counties, says Ben Winchester, a researcher at the University of Minnesota Extension who studies what he calls “brain gain.”

“That includes things like recreational opportunities, less traffic, less congestion,” Winchester says.

Those things and more are what draw people to Rappahannock — home to rolling hills, starry night skies and a slower pace of life seldom found so close to a bustling metropolis. All ages and political persuasions here harbor a love of the natural environment.

Gaining access to it means facing certain challenges, and if you are young those hurdles can be higher.

Artist Kat Habib, 33, moved to the county in 2013 and has picked up work doing everything from painting houses to making coffee to bartending to property management.

Twenty-four year-old Tessa Crews has worked as a shop attendant and served at wedding parties. She now works as an innkeeper at the Inn at Mount Vernon Farm, does part-time design work for an Australian publishing company and picks up babysitting shifts.

“It’s incredibly hard to make a living,” says Habib. “And it’s beautiful to be here and it’s good to be here, but the cost of living is very high.”

The Hustle is typically associated with urban communities, the grind of which many who move here are escaping, but local housing’s high cost and limited stock, paired with that paucity of reliable, steady work, make it a necessity.

A shortage of full-time jobs that pay a living wage, with benefits — particularly for college graduates — impacts all age groups in Rappahannock, not just those under 40 like Habib. Piecemeal work and part-time gigs — frequently as part of the underground economy — are more readily available. Folks cobbling these work opportunities together are often younger and single.

The rural economy has become more diversified, said Winchester, who studied rural communities in Minnesota and Nebraska. He found evidence there of people holding a diverse array of jobs and more self-employment. Those characteristics have echoes here in Rappahannock.

“You have to be more creative when you live out here,” says Sperryville Realtor Cheri Woodard, herself a long-time entrepreneur. “You have to think about what you can do, what skills you’re bringing, what can you offer to people.”

Tessa Crews, 24, traveled the world after leaving Rappahannock and decided to bring some of her experience home. She’s piecing together jobs as an inn keeper, digital marketer, babysitter, server, shop attendant and herbalist-in-training.
Photo: Sara Schonhardt, Rappahannock News

That’s true for Crews, who grew up in Rappahannock and officially moved back late last year. She’d been gone long enough, she says, to realize what was special about the county.

Like others, she discovered that knitting together an income in the Hustle economy relies on word of mouth.

“If you look online it doesn’t exist, but as soon as you start talking to people, that’s how it happens,” Crews says.

Forming that local connection isn’t always easy or immediate, but the advantage often goes to those like Crews who grew up here or have some connection to the county.

A numbers game

Job availability is one thing; willing workers is another. Help Wanted signs hang in windows around the county, but small business owners say they struggle to find employees.

“I cannot find young people that want to do the work that we do,” says Adam Kerr, 39, the founder and president of Rappahannock Landscape & Nursery. That’s not unique to Rappahannock. But part of it here is also a numbers game. “There’s not a lot of young people,” he says.

Kerr pays his employees well and offers them some retirement benefits.

But finding a way to pay Rappahannock rents often over $1,000 a month is tough on a $10-an-hour salary, which is more common.

“There’s work here if you want to work,” says Habib. “The question is, can you rely on it from week to week, and that’s tricky.”

Cara Cutro grew up seeing her parents leave the county to make their livings, so when she decided to come back after six years away, she just knew she’d find a way.

“Part of what’s allowed me to survive here, aside from feeling very strongly that this was my home, was working multiple jobs, having multiple hats,” she says.

Cutro started working in restaurants and then created a mobile massage business. She diversified her services to include private online coaching and medicinal herbs. In 2016, she opened a physical location in Sperryville, Abracadabra Massage & Wellness, but has continued to pick up landscaping work when needed. She also shares her home with a roommate.

“You have to be determined that you’re going to live here, and you have to make it work,” she says.

That determination often comes with some deeper connection, and people who haven’t grown up here may be less inclined to stick it out.

Aron Weisgerber, 33, built the home he now shares with his wife and two children on land his parents own. He realizes that gives him an advantage — though he still pieces together work in construction, solar panel installation, realty and outdoor education.

