MONETA – Should one of the first Smith Mountain Lake lot owners who sold out early then returned today, more than a half-century after that initial wave of rather crude development, they might have to take a long pause to gather in the scene.
A good guess is anyone who initially put a creaky trailer or unassuming cottage on one of those first steep and rocky waterside lots back in the mid-1960s would hardly recognize those 32 liquid square miles and hardwood-speckled shores now.
The trailers and small houses are still around but now increasingly crowded by waterfront properties valued at seven figures and up.
After the inevitable series of ups and downs in the real estate market since the lake attained its first 795-foot surface level (the engineers’ term is “full pond”) in 1966, signs point to what could be another period of sustained growth.
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So just how big is the Smith Mountain Lake community? That depends on how you measure it. There are no formal, legal boundaries but census data and computer mapping can provide some numbers. Within about two miles of the water, there are 19,073 people, according to mapping done by Matt Miller of the Roanoke Regional Partnership. Within about five miles of the water, there are 67,090 people, according to mapping done by Eric Schmidt, the GIS coordinator for Franklin County. For comparison purposes, that latter figure is in the neighborhood of Lynchburg, which is home to 79,009 people. Even the former is just slightly smaller than Waynesboro. Also, for the wider geography shown below, the median age is 47.9, further evidence that the lake area is more than a retirement community.
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To put a finer piece of detail on the picture, Andy Bruns, executive director of the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce, posited that what’s going on here is so big, many cannot grasp what they’re seeing when they take in the entire lake area contained in its three home counties of Franklin, Bedford, and Pittsylvania.
“The reason people don’t realize the wealth that is accumulated around this lake is because we are carved up into three counties,” he said. “If just the shoreline was its own little county it would be the richest county per capita in the state.”
To put numbers on the current splendor, meet real estate broker Deborah F. Beran of Deb Beran Properties.
The Realtor has kept track of average single family waterfront property prices forever and published them since 2004.
Beran has lived at the lake for 35 years with nearly three decades in real estate sales. Her July figures for sales covering the entire lake establish an average $1.05 million price for houses averaging 3,357 square feet.
Compare that to 2004 averages: $534,303 for 2,720 square feet.
“The last couple of years the whole world has changed,” she said. “I’ve seen the lake really grow up to become a mature township of its own. When the pandemic and quarantines came and people were allowed to work from home, they arrived here in droves.
“They not only came from the big cities; we’ve seen an influx from the West Coast and even from Europe. People have said if I’m going to be quarantined, I want to be in a safe haven.”
A port in the pandemic storm, if you will.
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Chamber director Bruns is convinced by demographic data he studies as well as anecdotal evidence that the new arrivals are younger, with some possibly having the buying power of the previous generation of homeowners.
The difference was the typical lakefront buyer then was older and looking for an investment property or retirement home.
Is this the mother of all SML demographic shifts in progress? Bruns, a former newspaper executive whose last stop was Roanoke, is among those who hope – indeed believe – so.
“The anecdotal evidence I hear is it is changing dramatically,” he said. “It’s getting younger with more people year-round.”
Should any part of that be true, as it seems to be, Bruns sees dramatic implications.
“If it is starting to change, and that’s what I’m hoping, and if the lake is getting younger, and it’s growing in population with people living here year-round, that’s a game-changer not just for the lake but the entire region.”
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On the be careful what you wish for front, Franklin County economic development director Beth Simms offers a word of caution about such apparently thrilling tidings.
“Everything is not as it seems,” she said. “Yes, it’s great having people moving in with disposable income. But that also means we are going to have to have more [emergency medical technicians] to serve those people. If they have kids, we may need more schoolteachers. They may want more parks and recreation amenities.
“When you have such increases, it also adds a stress on our services.”
Not to be forgotten, she said, was the local composite index, the formula the state uses to fund local education. A key component ties real estate values to the state’s educational contribution. Increasing real estate values indicate a corresponding drop in state education funding to the locality.
Bruns tended to agree with her point.
“Those new people with disposable income are going to want services. And they’re going to need people working in those restaurants. And those people must live somewhere, which means a need for affordable housing.”
Things are not always as they seem.
