For tiny Va. town, Disney park offers hope of renewed prosperity

November 12, 1993|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

HAYMARKET, Va. -- The economic slump in this tiny town hard by Bull Run Mountain began with an invasion of Union soldiers, who burned it to the ground on Nov. 4, 1862. Once a thriving commercial center, Haymarket never regained its prewar prominence.

This week brought another army -- the media hordes who descended on Haymarket after news leaked out the Walt Disney Co. was planning to build a $1 billion American history theme park on a 2,000-acre tract just outside this town of some 472 souls.

By yesterday, any resident who ventured onto the street ran the risk of being filmed, photographed, interviewed or otherwise immortalized. But 'Haymarketeers,' as one local wit dubbed them, bore the scrutiny with remarkable good humor, for many of them saw in this invasion a sign of renewed prosperity for a town that history had seemed to pass by.

At the town hall, Haymarket Historical Society Chairwoman Sarah Turner was entertaining high hopes that Disney would pitch in with money and expertise to help the town celebrate its bicentennial in 1999, the year after the park is scheduled to open.

"Everyone was very excited about it. They were just like little children about it," said Ms. Turner. She added that people all over town were getting calls from real estate brokers.

In Gossom's Hardware Store yesterday, owner Tim Everett triumphantly displayed a local newspaper with the headline "DISNEY YES," while his 7-year-old daughter pleaded with him to take her to the Disney park tomorrow morning.

Mr. Everett said Haymarket, located southwest of Washington where the suburbs merge into rural Virginia, has been badly hurt by widespread layoffs and the collapse of the Prince William County real estate market.

The town's only pharmacy closed just last month, he said, following on the heels of its only real estate office. His own annual sales have dropped from $1 million to $480,000 in the past four years, he said.

"There's just been such a gloom over this county the past four to five years," he said, adding that Disney's coming might be just what it takes to keep him in business.

Down the street at Matthew's Restaurant, the town's main gathering place, co-owner Debbie Berg was feeling anything but gloomy. Just two days before, she and her father were planning to sell the restaurant because of slumping business. When she heard the news, she called him in Florida to suggest they reconsider.

"I can't see any negatives," she said.

But across Route 55 at Kris & Karen's sandwich shop, diners Pam McGroarty and her 10-year-old-son, Danny Orey, were seeing little else as they watched the television coverage of Disney's morning press conference in nearby Manassas.

As a Disney spokesman confirmed that Mickey Mouse and other human-sized Disney cartoon characters would be a fixture at the park, Ms. McGroarty grimaced, then jeered at the TV.

"My real concern is that if you have to do something with an historical theme, at least do it with some integrity and not make it a big commercial hype," said Ms. McGroarty, a 15-year resident of Bull Run Mountain. "Disney is capable of doing it right rather than something cheesy, like a bunch of Lewis and Clark boat rides."

Along with a hall of robotic presidents and Civil War re-enactments, the boat rides are one of the ideas Disney is floating for a park that is expected to bring more than 1,000 jobs to the area.

Many residents are expecting a divisive struggle over the Disney proposal between advocates of economic development and supporters of controlled growth. Over the past two decades, Prince William County has been the site of battles over development whose intensity has been compared with the First and Second Battles of Manassas.

In recent years, the slow-growth advocates have largely prevailed. With the help of the recession, they quashed a housing development that Exxon Corp. wanted to build on the site, and during the 1980s, they successfully appealed to Congress to block a developer's plan to build a shopping center next to the Manassas battlefield.

But this time growth advocates are confident they'll win -- because of the magic name of Disney. And while most were delighted at Disney's coming, people like Karen Walton and Kristie Hodge are crossing their fingers while they cheer.

The sisters, who opened Kris and Karen's in August, said they knew some development of the tract on U.S. 15 was inevitable. And they figure they could do a whole lot worse than to have Disney, with its family-oriented image, as a neighbor.

They just hope the company does right by Haymarket.

"I don't think we need a 100-foot statue of Mickey," said Ms. Walton.

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