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Is Business in York County Declining?
By Shelby Mertens

Business image1The Yorktown Crier - Poquoson Post recently inquired to the York County Public Information Office about the number of businesses that have closed in the county over the past three years. The data given to us shows an upward trend, with 468 closings total.
In 2011, there were approximately 83 businesses that closed. There were 116 businesses that closed in 2012 and 269 in 2013. That's a 224 percent increase in business closings since 2011. However, it must be noted that the data includes businesses that changed ownership and may not have actually closed their doors, so these numbers are not entirely accurate, but they do show a general trend.
Jim Noel, director of the York County Office of Economic Development, stated that the county does not use this data to measure business outcome, but it is used to "observe general trends." Noel stated that 50 percent of all businesses close within four years and about one-third were in a profitable position when they closed. He also said entrepreneurship is on the rise in York County.
"Regardless, we don't consider failed entrepreneurial efforts as a negative,"Noel stated. "Many business owners failed more than once before achieving success."
The county has created a website called for local businesses owners to provide them with resources and other programs that are meant to both attract business and retain it.
However, owning a shop in York County wasn't easy for one local businesswoman. Robin McNamara, who opened two patriotic retail stores in Riverwalk Landing called Stars and Stripes Forever and Founding Fathers, has been involved in rent disputes since her stores first opened in 2005.
The county owns the Riverwalk Landing property, and the York County Economic Development Authority acts as the landlord. W.M. Jordan Co. is the licensed contractor for the property.
McNamara said she had problems with W.M. Jordan and the EDA from the very beginning. She said the contractor never gave any of the tenants a written contract, which McNamara said meant that they could finish construction projects whenever they wanted and that they could charge what they wanted. The county was aware of W.M. Jordan's no-contract policy.
"Why they did business that way, I have no clue," said York County Attorney James Barnett. "That wasn't anything the EDA had to do with."
McNamara was then involved in a lawsuit with W.M. Jordan in 2007 after they charged her $40,000 for installing indoor lighting, which McNamara believed she shouldn't have to pay since it was a county-owned building. She claims that the county originally said they would pay for any changes in the building.
Barnett said each tenant was given a storefront space that was built with heating, air conditioning and the basic structures of the building, and that it is the tenant's responsibility to hire their own contractor (or keep W.M. Jordan) to finish constructing the inside of the building.
During the lawsuit, McNamara discovered that her six witnesses had not been subpoenaed. She went to the courthouse where she was told that the records showed that they had served.
"A cop stole all my subpoenas," forged them to the court, and made all my witness subpoenas "disappear," McNamara said.
Gregory Leon Cook, a police officer with the Department of Veteran Affairs in Hampton, was charged with six counts of perjury for failing to deliver the six subpoenas to the witnesses and then falsifying the records to show that the witnesses had served. Cook was found guilty and was put on probation. McNamara said the charges were lowered from six felonies to one misdemeanor.
According to the Daily Press, Cook was a former employee for Hester Attorney Services, located in Poquoson, which is responsible for delivering court documents.
McNamara then lost the suit and was forced to pay for the lighting.
During the time period of 2005 to 2011, McNamara said she sought help from numerous officials regarding her issues with the EDA and W.M. Jordan, including the York County Board of Supervisors, State Delegate Brenda Pogge, Congressman Rob Whitman and the FBI, all of which she said she had little success.
The next trouble came when the EDA asked its Riverwalk tenants to sign a legal waiver, which would in turn grant them three months of free rent in the beginning of 2011. McNamara explained that most of the Riverwalk businesses struggled during the winter months because of the lack of customers. Since McNamara owned two stores, she said her rent was $7,000 a month while other tenants paid as low as $500 a month. She claims she wasn't behind on her rent, but that the she needed the free rent to help her out over the slow business months. However, McNamara did not want to sign the waiver because she said it would take away her rights.
McNamara claims that she and other Riverwalk tenants voted and then wrote a letter to the EDA and the York County Board of Supervisors to request that the legal provisions be removed from the waiver. She claims that the letter was given to them and that the county never acknowledged it. McNamara also said she eventually signed the legal provision, which the county also failed to acknowledge.
"Basically what they end up doing to me, the legal provision was that we'd get January, February, March free rent, so when I didn't hear from anybody (about the letter), I signed the legal provision and the county acted like I didn't give it to them," McNamara said. "So the county sends me this letter saying that they're giving me free rent in January " I thought they had read the letter "then I get a letter from the county that it wasn't abated, that I needed to pay it."
