Residents and business owners gathered at the Louisa Arts Center on Sept. 22 to hear what candidates for Louisa County Board of Supervisors had to say about business relations in the county.
The forum, which was hosted by the Louisa County Chamber of Commerce and moderated by Rachel Keller of Channel 8 news in Richmond, touched on the county’s growth and how county and state policies affect business health.
The first question for board Chairman Bob Babyok and his Green Springs District opponent, Rachel Jones, was, “What is the magic number of rooftops needed in Zion Crossroads to get a higher-end grocery store in the area?”
“We have Walmart and before that we were a food desert, so I have to say having Walmart is a nice asset, but having a high-end grocery store would be even better,” said Jones.
But she added that a new store will want more residents in the surrounding area in order to meet weekly sales goals. According to Jones, an additional 20,000 homes beyond the current population within a 10-mile radius will be needed. With the increase in homes comes an increase in traffic.
“We have about 5,000 cars that travel through our traffic diamond daily,” Jones said, referring to the Interstate 64 / Route 15 interchange. “If you were to add additional rooftops, you are going to have about 8,000 cars on our diamond. I will do everything I can to bring a grocery store here without having to add the cost of an increase of rooftops and population for one grocery store that will cause massive gridlock.”
“There is no magic number [of rooftops],” responded Babyok. “Individual companies have their own statistics that they use to evaluate whether they want to be there or not.”
While many chain stores have come to Zion Crossroads, there are a lot of smaller businesses in the town of Louisa. Patrick Henry District supervisor candidate William Woody was asked, “Do you think our main street businesses are healthy and successful? If not, what would you do to change that?”
“I do not think the businesses on main street are healthy and it is primarily due to government policy,” said Woody. “We have inflation running [rampant] – that causes supply to cost more. We have enhanced unemployment, which is causing a labor shortage.”
He went on to put partial blame of businesses’ closure on his opponent, Supervisor Fitzgerald Barnes.
“My opponent supported to keep local businesses closed during last year, which unfortunately caused people to lose their jobs and, in some cases, businesses to be closed permanently.”
In May 2020, during the early phase of the coronavirus pandemic, the board passed a resolution asking the state to let the county determine when local businesses should re-open. Barnes voted against the resolution.
In an answer he provided to a hypothetical question about what he would do with a $1 million grant, Barnes encouraged the opening of small businesses in the community as it would provide more jobs.
“If I had $1 million right now in the county to use, I would create a business incubator. You would take someone who is trying to start a small business and let those business incubators provide jobs. If you get one small business, they could provide jobs for 20 to to 25 people,” he said.
Babyok answered the same question, “The number one priority for us is getting broadband internet service for every home in Louisa County. I think I would apply that to speed up the process because both people and businesses have been waiting too long.”
Supervisors Duane Adams and Tommy Barlow, who are running unopposed in the Mineral and Mountain Road districts, were asked whether attracting new business was more important than supporting existing businesses.
“You don’t ignore our existing businesses at the expense of new business or vice versa,” said Adams.
According to Adams, 62 percent of employed residents of Louisa commute to either Charlottesville or Richmond for work. He would like residents to be able to work in the county if they wish to do so and to do that, new businesses would need to be established.
“Both are equally important,” said Barlow. “The problem businesses in Louisa are having, including myself, is finding people to work. We are doing everything we can do to attract businesses to the county, but that is becoming hard because those businesses have to have people to employ.”
He echoed his answer in his reply to the final question, “What is the single most important thing the commonwealth and Louisa County can do to help local businesses thrive, and how do you plan to make an impact?”
Barlow said, “Once these government handouts are slowed down, people are going to get up and start looking for a job.”
Three candidates voiced their opinions on state and local regulations for small businesses. Adams mentioned that in the past four years, the current board of supervisors has cut regulations on businesses by 40 percent.
“Just recently, it impacted a small percentage of the business in this county, but we just exempted logging and timber [companies] from personal property tax, business tax, and machinery tax,” said Adams.
Woody said that Virginia is currently ranked among the bottom 10 states to recover from the pandemic. The CV was unable to confirm the source of this ranking.
“I am very proud that our county, from top down, has been pro-business and has invited all kinds of businesses to come here,” said Babyok. “That is a big plus for our residents because that is a direct impact and benefit for them. Our job is to remove obstacles for those businesses.”
“I think the single most important thing the commonwealth needs to do is to make sure we are not putting unfunded mandates on businesses and our community. We need to promise businesses that we are not going to increase their taxes,” said Jones.
Barnes said food and gas taxes are a particular concern for him.
“Now one thing I think we can agree on, and it has always been a pet peeve of mine, are two taxes: the food tax and gas tax,” he said. “The food tax affects the poor man and poor woman that are trying to put food on their table. The gas tax prevents them from going to work so they cannot put food on their table.”
Jones and Babyok are scheduled to participate in another forum at the golf club at Spring Creek tonight at 6:30 p.m. All Green Springs District residents are welcome.