Monday, June 23, 2014

Washington Social Diary

The Inn at Little Washington — ranked #1 for the Washington DC area by Washingtonian magazine, Zagat, and The Washington Post. Open almost 40 years, it attracts patrons from all over the world.
by Carol Joynt

A story I wrote for New York Social Diary in April backfired this past week on a group of friends. It didn't get them in hot water — they were already there — but it inadvertently became a piece of evidence against them as, collectively, the "bad guys" in a dispute with angry townsfolk over development plans in the small village of Washington, Virginia. At nearly the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it is a quaint, lovely and peaceful town I've known with affection for decades, including four years owning a home on Main Street. In the last week, though, its public face changed from charming to Peyton Place — without the sex.  

The three "bad guys": Jim Abdo, Mayor John Fox Sullivan, and Patrick O'Connell.
In the eyes of their haters, the crimes of my friends — a sprightly developer, an affable mayor, and a celebrated chef — are ripped from the headlines of every attractive and promising burg, city and town across America as the nation tries to find its way back to solidity after the Great Recession.

The story of this economic recovery is found in new development, and developers are, depending on many factors, heroes or villains, and sometimes both. The heightened attention from the media is so new to the developer class that, with virtually no communications skills, they have to be the public voice of their vision. That's not simple. It can go wrong. It did in "Little" Washington.

The three "bad guys," if you will, are developer Jim Abdo, Mayor John Fox Sullivan, and Patrick O'Connell, owner and chef of The Inn at Little Washington.

The supporting cast includes the mayor's wife, Beverly; a self-described "redneck" former TV star, Ben "Cooter" Jones; the town's Episcopal rector, Jennings "Jenks" Hobson III; the newspaper editor, Roger Piantadosi; and several hundred county residents who subscribe to the list serve, Rappnet (reading that would have had Grace Metalious hiding under her bed).  

Abdo made his fortune developing sections of "big" Washington (as in DC) and is a developer of only recent vintage in "Little" Washington, as many know it. Jim and his wife, Mai, were weekenders in Rappahannock County, where Washington is the county seat.

Over the last few years, Jim, along with some friends and partners, began to buy up "for sale" buildings along Main Street. The current count is 10, at a cost of approximately $2.6 million.
Ben "Cooter" Jones, back in the day, as a star of the hit
TV series, "The Dukes of Hazzard."
Jennings "Jenks" Hobson III, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Washington, VA.
The vision is to fix them up and install businesses that might bolster the town's appeal to visitors, and its economy, and also be useful for the community — principally food and home goods. Mayor Sullivan made it his business to get to know Abdo and his plans, and viewed his objectives as a positive for the town, which had significant losses of population (26 percent) after the recession hit. Also, he says, 10 percent of the town's buildings were empty. Something had to be done. The opponents, though, say don't change a thing.

The story that came back to haunt, and be used as a cudgel, was one I wrote about The White Moose Inn, a contemporary B&B just opened by Abdo. I stayed there one Friday night, and had dinner at the Abdo's home, along with Mayor Sullivan and Beverly. After dinner our group went for drinks at The Inn, joined by DC chef Daniel O'Brien, who Abdo hopes will open a food market on Main Street, and chef O'Connell. We enjoyed drinks and a laugh in the lounge. Chaste party photos were taken. Innocent enough, right? Well, read on …
Innocent party photo at the time, later incriminating: chefs Dan O'Brien and Patrick O'Connell in the "living room" lounge of O'Connell's Inn at Little Washington.
Dinner at the Abdo's Rappahannock County home. The meal was prepared by DC chef Dan O'Brien, standing on the right.
Washington, Virginia's First Lady and the Mayor: Beverly and John Sullivan. She's involved in many charitable causes in Rappahannock County and he was re-elected unopposed.
When that gathering happened in April Jim already was involved up to his eyebrows in a piece being written for The Washington Post about him and his plans for Little Washington. He considered the reporter a friend, which can be dangerous. No fault of the reporter, Jim was unguarded with him. He felt he was in sympathetic hands and spoke freely. My two-cents were that I hoped the story included the locals and their opinions.

When it ran two weeks ago on the front page of the Sunday paper it was all Jim Abdo, with traces of Sullivan and O'Connell. Whatever good Abdo intended, regardless of how many column inches were devoted to his "positive" plans, the townsfolk locked into a handful of incendiary words. "Hollow," "vacant" and "empty," is how he described Little Washington, adding that it had no "pulse." And this: "I've gone into corridors that didn't have a catalyst like the Inn at Little Washington. And why isn't that properly being leveraged?"
Jim and Mai Abdo, enjoying a night out with friends in Little Washington, VA.
Might as well put them in pulsing neon: Corridors! Catalyst! Leveraged!

That's developer speak, words that are absorbed without a batted eye by other developers, politicians, boards of supervisors and bank loan officers. But regular folk who love their town don't talk like that and don't want to hear words like that from anyone else, especially a developer — even if they may, to some extent, agree.