Born and raised outside Sperryville, Weisgerber always knew he would come back to Rappahannock. Now a construction worker, solar panel salesman and installer, mountain adventure guide, licensed realtor, he says he rarely gets to enjoy what he loves about the county because he works so much.
Photo: Sara Schonhardt, Rappahannock News

Woodard concedes that real estate is expensive overall. There are homes under $250,000 and some rentals under $1,000, which she says are “very desirable.” But Airbnb is taking up some potential rental spots, and some are tucked away on private property, reserved for friends and family.

“Our inventory here is small,” she says.

Community is key

Another shortfall, say some residents under 40, is the lack of a social scene or a place to meet new people.

“There’s nothing here, aside from going to the bar, and there’s not that many of those either,” says Kerr, who picked up side work in order to build his business.

He has a young son and much of what’s kept him in the county is the support of his family. For a young family to come here and do it on their own, he says, “that is just mind-blowing to me.”

Habib looked at other counties in the region and liked them because they were more affordable and had larger populations of people under 40. She chose Rappahannock, she says, because it felt like the Virginia of her childhood.

What’s kept her here are the outdoors and finding a house that she says really feels like home. More importantly, she’s found a creative, supportive community.

“There’s many of us that are creative and seeking our dreams,” she says. “We’re not the nine to fivers. If we were we wouldn’t be here because we couldn’t survive.”

Others agree; it’s the people that make this place.

Researcher Winchester says he’s found that jobs are less of a priority for people looking to move to a place like Rappahannock.

“Ultimately people would look around, and they looked for a community before they looked for a job,” he said.

But that can lead to underemployment, said Winchester, be it a lack of full-time work or work that deviates from one’s skill set.

Not all doom and gloom

It’s not unusual for high school graduates to leave small towns for college or other opportunities, says Winchester, who cautions towns against “feeling bad about losing their young people.”

“What they should be working on is letting their young people know they have some place to come back to,” he adds.

Habib, who is from Warren County, grew up coming to Rappahannock and loving it. She is a studio potter and makes floral arrangements. She also has a steady part-time job managing a career and college access program at Headwaters, a nonprofit group supporting local public education, that provides about half of her income and allows her to spend more time in her artist studio.

While the Hustle makes life hard, for many younger residents it can allow them the flexibility for creative projects and passions.

Maya Atlas, 28, makes her livelihood here as a lavender farmer, bartender, part-time butter churner and property manager. She says Rappahannock is “the city of ideas.” The challenge is implementing them.
Photo: Sara Schonhardt, Rappahannock News

Maya Atlas, 28, found her path to Rappahannock through her mother, who bought a home and started harvesting lavender. Atlas, who moved out with her partner last September from D.C. to take over the farm, bartends at Francis for a paycheck and helps milk cows and make butter for a neighbor. She has picked up various jobs both out of necessity and a desire to meet people.

Atlas says she brought some of her city pace with her and has since learned to scale back a bit. But the learning curve has “been exponential,” she admits. Like many who just make the leap, she says she was perhaps naively unconcerned with finances.

“We will make it work,” she says. “It’s just a matter of what level of hustle you have to put in.”

Still, a slower pace can frustrate people wanting to see progress made, including better broadband access.

For Erin Antosh, 34, who runs an online consulting business, connecting with clients took a toll. She found herself driving to Warrenton, where she had a small office, and spending less and less time being able to enjoy the things that brought her to Rappahannock — the scenery and outdoor recreation. She moved up to D.C. recently to be better connected.

“Rappahannock has the potential to be a place for young people to live and thrive,” says Crews, who sees her job at the Mount Vernon inn as a way to advocate for what’s special about the county. “But there are serious hurdles that still need to be overcome.”

This article was originally published by Rappahannock News

Continue Reading

Environment

A Balancing Act

Published

on

Bill Gadino instructs Jonathan Vicente Candelario on vine pulling at his winery near Washington. Photo: Luke Christopher, Rappahannock News.

This story is part of a series of special reports titled “Work in Progress,” with support from Foothills Forum and Rappahannock News looking at the dynamics of changing agricultural economies. The story was originally published by Rappahannock News.

As Rappahannock ages and farmers struggle, where does business — particularly tourism — fit into the economic mix?

