Conceptual drawings of a 750-acre attraction in York and James City counties took supervisors in both counties by surprise this week.
The project, which is being marketed by the owners of Williamsburg Pottery as a mixed-use tourist destination, has not been formally proposed to public officials in either county despite claims on promotional materials posted to KingsLand's website of the "enthusiastic support of the local community."
"I don't think anybody on the board knows a damn thing about it," York County Supervisor Walter C. Zaremba s aid Thursday.
Supervisors from James City and York counties this week said the project would require coordination of both county boards and would face significant hurdles.
"The scale of this is so massive, it's almost hard to imagine," said James City County Roberts District Supervisor John McGlennon.
The drawings were posted on Williamsburg Pottery's website earlier this summer and depict a futuristic structure with an indoor theme park, resort hotel, restaurants, retail shops, meeting space and entertainment facilities. The site also shows an assisted-living facility, a bio dome and an augmented/virtual reality development office on the site.
Williamsburg Pottery Executive Vice President Peter Kao said Wednesday that a promotional video and drawings on the website are merely conceptual and that he had gotten positive feedback from many people in the community.
He said the promotional video has been playing in the store at Williamsburg Pottery, and the customers like the ideas.
And Kao's assistant Stephen Mushal said Williamsburg Pottery was under pressure as a result of the media coverage of the conceptual plans the company posted online.
"The ideas on the website are just ideas ... We are not saying that's what we want to do definitively, we are not saying that is something we are going to do," Mushal said. "That is just an idea to show investors and developers if you buy some of this land, here are some of the possibilities you can use it for."
Kao said although the land is not on the market, he is open to any offers.
"Being some 30 years in the business, nothing is not for sale," Kao said Friday. "If the price is right we definitely would love to see what it is."
Pressure on administrators
Emails between Williamsburg Pottery employees, commercial real estate representatives and county administrators obtained by the Gazette via the Freedom of Information Act reveal attempts by the KingsLand development team to gain support for the project from unelected county officials before a trip to Asia this month.
"We would all like to hear from the counties on their definitive position regarding the residential aspect of the KingsLand development," Mushal wrote in a Sept. 14 email to Dawn F. Griggs, first vice president at Thalhimer, a commercial real estate firm.
Griggs forwarded Mushal's email to county administrators in York and James City, saying "Please see what you can do from your respective ends."
Board members said it is rare for a development team to approach unelected officials before they go to the board.
"I have never had a developer I can recall in my 15 years who has done something like that," said Thomas G. Shepperd, Jr., York's District 5 supervisor.
Shepperd said normally, a project development team will meet with supervisors and the planning commission before going public with a project to understand what potential zoning and political challenges a project could face.
"Generally (developers) will attempt to contact individual supervisors, particularly supervisors whose area they are dealing with and explain what is going on before it becomes public," Shepperd said. "They are trying to get a sense of resistance."
"This is the first time since I been on the board that I've read about a project in the paper," said James City Stonehouse District Supervisor Sue Sadler, who was elected in 2015.
Kao has pursued unelected county officials since March 2015 for their support of development on his land.
In a March 9, 2015 letter, from Kao to James City County Administrator Bryan Hill, Kao requested support for a holographic film park on the Williamsburg Pottery land.
Kao requested financial assistance for the project, funding for infrastructure and said he was relying on the county to ensure zoning is supportive.
Hill wrote back on March 10:
"Administratively I can be of assistance. Legislatively, I suggest you provide a date you can bring your project to the my board (sic) and request their support."
McGlennon commended Hill for his response.
"Our professional staff are behaving appropriately. They know that anything of this nature has to go through a public process that allows the citizens of a community to review a proposal and consider its impact," McGlennon said. "Anything that would short circuit that process would be of concern to me."
Symbols, but not endorsements
Earlier this week, the KingsLand website included the logos of Colonial Williamsburg, The College of William and Mary, York and James City counties, the Virginia Economic Development Partnership and SelectUSA.
On Thursday, the site had removed the Colonial Williamsburg logo, and added a disclaimer stating the remaining organizations were not affiliated with KingsLand. Kao said the logos should not be interpreted as endorsements for the project. He said he is promoting tourism within the region.
As of Thursday, the site had also removed quotes from the website endorsing the project from James City County Administrator Bryan Hill, former York County Supervisor Don Wiggins and Sarah Kemp, the Minister Counselor of Commercial Affairs for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
Hill said his quote was being used out of context and Wiggins told the Gazette he did not know anything about KingsLand.
Kemp was quoted as saying, "Your competitive advantages of using the latest technology with an innovative tourism concept make a promising future. I look forward to seeing your project develop with the hello (sic) of Chinese investments."
Kemp did not reply to an email seeking to confirm her support of the project.
"Our website is just a commercial," Kao said in a phone interview on Wednesday. "I can say whatever I want on it."
Supervisors and support
Shepperd said in order for KingsLand to become a reality, the developers would need to go to the planning commissions of both counties, the land would have to be rezoned through a public hearing and the supervisors from both counties would have to approve the development.
McGlennon said getting two counties on board with one project is particularly difficult.
"You are going to have one community that might experience a much higher level of benefit but could impose a very significant cost on the other jurisdiction," he said. "The quality of life could be impacted in a county not realizing any great benefits."
Sadler said the impact on local citizens needs to be taken into account before pursuing tourists' dollars.
"My first concern are the citizens who live up this way and how it would specifically impact the citizens and the traffic," Sadler said. "And water is our number one priority, and that is something that would need to be investigated."
Several supervisors said the approach KingsLand's team has taken thus far would give them pause before working with them.
"Many development companies go out of the way to ensure the information they give is accurate," Shepperd said.
"The thing that would concern me is the impression conveyed through the use of logos or endorsement statements that we have had any opportunity to review or decide if this is a good use," McGlennon said.
James City County Supervisor Ruth Larson, said that while she didn't want anyone to try to use county staff to try to influence a vote, she didn't want to dismiss the project prematurely.
"I don't want to dismiss something out of pocket. Perhaps not everyone knows the workings of local government," she said. "Perhaps we all get into a room and start over."
Larson said the concept could help revive the tourism industry.
"I know one of the concerns hoteliers have is the lack of something new, so you can't just discount something," Larson said. "But on the other hand I have to look at can the roads handle that type of traffic. What do we need to do in order to have something happen? A lot of what-ifs out there."
Williamsburg Pottery completed a major renovation in 2012 under Kao's leadership. That cost of renovation included settling a $3.3 million lawsuit with Henderson, Inc., the local builder involved in the project. Henderson claimed breach of contract and fraud. The terms of the settlement are confidential.
Since opening the new structure, Williamsburg Pottery has been faced with rumors of closing due to low customer turnout. The company denied these rumors.
On Thursday, several Williamsburg Pottery employees said they had not heard of any impending layoffs. One employee said although she'd heard rumors about the store closing, she was confident in the store's future.
Zaremba said Williamsburg Pottery used to be an iconic facility, but the ownership has made poor business choices and was suffering the consequences. He said those decisions would factor into his consideration if the KingsLand development team ever brought a formal presentation to the counties.
"I look at the likelihood of success versus failure. The same people who are talking about doing the 700 acres are the people responsible for what is there on Richmond Road," Zaremba said. "I drive by there and it looks like the parking lots are empty."
McKinnon can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.