The Post piece landed in Little Washington with the destructive force of an IED. The community list serve, Rappnet, sped up to warp speed with contempt toward Abdo, and Sullivan, and O'Connell. The NYSD "Moose" story got dragged into it. Just about the kindest word aimed at Abdo was that he was a "bigfoot." Sullivan became a strutting "Boss Hogg." O'Connell, who was out of the country on a long-planned trip, was smeared, too, as a "coward" and there were calls for organizing a boycott of The Inn.
Jim Abdo's first Washington, VA., project: The White Moose Inn. There's local controversy about the yellow door, too.
In addition to my NYSD story about the White Moose and a dinner at the Abdo's home, someone found another NYSD/Little Washington story I wrote that was essentially a love letter to the town. It got posted on Rappnet with this intro: "If you haven't seen it I've provided the URL for a nauseating article by Carol Joynt about the 'delighted' mayor of Little Washington, Patrick O'Connell, Jim Abdo, of course, and other charming and eclectic features of Washington, VA."

It hasn't yet been held up as incriminating evidence, but there's another one, too, about spending Christmas Eve in Little Washington and at the Inn. I can't deny I swoon for the Inn and the town and put those feelings in words.
The Rappahannock County courthouse in Little Washington, VA.
My first foray to Little Washington was in 1975, coming back from hiking some of the Appalachian Trail. In 1978, when The Inn opened, my husband, Howard, and I became regulars. We lived in Upperville, an hour's drive north, and dinner at The Inn was our big thrill. The owners, Patrick O'Connell and Rinehardt Lynch, became besties. It turned out I had deeper roots with Patrick than I knew.

One late night he revealed to me that he sat at the desk behind my big sister, Susan Ross, at Surattsville High School in Prince Georges County, MD — ("admiring her beehive.") Patrick and Rinehardt were the witnesses at our wedding, and Patrick is a godparent to our son, Spencer. They have since split, but Patrick remains close to Spencer and me. He's family.
Godson and godparent ... Spencer Joynt with Patrick O'Connell at Spencer's 21st birthday party.
But it's because I owned and renovated a house on Main Street — from '99 to '04 — that I can speak also about the pleasures of living there, and what the town meant to me as a sanctuary. When we got the house my son was 9 and we were still both finding our footing after the sudden death of my husband a couple years earlier.  Little Washington was our weekend retreat, in the most superlative ways, where we could kick back together, and we felt so welcomed by all the neighbors from one end of town to the other.

A good place to have a meal and meet the locals: the Country Cafe on Main Street.
There wasn't much to do, but we liked breakfast at the Country Café, picking up basics at the Mini Mart, morning walks, picnics by nearby streams, dreaming under the blanket of stars at night.

I met John and Beverly Sullivan after Howard died. They lived down the street from us in Georgetown, but they also owned a beautiful small farm in Rappahannock County, where Spencer and I were often overnight guests. We had many bonds, but one of the strongest was our common affection for Rappahannock in general and Little Washington in particular. Beverly was the one who told me about the little house on Main Street, and after I bought it and moved in she and John hosted a "welcome to Rappahannock County" party for us and invited the locals, a lot of the same people who are now at odds with John Sullivan over Jim Abdo.

Jim and Mai Abdo and I met several years ago at a dinner party in DC that included the then-French ambassador Pierre Vimont and the late James Oberstar, who was a Minnesota congressman and devout Francophile, and his wife, Jean. Jim, who was on my left, was a bundle of enthusiasm about development projects he had underway in the District. I know a lot of developers. They come in many flavors. Some are quite frankly just about the profit and could give a rat's ass about architectural design and community impact.

Others care about the whole picture and the legacy of the project, and Jim struck me as being of those flavors. It appeared to me that he really loved DC and wanted to see it become a vital 21st century city, and he has played a role in the transformation that is the local Washington story of the last decade.
Classic Rappahannock County — a field in the town of Little Washington.
A pond in Little Washington.
The town of Little Washington has a few central streets but it is also rural.
One of several authentic log cabins in Little Washington.
Main Street, after a spring rain shower.
All development is controversial. People get displaced. Changes are made. There's confusion and fear. The street where I live in Georgetown, now dense with houses, was once farmland.

The Georgetown waterfront was once a port, but today is a wonderful and popular park and a complex  (albeit ugly) of offices, apartments and restaurants. A dozen blocks over we have 14th Street, which became blocks of blight after the '68 riots and remained that way until several years ago, when developers began the gradual (and now speedy) makeover. It's the hottest scene in town.
Beverly and John Sullivan at a party in "big" Washington when he was still president and group publisher of Atlantic Media. A graduate of Yale and the Columbia Business School, he has served on the boards of the National Archives and Arena Stage.
In 2010, John Fox Sullivan, center, hosted a tasting of Virginia wines at the Sullivan's Georgetown home. Long before becoming Washington, VA's mayor, he was a town, county and state booster.
This rebirth has happened, too, at the old Navy Yards near the Washington Nationals ballpark, and is just beginning along the long-fallow southwest waterfront. New residents are moving to Washington, DC, at a rate of 1,000 per month. A lot of credit for this boom goes to mayors, in particular Anthony Williams, but also his successors, Adrian Fenty and Vincent Gray. The thing is, though, they worked with the developers. Williams and Abdo are personal friends.