Rappahannock County is the kind of place that makes dreams seem possible.

Bill Gadino knows this. It was almost 30 years ago that he bought a rolling patch of 15 acres between Washington and Sperryville, secluded behind the county’s elementary school, yet not far from the tourist thruway of Route 211.

Within a year, he was planting grapes, and soon was selling them to the Gray Ghost Vineyards down the highway. In 2003, he and his wife, Aleta, took the leap and moved here. A year later, they started making their own wine. The year after that, Gadino Cellars opened for business.

The dream was coming into focus.

It wasn’t easy, but in time, as many as 150 people were showing up at the winery on a good weekend.

Lately, the future seems less clear. Weekend crowds have shrunk to more like 60 or 70 people, he said. The boom in Virginia wineries and cideries — there are more than 260 — has not been good for the ones in Rappahannock. Now, there’s much more competition between here and Washington, D.C., and local wineries are feeling the pinch.

Bill Gadino and Tracy Miller tend to the tasting room bar at Gadino Cellars.
Photo: Luke Christopher, Rappahannock News.

“We’ve built a beautiful place here, but this is draining for us, expense-wise,” said Sudha Patel, owner of Narmada Winery in Amissville. “You worry how long can you keep it up.”

Bill Gadino shared a recent, troubling conversation with a mother and daughter who had stopped by. He mentioned to the mother that he hadn’t seen her for a while.

“And she said, ‘You’re just too far for me to come out to.’ I asked her where she was coming from,” he recalled. “And she said, ‘Oh, I live in Gainesville.’ That’s the mentality of people.”

When tourists do make the drive here, he added, they often expect to pay less for their wine than they would closer to D.C. And so, business has taken a hit, as has Bill and Aleta’s plan of one day turning the winery over to their daughter, Stephanie and son-in-law, Derek Pross, who worked there. The younger couple has moved to North Carolina.

“She told me, ‘It’s not going to grow, Dad. It’s going down, it’s not going up.’”

Old in, young out

The Gadino story is a familiar one. Someone falls in love with the rapturous beauty of the Rappahannock countryside and concludes that it’s hard to imagine a more fulfilling place to live and start a business.

But economic, demographic and technological realities have a way of complicating matters. Most new business owners — particularly those in any way reliant on tourists — know things can go dead during the winter when lodges and campgrounds in Shenandoah National Park are closed, but they often don’t realize how dead. And, there just aren’t enough people living here full-time to help ease the pain much. At 27.9 people per square mile, Rappahannock ranks 122nd among Virginia’s 132 cities and counties in population density.

Craig Batchelor, Sperryville entrepreneur. Photo: Luke Christopher, Rappahannock News.

They also learn how hard it can be to find and hold on to workers, especially with so many young locals moving away to what they see as better opportunities elsewhere. Then there’s the challenge of doing business in a community where reliable cellphone and broadband service can be a roll of the dice.

Craig Batchelor has been wrestling with these issues for two years, ever since he and his wife, Caitlin, and his brother Clay, bought the Sperryville complex now containing Thornton River Grille restaurant, the Corner Store, Rappahannock Pizza Kitchen (RPK) and the Francis Bar. With just under 50 people working for him, he’s now one of the top 10 employers in the county. Many of his employees live outside Rappahannock, which means a commute that costs them time and money, and can also lead to staffing headaches during bad weather.

He sees firsthand how hard it is for young people to find a niche here. And that makes him worry about the county’s future.

“When I stay awake and worry about things at night, it’s that aging of the community,” he said. “It’s a slow, definite trend over the next 10 or 15 years.”

Batchelor said he’s met a lot of millennials who have grown up in Rappahannock. Some leave and come back. Most don’t.

“Those who have stayed have tried to eke it out,” he said, “but that often means having a lot of different jobs. That may be fine when you’re 20 or 21, but when you’re 27, it kinda gets old, especially if you want to start a family. If you want to get more stability, that can be hard here.”

So can finding a place to live that’s within the means of younger workers. That’s why Debbie Donehey, owner of Griffin Tavern in Flint Hill, offers employees a reduced rate at a few rental properties she and her husband, Jim, own in the county.

