Merchant Association Gives Development Chief the Business

Economic Development Director Charles McSwain addresses Cape Charles Business Association September 11. Association president George Proto is at left. (Wave photo)

Northampton County Economic Development Director Charles McSwain addresses Cape Charles Business Association September 11. Association president George Proto is at left. (Wave photo)

Cape Charles Wave

September 12, 2013

Recently hired economic development director for Northampton County Charles McSwain knew he was walking into a hornets nest when he addressed the Cape Charles Business Association meeting last night, and he came prepared with disclaimers and a philosophy of positive thinking.

But Business Association members weren’t buying it when McSwain tried to defend the County’s development plans – especially as they relate to commercial development on Route 13. Association President George Proto told McSwain, who only recently moved into the area, to “drive up Route 13 and see towns like Exmore with development on the highway. I haven’t been able to see any town not negatively impacted,” Proto said.

Deborah Bender said that highway development outside Onancock, where she once lived, “killed the town.” In the same way, on the highway outside Cape Charles, “a Rite-Aid would hurt,” she said. “And a hotel would hurt the B&Bs.”

“I like to think about this in a completely different way,” McSwain said. “Cape Charles is a very attractive place that has its own identity – not something we have to worry about dying.” He argued that commercial development on Route 13 around the Cape Charles traffic light would slow down through-traffic and “make people make that right turn.” A gas station or a motel at the intersection “would stop the high-speed traffic coming through. Once they’ve stopped, train the retailers to say something good about Cape Charles,” McSwain suggested.


Eyre Baldwin, one of the Town’s largest investors, took issue with trying to encourage commercial development. “This is the first time I’ve heard about economic development with commercial coming first. [Normally] you go industrial, then commercial, then residential,” he said. Baldwin was particularly perturbed by a County plan to encourage building another industrial park. “In Cheriton and Cape Charles I own two, so I’m wondering why we need another one,” he said.

Malcolm Hayward took issue with the County’s strategic goals: 1) education 2) economic development 3) infrastructure, and 4) health care. “Medical care is number 4 and it should be number 1, don’t you agree,” he said.  McSwain answered that he could not agree, because “I work for the County. They [the Board of Supervisors] set the goals, and you elected them.”

The most volatile issue at the meeting was the Public Service Authority’s plan to run a sewer pipe from commercial properties around Route 13 to the Cape Charles treatment plant. “I don’t work for the PSA,” McSwain said, but he admitted that he believes the PSA plan “has value.” “I hear your message, but I don’t think you get the whole picture,” he told the business owners. “A huge percentage of people with septic systems are finding them increasingly expensive.” Economic development means building water and sewer systems, he said. “And as an economic developer, I can tell you that you that one of the deficiencies is that you don’t have a lot of infrastructure.”

Baldwin countered that “the economic driver is not eight new businesses on [Route] 13.”

David Gay wanted to know, “What businesses are dying to get on 13 but are not there because of no sewer pipe? McSwain admitted that he knew of none, but added that bringing sewerage to Route 13 was “more about supporting current owners.” For example, he said, two “restaurant-oriented” businesses had shown interest in the empty storefront in the Food Lion shopping center, but had been discouraged by difficulties in getting health department approval for an aging septic system.

McSwain told the business owners that they shouldn’t worry about a drugstore opening on the highway because it wasn’t going to happen. A chain business he talked to said they needed 3,000 homes to support a drugstore, and in the case of Cape Charles, where so many residents are part-time, it would be 5,000 homes. But then he admitted that Rite-Aid built outside Exmore, where the population is similar to that of Cape Charles. But “the only way they would come here is if they bought the prescription base from Rayfield’s,” he said.

Peppered with questions about the PSA, McSwain tried to get PSA Chairman Bob Panek to respond, but Panek would only say that “there’s a public information meeting next Monday night.” (The meeting will be 7 p.m. Monday, September 16, at the Cheriton Fire House.)

The last speaker from the floor was former Town councilman Bruce Evans, who reminded attendees that at the previous Business Association meeting he had spoken in support of building a sewer pipe to the highway because “more brings more.” But “I was wrong,” Evans declared, noting that for many years he had worked for Sears Roebuck, and “I watched Sears rupture small towns.” When Food Lion built on the highway, it put two local groceries out of business, he recalled.

“I voted for the PSA, but I think it was a mistake,” Evans said. “If we allow this [sewerage] infrastructure to go out to the highway, it will rupture the Town.  I recommend that Cape Charles pull out of the PSA and tell the County we’re not going to do it,” Evans said to a spontaneous burst of applause.



7 Responses to “Merchant Association Gives Development Chief the Business”

  1. Antonio Sacco on September 12th, 2013 12:57 am

    The Northampton County economic development director position approved by our Board of Supervisors was a waste of $100,000 tax dollars.