“It’s great we have million-dollar home after million-dollar home,” Bruns said, “but those people are not going to want to continue to live here if they have to drive 45 minutes to do anything.”
For one indication of what he’s talking about, consider publicity information for the snazzy Union Hall development and amphitheater-included (musical entertainment twangs and toots all over the lake these days) The Coves at its website. On a list of frequently asked questions, one reads: “How far is the nearest full-service grocery store?”
Answer: “Within 25 minutes drive, there are Kroger stores at both the east end of Rocky Mount (on state highway 40) and at the Westlake Shopping Mall in Hardy (on Booker T Washington Highway).”
Perhaps it is coincidence that nugget was the last on a list of 16 FAQs.
For additional information about growth patterns at the lake, the chamber contracted with a company called Datafy that specializes in tourist traffic analysis for specific locations. The latest report arrived in July and tracks not tourists but new full-time lake residents since 2020. The chamber has similar figures going back to February 2018.
The latest report from this summer used methodology that followed cellphone data to reach its conclusions.
First, the phone must come from 20 miles or more from the lake for its owner to be considered a “move.” Those who remained at the lake throughout the study period up to at least 60 days prior to June of this year indicate the owner is a permanent resident.
Bruns and his wife, who have lived all over the country, moved into their Moneta home – their No. 2 buy at the lake since discovering the place a while back – in 2020. That’s how he knows the Datafy numbers work. One glance down the list and his phone turned up right where it should be.
Through what is called “geo-location data collection,” originating home zip codes may be determined. After a typical waiting period of 60 to 90 days at the same location following a move, the zip code is “reassigned” and considered permanent.
Note that one phone counts as one individual not a full household. So, for example, four phones with origins in Timbuktu may be under one roof after the move is established.
The figures cover Franklin, Bedford, and Pittsylvania counties as well as specifics for Rocky Mount and Moneta.
Let’s look at Franklin County for an idea of what the stats show.
Off the bat, 61 percent of the arrivals are coming from elsewhere in Virginia, a hunk from Northern Virginia. Next up is North Carolina (9 percent), Florida (4), an undefined “Other Midwest” (3), and Pennsylvania, Maryland, South Carolina, and West Virginia (2 each).
Notable 1 percenters include California, Utah, and New York..
Across the lake in Bedford with 1,339 tracked, 51 percent arrived from in-state followed by “Other Southeast” (10); North Carolina (9); “Other Midwest” (6); West Virginia (5); and Missouri (4).
“North Central/South Central” and “Other Mid-Atlantic “ (4) and Maryland (3) round out the major pie chart categories.
What does all this mean? For one, the chamber now has a better idea where to target its marketing.
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Bruns may be playing an educated hunch when it comes to comparing his fanciful three-county lake community to the richest counties in the state, but there is no question a substantial number of newcomers arrive bearing impressive balance sheets.
Which brings us to the StClairs, a family of four who were at home in Prince William County when a SML flyer fluttered unexpectedly into their mailbox.
Shortly thereafter, the StClairs became part of the new wave of year-round residents the chamber has been looking for. Jack and Jacqueline are native Roanokers who moved from Northern Virginia in 2020.
After years of establishing a successful 200-employee Home Instead elder care franchise serving the wealthy counties of Loudoun, Prince William, Fauquier, and parts of Fairfax, the StClairs, who are in their early 40s, relied on their deep faith to know when to pull the trigger on a move.
“God was literally going to have to come out of the sky and tell us to move,” Jack StClair recalled with a twinkle in his eye while quickly adding for context his undying love for the family’s former well-appointed pad.
To condense said divine intervention, a zippy series of portents ended with the arrival of the aforementioned SML promotional literature. That was the sign. Now here they are.
Jack went to Roanoke’s William Fleming High, she to Cave Spring. They met in youth group at First Baptist, were engaged when he was 19 and married a year later. They both were well familiar with the lake. Jacqueline’s family had a condo back during the 1980s boom when visionary builders such as Ron Willard put jet skis on development.
All that is not to say there was an easy decision for the StClairs to make about leaving a fashionable 10,000-square-foot residence with an expansive back yard and pool, not to mention all those years’ worth of personal and business relationships.
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Interesting empirical evidence reported recently by Cardinal News may support the idea that at least some of the well-to-do newcomers are part of a broader, more startling trend.
