In recent years, the River City Saunter has showcased local redevelopment and revitalization initiatives in communities ranging from Shockoe Bottom and Jackson Ward to the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor – with an eye toward highlighting success stories as well as challenges related to sprawl, affordable housing and regional transportation.
But at the 7th annual Saunter, eastern Henrico County’s much-celebrated historic and scenic byway was the star of the show – while sharing a bit of the spotlight with its equally historic and scenic supporting star, the James River.
Sponsored by the Partnership for Smarter Growth (PSG), the May 9 tour of Route 5 drew approximately 80 participants, who set out from Main Street Station in twin buses for a three-hour trip through Varina.
Among Henrico officials joining the tour were Varina Supervisor Tyrone E. Nelson and County Manager John A. Vithoulkas. Leighton Powell of Scenic Virginia provided the narration on one bus, while Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth (and PSG) acted as tour guide on the other.
One of the first points of interest along the route was the property of Virginia Lipford, a passenger on the bus who recently won an award from Henrico’s Historic Preservation Advisory Committee for establishing a conservation easement on her almost-ten-acre site.
Lipford was the first to take advantage of a new partnership between the Capital Region Land Conservancy and the Henricopolis Soil & Water Conservation District, in which the organizations co-hold conservation easements so that small-acreage land owners can preserve their properties and protect them from subdivision just as large-acreage owners can.
Living within sight of the James River, and just off Route 5, Lipford has set an important precedent in a county that loses hundreds of acres of green space and farmland each year, according to tour participant and Varina neighbor Nicole Anderson-Ellis of the Henricopolis Soil and Water Conservation District.
Considering that Virginia’s number one industry is agriculture, and the number two industry is tourism, said Anderson-Ellis, those acres are resources the county cannot afford to lose.
As Leighton pointed out that the Varina District contains 48 percent of Henrico’s land, but only 20 percent of its population, Lipford also drew laughter with a droll observation.
“Yeah, but we can be real loud,” she said of her Varina neighbors.
Nicole Anderson-Ellis points to photos of Napa, Tuscany and Route 5 as part of a guessing game at the Malvern Hill stop on the Saunter.
‘A Civil War playground’
At Fort Harrison, the first stop on the tour, riders disembarked to hear from speakers such as David Ruth, superintendent of the Richmond National Battlefield Park, and Neil Luther, director of Henrico Recreation and Parks.
Pointing out a number of the fort’s more distinctive features, such as its listening wells and earthworks, Ruth cited it as an example of some of the strongest Confederate defense lines during the Civil War – as well as a sterling example of attractions that boost the region’s battlefield tourism and generate an estimated $11 million in economic impact.
Among the more successful recent events cited by Luther was the September reenactment of the Battle of the New Market Heights, which marked the 150th anniversary of the battle. In preparation for the weekend, Henrico Recreation and Parks built a replica fort and Union and Confederate campgrounds that became the focal point for a gathering of more than one thousand re-enactors.
“We basically created a Civil War playground,” Luther said of the event, which generated a figure approaching $1 million in economic impact in one weekend alone.
Not surprisingly, he added, Henrico officials are exploring the possibility of future reenactments. Not only are there abundant heritage sites in Henrico, he explained, but heritage tourists are especially desirable, because they tend to favor books and collectibles and thus spend more than the average traveler.
At the next stop, Deep Bottom Park, riders gathered on the banks of the James to hear from speakers such as Nathan Burrell, superintendent of the James River Park System. Burrell touted the role of the James River and its parks and other recreational assets in the revitalization of Richmond and the reversal of the city’s “downward spiral” of a decade or two ago.
But although the city may enjoy the more visible economic benefit of renewed population growth, Burrell said, it’s imperative that residents of the area view the river as a regional asset — and its stewardship as a regional responsibility.
In spite of the park’s location primarily within city limits, he emphasized, a majority of the visitors – 60 percent – come from surrounding localities.
‘Celebrate these assets’
Along the route, bus riders enjoyed views of another regional asset: newly-completed portions of the Virginia Capital Trail for cyclists and pedestrians. Due for completion this fall, the under-construction portions will soon join with finished sections in Richmond, Charles City County and Jamestown to form an unbroken link between the modern capital and the original capital of Virginia.
Luther mentioned that he and his family are among the Capital Trail fans excitedly anticipating its completion, having already ridden the entire 52-mile length several times.
The final stop of the day, hosted by Meade and Randy Welch at historic Malvern Hill, included refreshments and a guessing game created by Nicole Anderson-Ellis.
A founding member of the Route 5 Corridor Coalition, Anderson-Ellis said the group recently initiated a “Take 5” campaign to induce more visitors to travel the scenic byway. She got the idea for the guessing game, she said, while browsing tourism brochures for Tuscany and the Napa Valley, which featured rustic and pastoral scenes almost interchangeable with those along Route 5.
And she was not at all surprised, as she announced following the guessing game, that most of the tour participants were unable to distinguish the scenic photos of Italy and California from those taken along the Virginia route.
As speakers wrapped up their remarks at Malvern Hill, Stewart Schwartz commented that when he and his wife moved to Richmond a few years ago, he was “stunned” to find scenery like Route 5’s within only a few miles of the city.
“Having seen these landscapes today,” Schwartz said, “we want you to contemplate . . . and to celebrate these assets. You don’t have this in Northern Virginia, or in Washington, D.C.
“And your free tour today,” he added, “is a lot cheaper than that trip to Napa or Tuscany!”
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