By Cori Healy
It’s safe to assume that most Americans have never heard of Gloucester Virginia. After all, Gloucester is a modest place. This small hamlet has never hosted the Olympics or produced a major celebrity. However, through a combination of sheer ingenuity, hard work and community, Gloucester has managed to achieve things that, in some ways, compare with the greatest of American accomplishments.
Since its humble inception over 300 years ago, Gloucester has managed to build a strong community-based economy that is self-sufficient, creates jobs and infinitely adds to an overall sense of camaraderie amongst business owners and patrons alike. Here, the goal has always been to develop a diverse system of commerce that enables the entire Gloucester community to remain an important staple in the Virginia economy. And it’s this stability that makes Gloucester such an attractive place to live, work and raise a family. In short, Gloucester is the perfect merger between hometown ideals and modern economic creativity.
As the census records reflect, Gloucester was little more than a rural, self-contained fishing community for the vast majority of its post colonial history. It wasn’t until the middle of the 1970s that it began forming into the modest metropolis that it is today. The shift began when families, most of which lived in more developed, urban areas of Virginia, opted for a more simple, serene life. These families found Gloucester to be the perfect foil to fast paced city life. With over a dozen rivers, towering oak trees and an ocean inspired skies, Gloucester’s natural coastal beauty serves as an ideal backdrop for any small town.
Family after family migrated until the population had swelled. Officials and citizens soon realized that new ideas and businesses would be needed to support this new community. Thus, from the very beginning, Gloucester has been the antithesis to commercialism and clunky expansion. Every development made in Gloucester has been mindful of the needs of the community. The expansion has been homegrown for a hometown.
One of these early expansions was the area’s first compressive hospital and emergency medicine center. Riverside Walter Reed Hospital was founded in 1977 and is located in the heart of town. Named after the famous medical pioneer whose birthplace is still a highly trafficked Gloucester landmark, Walter Reed Hospital serves the community with state-of-the-art equipment and world-class doctors.
The management team at Walter Reed subscribes to a rather aggressive brand of physician recruitment. The best and brightest doctors, both new and seasoned, are scouted out and contacted. This strategy appears to be working. At the present, Walter Reed is host to a wide array of impressive doctors, surgeons and specialist. Some patients have been known to travel from as far away as North Carolina to be treated by one of Walter Reeds’ physicians.
The classic notion of a small town might involve certain assumptions about medical care. In Gloucester, a family of knowledgeable, highly educated and trained healthcare professionals are at the service of the community. In this case, small town means quality, compassion and convenience when it comes to healthcare. And in addition to providing the Gloucester community with peace of mind, Riverside Walter Reed Hospital is also responsible for creating hundreds of jobs. From the doctors and the nurses, to the technicians and maintenance workers, this hospital fuels the local economy and is constantly attracting new businesses, clients and visitors with its exceptional reputation and service.
The local community college is another great economic asset that has emerged within Gloucester’s recent history.
Established just a few short years before Walter Reed, Rappahannock Community College has become a place where a lot of people, including a large segment of young adults, find an affordable springboard to higher education and better jobs.
The state of Virginia has historically placed a huge emphasis on making sure its citizens have the financial support and opportunities needed to attend college. And Rappahannock Community College is a living example of that initiative. The college offers many different classes in a wide variety of subjects and disciplines. They have a nursing program that produces dozens of healthcare professionals every year. They also have vocational programs in electronics and industrial engineering. All these classes are offered at extremely affordable tuition rates.
Furthermore, Rappahannock Community College is completely dedicated to making sure their graduates move onto four-year institutions. This hometown community school has, most impressively, managed to secure Guaranteed Admission Agreements with over 20 different colleges and universities. These agreements have been made with Emory and Henry College, Old Dominion University, The University of Virginia, Mary Baldwin College and the College of William and Mary, just to name a few. In short, if a student works hard and maintains a high grade point average, then he or she will automatically be accepted into any of these prestigious schools.
However this modest community college is ultimately part of larger goal. In Gloucester, every citizen is a valued, nurtured resource and it’s clearly understood that future leaders and entrepreneurs cannot be produced or adequately encouraged unless they have an education. And the same kind of dedication and commitment to learning is seen in the local public schools.
In Gloucester, children are raised in a system that has six elementary schools, two middle schools and a high school that is constantly adding new facilities and programs. The latest update came about two years ago when Gloucester High School added a professional media production studio to its vocation wing. This effort was designed to prepare students for careers in broadcasting, filmmaking and video editing. Hopefully, the younger generation will use these resources to become familiar with new technologies and, in turn, incorporate them into the future fabric of their local, ever growing economy.
But for somebody to truly understand the heart and soul of Gloucester’s worth, they would first have to understand Main Street. Every small town has a stretch of specialty shops, boutiques and family-owned businesses. In this regard, Gloucester is no exception.
