Historic Triangle’s past holds keys to future
Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown are all significant parts of the nation’s foundation, and historic tourism drove the region’s economy during the 20th century. But Colonial Williamsburg hasn’t been enough to keep
big crowds coming to the area consistently in the 21st century, even before the pandemic.
Visitation dropped from 960,000 in 1999 to 534,000 in 2019, officials reported, although after running at a $4.6 million deficit in 2017, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s net income improved to $87.3 million in 2020. One reason for the decline in visitor numbers is that fewer people today visit historic sites compared with earlier generations, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s former president and CEO, Mitchell B. Reiss, said in 2019 upon his retirement. He also said that Colonial Williamsburg in particular needed to update its marketing efforts to meet today’s digital culture.
“There was a time when we as a community had a notion that Colonial Williamsburg would always take care of us, that Busch Gardens would always be enough, but that’s just not the case,” Williamsburg Mayor Doug Pons says. “When I was in the hotel business, I realized that Williamsburg was seeing declining visitation. It was no secret.”
So, in 2016, Pons decided to convert his Quarterpath Inn into multifamily affordable housing.
Over time, as visitation to Williamsburg and other historic attractions (including Jamestown and Yorktown) declined, it became apparent to civic leaders that the so-called Historic Triangle needed another large investment in tourism to maintain the region’s quality of life and to keep its economy humming.
And unlike John D. Rockefeller’s rescue of Colonial Williamsburg in the 1930s, which extended to $79 million in family support through the 1970s, “there wasn’t going to be another billionaire showing up to make that investment,” Pons says.
One way the Historic Triangle region’s three localities — York and James City counties and Williamsburg — decided to invest in the area’s economic development was an indoor sports venue, which they hope also will give a boost to Busch Gardens, Colonial Williamsburg and other attractions.
In March 2022, officials formed the Historic Triangle Recreational Facilities Authority to spearhead the development of a 160,000-square-foot indoor sports complex with 12 basketball courts that can be converted into volleyball and pickleball courts. It represents the largest intergovernmental project ever undertaken by the three localities. One estimate projected the cost could be $45 million or more, but many of the final details are in flux.
In September 2022, the authority approved an interim agreement with MEB General Contractors of Chesapeake for $2.3 million to initiate the design of the core sports center complex, about 35% of the project, according to York County documents. The next decision, expected to come in the next few months, will be to choose a construction firm.
Officials have identified a preferred site for the sports complex. It would be located on underused property next to the Colonial Williamsburg Regional Visitor Center, a site that may also allow room for an adjoining performing arts center or amphitheater.
“It’s going to happen,” Pons says. “The funds to service the debt are already identified, it’s already coming in. And, there’s money in the bank to begin.”
While Pons says the visitor center will remain a hub for tourism activity, the sports complex will add a new dimension to tourism in the city and adjoining counties by attracting youth athletics and other events from around the country.
Meanwhile, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is working closely with the Historic Triangle Recreational Facilities Authority to determine the best uses for the visitor center campus, but emphasizes that the proposed sports complex will have no impact on the visitor center itself.
James City County’s economic development director, Christopher Johnson, notes that all three localities must approve funding for the indoor sports complex this year. James City’s tax revenues have been stable, offering the county some room to invest in the sports complex, Johnson says.
Although Williamsburg will likely benefit most directly from the venue if it’s sited at Colonial Williamsburg, Johnson says that in James City County, “one of our main revenue sources is hospitality and tourism, [and] the complex [also] provides additional space for activities during the week for James City citizens.”
Additionally, the county has benefited from its busy manufacturing sector, including Anheuser-Busch Inc., which saw an increase in demand during the pandemic. Also, the county is seeing more traffic from the Port of Virginia and hopes to have a shovel-ready industrial site prepared at Hazelwood Farms Enterprise Center by next spring.
New and old attractions
In addition to planning the sports complex, the three localities have also collaborated on the Edge District, a restaurant and entertainment-driven locale at the shared borders of York and James City counties and Williamsburg. Established in 2019, the Edge District offers high-end food and boutique shopping, and the resulting tax revenue from lodging and meals taxes have led to a joint fund to help finance the sports complex.
In the past two years, further cementing the spirit of regional cooperation, Williamsburg has begun including the area’s two largest employers, Colonial Williamsburg and William & Mary, in its annual State of the City events, inviting the chief executives from each to deliver addresses covering highlights from the year and future plans.
During the 2022 State of the City event, William & Mary President Katherine Rowe said that the 250th anniversary of Williamsburg in 2026 will be an important opportunity to remind the nation of the city’s role in U.S. history. “We’re going to make the case for Williamsburg’s significance as the best place in the country to understand our nation’s complex history,” she said.
Unsurprisingly, Colonial Williamsburg is also geared up for the anniversary.
“Williamsburg was host to an astonishing number of events leading up to and including 1776 that contributed to America’s founding,” Colonial Williamsburg Foundation President and CEO Cliff Fleet said during his State of the City address. “Today, this history positions our region to lead the commemoration effort on behalf of our nation. The impact of this moment will rest on the preparations we make today.”