The staff at Flint Hill’s Griffin Tavern celebrate the departure of an employee. From left to right: Jim Donehey, Raegan Miller, Debbie Donehey, Andy Camp, Taylor Leotta and Eric Ralls.
Photo: Luke Christopher, Rappahannock News.

“People can’t work at the Tavern and afford to pay $1,000 a month rent,” she said.

Future expenses

Like Batchelor, Donehey, who describes Rappahannock as “my little part of heaven,” sees the community moving into a period of transition. As its residents get older, they will likely need more services, particularly when it comes to emergency care.

“It will be very difficult to do everything the county will need to do without more income of some sort,” she said.

Where that comes from is the question that hangs over the community’s future like a thundercloud. Currently, about 84 percent of the county’s local revenue comes through property taxes. Donehey appreciates how the idea of relying more on commerce to generate revenue can stir up waves of anxiety.

She’s had personal experience with rural transformation, having grown up near Doswell, Va., a tiny hamlet in Hanover County until King’s Dominion arrived in the 1970s. At first, it seemed a blessing — “As a kid, I thought ‘Oh, we’re getting a Burger King,’” she remembers — but the place was forever changed.

Yet, Donehey, a former chair of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association, believes efforts to attract more tourists to Rappahannock can help the county financially without ruining the idyllic feel of a place without stoplights.

“It’s very difficult to prove to people who are opposed to promoting tourism that it’s going to add value to your community,” she said. “But I really believe there is value there.

“I would hope there’s a big future for agritourism here if we can figure out what it is. We have some darn savvy people in this county. And, they care about it and want it to stay this way. But they also understand we have expenses.”

Not money well spent?

While tourism is generally acknowledged as a financial opportunity — including in the county’s comprehensive plan — there’s hardly consensus over how big an opportunity and how much money and effort should be expended in trying to boost it.

Tourism’s direct contribution to the county’s budget is still quite small. Revenue from the local tax on meals (4 percent) and lodging (2 percent) has risen from just under $100,000 in 2000 to more than $260,000 for the current fiscal year, but that remains just slightly more than 1.5 percent of total revenue from local sources. (Any meals or lodging tax revenue generated by the Inn at Little Washington and other restaurants and B&Bs in Washington goes to the town only).

Another source of tax revenue is the state sales tax, currently at 5.3 percent. One percent of that revenue — now about $515,000 a year — comes back to Rappahannock. Not only is that only 3.5 percent of total revenue from local sources, but it’s based on all sales, not just those to tourists.

Just under $50,000 has been allocated in the FY 2018 county budget to promote Rappahannock — about 0.2 percent of the total budget or about $7 per county resident. That includes a payment of $9,000 to Sandra Maskas, who, Friday through Sunday, welcomes and advises tourists who stop by the Rappahannock County Visitor Center on Route 211.

But Rappahannock is one of a handful of counties in Virginia without even a part-time tourism director. The last person to fill that role, Laura Overstreet, retired in 2012 and was never replaced.

Board of Supervisors vice chair Chris Parrish remains convinced that it’s not money well spent. He believes that paying someone to develop a tourism strategy and coordinate events and promotion would not be a fruitful investment. In fact, he’s not sure the county benefits that much from having a visitor center.

“If you took that away, I don’t think you’d see a marked difference in tourism,” he said. “Tourism will spread by itself by word of mouth. People come out here and they enjoy themselves and they go back home and talk about it.

“When it comes to tourism,” he added, “you have to be a little careful of what you wish for. I’ve been to places that have been ruined by tourism. You know, the traffic, the attitude of the people.”

Connecting the dots

Others, though, argue that tourism doesn’t have to be a destructive force, that in a place like Rappahannock it’s more about piecing together a marketable mosaic of what it already has to offer — from wineries and B&Bs to events as varied as the Farm Tour and the “Yeaster” party at Pen Druid Brewery in Sperryville.

Patti Brennan, owner of De’Danann Glassworks.
Photo: Luke Christopher, Rappahannock News.

“What you hear from B&B owners a lot is their guests always ask, ‘What am I going to do out here?’” said artist Patti Brennan, owner of De’Danann Glassworks. “There’s actually a lot to do, but it has to be presented in an organized way. No owner of a B&B is going to know all the things going on out here.”

