By Neil Haggerty
Don Tabel lived near big cities – Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta – for many years. But he decided to move with his wife to the Kendal at Lexington retirement community in 2011.
They like the combination of the calm lifestyle and a vibrant arts scene at the local colleges.
“At this age, we don’t really like the urban setting,” Tabel said. “Lexington is small and peaceful, but it’s got a lot of good assets.”
It might be attractive to retirees, but the Rockbridge area is a tough sell for young professionals and high school graduates.
Board of Supervisors Chair Ronnie Campbell said the lack of business development means that a lot of people have to leave the county if they want to work.
“It’s just a way of life here,” Campbell said.
One former high school guidance counselor echoed Campbell’s observation.
Debbie Pruett worked in high school counseling from 1992 until 2011. She said few students stay in the county unless they are interested in teaching, nursing or technical trades.
Kaitlin Smith, a 2008 Rockbridge County High School graduate, is one of the exceptions.
Smith spent two years at Central Virginia Community College in Lynchburg and moved on to Oklahoma State University for her bachelor’s degree in agriculture. She felt a connection to the mountains and her family’s century-old farm, so she came back to work at the Blue Ridge Animal Clinic and start her own cattle business, Rockin’ K Cattle.
But many of her peers left the county to work in medicine, law and business, Smith said.
“They couldn’t wait to leave,” she said. “There’s not much to keep a kid my age in Rockbridge County.”
The state’s unemployment rate dropped from 6.2 percent in July 2012 to 5.8 percent in July 2013. But the county’s rate remained unchanged at 6 percent over the same period, according to data from the Virginia Employment Commission.
County home sales were up in the past month over the same period last year, from 31 to 37. Most of that increase was in low-end properties, said Melissa Hennis, president of the Lexington-Buena Vista-Rockbridge Association of Realtors.
But that doesn’t mean younger people are staying in the county.
Hennis said many young or first-time homebuyers on limited incomes can’t get financing to purchase even low-cost housing. So those houses, which are often in foreclosure, go to investors who can afford to pay in cash. Those investors usually try to rent the homes or sell them for profit later, she said.
Hennis said it’s still tough to put buyers into homes with $350,000-plus price tags. Most people in that price range are retirees and college professors, she said.
Like Campbell, Hennis thinks the best way to turn around the slow home sales is to attract businesses that will bring workers into the county.
That’s what Rockbridge County Community Development Director Sam Crickenberger is trying to do. Crickenberger cited the county’s recent agreement to let Devil’s Backbone Brewing Co. use county property on Route 11 as long as the brewery created at least five full-time and five part-time jobs within five years.
The Brewery exceeded its goal, adding 24 full-time and 2 part-time jobs in just a year and a half. It has also added $5 million in value to the property, which the county can tax, Crickenberger said.
“They’ve blown our expectations out of the water,” Crickenberger said.
The county has given the brewery an additional $20,000 to help with an expansion that should add another $2 million in taxable value to the property within the next year.
And Crickenberger said the county is looking to provide grants to help other promising businesses expand production.
Tabel, the retiree, is optimistic about Rockbridge County as a young family area.
When his family moved to a small town near Lincoln, Neb., he said, his son was nervous about going to school in a rural area. But his family came to enjoy the sense of security in small town living.
The Rockbridge area brings back memories of that town, Tabel says.
His children and grandchildren visit often to hike the mountains and take advantage of the locally owned stores in downtown Lexington. And he doesn’t miss the hustle and bustle of a big city.
“We don’t plan to leave,” Tabel said. “And our kids would be very disappointed if we did.”