It’s also a time to focus on the largely overlooked roles of Black and Indigenous people in our history, to provide “a fuller account of the founding of the United States,” Fleet said.
In February, the 273-year-old Bray School, believed to be the oldest surviving building in America dedicated to the education of Black children, was moved from William & Mary’s campus to Colonial Williamsburg, Fleet said, where it will be fully restored by November 2024. University and Colonial Williamsburg staffers are working with the descendants of students who attended the school during the era of slavery, “so that everyone can see themselves in America’s story.”
The First Baptist Church, one of the nation’s oldest Black churches, was founded in 1776, and Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is working with the congregation to uncover the church’s original site on Nassau Street, with a goal of reconstructing the building by its 250th anniversary.
Meanwhile, Rowe noted that this year will mark the 300th anniversary of the Brafferton Indian School, which educated Indigenous students over several decades and sits on W&M’s campus near the Wren Building.
“Like the Bray School, the Brafferton tricentennial offers an opportunity to provide a fuller account of the founding of the United States,” Rowe said in her State of the City remarks.
Colonial Williamsburg also has opened an interpretive Native American camp that explores regional Indigenous peoples’ relationship with the Colony of Virginia. One of Colonial Williamsburg’s major events this year will be the groundbreaking for the Colin G. and Nancy N. Campbell Archaeology Center, which will become the hub of all archaeological endeavors in the former colonial capital.
Into the present
Busch Gardens Williamsburg also has ramped up its act, following the pandemic. Since 2022, the theme park has expanded its operating months to include January through March, making it a year-round attraction.
That’s been good news for the region’s hospitality industry, says Ron Kirkland, executive director of the Williamsburg Hotel & Motel Association.
The region’s hotel occupancy rate for 2022 was 50.4%, up from 45.2% in 2021 and better than 2019. Also, the average daily room rate was $148.76, “which was [an] all-time best,” Kirkland notes, compared with $125.51 in 2019.
Virginia Restaurant, Lodging and Travel Association President Eric Terry has seen some good growth in the region and believes the Historic Triangle’s larger tourism marketing budget has significantly aided its recovery.
In 2018, the General Assembly passed a special Historic Triangle tourism tax, an added 1% sales tax that helped create Visit Williamsburg, a marketing organization with an annual budget of about $15 million, Pons says. “It really changed the landscape in how we are able to promote ourselves in a broader reach. Before that, we had budgets of $2 [million] to $3 million.”
In neighboring York County, tourism is also a big draw, and Supervisor Sheila Noll says that she was energized by a February announcement that Princess Cruises will be making Yorktown a port of call in late spring 2024, opening the door to potentially thousands of new visitors coming to the region and boosting historic tourism.
The cruise ships, which can carry between 2,000 and 3,000 guests each, will land at Yorktown on the York River five times next year, and the Virginia state Senate’s budget proposal this year includes $7.5 million to build a permanent pier to accommodate the cruise ships. Currently, the river has just floating docks.
“History is very, very important to people who visit here and to people who live here,” Noll says. “We have the benefit of the past.”
Historic Triangle at a glance
James City County, York County and the city of Williamsburg make up the Historic Triangle. Located between Hampton Roads and Richmond, the area includes historical attractions, the Busch Gardens Williamsburg theme park and William & Mary, the nation’s second oldest institution of higher learning, chartered in 1693. Joint Base Langley-Eustis is a U.S. military installation formed by the 2010 merger of Langley Air Force Base and the U.S. Army’s Fort Eustis. In use since 1917, Langley is the world’s oldest continuously active Air Force base.
James City County: 76,484
York County: 68,890
- William & Mary
- Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
- Sentara Healthcare
- York County
- Walmart Inc.
- Williamsburg-James City County School Board
- SeaWorld Entertainment Inc.
The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown tells the story of the nation’s fight for independence. Yorktown Battlefield, the site of the Revolutionary War’s final major clash, offers a visitor’s center and guided tours. Colonial Williamsburg, a popular living history attraction showcasing Colonial American life, features museums, lodging, restaurants and shops. Historic Jamestowne is the site of America’s first permanent English settlement and features an archaeological museum with 17th-century artifacts unearthed on site. Jamestown Settlement features a rebuilt interpretation of America’s first permanent settlement. The nearby Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Water Country USA theme parks are the region’s biggest tourism draws.
Top convention hotels
- Williamsburg Lodge, Autograph Collection 323 rooms, 45,000 square feet of event space
- DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Williamsburg 295 rooms, 42,089 square feet of event space
- Fort Magruder Hotel –Trademark Collection by Wyndham 303 rooms, 26,000 square feet of event space
- Kingsmill Resort
- Williamsburg Inn
- Wedmore Place
- Fat Canary, American fatcanarywilliamsburg.com
- Food for Thought, American foodforthoughtrestaurant.com
- La Tienda, Tapas tienda.com
- Le Yaca, French leyacawilliamsburg.com
- Opus 9 Steakhouse, Steakhouse opus9steakhouse.com