Augusta County: Beautiful, Affordable, Happening

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Photo by Nick Grow Photo by Nick Grow

Nestled in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, it’s named after an 18th century princess of Wales, mother to Britain’s King George III. So sparsely populated at its founding in 1738 that for seven years no one bothered to set up a government, it saw a population increase of more than 34 percent from 1990 to 2010. There are good reasons people are flocking to Augusta County, reasons beginning with, well, just look out the window. “My buyers tell me it’s something about the mountains,” says Sandra Huffman, REALTOR® with Long and Foster, who lives just south of Staunton. “We’re kind of in a unique spot where 64 and 81 intersect. So people travel through and they think to themselves, ‘Wow, this is a pretty spot, I need to come back and take a look around some time.’” And when they come back, what makes them stay? “Something about the mountains is what I always hear.”

The mountains bring them here, and then they discover the George Washington National Forest, and 25-acre, spring-fed Sherando Lake. Then they discover the American Shakespeare Center, the Frontier Culture Museum, and the burgeoning music and restaurant scene in the picturesque town of Staunton. They spend a few hours at the P. Buckley Moss Museum in Waynesboro. They stop by Andre Viette Farm & Nursery in Fishersville, where the tree and flower gardens are open year ‘round, or visit Joel Salatin’s nationally known Polyface Farm in Swope, where the tours come in three flavors: Self-Guided, Grass Stains (guided) and Lunatic (how would I know?).

Dubbed the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy” during the Civil War, but subject to burning and wrecking under Union Major Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, Augusta County today is culturally vibrant and economically diverse, with the agriculture, medical and manufacturing sectors its major employers, and its cultural arts sector attracting the young, the hip, and the newly kid-free who love to be in the middle of things. Manufacturing supplies many of Augusta’s jobs, with Hershey Chocolate and the Target Distribution Center, both in Stuarts Draft, among its most well-known employers. “We have a very diverse economy,” notes Marshall Pattie of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors. “We survive economic downturns better than most communities do.”

Augusta County Director of Economic Development Amanda Glover and her husband John are Shenandoah Valley natives who moved to Augusta County three and a half years ago. “Augusta County offers an affordable cost of living complemented by a great quality of life,” Glover says. “We appreciate the rural nature of the County, while at the same time being centrally-located with easy access to recreation, commercial development, and cultural aspects, such as great farm-to-table restaurants. For us, it’s the best of both worlds: we have a few acres and gorgeous mountain views but live only ten minutes from a grocery store.”   

“About twenty percent of Augusta County’s workforce is employed in manufacturing, so manufacturing is an obvious strength for us,” Glover says. “With companies like McKee Foods, Hershey Chocolate, Shamrock, PlyGem, and Daikin, Augusta County has a solid manufacturing base which tends to be concentrated in the Stuarts Draft, Verona, and Weyers Cave areas.  Fishersville is our growing life sciences corridor, with anchors such as Augusta Health, Murphy Deming College of Health Sciences, and the Wilson Workforce Rehabilitation Center, among others.”    

With 1,729 farms on 286,195 acres, Augusta County has more farm acreage than any other Virginia county. It is the second largest agriculture producing county in the Commonwealth, but it ranks first in the state for production of beef cattle, sheep and lambs, and second in milk cow production. It is home to more than 30,000 head of beef cattle and 9,000 sheep and lambs, and is also one of the state’s largest poultry producers.

Family farms have been a vital part of the county’s economy since the Germans, Scots-Irish, and English settled there in the 18th century. “The agricultural component is a big part of who we are as people and as a community. The farms in Augusta County contribute to our beautiful landscape and our agricultural heritage has shaped our strong work ethic for centuries. We have both traditional farming operations as well as fascinating agri-tourism destinations, including a farm-brewery with hops grown on-site.” Staunton alone can claim four breweries; Waynesboro has three more.

Education plays a large part in the life of the county as well. Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, founded in 1842, is a highly regarded residential women’s college which also offers an online program for both men and women and an adult degree program. It will begin admitting male residential students, for the first time in its history, in the fall of this year.

Blue Ridge Community College in Weyer’s Cave, founded in 1967, offers programs of instruction including associate degrees, diplomas, and certificates in occupational/technical and college/university transfer programs. The College also provides non-credit workforce training and special interest classes for individuals, business, and industry. On the medical side, the county is served by Augusta Health, a 224-bed general medical and surgical hospital in Fishersville, a town of less than 8,000 people in 2010 that is increasingly popular.

