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December 26, 2018

Director brings “gung-ho” approach to Old Town

Photo/Cassandra Brown
“I really feel like if you want a better community, you need to roll up your sleeves and make it happen rather than just complain about it,” says Experience Old Town Warrenton Executive Director Charity Furness, who has a degree in nuclear engineering.
She comes to our merchant meetings. She’s listening and, if she can’t do it, she will send you in the right direction.
— Danielle Schwarz, Earth, Glaze and Fire co-owner
Charity Furness
• Age: 38

• Home: Warrenton

• Work: Full-time executive director, Experience Old Town Warrenton, since August.

• Experience: Director, Fauquier FISH, 3 years; stay-at-home mom, 10 years; WARF childcare volunteer; assistant manager at Expo Design Center in Fairfax, 4 years.

• Civic involvement: Board member, FISH (For Immediate Sympathetic Help), Fauquier County Soccer Club committee; board member, Fauquier Community Coalition; steering committee, Partnership for Community Resources.
 
• Education:
Bachelor’s degree, nuclear engineering, Purdue University, 2004; Orange County High School, 1999.

• Family: Husband, Steve; children, Timmy, 10, and Julie, 7.

• Hobbies: Volunteering and coaching girls U8 soccer team with Fauquier County Soccer Club.
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Staff Journalist
The experienced nonprofit leader hopes to strengthen connections among merchants, property owners, municipal government, shoppers and others to improve Old Town Warrenton.

Warrenton resident Charity Furness in August accepted the job as Experience Old Town Warrenton’s first full-time executive director.

Part of the Virginia Main Street program, the nonprofit group works to preserve history and to promote economic vitality, business and social activities downtown. It continues the work that started 30 years ago.

Ms. Furness calls Old Town “a place to come and walk the street and run into your neighbor.”

Passionate about helping her community, she worked three years as the director of FISH (Fauquier’s For Immediate Sympathetic Help), which provides food to needy children and families.

“I’ve worked with the community and networking and non-profits and really helping people connect with each other and with resources,” Ms. Furness says.

She accepted the Main Street position because, “I saw this as a way to connect with a broader base of the community, not just those in poverty. But, I can make an impact in the community in which my children were growing up.”

With a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering, Ms. Furness decided to pass on a career in that field and do something that mattered for her community.

“I can see changes made,” she says. “I want to build a better community. I really feel like if you want a better community, you need to roll up your sleeves and make it happen rather than just complain about it.”

Ms. Furness has started her new job simply, building relationships with merchants and property owners.

“It’s really walking up and down the streets . . . getting to know people. Sitting down and having coffee . . . conversations with them,” she says. “Finding out what their view of Warrenton is and the historic district and blending those and finding how we can best create something we all want.”

Ms. Furness attends monthly merchant and property owner meetings to hear concerns firsthand.

“My biggest goal is to bring our community together to develop the relationships with our business partners, with the town and the council . . . . It’s making improvements and continuing to see that change that is small, appropriate growth. We’re looking at revitalizing historic buildings that are underutilized.”

Experience Old Town Warrenton recently received a $25,000 grant from the Virginia Main Street program to conduct a feasibility study for adaptive reuse of the vacant church at 79 E. Lee St.

The study will explore the best use for the historic building, possibly an “anchor business” to connect the Warrenton Branch Greenway and Claire’s at the Depot restaurant with the rest of Old Town, according to Ms. Furness.

“It brings that draw and strengthens our community if we get the right business in there,” she explains.

Ms. Furness also has worked with property owners to bring in temporary “pop up” businesses to fill vacant storefronts during the Christmas season.

“People point out vacant buildings, but Warrenton actually is a very healthy community. If you go . . . look at other communities that have ignored their historic district, they are vacant and it’s sad,” she says.

“We are authentic. Gainesville is building these lifestyle centers and town centers, but based on retail and mimicking historic districts such as Warrenton.”

Keeping Old Town alive ranks as the top priority.

“I’ve gone into merchants’ stores and asked, ‘How can I help?’ And they say, ‘Just bring the people’,” Ms. Furness says. “Making all of Old Town a desirable place to come” will help.

“It’s the small details — the flags at Veterans Day and the Fourth of July. It’s the flower baskets that make it an appealing place and welcoming place to be.

“Then, it’s the merchant’s responsibility to have a great shop, great service or experience.”

During her first six months on the job, Ms. Furness has helped organize First Friday celebrations and GumDrop Square, which features visits with Santa and a shop where children can buy inexpensive gifts.

Making minor changes, she altered the layout of GumDrop Square so visitors would enter in the front door and exit out the back, near the Book Cellar in the John Barton Payne Building — improving the flow.

“Little changes like that that allow more space, more time with Santa,” Ms. Furness notes.

“Charity is really gung-ho and seems like a natural leader,” says Meleana Moore, co-owner of Framecraft and EOTW member. For GumDrop Square, “she brought her own flair and ideas, and it was nice to see her take the reigns and accomplish it. That instilled a lot of confidence in her for me.”

Formerly the Partnership for Warrenton, founded in 1988, the nonprofit in recent years struggled financially and endured the conviction of a former chairman for embezzlement. 

But, the organization last year relaunched with a new name, logo and leadership, including a board that practices stricter governance, especially of finances.

Ms. Furness acknowledges the group’s challenging past.

“It’s rebuilding those relationships, earning trust of community and being good stewards,” she says.

EOTW has a 14-member board and a $89,000 budget, with funding coming from community sponsors, the town and grants.

The FISH experience helped prepare her for the Old Town job, Ms. Furness says. She created the Weekend Power Pack program, which serves more than 350 Fauquier County food-insecure students, during a tenure in which FISH’s budget increased sixfold, to more than $300,000. 

“That was just from building relationships within the community,” Ms. Furness says.

Danielle Schwarz, co-owner of Earth, Glaze and Fire, says promotion and communication have improved since Ms. Furness became the EOTW director.

“She comes to our merchant meetings,” Ms. Schwarz says. “She’s listening and, if she can’t do it, she will send you in the right direction.”

Ms. Schwarz believes Ms. Furness will help address merchant concerns, such as working with the town to install more signs directing visitors to shops.

Ms. Moore agrees.

“She seems to be in it for the right reasons,” Ms. Moore says. “The merchant voices were heard” when Ms. Furness recently spoke before the town planning commission meeting about the sign ordinance.

Ms. Furness serves “the point person . . . instead of bouncing from store to store to try to tell everyone” what to do in terms of promotions and events, Ms. Moore adds. “She’s always comes to merchant meetings with information.”

For example, the director recently shared marketing data and demographics with merchants, says Ms. Moore. “I feel like 2019 is the time for Old Town Warrenton to really thrive.”

Contract Cassandra Brown at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or 540-878-6007.
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elsie · December 28, 2018 at 10:27 am
I have volunteered with Charity at the Fish Food Pantry for a couple of years and she has done so much for the organization. Her Dedication Enthusiasm will be a Plus for Warrenton.
Fred_GarvinJr · December 27, 2018 at 9:02 am
It's good to see that the merchants are so supportive of her efforts, as her success will be their success.

But, "Perdue" University?
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