How Hillsboro Reinvented Itself… with Government Grants

“Downtown” Hillsboro. Photo credit; Washington Post

by James A. Bacon

Hillsboro in western Loudoun County is a rural success story, reports The Washington Post. Over the past couple of years, the town of 120 has transformed its main street, a 0.7-mile stretch of Route 9. The addition of sidewalks made the community’s main drag inviting to pedestrians after having been rendered untraversable by the 17,000 vehicles, many of them conveying West Virginians to jobs in the Washington metropolitan area, that passed through every day.

Foot traffic at the Stoneybrook Farm and Market has more than doubled since early 2020. Kids can walk to class. Residents stroll instead of drive to the town’s Friday night concerts. The tiny shopping district is more inviting to the many visitors to the area’s wineries and breweries. Residents are upgrading their homes, and local businesses are expanding.

“It was hard to walk anywhere before. It felt like all you could do is drive to your house, get in your car, get out of your car, get in your car and drive somewhere else,” said Paul Hrebenak, who moved to Hillsboro a year ago. “Now you can walk across the street to your neighbor. You can walk the dog up the street and run into people and sit and chat on the sidewalk, rather than on the side of a busy highway.”

Hillsboro is the perfect illustration of what Bacon’s Rebellion has long advocated as a central part of any rural revitalization strategy — turning hamlets and small towns into walkable communities. There’s just one problem: The Hillsboro model is not replicable anywhere else — unless other communities can figure out how to raise the equivalent of $280,000 per resident in state, federal and local grants.

According to the Post, Mayor Roger L. Vance and Vice Mayor Amy Marasco managed to transform the town by securing $34 million in government grants. Besides the road and sidewalk improvements, outside funds have paid for laying fiber optic cable for broadband, moving overhead utilities underground, and upgrading the storm-water, drinking-water and waste-water systems. Vance and Marasco, who receive no pay, submitted more than 30 grant applications, networked at regional and state transportation events, and then acted as project managers when the money came in.

The feds contributed $1.5 million in 2003 for early study and design. More recently, the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) approved $12.1 million and Loudoun County allocated nearly $19 million.

As drivers approach the town, they must slow from 45 mph to 25 mph before entering the first roundabout. Sidewalks, parking areas, lighting, raised crosswalks, markings and signs help keep traffic moving slowly until exiting the second roundabout on the other side of town, says the Post. It is impossible for cars to speed through town, so pedestrians feel safer when walking on sidewalks with little space between them and the passing cars.

Bacon’s bottom line: Hillsboro residents owe a lot to the dogged efforts of their unpaid mayor and vice mayor. Whether elected officials in other rural Virginia communities can duplicate their success is doubtful. For starters, the $12 million from the NVTA was made possible by the fact that Northern Virginia has a regional transportation authority funded by a regional gasoline tax. Unless a town is located in a mostly mainly urbanized region with such an authority, that revenue option will not exist. The other $19 million came from Loudoun County, which has the highest per capita income of any county in the United States. Loudoun has resources to spare that poor Virginia counties do not.

But everyone can learn from Hillsboro’s positive experience. It may take 20 or 30 years for other communities to accomplish what took Hillsboro barely two (not including the years of networking and applying for grants), but poor towns and hamlets can get there eventually if they create a plan and stick to it. The payoff in livability is immense. The increase in business opportunities is pure gravy.


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27 responses to “How Hillsboro Reinvented Itself… with Government Grants”

  1. WayneS Avatar

    “…Mayor Roger L. Vance and Vice Mayor Amy Marasco managed to transform the town by securing $34 million in government grants.”

    Good for them. It took a lot of hard work and persistence to obtain that much money in grants..

  2. WayneS Avatar

    “It is impossible for cars to speed through town…”

    They probably should not have said that. There are hooligans out there who will take it as a challenge.

    Don’t ask me how I know…

    😉

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Sidewalk??