Business image2McNamara believed that the rent should have been free for her, but the county sued her for not paying January rent for both of her stores. McNamara claims the county falsified the documents to show that she hadn't signed the legal provision.
Barnett said McNamara refused to pay her January 2011 rent after she failed to turn in the waiver, which is why the county took her to court. The York County General District Court ruled against McNamara in the case involving her unpaid rent for the Founding Fathers store. McNamara did not appeal the decision and Barnett said she still owes the EDA $7,000 in rent for that store. McNamara ended up closing Founding Fathers.
However, with the unpaid rent for Stars and Stripes Forever, the EDA reached a settlement with McNamara in court by forgiving her month's unpaid rent and allowing her to stay in the Riverwalk building until December 31, 2011, according to Barnett. McNamara said the lawsuits ended up costing her $10,000 in legal fees.
As for the alleged falsified documents, Barnett said "that's complete malarkey." He explained that the EDA submitted a copy of the release form to the court that had been attached to the letter sent to McNamara offering the free rent.
" Ms. McNamara claimed that we had "substituted"an unsigned copy for the signed one. The truth is that we did not have any copy signed by her at the time,"Barnett stated. "There was no falsification of records" we provided the court with a copy of what we had and gave only truthful testimony in court."
Barnett added that an investigator with the Virginia State Police recently visited Barnett to further investigate McNamara's claims, which he said the investigator found to have no merit.
At the end of 2011, McNamara wanted to negotiate her lease with the EDA for the upcoming year. However, Barnett claims McNamara specifically said during the court settlement earlier that year that she wanted to close her store in December, but ended up changing her mind when the time came.
The EDA decided not to renew McNamara's lease for the following year, and she was forced to close Stars and Stripes down on December 31, 2011.
"I had offered to pay my entire year's rent up front and the county turned down my money and let my building sit there 18 months at the taxpayer's expense,"McNamara said.
Barnett said the EDA did not renew her lease because they wanted new tenants that would attract more locals.
"The EDA chose not to renew that lease when it expired, in large part (as I recall) because by then they had decided that Riverwalk needed a new tenant mix which would appeal more to local customers, and would rely less on business from tourists as did Stars and Stripes," Barnett stated.
McNamara claims Stars and Stripes Forever was the busiest store at Riverwalk Landing.
McNanara believes the county targeted her because she "know what was going on in the county and was asking questions."
"When you have a business that's doing well, that's current on their rent, who's open 364 days a year, who's willing to pay an entire year's rent up front, if it wasn't personal than what was it?" McNamara questioned.
Barnett said the EDA made a purely business decision not to renew McNamara's lease because they wanted Riverwalk to go in a different direction. He said they have so far been happy with the success of Water Street Grille, the restaurant that currently occupies the old Stars and Stripes store, because it has drawn a younger and more local crowd.
McNamara is currently involved in another lawsuit with the county because when she vacated her store in January 2012, she took the track lights with her. She said she paid $60,000 for the decorative lighting herself. Barnett says there were damages when the lights were taken out.
"Ms. McNamara also owed for several days of hold-over rent, and the cost of repairing damages to the unit's wiring caused when the electrician hired by Ms. McNamara removed the lighting, causing the unit's security system to malfunction," Barnett stated.
The county withheld McNamara's security deposit and the court will decide in October if McNamara gets to keep the tracks lights and if she will get her security deposit back, which she said is around $3,800.
After McNamara closed Stars and Stripes, she moved to Northern Virginia for eight months, but she ended up moving back to the area.
"Going through everything that I went through with the county, took a huge toll on me financially," McNamara said. "I had invested over $600,000 over at Riverwalk Landing, I spent a ton of money on attorney fees trying to fight them and it took a huge toll on my health."
McNamara opened Stars and Stripes Forever back up in Williamsburg, but the store only stayed open until her lease ran out a year later. McNamara now runs Stars and Stripes Forever online and travels the country to sell her merchandise at political conventions, military events and teacher events.
She said the entire experience was unfortunate because she had high hopes for Riverwalk Landing when it was first built. According to McNamara, 12 other businesses at Riverwalk have closed. She said there are only three of the original businesses left.
She said the number of businesses that have closed in York County since 2011 did not come to her as a surprise.
"It's unfortunate because I think Yorktown's a really special place," she said.


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In Brief 3Sep15