Brennan, who thinks relying on word-of-mouth promotion is “short-sighted,” has done her part to get local artists, wineries and restaurants more exposure by getting them connected to the Virginia Artisan Trail Network, a statewide organization that maps out regional experiences for tourists by linking together artisans and hospitality businesses.

She contends that the county needs a staff person to connect the dots and cultivate collaboration among businesses, with the goal of getting tourists to associate Rappahannock with experiences other than pretty views. And, she believes that tourism doesn’t have to have a big footprint.

“Yes, our landscape is the Rappahannock brand,” said Brennan, who has lived in the county since 1981. “But we also do have a concentration of very talented people. None of what they’ve brought out here has done damage. Things really haven’t changed that much.”

Carl Henrickson, who with his wife, Donna, opened the Little Washington Winery off Route 211 in 2011, agrees that people need to be given a reason beyond beautiful scenery to drive out here. “At first, we sat here like everyone else in Rappahannock, waiting for people to show up. We put a sign up and we thought ‘We’re done with marketing.’”

But there were long stretches on weekend mornings and early afternoons when visitors were scarce. So, in 2012, they came up with the idea of a Wine Bootcamp — two-hour classes of 20 people wanting to learn wine basics. Carl Henrickson estimates that since then, based on their email database of Bootcamp graduates, close to 10,000 have attended. Also, he said, they spend about $20,000 a year to promote it.

He maintains that the time has come for the county to do a better job of projecting a more wide-ranging Rappahannock experience to the outside world. “What we’re missing is that branding that says we have a product, and this is that product.”

Not just for tourists

Not long ago, Theresa Wood, in her capacity as president of Businesses of Rappahannock (BOR), was at a conference in Richmond with tourism directors representing counties around Virginia. More than once, she said, when a person heard she was from Rappahannock, they would tell her, “Oh, I love Rappahannock. It’s so beautiful there on the water.”

The confusion with the river that flows into Chesapeake Bay is good for a laugh, but that lack of awareness is also probably reassuring to those in the community who believe the less outsiders know about Rappahannock, the better.

Theresa Wood, Businesses of Rappahannock president and Kattle 1 Beef owner
Photo: Luke Christopher, Rappahannock News.

Wood gets that. She knows how many of the 188 businesses that are BOR members were started by people who chose to give it a go in Rappahannock because it isn’t like other places. But she also believes that boosting local business doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition.

“The vision we have is that the very thing Rappahannock has to offer — its natural beauty — we don’t want to change any of that,” said Wood, an owner of Kattle 1 Beef. “We’re not looking to put a hotel on 211.”

But there is value, she said, in exploring how other rural communities are adapting to uncertain futures, and what kind of businesses they see as having the most potential to sustain, rather than change them.

“My concern is that if we haven’t planned for making a bridge between agriculture and tourism, then we could be in trouble,” Wood said.

To that end, Wood has been encouraging BOR companies to tap into the considerable promotional muscle and grant opportunities of the Virginia Tourism Corporation, the driving force behind the state’s tourism industry, which generated an estimated $25 billion in revenue last year.

Theresa Wood and Kurt Ahlman, co-proprietors of Kattle 1 Beef, take a break from tending to their Black Angus cows.
Photo: Luke Christopher, Rappahannock News.

The BOR board has also held workshops to help members get up to speed in using Facebook and other marketing skills and doing smartphone photography to keep up with competitors in bigger markets with better broadband.

But those things take up time, something owners rarely can spare when they’re running very small businesses like those so common in Rappahannock — by far, the largest number of companies here have four employees or fewer.

Wood has made a point of trying to raise the profile of local companies. For the first time, BOR is working closely with The Inn at Little Washington to incorporate more county businesses into the big “InnStock” 40th anniversary celebration in September.

Black Angus cows of Kattle 1 Beef grazing in a pasture.
Photo: Luke Christopher, Rappahannock News.