According to the most recent Internal Revenue Service figures documenting those who are moving in and out of particular Virginia localities, most of the counties outside of the population and wealth centers of Northern Virginia, the 757 area code, and Richmond are gaining more newcomers than there are departees. The reporting numbers are from 2020.
Furthermore and quite surprisingly, as a whole those folks who are coming in are significantly more wealthy than those who are leaving. One happy result for these new home localities is net gains in both population and buying power.
Five counties show the most extravagant spreads between the wealth moving in and that moving out. Franklin and Bedford are two of that quintet, all of which have in common a long shoreline (in the case of the other three on the list, Northumberland, Lancaster and Mathews, the water that laps their shores is salt).
To be exact, the income disparity of newcomers moving into Franklin County balanced against those who are leaving indicated the average income level of the arrivals was $101,861, a whopping $43.488 more than that of the outgoing crowd. For Bedford, the average newcomer earned $102,485, $37,777 clear of the average earnings of their departing brethren.
Economic development chief Simms cringed when she heard that.
“People are going to think the county is loaded.”
As an aside, down-lake Pittsylvania County is home to the mammoth American Electrical Power dam and by far the least amount of lake frontage of the trio of counties. For Pittsylvania too, recent arrivals are richer than those who are leaving, but the spread is a more modest $1,675.
To be sure, not all those newcomers to all three counties are moving to the lake.
“Most of the new growth occurs in the Forest and New London area of the county,” Bedford County administrator Robert Hiss pointed out in an email. “This is intentional per the County’s comprehensive plan and already built utility systems.”
New money is spread around in Franklin, too. The evidence of such is also both data- and anecdotally driven.
For instance, according to building permits from 2020 through June of this year shared by Simms, of 553 permits, 446 went to the lakeside magisterial districts of Gills Creek (234), Union Hall (149), and Blackwater (63).
“We’re also seeing significant houses with high real estate values going in Boones Mill, probably because it’s closest to Roanoke, and even in and around Rocky Mount,” Simms said. “Then you have people building these mega-mansions by themselves on the side of the mountain in Callaway.”
In general, public officials in all three lake counties would likely be inclined to agree with sentiments voiced by Pittsylvania supervisor Darrell Dalton, whose Gretna-Callands district includes the lake.
“Residential population growth and increased tourism in the Smith Mountain Lake area are major boosts to our local economy and the overall growth of Pittsylvania County,” he said in an email shared by county public relations manager Caleb Ayers.
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As for tourism, nobody’s forgetting that lucrative aspect of lake life, especially those such as Dewayne Lamb, who has a lovely view of the scene.
Lamb’s Captain’s Quarters bait and tackle shop, boat rental, guide service and wise advice source has been stationed in commanding location at the intersection of the south end of Halesford Bridge and the shoreline for nearly a quarter-century.
There, too, the balance sheet is solid.
“Every aspect of our business has continued to grow,” he said one recent weekday in between selling a stout striper rod to a big fellow who broke his and discussing a boat rental with two casually dressed older gentlemen who arrived with an air of prosperity.
“We’ve seen a growth in our fishng – COVID has helped the outdoor world in general – fishing, hunting, anything outdoors,” Lamb continued. “The fishing tackle business continues to grow. We’re up to 25 boat rentals when we started with three back in 1998.”
Growth of the broader community has of course been an important contributor.
“Housing developments around here continue to grow. There’s always someone building houses or docks. The whole area’s still growing.”
He’s seeing the same demographic move in permanently that has always been attracted to the lake.
“The folks who are retiring up north are coming down here where their dollar will go farther, their taxes are not as bad. They can get a house that’s more for their money down south. I’m seeing a lot of people from New Jersey and New York.”
As for the short-timers, he makes haste not to overlook them.
“Even though it’s a great area to retire, it’s still a resort. The summertime the lake brings in the vacationers who don’t want the beach. Some are just staying local and are from the neighboring counties.”
Increasing numbers of renters are “at an all-time high right now” from neighboring states such as Pennsylvania, West Virginia and North Carolina.
Tough times for the economy? What tough times?
