As Executive Vice-President of the Blue Ridge Home Builders Association (BRHBA), Kristin O’Connell Sorokti might be expected to think that Central Virginia is “a very, very good place” for homebuilders and home improvement buffs. But O’Connell doesn’t ask us to take her word for it. O’Connell invites us to see for ourselves. The BRHBA shows it to us every year at a trade show that has companies both in state and out calling her up to book a booth, and more than 1,500 building and landscape professionals, home handymen, and do-it-yourself-dreamers coming to check out the latest in building concepts, gardening and landscaping ideas, and remodeling solutions. Come spring, we dig and dream, hoist and hammer. But first comes the Home and Garden Festival.
The 2015BRHBA Home and Garden Festival will be open to the public at the John Paul Jones Arena on Saturday, March 28 and Sunday, March 29 from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. For the first time, both admission and parking will be free. Once again, BRHBA will collect donations at the door for the Albemarle Housing Improvement Program (AHIP), a non-profit that aids seniors and other community members in need.
A professional trade association organized in 1964, the BRHBA unites builders and developers with the allied trade industries, businesses, and professions that have interest in the building industry. BRHBA works to consolidate resources and build coalitions that will develop the industry and the community. Its annual Home and Garden Festival is the largest and only trade show of its kind in Central Virginia, with 130 indoor and outdoor vendor booth spaces available.
“This has been a big local event for 42 years,” Sorokti says. “The idea is to give our builders and anybody in the homebuilding industry the opportunity to interact with the public and share all of their innovations with the community. Homeowners, and even people who are renting, can get ideas of what they can do in their home or their future home. They can see what is out there in the market now.”
“As you walk into the main lobby, AHIP will be building a pretty spectacular display with one of our landscape partners,” says BRHBA president Ben Davis. “There will be a beer garden with local favorites.” Blue Ridge Pizza, Mouth Wide Open, Carpe Donut, and Pie Guy will be on hand with food trucks. Hourly door prizes and kids’ activities will add to the festival atmosphere.
Davis is also Sales Director for Charlottesville’s Craig Builders, Home and Garden Festival sponsors for 42 years. Founded in 1957, Craig specializes in both attached (one-level villas and townhouses) and detached homes, all built to customer specifications. “We see that buyers looking for hands-on information,” Davis says. “We want to be there for folks interested in building a new home from scratch.” Besides displaying photos of some of their homes and offering advice about customized homes, the Craig folks will bring along a face painter and a putt-putt miniature golf hole.
For Richard Pleasant, owner of the hot tub, swim spa, and exercise pool business EnviroSmarte, the Festival is “an opportunity to show our products to people looking to improve their backyard and outdoor living space. It’s a convenient way for people to see lots of products related to that whole environment at one time instead of going to my shop and then maybe going to see a landscaper,” he says. “All those different aspects are right there. Many of us work with each other anyway.” Besides meeting new customers and making sales, Pleasants says the event offers another type of business activity, “the networking between companies that goes on before and after the show.”
Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville comes to the Festival every year, with info about its work and a selection of wares from its Allied Street store. “Usually we bring a sample of our smaller inventory like hand tools and paint, says Habitat’s Caitlin Riopell. “We try to bring at least one item from all of our departments to show the breadth of our inventory, and then we do a small display with our used doors and planters. Last year we started to track how many conversations we were having and people we were meeting who had never heard of our store, and we were having 50-60 conversations. We really enjoyed it.”
While Habitat for Humanity helps people achieve the American Dream of homeownership, Festival beneficiary AHIP helps low-income community members keep their homes in good repair, so they have basic necessities like heat, water, insulation and adequate roofing. In addition to this critical hands-on labor, AHIP also works to educate the community about the importance of safety in the home.
