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Staunton: New director of tourism says city knows its worth as place to live, visit

Samantha Johnson is Staunton’s new director of tourism. Photo by Rebecca J. Barnabi.

Six weeks ago, the City of Staunton welcomed Samantha Johnson of Kentucky as its new director of tourism.

“It’s a very welcoming area,” Johnson said of the Queen City’s reception to her and husband, Adam, moving and now calling Staunton home. She said the welcome reception feels authentic and real.

The University of Kentucky graduate, who majored in English and theater, brings an outsider perspective to Staunton tourism. She said she first noticed the uniqueness of the Valley city when it comes to respecting history while also moving forward to the future with progress.

Staunton is also unique with its rich culture of several bookshops, local theater options, art galleries and other downtown businesses.

“It’s not normal to be a town of 25,000 people right between national parks and national forests and having this amazing professional Shakespeare theater but, yet, to also have five other theaters in your orbit,” Johnson said.

Bigger cities are more likely to have the immense culture Staunton offers for tourists and local residents.

“When we were first visiting to see if we would make this change or not, that really made an impression on me, because, I think, it really says a lot about the community and what the interests are,” she said.

Staunton is bigger than where Johnson grew up in eastern Kentucky, which has a heavy focus on music history.

“The town is somewhat different, but the focus, the love, the passion is very similar,” Johnson said.

Reminiscent of a storyline in a Hallmark Christmas movie, 10 years ago found Johnson found herself in southwest Kentucky after going home for the holidays.

“I accidentally moved back to Kentucky,” Johnson said.

She was looking to get back into theater and accepted a position as artistic director after guest directing a theater show.

“It works out beautifully when I was in that position with the theater, and I ended up meeting my husband,” Johnson said.

She acted onstage for many years before also taking on directing and other behind-the-scenes duties in theater.

Johnson said Staunton is doing a lot right when it comes to tourism, especially providing a warm welcome to visitors and new residents.

“It was a big decision on us moving here was to just to see how people greeted us,” Johnson said.

Staunton is also great at knowing its worth.

“I think sometimes, especially smaller towns, can minimize what they offer, and the fact that they are a destination. And I think that Staunton leans into the fact that ‘no, we’re a great place to be,'” Johnson said.

Johnson said she and the tourism department will focus on continuing to build momentum and build on the future.

“Because, I think the team here has done a fantastic job,” Johnson said.

Diversification of visitors, including international visitors, will be considered, as well as encouraging tourists to visit for longer stays. Regional tourism projects with nearby localities will also be important for the future.

“I’m just really happy to be here. I’ve been really impressed by the thoughts and ideas of our [community] partners who I’ve met with,” Johnson said.

For her first few weeks in Staunton, she met with community organizations and groups to share ideas. She said she was cautious, as a newcomer, not to assume that she knew what needed to change.

“It was really neat to hear from each of them and the partners were all just so well educated on what they do and what their mission is and what their passion is and how they want to grow. But, then, also hearing how each one can work better together within Staunton was really telling.”

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca J. Barnabi is the national editor of Augusta Free Press. A graduate of the University of Mary Washington, she began her journalism career at The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. In 2013, she was awarded first place for feature writing in the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Awards Program, and was honored by the Virginia School Boards Association’s 2019 Media Honor Roll Program for her coverage of Waynesboro Schools. Her background in newspapers includes writing about features, local government, education and the arts.