“This lake is just about recession-proof,” he said. “Several years ago back in 2008 when we got up to $5 per gallon [marine fuel] I was worried. We survived and didn’t miss a beat. A high of $6.30 this year at Captain’s Quarters – and some places even higher – it didn’t slow things up for one second.
“That truck has to roll in here every five days to fill us up.”
Optimism abounds elsewhere as well. Andie Gibson, who swapped a newspaper career for a couple of decades of various brands of writing, editing and publicity work involving the lake, is also bullish about what she sees.
She and her business partner control two previously established lake-related websites. That’s their bet on the future. Find Smith Mountain Lake Insiders Guide at https://smith-mountain-lake.com/ and LakeLubbers at http://lakelubbers.com/.
LakeLubbers has listings and profiles for Smith Mountain as well as 2,151 United States lakes.
“LakeLubbers was our biggest project so far,” Gibson said. “We got that off the ground last year. We are having a fun time with that.”
Not to mention making a few dollars.
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The StClair’s Prince William house sold in six days.
The new digs are on a deeply forested cul-de-sac off Scruggs Road that backs up against one of the lake’s six golf courses. The lot came with a boat slip now filled. They bought the house sight unseen.
The StClairs and their two children, 13-year-old Jonathan and 11-year-old Mary Anna, play no golf. Nor are they particularly interested in the pursuit of either striped or largemouth bass, pleasure boating being more to their taste.
Correspondingly, the new house is a sweet one. A Willard project from the 1980s, it is a place where nowadays a nearby deer gazes placidly from the woods at an arriving guest before making haste with a snort to other appointments.
The house at the lake is a downsize. The StClairs love it just the same. That is until economic conditions may develop to prompt them to build a bigger one.
You may already have deduced, COVID-19 had something to do with the accelerated chain of events that brought the family south. An important turning point came with an epiphany for Jack.
“I went to my office in Manassas one day in March then realized seven months later I hadn’t been back. Then I knew if f I can work from home in Northern Virginia, why can’t I work from home somewhere else?”
Confidence in the choice to do so three hours from the base of operations was bolstered by prior experience. During the pandemic, their company managers were allowed to work from home along with some of the junior staff.
Schedules were organized on a rotation that assured at least one manager would be in the office during business hours. Owners, managers, employees: All happy.
So it was a proven concept.
For those who expect bounteous new lake growth, it is a fervent hope that there are others on the way who have arrived at the same remote work conclusion.
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On the cultural angle, back to that amphitheater at The Coves.
Coves impresario Gary Jackson has years’ worth of national music contacts from a list long as a slide on a St. Paul & the Broken Bones trombone. For a sampling of Coves fare, Jackson has already welcomed bluegrass royalty Ricky Scaggs and had hall of fame swingers Asleep at the Wheel on the September schedule.
In August were Boyz II Men, maestro Stuart Wiley and Roanoke Symphony Orchestra, and the 50th-anniversary Marshall Tucker tour.
As for the aforementioned St. Paul, the Birmingham, Ala., blasters are scheduled to join the Steeldrivers Sept. 17-18 at the Smith Mountain Lake Wine Festival.
In any event, it’s not just the big-timers who provide regular musical accompaniment to the suds and scenery. To plagiarize the Grateful Dead, the music never stops at the lake and that’s been so a long time.
Years ago the late Haight-Ashbury iconoclast Dan Hicks and his band of gypsy jazz Oklahoma swing masters played a private lakeside soiree.
“Is this not the coolest party you’ve ever been to?” the host asked nobody in particular.
Looks like the only problem they’ll have at The Coves is getting people cleared out after the tunes stop. Patrons will still be sitting transfixed while gazing at the glitteringly glorious tree-framed vista of the lake that forms the stage’s backdrop.
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Pandemic-fueled remote work at the lake doubtless was already well underway before the StClairs’ arrival.
“People started coming in May 2020 – right after the lockdown started,” Bruns said. “Then in ’21 when kids were still learning remotely, people moved down here and stayed down here because the kids were still online for school.”
For some of these parents as well as others from the remote workforce, these weren’t just quick-hitter weekend stays.
“They were staying in homes they already owned where they were staying months at a time now,” Bruns said.
Of course, remote workforces as well as diligent students must be digitally connected. After years of delay in broadband development in Franklin County and elsewhere, federal, state and local stimulus money combined with private funding has jump-started broadband delivery to the previously unconnected.
