On my way to cover the Historic District Review Board meeting last month, Councilman Bannon, who was loading a cooler into his car, remarked, “You need to be careful about what you write. There is such a thing as Karma. I am Budhist, so I believe in Karma.”
“Yeah, I wonder what the ex-harbormaster thinks about Karma?” I responded. “You should probably worry about your own karma.”
Later, I began to think, “Here’s a person who was in favor of putting a prison out on seaside, who fought to take the school and basketball courts away from minority kids, giving it away to developers for $10. And he’s busting my chops about karma?”
The Branding of Cape Charles
The timing of Bannon’s comment, as banal as it seemed at the time, did get me wondering, especially as I had just read a September 7th Virginia Pilot article about the wee Neptune statue at the beach. The article mentioned a $50,000 National Endowment for the Arts’ Our Town grant, and it quoted Assistant Town Manager Bob Panek, that the grant allowed for “creative place making projects” in the Town and how it “rebranded Cape Charles” as an arts and cultural destination for tourists. Yes, Karma, or better, synchronicity—the term rebranded struck me, and led me mull over the Town of Cape Charles and the food web it propagates. During the October Town Council Regular meeting, Cape Charles Business Association President Andrew Follmer gave a presentation that, as Warren Harding would have noted, took longer than the occasion warranted, yet, when all was said and done, produced not much more than a bag full of air. Embedded in the presentation however, was an interesting allusion. Follmer was urging and chastising the Mayor and Council, for not doing more to help the business community, by hiring staff to help with the Town’s ‘Brand’. Given that both Panek and Follmer both leveraged the term, raising a red flag certainly seems warranted; Panek however, more accurately, and importantly, uses the term ‘re-branding’ Cape Charles. Where branding implies starting fresh, re-branding attempts to assign a new name, symbol, or design to the town as a means to create a new, differentiated identity, and in the process, distance itself from the ‘perceived’ negative connotations of the old Cape Charles. This strategy to commoditize Cape Charles for the few, begs the question, “When did my neighborhood become a product?”
As the diagram indicates, the four basic entities shaping the new “Cape Charles Brand” all have individual goals, yet they share one common (yet unstated) mission, vision and goal. At the very core of this vision, is the transfiguration of Bay Creek as the soul of Cape Charles. Ultimately, that process involves the commoditization and commercialization of our town. The question: has this vision pushed Cape Charles to the tipping point, and what will it have to do, or how much more will it have to change to accommodate this vision?
Years ago, I used to refer to The Gentrification as the ‘Cape Maying’ of Cape Charles, the easy “swapping out” of blue collar families for affluent scented candle aficionados. I was wrong. It was actually the ‘Bay Creeking’ of Cape Charles, the exchange of the old Cape Charles way for a life defined by the comfortable trappings of Planned Unit Developments and gated communities – that is, an aesthetic that embraces insulation from the roughness of the world, as well as the community of old Cape Charles (most of whom now live across the highway, the new ‘other side of the tracks’). Attorney Cela Burge once accurately stated that the town was originally designed with School Park (Central Park) as the geographic center of town, yet, since Bay Creek was built on the once sacred Plantation Creek, the geographic center has shifted away from the park and closer to the waste water plant, which, by all accounts, now seems apropos.
So, re-branding is more than just selling tee shirts with Cape Charles printed on them. It is the easy ‘swapping out’, to use Follmer’s term, of the historical for the practical, replacing full-time families with transient tourists, using the Bay Creek aesthetic as the design template. To be fair, there is something to be said for tourists—they come, leave their money, and then go. The downside is that the average salary for jobs in the tourism industry is under $19 thousand per year, so where that will eventually bottom out is anyone’s guess.
And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that, unless…
The effects of this development pattern is just now beginning to produce the negative effects from what can only be described as an all or nothing, pro-business obsession that by sheer will to power hopes to transform (nostalgically return?) sleepy Cape Charles into a bustling epicenter, is just beginning to be felt. If you’re a fan of efficiency and economy in government, you better grab your wallet and just let that concept go—the new Cape Charles will demand services the way zombies demand flesh–the flesh needed to feed this fantasy will require the same cancerous growth of public services, utilities, waste disposal, and water and sewer infrastructure upgrades (tax/fee increases) that turned Northern Virginia into, well, Northern Virginia.
A few days ago, a friend of mine, also a former member of the Cape Charles Business Association told me over the phone that “this place (the Town) is getting ready to blow up!” He’s a smart guy, I believe him. Antonioni’s film ‘Blowup’, was inspired by Julio Cortázar’s short story, “Las babas del diablo” or “The Devil’s Drool”; given what we are seeing at the Town and County level, and the forces at play, there is a certain amount of synchronicity between my friends prediction and Antonioni’s allusion in his film’s title .
The Harbingers of Doom: Cape Charles by the Bay website & The Harbor
Before Cape Charles Wave, LLC was awarded the contract to try and resuscitate the Cape Charles by the Bay website, and Smitty Dize left the harbor, aside from being the proud owners of outdated web presences; the Town and CCBA did not appear to have too much in common. The CCBA may have issues with the Town’s procurement process (according to Follmer), but the way they hijacked that very same process, and the contract from Cape Charles Wave,LLC, provides an insight into just how much influence the CCBA has behind the doors of 2 Plum Street, and just how simpatico they actually are.
During his presentation to Town Council, Follmer, noted that, with Dize no longer at the helm, it was ‘time to take it up a notch’. It doesn’t seem to be much of a stretch to think that there were members of the ‘business community’, that weren’t thrilled with Dize and his waterman authenticité (maybe not Bay Creek enough?) either, and felt that it was time to run him off and ‘take it up a notch’ by bringing in ‘real professionals’ that wear pressed khakis and polo shirts, such as one might find employed by a management company (that could provide a more genteel, less provincial aesthetic to the harbor).
Note: Steve Bennett (Town Council, Bay Creek) has been advocating for a management company to run the harbor, as has Andrew Follmer (CCBA, Bay Creek). Still, the irony of Dize going over to Kings Creek Marina (formally Bay Creek Marina) is not lost on Mirror staff.
What does all of this rebranding mean for the inhabitants of old Cape Charles? Basically, it means we have lost our town, at least when the weather is nice. This was, of course, by design. The summers that we used to call our own, have now been usurped by the merchant class, and handed over to the northern tourist. Density and overcrowding was never an issue, but it is becoming so in the summer. Ultimately, how many people do we have to cram into our tiny geographic footprint so that downtown merchants can sell enough ice cream, tee shirts and beer to just break even? The differentiation that once separated our town from other places is quickly being lost during our prime months. For those that once found Cape Charles so different, are helplessly watching as a tiny few try to recreate the rat race they previously fled from. For old VB surfers from the 70s, this seems familiar, as we watch more and more development and ‘progress’ take over the waterfront. I guess somebody, somewhere has, or is going to make some money, but it is the ones that live to stay wet that ultimately pay the price, and are left, skateboards tucked under their arms, to futilely spray paint the epitaph on walls, “Locals Only”.