Roger Piantadosi, editor of the Rappahannock News, organized last week's town meeting to bring the debate about Little Washington development into one room.
Mayor John Sullivan — who, not incidentally, is semi-retired from a long career as a respected publishing executive in big Washington — considers himself to be doing what mayors do: "I've been trying to make things happen. It is my job as mayor to strengthen the town and attract more businesses and people." He was recently re-elected unopposed. Also, John and Beverly sold their farm and bought a smaller but still splendid spread right in the heart of town.

Sullivan and Abdo both are regretful about the Post story, and how it surprised and upset the community, and have tried to make peace with the residents who want to know, and have every right to know, the details of development plans and what these plans will mean to the town and the county and to them.

Rappahannock News
editor Piantadosi hastily organized the town meeting last week, where all sides — pro, con and just plain curious — came together. The meeting had it all — too many people packed in a small and stuffy theater, a lot of talk, raw emotions, and attempts to defuse the bomb. Abdo and Sullivan gave their mea culpas, but later on Rappnet, at least, tempers remained at fever pitch.
The Washington Theatre, where the Rappahannock News town meeting was held.
A photo taken of the Rappahannock News-sponsored town meeting of last week, shot by Dennis Brack. Sitting at the foot of the stage are Hobson, Sullivan, Abdo and representatives of Rappahannock County.
One of the most vocal opponents of the Abdo plan is former Georgia congressman Ben Jones, aka "Cooter" of 70s hit TV show The Dukes of Hazzard, and who lives just outside the town. After the meeting, I asked him how he thought it went. "The whole deal was surrealistic, for after about five minutes we realized that the whole thing was moot, the development was going to happen and we were wasting our breath complaining about it. We had been beaten before we had begun." He added that "Abdo has won" and the meeting was his "coronation" and then he called Abdo an expletive.

Ben "Cooter" Jones in a 2011 photograph from the Rappahannock News.
Incriminating, at least among opponents of development in Washington, Virgina — the truffled popcorn at The Inn at Little Washington, which is viewed as being too high on the hog for the rural Rappahannock County seat.
About my NYSD stories, he was unequivocal: "I fear your Washington Social Diary may be the smoking gun that some folks are looking for. To tell you the truth, I found it sickening. I've been in those rooms many times, in even higher cotton. And that is exactly what I came here to get away from. A little bit of that goes a long way, and a town reflecting those sensibilities will indeed destroy the traditional culture here."

Referring to my friends, Jones said, they "could do us all a favor by moving back to Kalorama or weekending in the Hamptons or Bucks County." But a day later his tone softened.

"First let me apologize for my presumptuousness, my anger, and my weariness," he wrote. "Right now I am 'running on fumes' and that piece about the joys of The White Moose Inn, rankled my Southern pride. It was stupid and mean-spirited of me." He also let me know that he has lunch every week with Mayor Sullivan as part of a mostly-male, mostly-codger group known as the "lunch bunch."

Jones words are tame among much of the vitriol. This email from a woman is representative of several: "The horse is out of the barn. Sully is a compromised corrupt two-faced liar, and Abdo is just a rich, arrogant ex-camel herder and flying carpet merchant.  O'Connell — you know what you got there — ask any local person that ever worked for him."

In another message, someone came to his defense: "I know Patrick and I certainly don't believe he is anything like he has been portrayed on Rappnet. You all seem to forget how much he has and does donate and contribute to this county constantly throughout the year."  

In other messages, neighbors debated, even attacked, each other while a few praised Sullivan and defended Abdo. A woman shared that she wrote to Abdo, asking him to "rethink his method of communicating" and she included his response, in which he thanked her and said, "we agree with each other more than you know." That was quickly slapped down by another woman, "I seriously doubt that Abdo has the time or wherewithal to answer his own emails. Nice try. He Does NOT care." (He does and he does.)
A cozy bedroom at The Inn at Little Washington.
This ruckus will go on, and it will be colorful and emotional, but Little Washington will survive it and may even come to appreciate Abdo's investment. Or not. That part of the story is yet to play out. At the very least it will be compelling. There's talk of frequent town meetings, in addition to routine town council sessions. In its own way it is a reflection of our times and our growing pains — whether big city or small town. At a later lunch with Abdo I suggested that the whole town-vs-developer controversy become a reality TV show, and I wasn't kidding. Coincidentally, someone else see's that, too. The former TV star himself, Ben Jones wrote: "Abdo could do a hell of a reality show right now."

Okay, Ben. You write the check and I'll get together the production team and start shooting ... video tape, that is.

*Since I know I'll get slammed for suggesting there's no sex in LW, let me make clear — there's sex and lots of it (but possibly most of it among lovers shacked up at The Inn).
Sunset in Little Washington, Virginia, with the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance.
Photographs by Carol Joynt.

Follow Carol on twitter @caroljoynt