Happy New Year, Lexington (and a Pretty Good Old Year, Too)!
Later this week the Virginia Flaggers, and various other
heritage activists outside agitators will head for Lexington to celebrate Lee-Jackson Day, and to protest that city’s ordinance barring non-official government flags from municipal light poles. Again this year, the Virginia Flaggers are calling on everyone who attends to avoid spending any money in town, going so far as to post a convenient map showing the boundaries of the city.
To recap briefly, in the late summer of 2011, the Lexington City Council adopted an ordinance that limited the display of flags on city-owned light poles to the official United States, Virginia and City of Lexington flags. Contrary to what many people seem to believe, this move didn’t impinge on anyone’s individual rights — people are still welcome to display Confederate flags on their own property, parade with them, or loiter on street corners with them. Even their right to act like batshit crazy people remains unaffected by the new ordinance. Personal freedom of expression is alive and well in Lexington.
By barring all flags other than official government ones, the city put itself on solid legal ground. At the time the ordinance was passed, lead Virginia Flagger Susan Hathaway admitted as much, describing the language in the ordinance as “air tight.” The subsequent legal battle in federal court has proved her right, with the Virginia SCV’s challenge to the ordinance being rejected at both the district and circuit court levels.
Not long after the City of Lexington passed its ordinance, the Virginia Flaggers announced a couple of other initiatives to get the city’s position reversed. The first was a political campaign (right) to oust the city’s mayor, Mimi Elrod, in the November 2012 municipal elections. That failed when Elrod was handily re-elected with a larger share of the vote than she’d received in 2008. The other initiative was a boycott of businesses in Lexington, the idea being that by making tourism-related small businesses suffer, the Virginia Flaggers would build a groundswell of local support for having the ordinance repealed. This was in spite of the fact that when the City Council held a hearing on the proposed ordinance in 2011, almost all the residents of Lexington who chose to speak on the ordinance expressed support for it; opposition to it came almost entirely from people who don’t actually live in Lexington.
The Virginia Flaggers, and Susan Hathaway in particular, openly acknowledge that the purpose of the boycott is to punish “the town that has turned its back on Lee and Jackson and its rich Confederate heritage.” (Ignore the fact that Lexington and Rockbridge County continue to use Lee and Jackson prominently in their tourism promotion.) Over the last three years the Virginia Flaggers have, from time to time, gleefully pointed to some bad economic news item out of Lexington and taken credit for it. They take considerable pride in claiming to be responsible for imposing economic hardship on their fellow Virginians, which is odd given their tendency to wrap themselves Christian righteousness. Nevertheless, there’s no clear linkage between the Flaggers’ boycott and these events — e.g., the closing of a local theater that had been struggling financially for years prior to the ordinance — and some of their claims, such as increasing unemployment in Lexington since the initiation of the boycott, are patently untrue.
As I’ve noted before, anecdotes about individual businesses and selected datum points don’t really tell the full story. After all, businesses fail and people lose their jobs even in boom times, for reasons that have little to do with the overall local economy. The real story has to be told with the most comprehensive information and data available, and that’s where Lexington’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report comes in.
Lexington’s annual fiscal year (FY) runs from July 1 to June 30. About sixth months after the end of the fiscal year, the city publishes on its website a detailed report on the city’s finances — revenues, expenditures, debt servicing, all that stuff that makes most peoples’ eyes glaze over. (You can download reports going back to FY2010 here.) But there is one table that’s very relevant to anyone interested in measuring the effects of the Virginia Flaggers’ boycott of the city, the one that lists the City of Lexington’s sources of revenue. Three of them are particularly important measures of tourism-related business activities in the city — local sales and use taxes (i.e., people buyin’ stuff), restaurant food taxes (people eatin’ out), and hotel and motel room taxes (people stayin’ overnight). In the absence of hard (and importantly, all-encompassing) data on business activity in Lexington, these numbers seem to be a pretty good indicator of how things are going.
And how are they going? By these important measures, economic activity in Lexington continues to improve, as it has steadily since the Great Recession. With the recent publication of the FY2014 comprehensive report, we now have five years’ worth of annual data, extending back to July 2009, more than two years before the announcement of the boycott. Here are the actual numbers:
And the trends:
Sales Tax Revenue:
Restaurant and Food Tax Revenue:
Motel/Hotel Tax Revenue:
So things are looking up in Lexington generally — and steadily — as they have been for years now. There’s no real evidence that the Flaggers’ boycott, that began in the middle of the city’s FY 2012, has had a negative impact on the local economy, much less a substantive one.
That’s not to say that everything’s rosy in Lexington, in terms of the economy. For many years now, Lexington has had a much higher unemployment rate than both the Commonwealth of Virginia and the United States as a whole, but unemployment in Lexington peaked in July 2010, more than a year before the flag ordinance was passed, and has been on a downward trend ever since. (Lexington’s unemployment rate is extremely seasonal, spiking every summer and dropping in the winter, but again that’s a pattern that’s been there for years.) Lexington’s (and Rockbridge County’s) economy draws heavily on Civil War tourism, and that’s likely to drop off some with the end of the sesquicentennial this year. But in broad terms, Lexington appears to be in better shape economically today than it was a year ago, when it was in better shape than the year before, and so on back to 2010. So congratulations to Lexington on another pretty good year economically, and to an even better year in 2015.