The group grew out of relief efforts after Hurricane Camille swept through Nelson County in 1969. “Volunteers from the University of Virginia, both students and faculty and staff had gone to help with the rebuilding process,” notes Ravi Respeto, AHIP’s Director of Development and Marketing. “What they discerned through that process is that there are people who are in need throughout the year, whether we have a storm or not, for basic things like indoor plumbing and heat – the essentials that we kind of take for granted, that these families went without on a regular basis. So that’s where the inspiration came to start AHIP. We serve the county and the city, so we’re a very local, hands-on organization.” Since its incorporation 38 years ago, the group has served roughly 2,000 clients. Its 353 volunteers put in a total of 3,195 hours in fiscal year 2013-14 – equal to an estimated $70,859 worth of financial support.
Since BRHBA first partnered with AHIP in 2012, it has donated an estimated $40,000 in in-kind labor and material and donations. This year again, BRHBA will ask each festivalgoer for a $5 donation for this important local charity. “We are delighted to be working with our friends and partners at AHIP,” Sorokti says, “and to support the remarkable work they do here in our community to keep our neighbors safe, warm, and dry.”
“There is a huge need right now,” Ravi Respeto says. “We have about 412 families on our wait list. We are able to service about 150 families a year, and as we’re helping folks, new people are coming on to our wait list. At any given time we have 30-40 families that are going through the process. That’s just the need that we know of. Those are people that have actually called and reported what kind of rehab or critical repair issue that they’re having, so it’s probably larger than that.” Roughly half of these families need emergency repairs to their homes. The other half need home rehabs.
When families and individuals ask for help, AHIP assesses their needs, conducts a financial assessment to ascertain that they’re eligible for services, and then rates their situation in terms of urgency. Families with small children, individuals with critical illnesses or disabilities, and seniors typically get priority.
Oftentimes people call lacking heat in the winter. “We get a lot of that,” Respeto says. “Some families heat by opening the door of their oven, or by kerosene heat which is very dangerous. Those are homes that we would get to right away.” Other people call lacking water because their wells need electrical or mechanical repair. Seniors recovering from strokes in care centers may need wheelchair ramps back home. “We get a group out to build that ramp so they can go home.
Sometimes old homes are hazardous to kids. “We have families with small children who have been to the pediatrician and have high lead levels in their blood, so it’s critical to have all the old lead paint removed. That’s something that requires a trained crew.”
All that work takes many hands. “We have a variety of churches, businesses, associations and schools that come out and help,” Respeto says. “Last year we had 18 different groups ranging from the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy to the Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors (CAAR) and the Blue Ridge Home Builders Association, but also groups like Madison House, the main volunteer arm of UVa. We also have corporate groups like Wells Fargo; they come out and do three large projects a year, where they commit 60 hours of volunteer hours and donate $15,000 per project. We’ve also had the UVa Law School and (the law firm) McGuire Woods. We are always looking for new groups and individuals that want to get involved.”
ReMax REALTOR® Rachel Reynolds began volunteering with AHIP on one of the semi-annual Build Days sponsored by the Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors. In the last couple of years she’s done “everything from helping paint exteriors and interiors of homes, and building decks and porches, to fundraising in our silent auction and live auction.”
Respeto describes AHIP’s booth at the Home and Garden Festival as “an outreach” about both the organization and the importance of housing in creating a vibrant and healthy community. “One of our primary objectives right now is to get folks to understand the financial aspect of how we operate,” she says. “We do get public funds, but they’re dwindling. Twenty-five percent of our funds now come from private sources, and that is going to go up to about 50 percent in the next few years.”
Bob Hughes with Nest Realty has been attending the Home and Garden Festival since he began his real estate career back in the early 90’s. Even though, as a realtor, Hughes is “typically swamped on weekends showing houses,” it’s an event he hates to miss. “I love seeing the new products that are coming out, and changes in the whole home building process,” Hughes says. “It is always great to run into people I have not seen in awhile. A lot of my clients love to attend. We in this area are very fortunate to have such a extensive annual show.“
“I think the Home and Garden Festival is a great opportunity for the local public to get to understand what type of services are provided in our community,” Respeto says – “not just the non-profit sector but all the great businesses that we have. Encouraging people to think local and buy local is really important.”
By Ken Wilson