Lexington looking up after pandemic slump

By Mary Alice Russell

Lexington City Hall installed new automatic doors, touchless light switches, and hand sanitizing stations to meet COVID-19 guidelines. All of the money came from the CARES act grant.

Lexington’s budget took a double hit from the pandemic and recession, slashing hotel and lodging tax revenues. But an increase in downtown sales, along with federal grants, should help salvage many city-funded programs.

“The heart of our emphasis has been on the community and on the schools,” City Manager Jim Halasz said.

Lexington received over $1.2 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES act passed by congress in March. About 30% of the money has gone to local businesses and nonprofit organizations, Halasz said.

The grants for nonprofit organizations ranged from $1,100 to $15,000. Project Horizon, Campus Kitchen and Rockbridge Area YMCA were three of the eight organizations that received funding, according to the Community Foundation for Rockbridge, Bath, and Alleghany.

Main Street Lexington gave out $127,000 to 52 businesses that applied for the CARES act grant in July.

The rest of the money went to purchasing cleaning supplies and special safety equipment for the city and schools as well as extra funding for public safety workers. The schools also received funding that allowed for each student to have their own Chromebook computer.

Even with extra grant money and the slight bump in sales, the city budget approved this summer cuts out spending on capital projects, funding for beloved organizations and the recycling program.

One of the largest city projects impacted by budget cuts was the street resurfacing program that occurred this spring. Roads like Main Street were still repaved through VDOT grant money and State Street Maintenance dollars, but smaller city streets were not fixed.

Organizations like the Lime Kiln Theatre, Fine Arts in Rockbridge and Yellow Brick Road lost all of their city funding.

Main Street Lexington, which helps businesses on Main Street, has been allotted $72,000 as opposed to $80,000 in the new city budget. The $8,000 difference will greatly impact the way the organization works.

Rebecca Logan, executive director of Main Street Lexington, said the marketing group has already cancelled a grant that helps businesses replace signs and awnings downtown.

The recycling program that picked up recycling in front of homes and sent it to the recycling plant in Roanoke was completely cut.

“I know people very dearly love to say that they are recycling and it’s sort of a shock,” Halasz said.

The city government hopes that if things go well, some of funding to various groups and projects could be restored later in the year.

Hotel and lodging taxes were down since March but started to rise again in August as students returned to Lexington.

Heliotrope Brewery removed their community style tables to meet CDC guidelines.

Heliotrope Brewery, a Main Street artisan pizza and brewpub that opened in December, saw business drop in March, said Jenefer Davies, who owns Heliotrope with her husband. It has rebounded to about 75 percent of its normal business.

“On Fridays and Saturdays, it feels like we’re back to what it was like before the virus,” Davies said.

Davies had to make major changes to the Heliotrope business model to meet CDC guidelines and meet the needs of her customers. Heliotrope now does take-out and delivery and has more seating outdoors than in.

“I think that the main reason that we made it through was because Lexington was so incredibly supportive of all of the downtown business,” Davies said.

Even with the support of the residents of Lexington, the city thrives off of students, parents, and alumni from Washington and Lee University and the Virginia Military Institute who flock to the city in the fall.

“Think of all the football games, athletic events, concerts when parents, alumni and other visitors come to Lexington. Those aren’t happening this year,” Halasz said.

The return of college students in August has helped Lexington, but with the uncertainty of COVID-19, students could be sent home at any time.

The city budget takes into account a 10% decrease in tax revenue, which is close to what the city saw before students returned to Lexington.

“On the one hand, we are pleased with what we see today, but there is no assurance that in December or March coming up we’ll be just as pleased,” Halasz said. “It could be worse.”