You’d have to really look hard over Hanover County, Va.’s first 301 years to find one that was as tough as its 300th.
But with the public health conditions improving, officials finally feel safe to commit to a range of deferred celebrations, eager to make up for lost time.
“It was devastating for a lot of our folks to have to cancel last year’s events,” said Sean Davis, chairman of the Board of Supervisors. “They’re so social and engaged in their community, and the events bring people home. When you go to the Tomato Festival or the Strawberry Faire, we basically think of them as family reunions.
“Missing out last year has intensified the excitement of being able to celebrate this year.”
It’s a dynamic counties across the country are facing, reopening not just their events but reestablishing social bonds, playing host to so many opportunities to celebrate community. And to celebrate their successes.
“While we certainly had a detour last year with the impact of COVID, celebrating our 300th is not a milestone we want to take lightly or forget in any way,” said County Administrator John Budesky.
“Doing this work has probably been the most humbling experience of my professional career and many of those who have worked in local government are going to see their communities come together the way they did,” he said. “That work really put us in a position that we’re going to have that opportunity to celebrate with our community.”
The long-term planning for the celebration of the county’s 300-year anniversary focused on the county’s existing signature events, augmenting them to celebrate the anniversary of the county’s founding — Nov. 26, 1720 — including the Hanover Tomato Festival and the Ashland Strawberry Faire. But the short timeline posed challenges for a volunteer committee, so county staff, including Public Information Officer Tom Harris, took charge of planning.
“About a month ago we saw that the coronavirus situation was abating somewhat,” Harris said. “We felt we could plan for events, but it was too late for a large celebration.”
Those events will include a Hanover County night at a Richmond Flying Squirrels baseball game, two weekends’ worth of community days at Kings Dominion, located in the county, and the Aug. 28 opening of the Hanover Museum of History and Culture. That opening will include a traveling Smithsonian exhibit: “Change in Rural America.”
Davis said the pivot was intentional, and the involved staff and officials worked hard to make the reimagined celebration fit the moment.
“We had to go back to the drawing board with how we were going to celebrate,” he said. “You can’t just put the cake in the freezer and thaw it out a year later. Things have changed.”
For one thing, with families trying to make up for lost summer travel from 2020, the county diversified its calendar for celebrations, and spread them out throughout the county.
Celebrations will also include historic Hanover Tavern’s AutumnFest, a celebration at Patrick Henry’s home in the county, and a classic car cruise. By diversifying the events, mostly held outside, the county can maintain a safe number of attendees while also offering many opportunities to celebrate and resume a public life that has been limited during the pandemic.
“We’ll be very intentional as the calendar year goes on about having opportunities for our community to come together,” Burdesky said. “We will celebrate not just the past of Hanover County, but the opportunities that are ahead of us for the next 300 years.”
While he hopes the events will offer social outlets to county residents proud of their history, he’s hoping they will be good for the county itself, too.
“It’s an opportunity to engage the public, let them know more about their government, more about their community, more about their neighbors,” Harris said. “Just to get here, we had to take a number of efforts to allow our community to return to normalcy. Support our residents’ needs with a call center we set up with our health district, a vaccination clinic.
“I’m really proud of our staff’s flexibility — they’re the champions of the process,” Budesky said. “They really recognized their role as public servants.”
Budesky wants non-resident county staff to participate in celebrations, too.
“We don’t forget that folks have families and lives and responsibilities outside of work,” he said.
“They inspired the Board and me when we continued to do things. We want our employees to recognize that we’re going to do everything to support them in the worst of times and in the best of times we want them to see us as an employer of choice. Their experience is an asset to our community.
Knowing that many had other competing demands on their time, to see them step up and offer different processes to keep providing services to citizens, different ways to keep the work going…”
“Despite all of the challenges, we had a year with some of the highest permitting activity and new business investment,” he said.
“It’s really something to celebrate.”