Q1. You’re a Washington County native and you’ve worked in a variety of fields – in financial planning, in the arts, and in the nonprofit health care sphere. What made you decide to run for office? How does your background influence your service on the Board of Supervisors?
Allison Mays: I regularly attended Board of Supervisors and Town Council meetings as part of my job for several years prior to running for office. I became very interested in what it takes to successfully manage a county and the fact that crucial decisions affecting the County were essentially in the hands of seven elected officials. I ran for office because I felt my professional experience qualified me for the position and also because of my personal passion for Washington County and wanting to do what is best for the residents of our county.
Q2. You formerly worked for the Barter Theatre and you serve as Vice-Chair of NACo’s Arts and Culture Commission. What sparked your interest in the arts? What role do you see local government playing in promoting the arts as an element of economic development?
AM: Arts and culture can be huge economic drivers, particularly in rural counties. Our tourism industry in Washington County is primarily driven by arts and culture, which I think also includes our outdoor recreation and historical assets. Agriculture is our number one industry in Washington County, and it’s interesting to see the way that agriculture has influenced arts and culture. For example, Barter Theatre was founded using the “barter” system. During the Great Depression, local patrons would exchange fresh produce for a ticket to the theatre. Our main tourism generator would not even exist if it weren’t for our strong agricultural base. The local farm to table movement was started by a local author, Barbara Kingsolver, and has resulted in several restaurants and farmer’s markets throughout the county.
Our identity as a county is based on our artistic, cultural, historical, outdoor and agricultural assets. Cross-promotion has also worked really well across these assets. For example, local artisans sell their art at the farmer’s market, other artisans have their work displayed at local restaurants and breweries and restaurants run parallel to trail systems. This is what makes our county work. One of our largest pitches to economic development prospects is our unique arts and culture scene. CEOs and top-level executives make decisions to move to and live in Washington County because we are truly unique.
Q3. You served as part of a panel on early childhood issues at NACo’s Annual Conference in July. There has been so much research on the benefits of high-quality early learning. Could you share some of Washington County’s successes in this area?
AM: Washington County is participating in the Rural Impact County Challenge initiative through the National Association of Counties, which works to combat rural childhood poverty. We were one of thirteen counties in the nation chosen to receive a community coach to assist with our efforts through County Health Rankings and Roadmaps and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The best thing about our committee is that it is truly a collaborative effort among agencies and organizations in Washington County and Southwest Virginia. Our committee members include representatives from Washington County Public Schools, Washington County Sheriff’s Office, Washington County Public Library, United Way of Southwest Virginia, Smart Beginnings, People, Inc., Virginia Department of Health, Washington County Department of Social Services, Ecumenical Faith in Action, Virginia Cooperative Extension and Children’s Services Act of Virginia.
Our first project as a committee was putting together a Resource Guide that lists all of the services available to members of our community. A link to the Resource Guide has been added to the county website. All of our committee partners will place the link to the guide on their website and we also plan to ask other agencies (such as hospitals, etc.) to make the guide available. Printed copies will also be made available as needed. We chose this project recognizing that sometimes people who need help are not even aware that these resources exist. We felt the first step was helping those people in our community with a quick and easy way to find the assistance they need. Recognizing the ongoing importance of rural childhood poverty and early childhood development in our county, we have voted to make this an official committee of the Washington County Board of Supervisors.
Q4. What do you see as the greatest challenges and opportunities facing Washington County in the next 10 years?
AM: Economic development continues to be a challenge and was mentioned as a concern by other counties in Regions 12 and 13 at our Regional VACo meeting this past June. We are not able to offer the incentives here in Southwest Virginia that counties in NOVA are able to offer and it hurts our chances of landing companies. While it is certainly a challenge, I also see economic development as one of our largest opportunities. We have a lot to offer in Washington County and our County Administrator and Economic Development Director have worked diligently to improve how we market Washington County to prospective businesses. We have also entered into a partnership with the City of Bristol, VA as part of the GO Virginia initiative.
While Washington County hasn’t been as hard hit by the decline in the coal industry as other counties in Southwest Virginia, we definitely have felt and are continuing to feel the ripple effects. Like others in Southwest Virginia, our challenge is finding new and different ways to help companies and individuals recover, be successful and stay in our region.
Q5. You graduated from VACo’s Certified Supervisors program this month and you’re also a graduate of LEAD Virginia. What elements of these programs have been most relevant to your work as a member of the Board of Supervisors?
AM: I enrolled in VACo’s Certified Supervisors program at the encouragement of Joe Straten, a former Supervisor here in Washington County. Joe emphasized that the program would help me better understand all the roles required with being a Supervisor, from leadership to county planning to budgeting. The class has given me a much better understanding of these roles and made me more confident in my knowledge and practice of the position. In addition, the opportunity to network with Supervisors from other counties is invaluable. The discussions that ensued in our classes helped us all feel better equipped to perform our roles as Supervisors, and also helped us understand the similarities and differences in our respective counties.
LEAD Virginia was also a very worthwhile experience. I am a huge believer in networking and meeting people outside your most immediate circle of contacts. LEAD Virginia allowed me to form personal and professional relationships with others from across the Commonwealth. It also gave me the opportunity to experience what life is like in other counties as compared to Washington County, particularly in the areas of health care, education and economic development.
Q6. What are the “must-do” activities for a first-time visitor to Washington County?
AM: Everything! I am biased toward our arts and culture scene and outdoor recreation because they are things I personally enjoy and love about Washington County. But more specifically…ARTS AND CULTURE: Barter Theatre…William King Museum of Art…The Arts Depot…Me and Little Tree…Heartwood…Holston Mountain Artisans. OUTDOOR RECREATION: The Virginia Creeper Trail…The Appalachian Trail…South Holston Lake…The Channels…Backbone Rock…Hidden Valley Lake…Adventure Mendota…The Salt Trail. HISTORY: The Abingdon Muster Grounds…The Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail…Sinking Springs Cemetery…The Martha Washington Inn and Spa…Fairview…White’s Mill. FOOD: The Tavern…Rain Restaurant…128 Pecan…Mojo’s Trailside Café…Harvest Table…Wolf Hills Brewing…The Damascus Brewery. As you can see, a visitor should plan to spend a few days to experience everything there is to do in Washington County! The best thing about Washington County is that we know who we are and we love who we are. We embrace our culture and heritage and each of our towns has its own unique personality.
VACo Contact: Katie Boyle