Also, this year the BOR has staged four ribbon-cutting ceremonies, to mark the openings of Happy Camper and Stonewall Abbey Wellness in Sperryville, LeFay Cottage at Little Washington and Hazel River Arts and Antiques. It’s a symbolic gesture, but one meant to spotlight the role they play in the community.

“Many of the businesses here don’t just serve tourists,” she said. “They help sustain a way of life.”

Career challenges

That way of life, of course, is why a lot of businesses are started in Rappahannock. Often, it’s more a personal decision than a strategic one, based on the allure of a place rather than conventional market assets, such as easy access to a major highway, a skilled local workforce, a robust supply of potential customers.

So, many struggle, and if they do grow, it’s slowly, which means few opportunities for young workers. Other factors, including the county’s technological shortcomings, also help stifle career options.

Take the booming field of software programming. It’s not really in play here. “Training in coding is huge right now. We could do that here,” said RappU founder Doug Schiffman. “But I just don’t know that the demand is there in the community.

“There are things we could do if we had full-blown cellphone and internet access here that we can’t do now,” he added. “If we had a cellphone network here, Rappahannock would be the perfect place for Uber and Lyft. You have all these people who are underemployed who have vehicles. You have all these older people who need rides everywhere and are able to pay for it. But we have no way of connecting them.”

Currently, the greatest employment potential appears to be in providing services to the demographic group growing most quickly — affluent retirees. That ranges from landscaping their gardens and mowing their fields to providing care when their health starts to slide.

In line with that trend, RappU has focused its vocational training programs on health care, including a popular course to earn certification as a nurse aide. Schiffman said students are being recruited for jobs before they even graduate.

But no company that hires nurse aides is located in Rappahannock, which means course graduates either work for a company in another county, or they work off the books here.

Harold Beebout, Sperryville Volunteer Rescue squad chief, with Doug Schiffman, RappU founder, and Todd Summers, a Sperryville volunteer ambulance driver. Photo: Luke Christopher, Rappahannock News.

That frustrates Schiffman. “My goal is not to train people and have them work in the underground economy,” he said. “But they can often make more money getting paid cash than if they work for a company.

“We want them to be able to get real jobs, get real salaries, with paid benefits, and that allow them to put money toward a retirement account,” he said. “The disappointment continues to be that the employers are not in Rappahannock. There’s nothing I can do about that.”

Breaking down walls

The Corner Store complex at the intersection of Main St. and Sperryville Pike. Photo: Luke Christopher, Rappahannock News.

It’s appropriate that Craig Batchelor’s stake in Rappahannock sits at Sperryville’s main intersection. It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that his four businesses operate at a critical symbolic crossroads of the Rappahannock economy. The newer enterprises — RPK and the Francis Bar — are geared more to tourists and an upscale crowd, while the Corner Store has a long legacy in the community, and still sells basics, such as eggs, milk and paper towels, although at higher than grocery store prices.

Batchelor’s fortunes also are tangled with the county’s growing age imbalance. Yes, older, more affluent people are a big part of his customer base, but there’s that problem of having a healthy enough supply of younger workers to keep them satisfied.

Craig Batchelor, right, at Francis Bar, with front of the house manager Erin Platt and bartender Jenny Mello.
Photo: Luke Christopher, Rappahannock News.

Batchelor, an older millennial, wonders if there will ever be a new wave of people his age who settle here.

“I would love to have more young people here, for a lot of reasons,” he said. “We need a great team of young people who are passionate and interested in locally sourced food, people who share the values of Rappahannock and want to invest their lives here. We need that.”

He also hopes that over time, new businesses will not be viewed as a harbinger of upheaval.

Katelyn Fisher prepares the dough for RPK’s wood-fired pizza oven.
Photo: Luke Christopher, Rappahannock News.

“I would like us to be able to strike a balance between our various demographics, while being honest about it,” Batchelor said. “One of the things I don’t love about our community is the been-here’s/come-here’s thing. I would love to have a business enterprise that is respectful to everybody.

“I would want folks who have been here a long time to know that we’re not only catering to tourists. I really don’t want to be another ‘either-or’ business. I’d like to break down some of those walls. Maybe that’s totally pie in the sky. But you have to try.”

This article was originally published by Rappahannock News

Continue Reading

Trending

100 Days

FREE
VIEW