  3. LarrytheG Avatar
    LarrytheG

    Actually, it IS replicable. First, VDOT, has for years, built bypasses around towns and that then allowed those towns to reinvent themselves as real towns with real pedestrian and bike mobility.

    Beyond that, these days, you don’t really need a transportation authority with Smart Scale which tends to prioritize projects that do provide ped and bike facilities.

    Roundabouts have become more and more popular with transportation planners as well as other improvements known as “road diet” which force vehicles to slow down and give consideration to those on foot and bike – and now days a lot of other wheeled variants.

    Finally, THANK YOU for a post that is not the usual grievance-laden culture war rant of late. Feels like the good old days of BR!

    😉

    1. WayneS Avatar

      As far as I can tell, there is no bypass of Rt 9 around Hillsboro. They still have to deal with heavy traffic at certain times of day, but they are better equipped to handle it.

      PS – Have you ever shepherded a project through the Smart Scale Process?

      1. LarrytheG Avatar
        LarrytheG

        Yep. But many other small towns in Virginia have had bypasses built around them. I’d be curious to know what happened to the 17K traffic. Does it still come through town or did it go elsewhere or just go away?

        1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
          Eric the half a troll

          I recall there was a push to build a bypass around Hillsboro and the residents in the area nixed it for many reasons – one of which is it would have just brought more development and traffic to the area in the end.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar
            LarrytheG

            Fredericksburg has engaged in changes to streets and roads to make them more ped/bike friendly and less friendly for cars, roundabouts and “diet” type changes. They’ve stopped cut-through traffic in a number of neighborhoods using these changes.

        2. WayneS Avatar

          As I understand it they still handle the same traffic flow.

          With the reduced speeds through town, a few people may have started using an alternate route, but if I remember correctly from my days stomping around up that way, there are not too many viable alternative to Route 9 if one wishes to travel from the Charles Town WV area to Leesburg and points east, or vice-versa.

          1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
            Dick Hall-Sizemore

            And the town probably does not want a bypass. A lot of those cars probably stop in town for gas or snacks.

          2. LarrytheG Avatar
            LarrytheG

            Fredericksburg has gone through 3, maybe 4 bypasses in it’s history.

            Each time gas stations and businesses migrated to the bypasses while others stayed in town but over time, fewer and fewer gas stations stayed in town and all the chain stores migrated out to the bypasses.

            The town/city has become mostly one of restaurants, breweries, curio shops, now some high dollar condos and some boutique hotels. ​

            They also have a large plot that sits next to I-95 (Central Park) where all the major commercial, WalMart, Lowes, Kohls, etc now sits and generates substantial sales taxes that funds services.

            Ironically, the primary developer of that zone is named “Silver”! 😉

    2. DJRippert Avatar
      DJRippert

      “Finally, THANK YOU for a post that is not the usual grievance-laden culture war rant of late. Feels like the good old days of BR!”

      Spoken like a true Socialist /Marxist.

      This fluff piece celebrates walkability while largely ignoring the fact that other people’s money paid $280,000 per resident of Hillsboro to create a “walkable environment”.

      Loudoun County has a population of 413,538.

      If the newly ascendant Democrats who run Loudoun spent $280,000 per person to create walkability in all of Loudoun County the total tab would be $115.79B.

      The real focus of this story could have been the question of how 120 people corralled $34m of other people’s money to make their hamlet “walkable”. What possible analysis could have determined that spending $34m in Hillsboro was a sufficiently high priority that the funds were released?

      Joe Biden says he wants to pursue the Obama era idea of eliminating zoning laws in order to create more affordable housing. As I recall, Loudoun County has a pretty bright line between those areas that can be freely developed (east of Rt 15 as I recall) vs those areas that are zoned to stay rural or rural-like. We’ll see how the mollycoddled horsey set of western Loudoun County feels if Biden actually brings townhomes and condos to places like Hillsboro.