Franklin County’s Board of Supervisors and broadband authority announced in July the deployment of $17.7 million in state grant money in addition to $24 million in private and additional grant sources combined with $7.7 million from the county’s share of federal American Rescue Plan funds in order to pay for a 24- to 36-month project to extend high speed internet.
Public-private partnerships in the effort are slated to provide 3,500 new hook-ups across the county. A similar team effort is planned to deliver high speed connections in 2,000 more homes and businesses in the “hardest to reach areas in eastern and southwestern portions” of the county.
Deep broadband penetration goals speak to another longstanding local project, that one to bring a community center to the lake. A major feature being touted will be onsite public broadband service.
The effort for the center has been ramrodded for years by Vickie Gardner, the retired lake chamber director who survived ghastly gunshot wounds during the on-air 2015 double murder of WDBJ (Channel 7) journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward. Since then, Gardner underwent 10 surgeries in five years but never gave up the vision of a community center at the lake.
It’s close now.
“This center is so long overdue in this community and it is going to happen,” she said. “The first wave of this was 20-some years ago. We had a great plan, then the recession hit.”
Admirers and friends from the volunteer group that she leads had started calling it “Vickie’s Vision” in the wake of the shooting.
Recently the group announced a 14-person board of directors. Additionally, a news release heralded fundraising 70 percent along in efforts to buy and renovate the vacant 40,000-square-foot Grand Home Furnishings building at Westlake Center on Va. 122.
Putting a dollar figure on it, they’re still more than $600,000 short of their goal.
“Our push is to tell people this is a community effort,” she said during a recent telephone conversation. “In fact, I’m sitting here right now writing thank-you letters to donors. We’ve had donations as large as $250,000.”
Performing arts; health and wellness; lifelong learning; career/workforce development; tourist services; and social gatherings are some of the potential uses promoted for the facility.
The need is acute, Gibson said.
“There’s no place to meet, there’s no place to hold a business expo. I mean, we’ve had our business expo in a parking lot in downtown Moneta and on the tennis courts at the Y.”
Despite the accelerating pace of broadband development, they believe proposed service at the community center will continue to draw substantial traffic.
Broadband was obviously a critical necessity for the StClairs too. That wasn’t all. The availability of quality Christian education for the two youngsters was a must.
After due diligence, the parents decided that K-12 (along with preschool and daycare) Smith Mountain Lake Christian Academy was just the sort of school they had been looking for. Comfortably situated now on the way to the 2022-23 school year, the younger members of the family agree the choice of the school is a fit.
“I feel like in Northern Virginia I didn’t like my teachers,” said rising 7th-grader Jonathan of his previous Christian education school. “My teachers here are much nicer and, at the middle school at least, all of the teachers are pretty cool.”
Curriculum here stays close to conservative Christian doctrine including antipathy to alleged but unproven public school instruction in “critical race theory.” The K-12 program uses materials from Bob Jones University Press whose stated mission is to “produce Christian educational materials with academic excellence from a biblical worldview.”
Certainly the school, which came under the administrative wing of EastLake Community Church in 2015, has enjoyed robust growth. From 88 students K-12 five years ago, it has grown, according to its website, to 420 at last count.
“And they have a waiting list,” said Aaron Wetherald, the church administrative pastor, as he ushered a guest on a tour of the church and grounds.
The school was cited in 2021 by Ruth Graham of the New York Times as representative of a boom for conservative Christian schools. Nationwide growth of such schools, Graham wrote, has been driven by factors including “pandemic frustrations and rising parental anxieties around how schools handle education on issues including race and the rights of transgender students.”
Meanwhile, Smith Mountain Lake Christian’s high school – the Ospreys, as its multiple sports teams are called – will be following the main church from quarters in a converted Hendrick Store Road strip mall down the road to a 163-acre plot with a breathtaking 180-degree view of the mountains in the distance.
A coffee shop open to the public has a pot brewing in the lobby.
On this pastoral property, the congregation from the nondenominational church not long ago moved into a newly built 55,000-square-foot facility that includes the 800-seat worship area (services are also streamed live) designed with expansion in mind; church offices and meeting areas; and a multi-purpose multi-court gym that is the Ospreys’ basketball and volleyball home.
