Preventing vacant businesses in the Historic Triangle a challenge — here’s what might save them

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The Virginia Beer Company. (WYDaily/File photo)
The Virginia Beer Company. (WYDaily/File photo)

For some businesses along Merrimac Trail and Second Street, business is booming.

Virginia Beer Co. continuously crafts new brews for customers; Shorty’s bustles daily with a loyal breakfast and lunch crowd; and Casa Pearl, still in its infancy, vehicle parking now overflows into adjacent lots.

But as some businesses are finding success along the Second Street-Merrimac Trail corridor, others have shuttered, leaving behind vacant windows and locked doors.

Another building has now joined the roster of vacancies: Long John Silver’s closed in late May, now accompanying a Farm Fresh, the Tequila Rose and several other shopping center storefronts in the James-York Plaza.

Second Street and Merrimac Trail are not alone when it comes to having vacant buildings lining the roadside, but the corridor is also unique: It is at the confluence of James City County, York County and the Williamsburg.

The three localities have different policies regarding vacant buildings, but, overall, none of the localities can prevent buildings from remaining vacant for years on end.

It all boils down to attracting new businesses to fill the empty space, said Jim Noel, York County economic development director.

“There are reasons why they’re vacant, and typically it’s obsolescence or some type of building just not relevant to the marketplace anymore,” Noel said.

Long John Silver's on Merrimac Trail has closed its doors. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)
Long John Silver’s on Merrimac Trail has closed its doors. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)

Staying vacant

Drivers can travel from the Williamsburg, to York County, to James City County in a matter of a mile on Second Street and Merrimac Trail.

There are vacant buildings in both James City and York counties, but as of Friday, there were no vacancies in the city on Second Street, city spokeswoman Lee Ann Hartmann said.

In short, localities have more control over the state of vacant buildings if they adopt a property maintenance code. The city has one — allowing it to cite owners if they do not maintain their buildings — but both counties do not.

“As long as it’s structurally sound, we can’t force the issue, basically,” Noel said.

Even with the property maintenance code, the city cannot force an owner to occupy a building, Hartmann said.

The counties rely on grass-cutting and junk and debris regulations to keep buildings — vacant or occupied — from becoming eyesores. If those are not cleaned up once the owner gets a notice from the county, the county will bill them for a county-paid cleanup. If the bill is not paid, it becomes a lien against the property.

York County Zoning and Code Enforcement Supervisor Dina Goode said a lack of a property maintenance code means county officials cannot cite owners if the inside or outside of the building is dilapidated.

Goode’s office handles many cases on a reactive, complaint-driven basis.

“We do try to be extra mindful of the tourist corridors,” Goode said of areas like Second Street and Merrimac Trail. “We try to make sure they look presentable as far as grass and trash and debris.”

James City County has building code inspectors to condemn buildings, but that only happens when it’s unsafe, meaning in danger of collapse or unsecured against unauthorized entry.

The Tequila Rose sits vacant on Merrimac Trail in James City County in a June 2018 Google Maps image. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Google Maps)
The Tequila Rose sits vacant on Merrimac Trail in James City County in a June 2018 Google Maps image. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Google Maps)

“In other words, if a building is properly secured and stable and as long as the grass is being cut and there is no accumulation of trash, debris or abandoned vehicles, the property can be otherwise vacant,” James City County Planning Director Paul Holt wrote in an email.

York County does not condemn buildings because it does not have a property maintenance code, said Lynn Underwood, York County’s building official.

Underwood said the county does not have a vacant building registration program, which some localities use to control the conditions in buildings not regularly occupied. In those situations, the locality will tax buildings vacant beyond a certain period of time.

Economically, those that aren’t relevant stay vacant longer.

Noel said there are some examples of buildings that are no longer relevant to the local market in the Merrimac Trail corridor, such as the vacant Farm Fresh building near the intersection of Merrimac Trail and Second Street.

The Farm Fresh closed in October 2017 and has since struggled to finalize any proposals for a new use. One proposal included turning it into a climate-controlled self-storage facility.

The Edge District

While some buildings are becoming and have remained vacant, there’s some hope yet for the corridor: “The Edge District.”

Noel has met once with several key business owners in the Second Street-Merrimac Trail corridor, exploring the idea of branding the corridor as “The Edge District.”

It would allow businesses to collaborate and run specials, ad campaigns and more, Noel said. He hopes to gather key businesses together again in a few weeks to start talking about seed money to get a campaign started.

Having a brand can also attract new businesses that will find creative uses for existing buildings, Noel said.

“If you can brand something or brand an area and attach a positive image, positive feel, positive vibe to it, then it can potentially help everyone,” he added.

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