By Rachel Adams-Heard
“Welcome to Buena Vista: 6002 happy citizens and 3 old grouches.”
That’s the sign that greets visitors when they enter this little community nestled at the foot of the Blue Ridge. David Meisky, who moved to Buena Vista two and a half years ago, says he’s met only one of the grouches.
“I retired, and I wanted to get to some place where a traffic jam meant there were four cars waiting for the light to turn green,” said Meisky, who moved from Fairfax County.
But while the residents might have kind hearts and, until last week, an undefeated high school football team, Buena Vista’s $23 million debt serves as a reminder that the city has seen better times.
“Just in the two and a half years I’ve been here, I’ve seen a lot of things move out,” said Meisky.
Last month, the City Council tabled a request from Buena Vista Superintendent John Keeler to purchase a 69-acre tract that Keeler hoped would eventually house a combined elementary and middle school. At the meeting, Keeler emphasized what he considered an attractive price and location – $225,000 and within sight of Parry McCluer High School.
Keeler told the council that deteriorating facilities at Enderly Heights Elementary, Kling Elementary and Parry McCluer Middle School make the new land necessary.
“Ten years down the road you’re going to need it,” he said.
But council members voted unanimously to hold off for 90 days.
“Until we get a handle on that debt, one way or another, we can’t do anything else,” said Council member Larry Tolley.
Floods come, factories go
Overcoming obstacles is something Buena Vista’s residents are used to. Floods have damaged the city countless times over the years. Hurricane Camille devastated Buena Vista in 1969, and flooding from Hurricane Juan damaged the city in 1985. The most recent flood occurred in 1995.
Factories that employed a large portion of the city have come and gone over the years. Beginning in 1985, the city suffered a period of 18 months when it lost three manufacturers. School bus body maker Blue Bird relocated its factory from Buena Vista to Mexico. Wire manufacturer Rea Wire and textile manufacturer Reeves Brothers left shortly after. More recently, Dana Corp., which sells vehicle parts, left in 2005, and Bontex, which sells shoe insoles, left four years ago.
Now the city faces a financial crisis many say was avoidable. Lexington and Rockbridge County consolidated their high schools more than 20 years ago. But Buena Vista continued to go its own way, and replaced its own Parry McCluer High School in 2002.
When given the opportunity to join the county’s water system, Buena Vista opted for upgrading its own system instead. The new Dickinson Well is a $4.5 million project that won’t be paid off until 2032.
But nothing hit the city as hard as the golf course.
Vista Links came to Buena Vista in 2006, bringing with it hope for tourism and a wealthier demographic. But just as the city began to see that rich golfers and $300,000 homes weren’t coming to the factory town, the recession hit and turned matters from bad to worse.
“We were riding a very optimistic wave-of-development idea,” said City Manager Jay Scudder of the golf course. “But you have to take a close look at what’s here. It’s a golf course with a major Dominion [Virginia] Power line running through it in two locations . . . It has, realistically, very limited development potential.”
‘Something’s got to happen’
Scudder was brought in in 2011 to turn the city’s financial situation around. With a background in finance and more than 20 years of experience in local government, he is a self-described “fixer-upper” who says the challenge is part of the draw.
The city defaulted on its almost $10 million loan for the golf course in 2010. Then the city and the loan’s insurer worked out terms with creditors that allowed Buena Vista to pay only the interest on the loan until 2016.
But time is running out, and Buena Vista’s financial problems aren’t getting any smaller. Beginning in 2016, the city will have to pay $659,222 a year on the golf course loan – double the $328,557 a year Buena Vista pays now.
“Something’s got to happen here,” said Scudder.
One option for the city is to un-incorporate – to dissolve as a city and join Rockbridge County. That option has hung over the heads of council members and residents alike.
When asked about the possibility of Buena Vista joining the county, Rockbridge County Administrator Spencer Suter declined to comment.
It’s a concept Bill Shobe of the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center calls “reverse annexation.”
“What it means is revenues tend to leak out of the city into the surrounding county,” he said. “The city can’t bring [in] tax revenues . . . because people work in the city but pay taxes out in the county.”
Shobe, who serves as director of economic and policy studies at the Cooper Center, says that while the occurrence is rare, it has happened in the past.
In 2001, nearby Clifton Forge joined Alleghany County. The 3,800-person town gave up its city status after it could no longer afford to pay for a joint school system with the county.
But through the floods, the closing of factories and now the debt, Buena Vista has maintained its independence – and residents and city officials say it’s going to stay that way.
The toll of lingering debt
Buena Vista resident Bill Spence has lived in the city for 70 years. “I was born here, and I’m probably going to die here,” said Spence. Despite the crippling debt, Spence said he thinks Buena Vista will pull through.
“I think the town is strong enough to endure it,” he said. “Things are looking up.”
“One thing about this city is they scrap,” said Parry McCluer Head Football Coach Mike Craft. “I really don’t see them going under. They’re just going to keep fighting until they get out of this hole.”
Like Spence and Craft, Scudder is optimistic. He thinks the city will get back on its feet within five years.
“We’ve had a lot of success with doing a lot of budget work,” he said. “Unfortunately, that involved increasing fees and taxes to probably levels that are about as high as we can go right now in this region and for Buena Vista.”
Despite his positive attitude, Scudder acknowledges that the city’s tremendous debt takes a toll.
“Who likes to sit here and fight something like this?” Scudder said. “It’s not like you’re sitting here going, ‘Oh, let’s all be creative, and we’ve got $600,000 that we can redo Main Street. I want to be there. That would be fun.”