Gloucester’s Main Street is about two miles long. It roughly begins at the Edge Hill Shopping Center, a historic cluster of small shops. It roughly ends at Botetourt Elementary School, one of the oldest schools in the country. Encapsulated in this mere distance are centuries of history and countless American dreams. And everything a person could ever want can be found within this charming corridor.
Gloucester’s Main Street exclusively features independently owned and operated businesses. If a person began walking this historic distance, they would pass a florist shop that makes a point to display the most beautiful arrangements in its oversized store window. They would pass by a farmers market that writes its daily special in chalk on a wooden framed blackboard. They would pass a fire station. And if they listened close enough, they would hear volunteer firemen telling each other jokes as they wash the towering red trucks. They would pass by a bookstore, an art gallery and a picture framing shop. The list of stores and services goes on and on. On Main Street, there are no corporate chains, literal or figurative. There are only quaint shops that echo the sentiment of a simpler time.
And great steps are being taken to encourage and protect the uniqueness of Main Street. Several organizations work in unison to promote existing businesses as well as recruit new ones. The Gloucester Chamber of Commerce, The Main Street Association and the Economic Development Authority serve as an invaluable support system to these local businesses. These organizations have been instrumental in securing historic tax credits and small business grants. They also host productivity workshops that teach businesses how to boost sales, and attract and retain customers. All of these measures have been taken in an effort to preserve Gloucester’s historic charm, create avenues for small business owners and add jobs and diversity to the local economy.
But Main Street is just one patch in an economic quilt that stretches across the entire length of Gloucester. There are also many prominent, successful small businesses that operate outside of Main Street. Independently owned restaurants, automotive retailers and specialty shops line the drive from one end of the country to the other. Customers can purchase everything from a bushel of locally harvested crabs to a tailor-made wedding dress. These businesses, like the ones on Main Street, are also supported by a host of organizations. For instance, the Gloucester Community Foundation Scholarship is a program that pays for local business owners to take classes that offer pointers on how to keep their businesses vibrant and financially thriving.
Furthermore, an economic picture of Gloucester would not be complete without mentioning the large community of watermen and dockworkers that supply the fantastic seafood for which the town of Gloucester is known. For generations, these skilled fishermen and oystermen have humbly harvested the local bays and rivers. Their hard work is showcased in restaurants and markets throughout the state of Virginia. The efforts of these dedicated men and woman are so important to the community that two seafood festivals are held every year. These annual ‘Seafood Festivals’ attract hundreds of people and shine light on one of Gloucester’s most hard working economic communities.
However, Gloucester’s economic makeup is not solely based on education, healthcare and commodity centric small businesses—it also has a strong artistic component. For centuries, Gloucester natives and transplants alike have worked to develop a rather large and encompassing network for artist, artisans and crafts workers. This network brings together hundreds of creative people for an elaborate array of art festivals and exhibitions. One of the most prominent of these showcases is known throughout the country as the Daffodil Festival.
The Gloucester Daffodil festival is a major annual event held in the springtime. In addition to being a huge source of pride for the community, the festival also serves as an economic showcase for Gloucester’s food, art and people. For an entire weekend, large sections of Main Street are roped off and the flow of traffic is diverted so that festival participants can safely walk from vendor to vendor, from exhibit to exhibit. The event brings together a rustic hodgepodge of artist and artisans. Paintings, sculptures, glass etchings, weavings and books are put on display. Surrounded by vibrant yellow daffodils, people meet and mingle in a carnival atmosphere. And they show that a great artistic spirit, although centuries old, is still alive and strong.
The Daffodil Festival also showcases one of Gloucester’s best economic assets—its sheer natural beauty. Simply put, if only Norman Rockwell had been from Gloucester, then his idyllic portraits of small town life would have included more fishing boats and daffodils. The landscape consists mostly of gentle rolling hills. Each curve of the earth serves as a small prelude to the Blue Ridge Mountains, which begin only a couple hundred miles from where Gloucester ends.
This background is perfect for framing Gloucester’s everyday scenes. Where mothers and daughters take long evening walks on peaceful piers. They greet the local fishermen as they unload the day’s catch. They chat and laugh underneath the mild sun as it kisses the pastures goodnight and finally settles into its reflection on the York River. In modern Gloucester, these scenes are still as commonplace as they were a hundred years ago. And it’s this beauty and simplicity that bought people here in the first place. And it’s this beauty that inspires citizens to preserve and share it.
When all things are taken into account, Gloucester is truly a gem. This quiet town has a heartbeat that echoes the drums of American forefathers. In the presence of history, the citizens here bravely and humbly march onward towards a future that promises new challenges. It is likely that Gloucester, drawing from its innate ingenuity, will continue to face these challenges with grace and solidarity. World-class healthcare, great schools, a diverse economy and a wealth of nature—all these things make Gloucester a wonderful place to raise a family or start a business. In Gloucester, people are not only offered a chance to live a great life, they are also offered a chance to contribute to an illustrious, unique history.