“That church is phenomenal,” Gibson said. “If you had told me 20 years ago there’d be a place like that at Smith Mountain Lake I would have told you you were nuts. State of the art – it’s crazy.”
More is on the way. Out back, steel girders for a three-story building intended to house the new high school are in place and construction underway. Elsewhere on the property a state-of-the-art retreat center is planned for conferences and the like.
Weekends, the high school building will be used for educational and meeting purposes by the church.
“That will allow us to go up to 350 students for the high school and 800 for the school as a whole,” Wetherald said.
Asked if he was confident in the target number for school enrollment, he answered, “Definitely. As we’ve seen, people are moving here to the lake in crazy numbers.”
Compared to declining enrollment in some public schools in both Bedford and Franklin Counties, the growth of Smith Mountain Lake Christian is notable.
Bedford administrator Hiss uses school enrollment patterns along with 2020 redistricting figures as basis for an understanding of recent county growth being centered on Forest more than at the lake (Bedford County occupies the entire north shore).
“Generally speaking, what we see around the lake are newcomers with second (or third) homes and retirees,” he wrote in an email. “That is supported by the fact that the elementary schools and the middle school near SML are under capacity and have historically experienced declining enrollment. Contrast that with New London and Forest where the exact opposite occurs.”
The New York Times piece noted that Franklin County public school enrollment had dropped from 7,270 in 2017-18 to 6,125 in 2021-22. During the same pandemic-ridden period the home school population “almost doubled” to 1,010.
The decline prompted one school district administrator to concede county schools “are losing students to private Christian schools.”
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Yet another indicator of the growth at the lake is demonstrated by expansion at EastLake Community Church itself.
The church grew from modest beginnings in a decrepit Bedford County church with a precipitously declining and elderly congregation. The church had been donated in apparent desperation to a strong Roanoke church, Parkway Church on the Mountain, whose goal was to establish a presence at the lake.
EastLake started in 2006 with 65 congregants on loan from the parent church.
Charged with “planting a church,” EastLake founder Troy Keaton, whose brother Jeff was then senior pastor at the Roanoke church, went to work.
The effort he led was wildly successful. Counting those who now worship online, the congregation has expanded to “near 1,500,” Wetherald estimated, citing fluid worship numbers among in-person attendees and streamers.
Troy Keaton, a past regional chamber president himself, continues to preach Sundays but has been in and out of church this summer dealing with a family health crisis. Keaton’s evangelical and church-building skills speak for themselves.
“Super charismatic,” Gibson said, “The nicest guy – if I wasn’t Catholic I’d consider going to that church just to hear him talk.”
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As for the StClairs, led to the church after finding the school and attendees for the past year and half, they’ve been happy with their new religious home because it meets what they had been looking for. Especially appealing to them are its energy, array of programs, and opportunities to serve and be part of the local community.
Similarly encouraging, they’re seeing an increasing preponderance of growing families such as theirs.
Two aspects of EastLake life disappoint Jacqueline. A graduate degree holder in Christian social work from Baylor University, she expressed sadness at the lack of senior female leadership at EastLake with no movement toward change in sight. Not wanting to preach herself, she assumes its appeal for other piously ambitious women.
“I believe women have a place in the ministry.”
In the end, she reflected on her Baptist upbringing to say she’s seen it all before.
One other point troubles her.
“I love seeing all ages at church. What I miss is seeing different colors at church,” referring to the church’s generally homogenous racial makeup, a profile she contrasted to the diversity at the family’s previous nondenominational church in Haymarket along with more of the same in their upscale residential neighborhood.
“It bothers us,” Jack said as she nodded in agreement, “but we can look to so many good things that outweigh it.”
In any event, they’ve been pied pipers of a type for friends from the D.C. suburbs to join them at the lake as well as church. Two families so far have answered the call.
One, the Scotts, arrived with five children to enroll in school and were met at church by Troy Keaton, who, in character, greeted them ceremoniously as if they were part of a high-ranking dignitarial entourage.
Many are the prayers that more such growing families are on the way to the region.
Updated Sept. 26 to change amount of money needed for the Smith Mountain Lake Center.