Had a chance to catch up with the governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, while he was in Toronto yesterday talking up his great state, which technically is known as a Commonwealth and not a state. Just so you know.
It was quite a hoot, actually, as he’s a hugely entertaining fellow who tells a good story and has got a lot of get-up-and-go.
“Last year we had 40 million visitors. We shattered our old records last year in the Commonwealth. We noted the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War this year. Right now as we speak we have thousands of visitors for the UCI bike race in Richmond. I just opened our 121st craft brewery. We have 250 wineries and 10 craft distilleries. November is Oyster month and we’ll be opening up Oyster Trail with miles and miles of great places. They’ll even shuck them for you and set up a table in the water and serve you some Virginia wine.”
“We have miles of beaches and the Blue Ridge Mountains,” McAuliffe continued. “It’s a great place to see history, with George Washington’s Mt. Vernon home (see photo) and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, as well as great golf and great shopping.”
One advantage to Virginia is comparatively low prices. It’s not New York or Miami, with $400 hotels and $50 a night parking charges. There are beautiful spas and shopping areas and great cities like Richmond. But it’s affordable. It’s also one of the most diverse states in the U.S., perhaps even the most diverse if you ask the man in charge.
“I like to say we have five states. There’s the high-tech areas to the north, with more data centres than any place in America. Richmond is the capital of the Confederacy (see photo below); very old South. You’ve got the Hampton Roads area which is the largest naval base in the world. You’ve got the beaches and all of that. The south and southwest are very unique, very different. Southwest Virginia is the home of country music with the Fiddlers Convention and the Crooked Road music scene.”
McAuliffe radiates energy better than many suns in the solar system, with a tremendous enthusiasm. I’d only known him for five minutes and he was invited me to visit him in the capital of Richmond and check out his “Kegerator,” a refrigerated unit that stores kegs of Virginia-made beer. How great an invitation is that? And how many governors keep a cold keg of local beers in their office?
McAuliffe said Virginia still relies heavily on U.S. defence spending but that they’re diversifying all the time. One key area, of course, is tourism. Unlike some governments (hello, Stephen Harper), McAuliffe gets how important tourism is in this day and age.
“I do these missions all over the globe. I just did Paris, I did London, I did Shanghai and Beijing. Last week we were in California. This is a big part of my job. It’s economic development. I think big. I don’t play small. I get the importance of tourism.”
Asked if there are any overlooked or surprise areas in his state, McAuliffe said he’s not sure even Virginians understand how big and how important historic places such as Jamestown and Williamsburg. Jamestown is where English settlers landed in 1607 (several years before Plymouth Rock, he likes to point out). They just found Indian Chief Powhatan’s actual village from 1607. The new museum in Jamestown is great. I spent a day there but I could’ve spent two. And if you go the river they have these great replicas of the original boats.”
“I think the wines would surprise people. And the music scene. We have a couple hundred miles of great music spots on the Crooked Road.”
McAuliffe said Canada is the largest source of foreign visitors to Virginia, with 511,717 arriving in 2013, the last year for which figures are available. More than half of those are from Ontario, he said.
McAuliffe said he doesn’t worry too much about the Canadian dollar being low given the low cost of gasoline in the U.S. these days and the state’s general value. He also pointed out that Virginia state parks have brand new cabins, many with modern amenities, that have beautiful lake or mountain views and can be rented for $80 a night.
“Your dollar goes a long way in Virginia.”
The Virginia tourism folks put on a fine display, with local wines and food, including delicious oysters and cheese and that famous Virginia ham. One government person reminded the crowd of the state’s beaches, noting that Virginia is only 12 hours from Toronto; half the distance of Florida.
Rather than deliver a long speech, McAuliffe told visitors to the event they should stay awhile and drink some Virginia wine and slurp on a few Virginia oysters.
“That’s why we say Virginia is for lovers,” he said with a laugh.