Story by Chris Graham
Outdoor Life lists one place in Virginia among the “Top 200 Towns for Sportsmen.” Yep, it’s Waynesboro, now known as The River City, where 10 years ago city and downtown-business leaders were striking out in their turns at bat in trying to figure out a way to turn the negative that the South River had become with three 100-year floods in an eight-year span into a positive.
The idea that stuck was a weekend-long fly-fishing event that is now in its 10th year. As the Virginia Fly Fishing Festival looks ahead to its next 10 years, the people who schemed it and brought it to life are now tackling another challenge – extending the annual Festival’s well-regarded brand from a single weekend in April to an event schedule covering the calendar.
“I believe it’s a very doable thing,” said Beau Beasley, the Festival coordinator and a respected journalist and author on fly fishing. “The smart thing to do might be to find two or three events to put on in addition to the Fly Fishing Festival. Do those two or three things well instead of doing a lot of things mediocre. And then sort of build from there.”
“The product would be what Waynesboro has to offer to a destination visitor. We’ve already got a good reputation there. So the next step would be to create activity on a regular basis,” muses Len Poulin, the president of Waynesboro Downtown Development Inc., which birthed the Virginia Fly Fishing Festival in 2001.
Poulin was a key player in the effort that led to the first Festival. A downtown business and property owner, Poulin often talked in the early days of WDDI, which was founded in 1999, about how Waynesboro desperately needed to find a way to have the South River serve as a valuable asset to the revitalization of the downtown.
“Our hope when we started the event was to bring people in not just from the local area but regionally and nationally, and then as a result to that, by exposing them to the area, that it would generate a sort of catalytic amount of activity,” Poulin said. “We didn’t know when we started it where it could go. We just believed on faith that if we brought attention to the resource that it would take us somewhere. It’s gone beyond what we had originally conceived that it could, but we had faith that it was going to go somewhere.”
The recognition from Outdoor Life is an indication that the Virginia Fly Fishing Festival has done what it was supposed to do and more. Translating what the Festival has done for Waynesboro in terms of recognition into sustainable economic benefit for the Waynesboro economy is going to take a similar investment of time and hard work on the part of WDDI and the City of Waynesboro.
And, perhaps, beyond the city limits. A Harrisonburg bed-and-breakfast owner, Janice Fitzgerald, came into contact with the Festival a few years ago when a fly-fishing enthusiast on a long-weekend stay said he thought she might benefit from efforts to actively reach out to the fly-fishing market. Fitzgerald and her inn, By the Side of the Road Bed & Breakfast, became sponsors of the Virginia Fly Fishing Festival, and this year partnered with other B&Bs in the Harrisonburg-Rockingham area on a cooperative venture with the Virginia Tourism Corp. that landed a series of Festival spots on a top-rated radio station in the Washington, D.C., market.
“It’s interesting that you’re talking to a Harrisonburg innkeeper. I’m 40, 45 minutes from the site of the Festival. But the fly-fishing opportunities exist up and down the Shenandoah Valley,” said Fitzgerald, who thinks the Festival could not only benefit from an expanded schedule but also from expanding its geographic reach.
“An expansion in the sense that our geographic locations north and south of Waynesboro where fishing is excellent – that makes sense. I can see that happening. An expansion of the schedule – yes, I can see that happening. I think it’s an excellent idea. It would just expand the offerings, and by doing so expand the tourism dollars coming into the participating communities,” Fitzgerald said.
Poulin pulls the discussion back to an important point. “A big question to all of this is, Can you accomplish what we’re talking about here with 100 percent volunteers? The answer is probably not.” Poulin envisions a public-private partnership involving the Festival, WDDI and the City of Waynesboro coming together to build on the ecotourism that has been spawned here over the past 10 years. Waynesboro City Councilwoman Lorie Smith is among those who see that happening. Smith hosted a Tourism Summit in March that drew more than 30 people, and she had Beasley, Poulin and WDDI and Festival volunteer Dana Quillen on hand for a presentation on how the Festival has forged a tourism event from the river that runs through downtown.
“We have interest nationwide in our Fly Fishing Festival. It is renowned. It has a name for itself. They are well-publicized. And it’s right here in Waynesboro,” Smith said. “I think if we work with Trout Unlimited and other interested groups to try to capitalize on our river, there are absolutely opportunities that we can work on throughout the year, not just have one major event. I can see us easily having a nice fall event and capitalizing on the success of the Fly Fishing Festival.”
On the eve of the first Festival in 2001, Poulin and Beasley would get giddy when they heard from somebody in Roanoke or Richmond that they were planning to come to Waynesboro. Looking forward 10 years, Poulin thinks the potential for further growth in the Festival and the local economy is as limitless as the water flowing down the South River.
“We’re becoming the destination fly-fishing event for those that are interested in learning and getting to know the sport. Ten years out, we’ll continue to see that,” Poulin said. “You’ll see the shops show up. Maybe it’s a shop like an Orvis retailer. And those guys then start developing mini-events that have those celebrities come in and do some demonstrations.
“You could have outdoors-themed businesses. If you had activities, if you created a destination, and let’s say you invested in a greenway, for instance. Wouldn’t you think that maybe some would start renting mountain bikes, or canoes or kayaks on the river? Entrepreneurs will find the opportunities once they see the value of that. And you’ve got to bring the people in there to do it.
“The reason we started the Festival 10 years ago was to bring attention to that river as a valuable outdoor asset. We’ve already succeeded beyond what anybody who was there at the beginning thought was possible. It’s exciting to think that we could see this continue to take off, and I think we will,” Poulin said.