  2. Deborah Bender on September 12th, 2013 6:08 am

    It was great to see everyone standing their ground at this meeting. I don’t know how many people are against the “pipe,” but it did seem that everyone in attendance wants nothing more than to see the town keep on improving. This summer was an all-time high in that there were so many events. I truly hope that all of the businesses had a great summer season. Now that fall and winter are coming we all must spend our money in the 23310 zip code and support our businesses as much as possible.

    All of us need to fight the “pipe”! It could damage our town and hurt all of the businesses involved in the “special tax district.” It was wonderful to see some of the people that were for the PSA admit they were wrong — that takes guts! I hope everyone will keep fighting for our little town!

  3. Debbie Suddeth on September 12th, 2013 8:50 am

    Maybe Mr. McSwain could focus on restoring the vacant buildings in Cape Charles. That would be helpful to the town — sure would provide a lot of usable “commercial” space.”

  4. Stephen Fox on September 12th, 2013 10:05 am

    The development director’s view has no credible support. Commercial development on Rt. 13 is a primary reason Cape Charles has two former grocery store buildings that are vacant, and other empty storefronts. His agenda is not a Cape Charles agenda.

  5. Roger L. Munz on September 12th, 2013 10:10 am

    Neighbors, ask yourselves: WHAT IS THE CAUSAL RELATIONSHIP between the Town, the PSA, and the need to run a sewer pipe out to Route 13? The answer apears to be obvious: the Town overspent on the sewer plant and now is trying to find a way to help pay the $286,000 yearly debt service since the people of Cape Charles wouldn’t stand for another rate increase.

    The Town administration abused the taxpayers by overspending on the sewer plant, with full knowledge that Bay Creek would not contribute any money, and now they are trying to abuse the business owners to cover their mismanagement.

    As a past member of the Town Planning Commission, I know firsthand that the primary concern was always to protect the in-town businesses. Now we seem to be in a do-anything-that-sounds-OK era, and the Town administration has forgotten the Town’s history, needs, and wants — these guidelines haven’t been seen in Cape Charles for a long time now.

    Let’s all work to preserve the Cape Charles we either have lived in, or moved here to enjoy.

  6. David Gay on September 12th, 2013 11:04 am

    I was amazed to see so many friends and neighbors attend the Cape Charles Business Association meeting last night. Even more surprising was the overall sentiment against the sewer pipeline, the PSA, and development on Route 13. This is a good thing. The business community is finally realizing what a disaster it would be to shift the economic centers from the towns to the highway. What was disturbing to hear was the lack of any coherent economic development plan for the TOWNS in Northampton County. All the focus was on highway development. Mr. McSwain, our newly hired County Economic Development Director, did a fine job defending the indefensible. It is a sad thing when the County Board of Supervisors finds it necessary to hire someone to carry their water for them. I am sure that Mr. McSwain is a very competent and well-meaning individual who could be very helpful in revitalizing our towns, but it appears that he is hamstrung and misdirected by the ill-conceived agenda of his County masters.

    I hope that our County Supervisors are reading the WAVE and understand that the business owners and citizens of Cape Charles are not impressed with their economic development plan. Elections are coming and we VOTE!

  7. Tom Kenny on September 12th, 2013 6:20 pm

    I am not from the area but I follow the Wave. In the near future I hope to purchase a second home and have been up and down the Eastern Shore. I have enjoyed my visits to Cape Charles and think that it has great potential, both as a possible site for me and as a town.

    To Ms. Bender and Mr. Fox, your comments are interesting. Ms. Bender said “This summer was an all-time high in that there were so many events.” This is what pulls people into Cape Charles, this is what builds businesses in Cape Charles, this is what sustains business in Cape Charles.

    Mr. Fox stated, “Commercial development on Route 13 is a primary reason Cape Charles has two former grocery store buildings that are vacant.” That, Mr. Fox, is due to the people of Cape Charles and to the businesses themselves. Do you fault the residents for going to Food Lion, which may have had a better selection, price, and hours? Is it not the fault of the businesses that collapsed for not trying to reinvent themselves to become something Food Lion isn’t — based on service or quality? How is it that Chincoteague can support a supermarket in town when there is a Food Lion only about 4 miles away?

    For me, visiting Cape Charles isn’t going to happen because I’m driving down 13 and I need something to eat. I’m going to keep going on 13, heading to my destination until I hit something on 13 where I can eat. It will be visited if it is a destination. I think it’s short-sighted not to think about running the sewer line to 13. I do agree that industry should be looked at prior to retail, but if retail is paying that business tax, why not?

    Essentially, the argument is that the people of Cape Charles don’t deserve the selection, choice, and conveniences of box stores. If people can’t see the difference between going to Watson’s and a Home Depot or Lowe’s, that’s sad. Getting chain stores in the middle of Cape Charles doesn’t seem like a very smart idea either.