  4. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    I think you would find Hamilton and Purcellville to be success stories in their own rights. They approached the same issues that Hillsboro faced in distinctly different ways and they did not have the traffic issues Hillsboro faced thanks to the Rte 7 by-pass but they all face old water and wastewater systems and historically non-walkable Main Streets (Hamilton more than Purcellville). But definitely kudos to Hillsboro and its town government. Another interesting thing is that I think Hillsboro is traditionally a write-in only town… so there’s that…

    1. WayneS Avatar

      Gordonsville did a very nice street-scape project a few years back which greatly improved the walkability of that little town.

    2. Brian Leeper Avatar
      Brian Leeper

      Did they do like Manassas Park and not raise the water/sewer rates for over 20 years? And use tap fees to pay for gallons of water and gallons of sewage treatment, as opposed to the capital improvements that tap fees are supposed to be used for?

      I figure that all these small towns and cities in Virginia pretty much operate the same way.

      The same useless city/town managers seem to bounce around them every few years.

      1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
        Eric the half a troll

        I think Purcellville pretty much tried to develop their way through system upgrades. Hamilton took the opposite approach – cut back on their service area. I believe Hamilton system users pay more per gallon in the end but find it preferable to the alternative of over development. Hamilton, at least, does not have a town manager. The work of governing is largely handled by its citizens.

  5. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    Route 9 is one busy road in the rush hour. Most commuting from Charlestown pass down 9 into Hillsboro. It used to have one wicked curve too and if you missed it you hit a stone house built like a fort.

  6. energyNOW_Fan Avatar
    energyNOW_Fan

    I am trying to decide if taxing me more for gasoline in NoVA was advertised for the purpose of revamping rural towns, to the tune of mega-millions

    1. Brian Leeper Avatar
      Brian Leeper

      You know it all goes into a big barrel of pork, right?

  7. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    Uh, $34 million for a town of 120? That’s about $280,000 per capita? (Over $1 million for a family of four.) Sure, we can do that everywhere. And Loudoun is the richest county in the US of A, correct? So $500K per capita for Richmond transformation. OMG.

    1. WayneS Avatar

      But… Richmond will benefit from economies of scale…

      😉

    2. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead

      A lot of big names and high rollers in the Hillsboro area. Madeline Albright used to live there on a big estate.

    3. DJRippert Avatar
      DJRippert

      No problem … that’s only $2.38T (yes, T as in trillion) dollars to roll this out across Virginia.

      How in the hell did a town of 120 people burn through $34m in public spending (i.e. other people’s money) in a county with almost endless traffic and congestion problems?

      I assume the good people sitting in traffic jams around Sterling, Ashburn and Leesburg are just thrilled to know that the Madeline Albright horsey set is making themselves comfortable with a small fortune of tax money.

      Loudoun County used to be one of the best run jurisdictions in the DC Metropolitan area. Now it is a blazing dumpster fire.

  8. energyNOW_Fan Avatar
    energyNOW_Fan

    So we gave Hillsboro millions of dollars of NoVA gaso taxes to slow down traffic and build sidewalks for the town. We respected their desire to keep a small town without any risk of more development that a bypass might create. Wonderful.

    It’s a little analogous to Breezewood on the PA Turnpike, which if you want to cut south down I70 to Virginia, you have to pay a 10-15 minute driving penalty of slow down to get through the darn town. the town has long opposed a to a bypass around it, but someday it may be coming.

    Well, maybe after electric cars are mandated we need to stop there anyways for electrons,

    1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
      Eric the half a troll

      Actually, it’s more like Hillsboro not wanting to become Breezewood.

        1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
          Eric the half a troll

          “The Biden proposal would set up a $5 billion fund for local governments to compete for grants to pay for new schools, roads or bridges if they agreed to loosen zoning rules.”

          I’ve got no problem with this as it squarely puts the decision to grow exactly where it should be – with the local governmental body.

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