For almost a century, the four city blocks that make up Merchants Square have marked an intersection between Williamsburg’s economic future and its storied past.
With Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s recent consideration of fencing off its property, the intersection of Duke of Gloucester and Henry Street now marks new, contested territory — the confluence of private, public and nonprofit enterprise.
The roadways inside Colonial Williamsburg are owned by the City and the privately-owned businesses inside Merchants Square lease their storefronts from the Foundation, a nonprofit.
“I wouldn’t have this restaurant here, if it weren’t for that street,” Tom Power, Jr., executive chef of the Fat Canary in Merchants Square said of Duke of Gloucester Street.
Earlier this month, Foundation representatives met with members of City Council to propose the idea of fencing off the Historic Area, saying they are losing as much $2.3 million annually in profits because tens of thousands of visitors have unpaid access to the site.
With the prospect of a fence looming, business owners in Merchants Square hope Colonial Williamsburg’s partnership with public space and private companies continues to be just that: a partnership.
“I know what it means to run a business and when you’re facing hard financial times, you have to do what you have to do,” said Power, who is the son of the owners of The Cheese Shop, also located in Merchants Square.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he added. “I’m not a cheerleader all the time for Colonial Williamsburg. They’re my landlord, and like most tenant-landlord relations, those relationships just don’t see things the same…I would prefer it not change, but I would understand if it has to.”
The Foundation’s president and CEO Mitchell Reiss said the relationship between the Foundation, area businesses and community leaders was paramount to the past success of Colonial Williamsburg.
“We’re keenly aware of Colonial Williamsburg’s critical role as a job creator and major economic engine for the city and region,” Reiss said in a statement to WYDaily. “The financial pressures confronting Colonial Williamsburg, however, jeopardize that role. Partnership and transparency with the community have been key to our shared success since Colonial Williamsburg’s founding.”
Billy Scruggs, a former city councilor, head of the Williamsburg Hotel & Motel Association, and lifelong contributor to Colonial Williamsburg, owns the Fife and Drum Inn and Retro’s Good Eats with his wife Sharon.
For decades, their family’s fate has been intertwined with the fates of the city and the Foundation.
“We’re blessed with location,” Scruggs said of their business. “I was born here, so the biggest factor to me is that of a taxpayer. I am not comfortable with the council discussing shutting off any city property to me. That is city property. I pay the taxes for it.”
For Adam Steely, chairman of the Williamsburg Economic Development Authority and co-owner of Blue Talon Bistro in Merchants Square, the ultimate goal would be to collaborate with Colonial Williamsburg to prevent closing off the area, while still managing to keep up revenue for the Foundation.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that managed access would reduce the number of people — or at least the time they spend downtown,” said Steely. “I would remain hopeful that, in cooperative effort with the city, the Foundation can find solutions to their challenges that won’t run against the city’s efforts to enhance downtown. We want Colonial Williamsburg to be a partner in that effort.”