Trina Cook, with 1st Choice Real Estate, has lived in the county since she was about six months old. She loves its mountains, alright, and its people, their work ethic, and their values. “I think that in general most people look out for their neighbors; they give a lending hand,” she says. “If you call there’s always someone there to help you out.” In the past couple of years, Cook has seen an uptick in the number of home seekers from outside of the region: “I would say maybe a tad less than a third of my homebuyers come from out of the area. I’ve worked with people coming in from New York to the Daikin Applied Americas plant [in Verona]; from Jersey and Pennsylvania and Northern Virginia too. They like Staunton, the quiet peacefulness of the valley, and the ability to get places with the interstate corridors, but yet be set aside from the hectic day-to-day thing.”

“It is absolutely a great time to buy a home,” says Betty Aguilar with Long & Foster Real Estate. “If you want to be in the city in a condo that’s in walking distance, or you want to be in the county with some farmland or a subdivision neighborhood, there’s a little bit of everything including new construction. There are a handful of new subdivisions in Fishersville, Stuart’s Draft, and Waynesboro. I started working here twelve years ago with people who wanted to live in Charlottesville but couldn’t afford to, so they moved to Waynesboro. An average, two-bedroom, three-bath ranch house in Charlottesville would be $300,000. You could easily get that under $200,000 in Waynesboro.”

“There is a pretty large growth area right around Fishersville,” Aguilar says. “The hospital brings lots of new people to the Valley. The main employers are Target Distribution Center and Hollister and Hershey and Little Debbie. You can get more house for the money just by driving 25 minutes or so from Charlottesville. They’ve got everything—shopping, hiking, restaurants, hospitals, everything you need.” All that “everything you need” explains why Fishersville was ranked Best Place to Buy First-Time Home in Virginia by Nerdwallet.com in 2015. (Stuarts Draft was ranked #6).

“From a real estate perspective, Fishersville is doing well,” Pattie agrees. “We’ve invested a lot of money into LifeCore Drive (connecting Augusta Health, the Woodrow Wilson Rehab Center, and the campus of Mary Baldwin College’s Murphy Deming College of Health Sciences), but it’s also become a bedroom community for Charlottesville as well.”

“It’s amazing how fast Fishersville is growing,” says Cathy Thomas with Premier Properties, who moved to Augusta from the West Coast just four years ago: “The infrastructure, the new roads going in, the little shopping center . . . it’s just amazing what I’ve seen in four years.”

Thomas moved to Virginia to be close to family, and chose Staunton after researching the region for its educational level and environmental factors. “I discovered there are many educated people in this area who support the arts, the theater, and music” she says. “Staunton has really high air quality, which I think is important. And I wanted to be close enough to get to D.C. for travel and to the coast, so it’s a good location for moving around.”

Another thing that attracts sophisticated buyers to Staunton is the quality and diversity of its architecture. The little city boasts homes and buildings in many noted styles including Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, Folk Victorian, Queen Anne and Colonial Revival. “There is a young couple I’m looking for right now who want Craftsman style,” Thomas says. “They want to spend about $250,000, and there’s a really nice group of Craftsmen-style homes in that price range in town. In the fours and fives you start getting into some larger, older homes. I just had a client who wanted to buy a home by T.J. Collins, the famous architect in this region. One home was almost 6,000 square feet; it needed a lot of work but people are willing to pay for that because of his name on it.”

But well-to-do buyers aren’t the only ones with their eyes on Staunton. “There is pretty much something here for all socio-economic groups, there really is,” Thomas says. “I am constantly meeting people moving here from other areas. The people from D.C., New York, New Jersey, California that have raised their families like the vibe in the downtown area. They are grabbing these little downtown homes and refurbishing and remodeling them and turning them into these unreal places. So there’s a lot of energy downtown.”

“Your families have a tendency to move in more neighborhood type areas where the lots are larger and they can get a family neighborhood type feel. I have a young couple I’m working with who have a couple of kids. This will be their first home, and they are looking in the $125,000-$130,000  range. In that range you’re going to probably need to do a little work. The structurals are sound, but there’s some cosmetic upgrades, maybe new carpet and paint and upgrade the cabinetry. In the $200,000 range, you get a little bit larger home, depending on where it is and upon how much work there is to do. When you get into the threes, you get a lot of choices: neighborhoods which have so much value just in the fact that they’re well-established.”

Over in Waynesboro, on the other hand, “you get a little bit more for your dollar,” Thomas says. “Because Waynesboro has a little bit more industrial work, you have a lot of starter homes in that area. You also have some large beautiful homes, but it’s a little easier to find homes in the lower price ranges.”

Friendliness, beauty, sophistication, affordability—Augusta County has it. “Everything is here,” Thomas says: “theater, music, art, activities. I went to lunch with a gal and she saw someone she knew. They have a place in Paris, and they have a place here—that’s the kind of people who are moving here.”

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