New mayor has plans for Fries

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Richard Farmer says he wants to bring back his hometown’s spirit of unity

By Shaina Stockton

FRIES — At the beginning of the month, members of Fries Town Council selected Richard Farmer as the town’s new mayor.

Effective Sept. 1, Farmer will fill the spot formerly occupied by Gary Sumner.

A native to the area, Farmer grew up in the town and spent most of his free time at the Fries Recreation Center, or as he called it, the YMCA. “It was my home… I grew up there,” he said.

After graduating from Fries High School in 1965, Farmer moved away from the area, where he fulfilled a number of life goals.

“For the next 27 years, I was in the computer business,” he said, noting that he has both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in business. He specialized in engineering and project management, in both Virginia and North Carolina. Farmer also served in the U.S. Army for three years, and he is a Vietnam veteran.

In 1985, Farmer and his wife, Judy, suffered the unthinkable when they lost their 10-year-old son, Joshua.

“He had been in a soccer accident, and was in the hospital in a coma for 14 days,” Farmer said. On Dec. 26, he passed away.

“It was in that whole process, when I began to hear God speak into my life,” he said. “I always tell people that, in the midst, of the greatest difficulty in my life — losing a child — God showed up and began to transform my life.”

After being called into the ministry, Farmer spent 18 years as a United Methodist pastor in the North Carolina Conference. He holds a divinity master’s degree from Duke University, and he has completed all of the coursework for a doctorate from the Wesley Theological Seminary.

“Often, people have asked me if I was disappointed that God didn’t save my son. They ask me, ‘Why didn’t God work a miracle?’ But what they don’t realize is that I’m the miracle he worked. It completely changed what I was doing, and what I thought was important,” he said.

He added that his other son, Adam, is living in San Diego and is getting ready to move to Boston. “He is 28, and is in the biotech field,” he said.

After he and Judy retired, they decided to come back home. “We had a lot of options… and we could have gone to many places, but we decided that we wanted to be back here,” he said. “We’ve never not been Fries people. We have lived other places, but we’ve always considered Fries home. And it’s that feeling and family in this area is what brought us back.”

Although he hadn’t been a resident for many years, he and Judy made frequent visits back to the area, and he kept up with how things were in the town.

It was these observations that inspired him to run for a seat on council. “I think that a lot of people are trying to do good in Fries. I think we have good people trying their very best against difficult odds.

“I also saw people complaining… and I decided that I could either complain, or throw my hat in the ring and try to make a difference,” he said.

Having known most of the Fries community all of his life, one of his biggest goals is restoring a strong sense of unity within the town. “One of the things I’ve noticed is that we’ve lost a certain spirit, and we need to get it back.”

Farmer noted that he has some ideas for revitalizing the town, but his first goal is to focus on the rec center. “This place was our childhood, and it’s in disrepair now. Right in the middle of the town, it’s an eyesore,” he said. “So I’ve been working with council and the rec center to see if we can get something going to fix the outside. I think that if we get that done, it will look a lot better for business, and lift the spirit of the town.”

One obstacle that the town faces, Farmer said, is that there isn’t a lot of property to work with. “We don’t own a lot of property. The mill site, the fire station… and all of the other property is in different hands. The town itself doesn’t have a lot of leverage, so we will have to work with people to get things done,” he said.

He also addressed the town’s master plan for revitalization — a subject that was recently brought up in a discussion between the town and the Blue Ridge Crossroads Economic Development Authority (BRCEDA). “I have read through the plan — I’ve not studied but I’ve read through it — and I think that it does need some conversation,” he said. “A lot of thought went into that plan, but to me I don’t know if it’s executable.”

Instead of focusing on all of the goals as a whole, Farmer suggested that it might be better to break them down into various projects, and focus primarily on downtown revitalization. “I would like to see the fire station begin to be worked on, and through BRCEDA, create an incubator where we could get some small businesses in here — coffee shops, bakeries, river excursions… we need to generate foot traffic downtown, ad that will allow more businesses to thrive,” he said.

Years ago, the town’s main focus was industry, but Farmer believes that the new focus should be tourism. “I think that our strong suit is the river. It’s the mountains. It’s the New River Trail. And, it’s the music of this area,” he said. It is that heritage and the location of the town that will stand as a strong foundation to build upon. “We have a uniqueness in where we are. You don’t find little towns like this along the riverbank anymore.”

After spending time in the ministry, Farmer learned the importance of providing service to the community. The same is true, he said, for local governments. “All government entities are there to help the people. Openness and honesty with them will go a long way to get some things done,” he said.

And, while it is unlikely that economic development will happen on the same scale as the larger localities like Galax and Hillsville, Farmer believes that the town can become a success in different ways. “We just have to focus on who we are, what we can do here and what is important to us.”

As the local government finds out what options the town has, Farmer shared his hopes that the community will be just as involved with making their town a better place.

“The first thing that [the community] can do is pray for us,” he said. “The second thing they can do is see the opportunity in this town, become involved, and help find solutions to things that are going on. Anybody can be critical, but I have always been fond of that old saying: ‘Don’t be a part of the problem, be a part of the solution.’

“Volunteering would go a long way to make Fries a good place. Don’t just think that it’s the town’s responsibility to get it done — we need help in doing that.”